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A court evidence photo shows Matthew McKnight (left) with an unidentified male on top of the bar at Knoxville’s Tavern sometime before Mr. McKnight’s arrest in August, 2016.

Handout

Mark Grenier had barely begun working the door at Knoxville’s Tavern when he heard the stories – and warnings – about one of its owners, Matthew McKnight.

“Guys were telling me about McKnight and to watch out for him,” says Mr. Grenier, who worked as a bouncer at the popular Edmonton country bar from 2014 to 2016. “Like, ‘He’s going to do some greasy things, but there’s nothing really we can do about it because he’s McKnight.’”

Mr. Grenier was one of two former Knoxville’s security employees and several staff members who came forward to The Globe and Mail to talk about their experiences, in the hope it can help make change or protect others from being victimized in the future.

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Mr. McKnight, 33, is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for five sexual assaults committed against young women in the Edmonton bar scene between 2010 and 2016. At one point, he was facing 26 charges of sexual and physical assault against 21 women, but went to trial on 13 sexual assault charges involving 13 women. He was found not guilty in eight of the cases.

Reaction to the high-profile case has continued to roil in the community and on social media since the sentencing last month, with people questioning not only the verdicts and sentence, but also wondering how Mr. McKnight was able to assault so many women over such a lengthy period, and if anything could have been done to stop him sooner. In some cases, former co-workers, employees and even victims are asking whether they could have done more.

He said, they said: inside the trial of Matthew McKnight

How broken systems allowed Matthew McKnight to get away with sexual assault for years

“Everyone knew that Matt was doing something,” says Emily Lloyd, who started working as a “shooter and beer-tub girl” at Knoxville’s in 2013, the week after her 18th birthday. “But none of us knew how to prove it.”

Matthew McKnight's 2016 mug shot.

Police handout

Mr. McKnight was, at one time, an extremely powerful figure in the Edmonton bar scene, having made his way up from working on party buses into the management fold of Urban Sparq, a hospitality group that owned a series of popular bars around the city and was expanding across the country, billing itself as “one of North America’s premier hospitality companies.” His influence was never clearer than at Knoxville’s, which he helped build into one of the busiest nightclubs in the city and where he would ultimately become a part owner.

But as Mr. McKnight’s professional influence and success increased, so did stories and concerns about his inappropriate, questionable and, in some cases, assaultive behaviour toward women, including inside Knoxville’s.

“These guys don’t exist in a bubble,” says Kristin Raworth, a sexual assault survivor and advocate who has been tweeting and writing about the case. “They exist in a world that allows them to continue, that allows them to accelerate. Along the road there were probably hundreds of people who saw [problematic behaviour] and didn’t do anything.”

But while it’s clear many people wondered about Mr. McKnight’s interactions with women, knowing what to do about it wasn’t quite so simple. In the youthful bar scene at Knoxville’s, Mr. McKnight was older and significantly more established than most of those around him, and his position with management proved a powerful protection. It was also easy to brush past McKnight’s lewd and lecherous behaviour within the bar’s wildly sexualized atmosphere, and though stories circulated about more serious incidents, nobody knew anything for sure.

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Ms. Lloyd says Mr. McKnight said inappropriate things to her on multiple occasions, and also touched and grabbed her. But she was young and inexperienced and, since he was an owner, she didn’t want to upset him and get fired. She says she was warned by several women to stay away from Mr. McKnight, and taking the warnings seriously, did her best to warn other women in return.

“I would go up to girls when I was passing and I would go, ‘Don’t take a drink from him,’” she says. “It was known, but I didn’t know what more I could do other than warn people, because I didn’t have any evidence. And what’s the word of an 18-year-old girl who’s been working there two months?”

In her testimony, the first woman Mr. McKnight was convicted of assaulting said she didn’t come forward after Mr. McKnight raped her in 2010 for the same reasons. She was 19 and new to working in the bar industry, and even then, Mr. McKnight was more prominent and powerful than her. (The night of her assault began at the Oil City Roadhouse, another Urban Sparq bar, in the location that would later become Knoxville’s.)

“I didn’t want to be this one person making these claims and have people pointing fingers at me for whatever reason,” testified the woman, whose name cannot be published because of a court-ordered publication ban. “I guess I didn’t think I was important. I didn’t think people would believe me.”

She said she only came forward later to back up the other women, because she felt “they were more significant than me.”

In the years that followed, Mr. McKnight’s power and influence continued to grow.

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By the time he was arrested in August, 2016, Mr. McKnight was so central a figure at Knoxville’s that former employees describe a special VIP room known as “Matty’s playroom” that was guarded by security and off-limits to everyone except Mr. McKnight and the Edmonton Oilers. They say it had a beaded curtain, leather couches, its own fridge stocked with alcohol and, on one wall, a custom floor-to-ceiling mural of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

“The biggest thing about the bar industry is that you can do whatever you want as long as you’re bringing people in,” says Mr. Grenier, who has since left the industry. “Matt brings people in. My job is to kick people out. So he’s going to win. In the bar industry, unfortunately, that’s how it works. If you are bringing people in, if you are making the club money, you win.”

In an e-mailed statement, the general manager of Knoxville’s at the time, Marty Melnychuk, declined knowledge of any incidents involving Mr. McKnight’s treatment of women at Knoxville’s, including multiple incidents of groping that were described to The Globe and Mail by other former employees.

“I am not aware of these in the bar that I ran,” wrote Mr. Melnychuk.

Mr. Melnychuk, who was also part of the Urban Sparq ownership group, says he does “not support Mr. McKnight’s personal actions or crimes whatsoever,” and now says he regrets writing a glowing letter of reference for Mr. McKnight’s sentencing, in which he describes Mr. McKnight as “one of the best people I have worked with in over a decade in the hospitality industry.”

“If anyone could possibly learn from this experience and go on to become a positive contributing member of the community, it’s Matt,” he wrote in the letter dated June 15, 2020, to the judge considering Mr. McKnight’s sentence. “I humbly ask that you give him a chance to do so.”

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Mr. Melnychuk did not respond to further requests for comment.

The website for Urban Sparq is now blank, and it’s not clear whether the ownership group still exists. Knoxville’s is closed and out of business.

Knoxville's in Edmonton, Alberta on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Cormier, who was at one time head of security at Knoxville’s, says he recalls at least a dozen confrontations and incidents between Mr. McKnight and female patrons. In each case, Mr. Cormier says security personnel were expected to kick the women out the bar, with no debate.

He says in one incident, in which Mr. McKnight dumped a milkshake over a woman’s head, there was a meeting with managers, and Mr. McKnight was forced to apologize to Mr. Cormier for causing problems for security. But in other cases, no follow-up occurred.

“He was a part owner, as we were told all the time, so we’d treat him as an owner. It’s his establishment, right? So if he needs you removed, you gotta go,” Mr. Cormier says. “Whether we thought it was legitimate or not, she was leaving. There was no talking to other managers, like, ‘Hey this is a bad call.’ There was none of that. It was just, no, they gotta go, and that was the end of it. We never talked about it ever again.”

He says he heard rumours about more serious incidents outside the club, but didn’t know it was anything more until the charges were laid. If he’d known, Mr. Cormier says, “I would have gone right to the cops.”

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Mr. Grenier says he wishes he “dug a little deeper” into the rumours about Mr. McKnight’s behaviour or had spoken up more, even if it meant losing his job. He also wonders if he should have mentioned the rumours to the beat cops in the area, even though he didn’t have anything solid.

“I feel kind of sick about it,” Mr. Grenier says.

Both Mr. Cormier and Mr. Grenier say they’re speaking out in the hope something positive can come from it.

Among those looking back at what transpired is one of the women Mr. McKnight was accused of raping, who says she, too, is questioning whether she did enough. “What’s mainly on my mind is how to protect other women and make sure this never happens again, especially for as long as it did,” says the woman, who has been speaking and tweeting about the case but cannot be identified by The Globe and Mail because her name remains under a court-ordered publication ban.

The woman, who went forward to police after the other charges became public in 2016, says she “basically begged” the Crown not to proceed with her charge before the preliminary hearing, because she was suicidal at the time.

But she says she’s struggled with how the trial might have changed if her charge went ahead with the others, and her feelings are motivating her to speak out on behalf of victims who can’t or don’t want to address it publicly.

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“I almost feel like it’s my responsibility to the other girls to say something. I just feel like I need to do it for them,” she says. “I think what I’m doing now is me desperately trying to make up for not doing more earlier.”

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