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Toronto Why was a suspended officer giving advice to criminals? The long and winding tale of a dirty cop

Detective Constable Craig Ruthowsky of the Hamilton Police Service force leaves court on March 28, 2018, in Toronto.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

It was May 22, 2015, and the drug dealers on the phone call were in a panic. Someone had stolen two bricks of cocaine from a car in the parking lot of an Etobicoke mall — but they didn’t know who. They also didn’t know that their conversations were being wiretapped.

Toronto Police Detective Travis Clark’s undercover team had watched a drug deal go down, then waited for the buyer to go into the mall before they broke into his brown Ford Taurus and seized the drugs from a locked compartment behind the back seat.

It was a “smash and grab” scheme that was meant to send the driver into a panic. He would immediately call his higher-ups, and when he did, the police would be listening in.

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As Det. Clark monitored the back-and-forth calls over the next few days, he realized one of the voices on the line belonged to a police officer.

And he wasn’t just any cop: 41-year-old Detective Constable Craig Ruthowsky had been a star investigator with the Hamilton Police Service’s Gangs and Weapons Enforcement Unit – commonly known as guns and gangs – before being suspended with pay three years earlier.

What was a suspended cop doing talking to criminals? And why was he giving them advice?

The revelation would eventually lead to a rare conviction. Last month, Det. Constable Ruthowsky was found guilty of accepting bribes, obstructing justice, breach of trust and cocaine trafficking following a lengthy jury trial in downtown Toronto. He was acquitted on a charge of conspiracy to traffic marijuana.

Though it was him alone on trial, the proceedings served as a de facto public inquiry into past corruption within the Hamilton Police Service’s guns and gangs unit.

Through five weeks of testimony, from more than a dozen witnesses including Det. Constable Ruthowsky himself, a picture emerged of a rogue unit, the vigilante officers that abused their power, and the insular police culture that enabled them.

May 24, 2015: Det. Const. Craig Ruthowsky is heard explaining police processes and search warrants to drug dealer Mr. X, in a phone call that was wiretapped by Toronto Police.

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Craig Ruthowsky had wanted to be a police officer since he was in Grade 6, he testified at trial. His real dream, like many preteen boys in Peterborough, Ont., was to be an NHL player. But policing was a realistic goal. A noble pursuit.

In 1998, at 24, he took a job with the Hamilton Police Service. But soon, as he explained to the jury at his trial – often in soliloquies that were chastised by Justice Robert Clark – he grew tired of routine patrol in the blue-collar city. He felt his peers were lazy, and that he himself was above giving out traffic tickets. He was ambitious and competitive. His “dream job” was in the guns and gangs unit.

As he saw it, they were “the best of the best.” And when he joined the unit in 2007, he was, he told the courtroom, “in heaven.” He worked 50- to-60-hour weeks, eventually building up an informant roster that he boasted was triple the size of any of his colleagues’. He became known, in fact, as “the informant guy.”

But around the office, rumours started to circulate about how Det. Constable Ruthowsky was getting all that intel. His former partner Robert (Bobby) Hansen recalled in a video interview with police that was played for the jury and local media at the trial, there was “a longstanding joke that [Det. Constable Ruthowsky] knew so much about his guys because he was actually one of them, or he was actually the leader.”

Certainly, he was known to be less than squeaky clean. Before his time in guns and gangs, Det. Constable Ruthowsky had been kicked out of the Vice and Drugs Unit in 2003 for mishandling evidence –– a charge he shrugged off as involving throwing out a piece of paper he shouldn’t have.

His attitude – and his approach to policing – was a better fit in guns and gangs, known to be looser about playing by the rules. Their office was set up in a decommissioned police station, away from the prying eyes of the bosses, and thus freer of the protocols that Det. Constable Ruthowsky dismissed as outdated and inefficient. Notes were kept haphazardly. And after a rumoured intelligence breach in which investigative information was believed to have been leaked to local organized-crime members, informants were routinely kept off the books. Evidence – including bundles of cash, guns and drugs – was stored in hallways and on the same shelves that officers kept their personal belongings.

There was also a culture of looking the other way.

“There were times over the years where you’d seize, like, $5,000 off of someone, then we’d go out to the bar and someone would, like, get the bill for our drinks or whatever,” Mr. Hansen recalled in his interview with police.

“And you wouldn’t ask [about it], because maybe you didn’t want to know the answer.”

But they made arrests. Det. Constable Ruthowsky was not only the most productive member of the unit, his former boss Sergeant James Patterson testified, but of the entire Hamilton Police Service. If his subordinate did some “offside” things, he cut him slack. Sgt. Patterson knew if he forwarded on that kind of information, Det. Constable Ruthowsky would be kicked out of the unit.

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Det. Constable Ruthowsky first met Mr. X – a drug dealer whose identity is protected by a publication ban, for his safety – in July, 2011, after police raided Mr. X’s downtown Hamilton condo, seizing nine ounces of cocaine.

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Shortly after Mr. X was released from custody on a promise to appear in court, he got a call from Det. Constable Ruthowsky, who said he wanted to return some car keys that had been seized in the raid. Mr. X testified at the officer’s trial that he agreed to meet up. He’d heard through a friend that Det. Constable Ruthowsky took bribes––and he couldn’t help but notice after the raid that, though $30,000 had been taken from his condo by the police, only $11,000 or so had been turned in as evidence.

When the pair met up in a Tim Hortons parking lot, Mr. X proposed a payment-for-protection arrangement to Det. Constable Ruthowsky, who asked him if he knew the price. He did. The cop charged $5,000 a month for information and protection, his friend had told him. But Mr. X wanted to get three of his associates in on the deal. The officer agreed.

And so, Mr. X said, $20,000 a month it was.

If Mr. X or his associates got pulled over, the jury heard, they’d call Det. Constable Ruthowsky. If the officer heard of investigations or raids, he’d give them a heads-up. If they had a beef with other dealers, Det. Constable Ruthowsky would get them information to help them deal with those rivals. He’d also advise them of police informants to avoid. Finally, if they got charged, he’d try to get those charges dropped.

In his own mind, Det. Constable Ruthowsky said, he was just playing the game. He justified his behaviour as “perceived benefit.” If his informants felt he was doing them a solid, he could then parlay their gratitude into bigger favours. There were no payments, he argued— Mr. X was an informant.

The relationship wasn’t hidden. Det. Constable Hannah Carter told the court about an October, 2011, raid at a marijuana grow-op, where Mr. X showed up at the scene. The drug dealer had pulled up, asking for “Ruthy.”

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She had a weird feeling, she recalled, as she watched the drug dealer confidently strutting around the property with her colleague in the dark.

When Sgt. James Patterson, their boss, angrily asked Det. Constable Ruthowsky why Mr. X was there, he explained that Mr. X had tipped him off about the grow-op and “wanted to see it for his own eyes,” Sgt. Patterson recalled.

The explanation “made just enough sense” for him to let the behaviour slide. Not only was Det. Const. Ruthowsky his best officer, he was also Sgt. Patterson’s best friend.

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That same fall, another drug dealer – Mr. Y, let’s call him – pulled his pickup truck around the back of the decommissioned police station where the guns and gangs unit was based. He was there to meet Det. Constable Ruthowsky, and he came alone, after dark, as instructed.

At the officer’s trial, Mr. Y testified that he had received a call from him about a hydraulic cocaine press. The press, a hulking six feet in height, had been collecting dust in the station after being seized in a bust years earlier. It had belonged to Mr. X, the jury heard – and he and Det. Constable Ruthowsky were looking to make some money off of it.

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The drug dealer said he handed Det. Const. Ruthowsky $5,000, as agreed, and watched the officer stick the cash into his pocket. Two or three other people were there – presumably more police officers – but the dealer wasn’t fazed by their presence. “When you run around in Hamilton, you meet a lot of those guys … police officers who are just like Mr. Ruthowsky,” he testified.

When Mr. Y pulled away, he said he noticed a cruiser in his rearview mirror. He appreciated the escort; he was driving with a suspended licence.

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In June 2012, Det. Constable Ruthowsky and his partner Det. Constable Hansen learned they were being suspended –– and Det. Constable Ruthowsky was indignant. He saw himself as one of the service’s best. He and his partner may have flouted the rules, but they got results.

Mr. X was disappointed, too. Det. Constable Ruthowsky was not much use to him sitting at home, so the monthly payments stopped.

But the officer kept in touch, and about a month after he was suspended, Det. Const. Ruthowsky brought a small package of powder to Cambridge Materials Testing in Mississauga.

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He had gotten the powder – a cutting agent for cocaine – from Mr. X, who had asked him for a favour. If he could find out what the powder was, Mr. X recalled saying, he could bypass his supplier and start ordering it wholesale.

Det. Constable Ruthowsky agreed. Five days later, the results came back. It was phenacetin, a former pain-relieving pharmaceutical with numbing effects similar to cocaine, that was taken off Canadian shelves in the 1970s. A grateful Mr. X proceeded to order it by the barrel.

That November, Det. Constable Ruthowsky and Det. Constable Hansen were criminally charged. And in December, they were charged under the Police Services Act. Dozens of court cases they were involved in had to be tossed out.

On the lengthy list of allegations against Det. Constable Ruthowsky, one in particular shocked his former boss, Sgt. Patterson, whose friendship with the officer stemmed back to their early policing years, when they were roommates (along with Clint Twolan, who is now president of the Hamilton Police Association): the allegation of the phenacetin testing.

His explanation, Sgt. Patterson recalled, was that he’d wanted the drug dealers to think he was a “dirty cop” so that they’d give him more information. He had his sights set on taking down a cocaine kingpin who was an associate of Mr. X, he claimed – and his plan was to use Mr. X to get to him.

It was all part of his ruse, he assured his old friend.

In the spring of 2013, the criminal charges against Det. Constable Ruthowsky were stayed. If the case proceeded to trial, the police and the prosecution argued, there was a risk that informants could be identified. Better to leave it alone.

Det. Constable Ruthowsky called in a tip passed on to him through Mr. X about a murder suspect – a tip that led to an arrest, a charge and, ultimately, a conviction. A commendation was submitted for Det. Constable Ruthowsky by the homicide detective.

“Nothing like getting a commendation while suspended,” Det. Constable Ruthowsky quipped to the jury at his trial.

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It was clear, during his years in the guns and gangs unit, that Det. Constable Ruthowsky had extra money coming in. He installed a large in-ground pool in his back yard, complete with landscaping, a covered deck and a large stone fireplace. He bought a new Ford F-150 pickup truck and a motorbike. Along with his wife, Christine – also a Hamilton police officer – he put deposits down on two condo developments.

At his trial, which began in March, 2018, an expert forensic accountant testified that the couple was outspending to a point that should have left them in arrears. On top of their police salaries, she found, they appeared to have had more than $130,000 of unexplained income coming in between 2011 and 2015.

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It was spending that had not gone unnoticed by Det. Constable Ruthowsky’s colleagues.

“I mean, he lives in this half-a-million-dollar house in Ancaster with all this new stuff … where the hell do you guys get the money for this?” his former partner, Mr. Hansen, recalled thinking. “So it’s like a big long joke that he’s dealing money or he’s doing all kinds of nefarious things.”

Det. Constable Ruthowsky testified that the money came from a side business he had, hustling discounted swimming pools to colleagues, for cash. And it’s true that, during those years, more than a dozen colleagues, from homicide detectives to patrol officers, were getting cheap pools (or pool equipment) installed in their back yards through Det. Constable Ruthowsky – who was pocketing the cash, almost entirely tax-free.

Even Sgt. Troy Ashbaugh, the police officer who would end up leading the investigation into Det. Constable Ruthowsky, had once received a quote from the officer for a pool heater.

At trial, the prosecution argued that the cash-for-pools business was not nearly lucrative enough to account for the unexplained income. It was, they argued, merely a cover for bribes. Det. Constable Ruthowsky shut down the business in 2012 –– the same year he was suspended and the same year Mr. X says he cut off his monthly payments to the officer.

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On June 4, 2015, Project Pharaoh, an investigation into the Monstarz gang and their associates in the west end of Toronto and across the Greater Toronto Area, came to a climax. Hundreds of police officers executed more than 40 search warrants. Millions of dollars’ worth of drugs, more than a dozen firearms, and close to $200,000 in cash was seized. More than 30 drug dealers and their associates were arrested. Among them was Det. Constable Ruthowsky.

As he awaited trial, Det. Constable Ruthowsky’s former partner, Bobby Hansen, was convicted on separate criminal charges. He is serving a five-year prison sentence for “encouraging” an informant to plant a gun at a suspected drug dealer’s home back in May, 2012.

In her January, 2016, decision, Superior Court Justice Catrina Braid ruled that the officer had undertaken a form of “vigilante justice” against Darren Mork because he felt he could use some jail time.

Det. Constable Hansen resigned from the service upon his conviction in 2016, four years after he and Det. Constable Ruthowsky were first suspended with pay.

Mr. Mork is suing Mr. Hansen and the police service, along with former Chief Glenn De Caire – now director of security and parking at McMaster University – for $1.5-million.

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On April 25, a jury convicted Det. Constable Ruthowsky, believing the testimony of admitted drug dealers over the officer. His sentencing hearing is set to begin next week, but his defence team has already filed an abuse-of-process motion that highlights the case’s tangled web: one of the main investigators is married to Det. Constable Ruthowsky’s ex-girlfriend.

Hamilton Police Chief Eric Girt declined to comment on the verdict or the issues it raised, citing ongoing proceedings. Det. Constable Ruthowsky – who is still on the police payroll – faces a preliminary inquiry this fall on another 16 charges laid against him last year.

Those charges – which relate to “several offences that allegedly took place between 2009 and 2012 in Hamilton” – were previously described by his defence lawyer, Greg Lafontaine, as “more of the same.”

Like his old partner, Det. Constable Ruthowsky is charged with conspiring to plant guns – including a TEC-9 machine gun and a .380-calibre handgun – on two different people.

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