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Murder and rivalry: The intercepted BlackBerry messages of the mob

Murder on the Assomption River in Montreal: Police investigate a murder scene and eventually identify the victim as Salvatore Montagna, a major crime boss.

Salvatore Montagna, a major Montreal crime boss, became a target of the rival Desjardins clan. Intercepted BlackBerry messages revealed a major turf war that culminated in a murder on the Assomption River.

STÉPHANE GRÉGOIRE/for The Globe and Mail

RCMP surveillance of the Montreal Mafia uncovered a power struggle and a plot by one group to kill a rival leader, as Tu Thanh Ha and Les Perreaux report. Here is a look into the mob world through their BlackBerry messages

The morning that Salvatore Montagna, one-time boss of the Bonanno crime family, was shot three times and died on a snowy river bank ‎outside Montreal, his archenemy Raynald Desjardins was having breakfast elsewhere in town with his daughter and chatting about her wedding photo album.

Shortly after the killing, Mr. Desjardins sent a terse Blackberry message to his associate, Vittorio Mirarchi: "Done."

"Perfect," came the reply.

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Police who were wiretapping Mr. Desjardin's mobile phones immediately suspected he was behind the 2011 murder.

The next evening, Nov. 25, 2011, an RCMP sergeant, a member of Special I, the section handling electronic intercepts, arrived outside Mr. Desjardins' house with a portable device that tracked cellular signals and tried to identify what other mobile phones were inside.

It was part of a 16-month surveillance operation that led police to charge Mr. Desjardins and seven others in connection with the murder of Mr. Montagna.

Salvatore Montagna, former Bonanno group boss. His body was discovered on the Assomption River.

The suspects, who thought their Blackberry messages were secure, did not realize the RCMP read their words as they plotted against their enemies.

However, the technology that police used to build their case also became its Achilles' heel, with the prosecution agreeing to a plea earlier this year on lesser charges rather than revealing more in court about the RCMP's cellphone-tracking devices.

On Friday, a judge lifted a publication ban on the court proceedings, revealing for the first time details of a case that pitted old-style mob violence and state-of-the-art surveillance technology.

This is the story of the men who tried to claim power while the Godfather of the Montreal Mafia was in prison, a rare peek into the city's underworld during a violent, volatile time.

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Rizzuto's confidante

Mr. Desjardins, was a long-time associate of the late Vito Rizzuto, the most powerful Mafia don in Canada.

Mr. Desjardins said in court that he met Mr. Rizzuto in 1979. It was around that time that the Sicilian-born Mr. Rizzuto took over the Montreal Mafia, which until then was run by Calabrians.

The Quebec-born Mr. Desjardins became a close confidant of Mr. Rizzuto, according to court documents.

"Since you were young, you've moved up in the world of the Sicilian Mafia. You adopted their values, espoused their way of life and practised their criminal activities," a 2000 parole board decision said about Mr. Desjardins.

For years, police tried to nab the two men.

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In 1987, Mr. Rizzuto and Mr. Desjardins were charged with smuggling 16 tonnes of Lebanese hashish to Newfoundland.

Quebec mobster Raynald Desjardins in an undated file photo. He was arrested in the murder of Mr. Montagna.

The case collapsed after the RCMP was caught trying to record the conversations of the accused and their lawyers in their St. John's hotel during the trial.

In 1993, Mr. Desjardins was arrested for conspiring to import 700 kilos of cocaine from Venezuela.

He got a 15-year sentence. Mr. Rizzuto, who was heard on wiretaps, was not charged.

Afterward, Mr. Desjardins boasted that he had gone to prison for Mr. Rizzuto, Montreal police investigator Nicodemo Milano later testified at an inquiry.

By the time Mr. Desjardins was released in 2004, his mentor was behind bars, awaiting extradition to the United States for his role in a triple murder in Brooklyn.

Mr. Rizzuto's arrest started a decade of turmoil in Montreal's underworld, as his clan was weakened by murders and police crackdowns.

A new player appeared in Montreal to claim the throne: Mr. Montagna.

Born in Canada, he had lived in New York since he was a teen and was nicknamed "Sal the Iron Worker" because he owned an ironworks company.

In 2006, U.S. law enforcement agencies in New York first alleged that Mr. Montagna had become the acting boss of the Bonanno family.

Because he had only Canadian citizenship, U.S. officials deported him in April, 2009, putting him on a flight to Montreal.

‎Mr. Desjardins said in a interview with the newspaper La Presse that he stayed clean after his release from jail, earning a living in the construction and condo business.

However, the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the construction industry heard that he had managed to gain influence in a trade union.

Labour organizer Ken Pereira testified that he complained that his boss at the FTQ-Construction union, Jocelyn Dupuis, was inflating his expense claims. Mr. Pereira was then summoned to a meeting with Mr. Desjardins.

"Listen, Ken," Mr. Pereira said Mr. Desjardins told him. "I don't know if you know, but I did 11 years in prison. I kept my mouth shut, I did my time, and that's the way it should be."

Mr. Pereira testified that he got scared. "At that moment, I discovered that Jocelyn Dupuis, who I thought was the boss, wasn't the boss. Raynald Desjardins was the boss."

Police surveillance video shows Raynald Desjardins in sunglasses greeting union executive Jocelyn Dupuis with a kiss

Turf war

Mr. Desjardins and Mr. Montagna began to vie for power in the vacuum left by Mr. Rizzuto's absence, the court heard in the murder case.

Police testified that both clans used Blackberry PIN-to-PIN encrypted messages, believing them to be more secure because they move directly between devices over wireless networks, bypassing e-mail circuits.

However, the RCMP had warrants to intercept those communications in a probe code-named Clemenza that eventually expanded to include the Desjardins clan.

RCMP Corporal Vinicio Sebastiano testified that messages sent by the Desjardins clan showed they were annoyed that Mr. Montagna's men were horning on their bookmaking, loan sharking and protection rackets.

"They're still asking for envelopes," one message complained.

"He thinks that by intimidation he will pick up all. No way," said a message from Mr. Desjardins.

In their communications, the Desjardins clan called Mr. Montagna "Mickey Mouse" or "Tin Man."

The Desjardins BlackBerry messages

Nickname for main rival: “Mickey Mouse” and “Tin Man.”

The pledge to kill rival: “I made one error with him. Won't make twice the same.”

The plan: “Yup, time to close the book. The story is getting too long,” wrote one Desjardins associate. “Let's do what we talked about before,” replied the boss.

The messages revealed that Mr. Desjardins' men conducted surveillance on their rivals and even managed to intercept the Montagna Blackberry transmissions.

Officials do not know how the Desjardins clan got their rivals' messages, but the court heard that those communications showed the Montagna group had a police contact, a Montreal policewoman who was asked at one point to check license plates for the gang.

The trigger

The morning of Sept. 16, 2011, Mr. Desjardins, who was driving a BMW X5, and his bodyguard, Jonathan Mignacca, who was at the wheel of a Dodge Journey, were parked near a waterfront bike path in Laval, north of Montreal.

A man fired at them with an AK-47 assault rifle. Mr. Mignacca shot back with a .40 Glock pistol. More than 20 shots were exchanged, hitting both cars, before the gunman fled on a Sea-Doo water scooter.

The court heard that Mr. Montagna immediately contacted the Desjardins clan to say he was not behind the attack and to ask for a meeting.

Mr. Desjardins, however, began discussing ways to kill Mr. Montagna, police said in court.

"I made one error with him. Won't make twice the same," Mr. Desjardins vowed in a message.

At the same time, he was helping plan the marriage of his 24-year-old daughter, Vanessa. The Oct. 1 reception took place at a golf club, and police stood outside to record which of the 300 guests had mob connections.

Later that fall, Mr. Desjardins and Mr. Mirarchi pondered whether Mr. Montagna was getting reinforcements.

"Mickey says he's bringing in guys from NY down to help him," Mr. Mirarchi wrote.

By Nov. 15, Mr. Mirarchi wrote: "Yup, time to close the book. The story is getting too long."

Mr. Desjardins replied: "Let's do what we talked about before."

There was an exchange in mid-November to arrange a meeting with Mr. Montagna.

The court heard that Mr. Montagna had been sending conciliatory signals. "I would never let you down, despite any stupidities among us," said one message to Mr. Desjardins.

Vito Rizzuto (right) reputed head of the Montreal mafia, speaks with his attorney Jean Salois after his hearing in Montreal February, 2004. At the time, Mr. Rizzuto was facing extradition to the United States to face charges related to the murders of three mafia captains in New York in 1981.

Vito Rizzuto (right), head of the Montreal mafia, speaks with his attorney Jean Salois. Mr. Rizzuto’s imprisonment sparked a turf war pitting the Desjardins and Montagna clans against each other.


Fatal meeting

The court heard that the morning of Nov. 24, Mr. Montagna parked downtown, then took the subway to Montreal's east-end, where he was picked up by Jack Simpson, a Desjardins man driving a white Ford pickup.

"Our guy is on the move, looking good," Mr. Mirarchi messaged Mr. Desjardins.

Mr. Montagna was driven to Charlemagne, a suburb mostly known as the birthplace of Céline Dion.

He went into Mr. Simpson's house at the tip of a small island, near a boulevard named after the singer.

Inside, at least one shot was a fired from either a .357 or .38 special pistol, ballistic tests showed.

Mr. Desjardins testified that at the time, he was with his daughter, who made him coffee, cereal with berries and toast with peanut butter.

According to court testimony, Mr. Desjardins messaged Mr. Mirarchi, saying: "Done."

However, Mr. Montagna had managed to run outside.

Neighbours called 9-1-1 after seeing a man jump into the Assomption River, then collapse on the opposite bank.

"Come quick," Mr. Simpson messaged.

"W? Got problem?" Mr. Desjardins replied, before asking Mr. Mirarchi to go to the scene.

Mr. Mirarchi reported that the police had already arrived: "Lots of blues around there."

Mr. Montagna had been shot three times and died from abdominal trauma caused by a bullet that entered his back.

Mario Desmarais, left, with the Montreal Police Department and Michel Arcand with the RCMP speak to reporters during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Montreal on June 12, 2014, where they spoke about Project Clemenza, a major sweep of two alleged organized crime groups operating in the province.

Montreal police and the RCMP announce the outcome of Project Clemenza: an unprecedented sweep of two organized crime groups and nearly a million cell phone messages.


Secret devices

By the evening, the Sûreté du Québec, which investigated the murder, was notified that the Mounties had wiretaps incriminating the Desjardins clan, the court heard.

The next night, the RCMP put an officer outside Mr. Desjardins' house while a team in east-end Montreal tailed a Jeep Cherokee belonging to one of his men, Felice Racaniello.

In both cases, the officers used a controversial machine variously known as mobile device identifier (MDI), an IMSI catcher or a Stingray.

The MDI mimics a transmission tower and helps identify the mobile phones in a given area. The covert deployment of MDIs by law-enforcement has raised concerns about their invasive nature. Their use in the Montagna murder investigation ultimately shaped how the case ended.

The RCMP eventually intercepted about 860,000 PIN-to-PIN messages from 193 Blackberry phones.

Mr. Desjardins and his men were arrested on Dec. 20, 2011.

Mr. Desjardins was wearing a bulletproof vest when police showed up at his office. At his home, investigators found a security camera system, a radio scrambler and a loaded Glock pistol, its serial number filed off.

In court, defence lawyers began raising questions about the MDIs and how the RCMP had obtained the Blackberry encryption key. "The Crown theory is circumstantial and depends on inferences about who was using which Blackberry at relevant times," one defence factum said.

As it had done when it got caught trying to plant a bug on Mr. Desjardins' lawyer in Newfoundland in 1991, the RCMP argued that court disclosure would jeopardize its investigative techniques.

Last December, a judge ruled that the RCMP had to share more details about its technology.

In July, Mr. Desjardins had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. On March 30, the seven other defendants also pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

The case was closed, with no more divulged about the MDIs or how the Mounties could read Blackberry messages.

"This is a matter of prosecutorial discretion and I will not comment further," provincial prosecutor Robert Rouleau said when The Globe asked about the murder charges.

The Godfather returns

While Mr. Desjardins waited behind bars for his trial, Mr. Rizzuto had flown back to Canada at the end of his U.S. prison sentence in October, 2012.

The Godfather's return was followed by a series of murders, including that of Mr. Desjardins' brother-in-law, Joe Di Maulo, and Mr. Desjardins' best friend and business partner, Gaétan Gosselin.

Still, Mr. Desjardins stuck to his earlier boast that he was no loose-lipped man.

At a bail hearing in April, 2013, he objected when the Crown suggested that in his previous drug conviction he had taken the fall for Mr. Rizzuto. "I'm sorry, sir, but Mr. Rizzuto was never convicted with me," he insisted.

Nine months later, Mr. Rizzuto died of natural causes in hospital. The conflict continued, however.

Last fall, Maurice (Mom) Boucher, the former Quebec Hells Angels kingpin now serving a life sentence, was charged with plotting the murder of another inmate.

The intended victim, according to police: Mr. Desjardins.

Follow Tu Thanh Ha and Les Perreaux: @TuThanhHa and @perreaux

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