One of the biggest alleged illegal gambling rings in Canada has gone bust.
Police agencies from across Greater Toronto arrested 18 people on Tuesday, decapitating the "upper echelons" of Platinum Sportsbook, a sports-betting website allegedly backed by the Hells Angels and other organized crime groups.
It's the same group that police busted on Superbowl Sunday when they raided a Platinum Sportsbook-sponsored party attended by 2,000 people. That was merely the first phase of an investigation that took 18 months and spanned southern Ontario, the U.S. and Central America.
The probe began in 2011 after the OPP received a tip that the site was a front for the Hells Angels and other traditional organized crime syndicates.
"As it went along, the investigation uncovered disturbing threats and acts of violence including extortion and intimidation," said OPP Deputy Commissioner Scott Tod. "It became obvious a broader and more thorough investigation was required to disrupt the activities."
A larger RCMP-led team consisting of agencies from York, Peel, Durham and Toronto regions soon found a sophisticated hierarchy operating somewhat like a pyramid scheme, with several layers of betting agents handing out code names and passwords to discrete bettors. Online bets were routed through the U.S., before ending up at servers in Costa Rica. Monthly profits topped $1-million.
On Tuesday, the combined force acted on 13 search warrants for homes and financial institutions in York region, Barrie, London and Toronto. They seized $1.6-million cash, two handguns, a taser, computers, cellphones, betting lists and ledgers. The 18 arrests included charges for participating or engaging in a criminal organization, bookmaking and conspiracy to commit a criminal offence. Two of the 18 had been arrested during the original Superbowl raid and were charged with failing to comply with release conditions.
The names of the charged will be released Wednesday.
"Many gamblers do not appreciate negative consequences of what goes on behind the scenes when organized crime is managing the operation," said York Regional Police Deputy Chief Bruce Herridge, highlighting human trafficking, massage parlours, extortion, money laundering and loansharking as some of the offshoots of illegal gaming.
As an illustration of the violence that swirls behind the scenes of such operations, RCMP Superintendent Keith Finn confirmed that police have information linking Platinum Sportsbook to the $2-million in restitution paid to Louise Russo after she was paralyzed during a botched Mafia hit at California Sandwiches in 2004.
Several organized crime groups were involved in the site, Supt. Finn said, including those associated with the Montreal Mafia.
"The website as it was constructed … was very lucrative," he said, "and that's why criminal organizations of all types saw this as a means by which they could replicate or piggyback on the operation."
Those lofty margins will likely prove too attractive for criminal figures to leave alone.
"We will exercise all lawful means to continue to disrupt their activities whether it's through technical avenues, arrests and so forth. It remains to be seen how well they'll adapt."