Mark Hill sat down on Air Canada Flight 908 to Florida and did what he always liked to do on airplanes. He opened his laptop and began crunching numbers.
The vice-president of strategic planning at WestJet Airlines Ltd., wedged against the window, was in enemy territory, but that didn't deter him for a moment. He didn't even notice that the quiet traveller next to him got up from the middle seat twice soon after takeoff to visit the washroom.
Finally, 45 minutes into the trip to Fort Lauderdale from Toronto, the seemingly unassuming passenger struck up a conversation with Mr. Hill. It was easy to break the ice - Mr. Hill wore a WestJet denim shirt and a leather jacket with a large WestJet logo on the back.
"Looks like you work for the competition," said the polite passenger, Robert Stenhouse.
Mr. Hill replied that he didn't think much of the competition and took a shot: "Air Canada is like a big lion with no teeth."
As lunch was served, Mr. Hill became intrigued with his seatmate, who claimed to have worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The man in seat 13E introduced himself under an alias, Rob Stanaus, posing as a specialist in "international corporate intelligence" with Eclectic Solutions Inc. He looked harmless, reading the bestselling book, The Art of Deception, by Kevin Mitnick, a former hacker who broke into the computer systems of some of world's largest corporations.
That title was appropriate since Mr. Stenhouse was presenting himself as something else on that Friday morning in March, 2004. He was working on contract as Air Canada's in-flight spy, a for-hire private eye with vast experience as an undercover agent.
The tale of high-altitude intrigue surfaced in court documents and was fleshed out - for the first time -in Globe and Mail interviews with Mr. Stenhouse and others.
For nearly three months, Air Canada had suspected that Mr. Hill was the mastermind behind WestJet's electronic spying campaign to obtain data on passenger loads from Air Canada's confidential employee website used to book flights internally.
Mr. Stenhouse, a former RCMP staff sergeant, was hired to follow Mr. Hill, a data genius who had been deemed "T1" - the No. 1 target - by Air Canada in its probe into WestJet's spying.
Somewhere over Pennsylvania, the ex-Mountie knew he had got his man. Mr. Hill had opened a manila envelope, pulled out sheets of paper and entered more data into his laptop. The data for February, 2004, described "the flight number, the time of departure, time of arrival, actual time of arrival, load capacity, actual load and load percentage," according to anonymous notes entered in court.
Mr. Stenhouse confirmed this week that he made those notes.
During two strategic trips to the lavatory, he recorded his observations on napkins and papers stuffed in his pockets, jotting down the numbers tapped in by Mr. Hill and scribbling other notes while in the cramped quarters.
"The inputted flight numbers began with 100, 101, 104, 125 and then proceeded upwards. It was too difficult to memorize all of the flight numbers," said Mr. Stenhouse's notes.
Air Canada would later match the four flight numbers and others to its own routes and those of Jetsgo Corp.
The sting led to Air Canada's decision to have other investigators sift through Mr. Hill's trash at his home two weeks later. Days later, on April 6, 2004, Air Canada launched a $220-million espionage lawsuit against WestJet. Mr. Hill would resign from WestJet three months after the lawsuit was filed.
For two years, in what became the talk of the industry, the combatants engaged in a fierce legal fight before reaching an out-of-court settlement this past May. Calgary-based WestJet admitted that it stole Montreal-based Air Canada's confidential data on load factors - the proportion of available seats filled - and also apologized to Air Canada chairman Robert Milton.
"Mark Hill was cocky," Mr. Stenhouse says today. "I would have thought that he would have been more discreet. I was quite surprised at how arrogant he was. He certainly gave me evidence to corroborate what other Air Canada investigators were slowly gleaning."
Now interning to become a church pastor, Mr. Stenhouse agreed to speak publicly for the first time about the sting operation after being told that The Globe and Mail had uncovered his identity through court documents.
Born and raised in Montreal, he had spent 18 years with the Mounties, going undercover to help nab drug dealers, bikers and murderers. In early 2000, Mr. Stenhouse was suspended with pay after he ran afoul of top brass for leaking internal documents about the RCMP's national media strategy that highlighted the crimes of biker gangs.
The leak in 1999 - to author Yves Lavigne, who wrote the book Hells Angels at War - drew the wrath of Julian Fantino, then chairman of a key committee at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and Giuliano Zaccardelli, then the deputy RCMP commissioner in charge of organized crime strategy.
Mr. Stenhouse was forced to resign from the RCMP in mid-2002. He was reinstated in mid-2004, however, after a court set aside his dismissal, and he is now on paid leave until June, 2007, when he will start to collect a full Mountie pension.
The seeds of his undercover operation were planted on Dec. 19, 2003, when WestJet whistle blower Melvin Crothers tipped off Air Canada. Mr. Crothers discovered that a colleague's computer screen displayed Air Canada's logo and load factors. That same day, he phoned Stephen Smith, president of Air Canada's Calgary-based Zip Air Inc. operation, to tell him what he had seen on the screen.
The whistle blower's name was a closely guarded secret until The Globe recently revealed Mr. Crothers' identity.
Alarmed by the phone tip, Air Canada hired IPSA International Inc., a private investigative firm, on Christmas Eve, 2003. In January, 2004, Air Canada found out that someone in the Victoria area with a Shaw Cable high-speed Internet connection was repeatedly accessing Air Canada's password-protected employee website.
An electronic trail from the Internet service provider emerged after tracing the so-called IP address. The signs pointed to Mr. Hill, who lived in the Victoria suburb of Oak Bay.
A major break came in February, when Mr. Hill's name showed up on Air Canada's passenger lists for the March 5 flight at 11 a.m. That prompted two men to swing into action: Yves Duguay, Air Canada's senior director of corporate security and risk management, and Kim Marsh, managing director of IPSA International.
The two former RCMP officers decided it was time to "approach" Mr. Hill, and they didn't just flip open the Yellow Pages. Mr. Marsh had taught an RCMP undercover course to Mr. Stenhouse in 1987. They kept in touch, and in the fall of 2003, Mr. Marsh hired Mr. Stenhouse for the first of three jobs, before asking him to accept a fourth assignment in 2004 - arranging for him to be seated next to Mr. Hill.
At Toronto's Pearson International Airport, Mr. Stenhouse walked to the back of the lineup for the three-hour Air Canada flight to Florida. Standing about 20 people in front of him was Mr. Hill, carrying a laptop and reading messages on his BlackBerry at the gate. Mr. Hill didn't become suspicious when his girlfriend had to sit near the rear of the plane while Mr. Stenhouse stuck to his middle seat; the flight was sold out.
During the flight, Mr. Hill revealed that he needed to visit Florida because WestJet planned to move beyond its domestic roots and start transborder service into the United States. That plan would come to fruition in the fall of 2004.
Sporting a new goatee and fake glasses, Mr. Stenhouse pretended to have spent six years as an agent with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. "I'm ex-CSIS," Mr. Stenhouse told Mr. Hill. "I now work in corporate intelligence."
Mr. Hill replied: "That's what I do," and explained that he was in strategic planning, "but a lot of that is intelligence."
As the plane touched down, the two men exchanged business cards, with Air Canada's spy handing over two fake business cards. But the undercover operation had not gone seamlessly. Mr. Stenhouse discovered that a new digital voice recorder he placed in a shirt pocket had failed to capture Mr. Hill's comments, picking up only muffled sounds and aircraft noise.
After saying goodbye, Mr. Stenhouse tailed Mr. Hill in the Fort Lauderdale airport. "At the terminal, the subject was seen renting a car at Avis. His girlfriend was with him," the investigator's notes say.
Reached in Hawaii yesterday, Mr. Hill said he has been instructed by his lawyer to decline making any public comment about the espionage case. "It's a sunny day, and I might take the surfboard out," said Mr. Hill, who added that he doesn't hold a grudge. "I'm flying Air Canada back to Victoria this weekend."
While Mr. Hill spent five nights in Florida to help lay the groundwork for WestJet's U.S. expansion plans, Mr. Stenhouse stayed at the Fort Lauderdale airport for six hours and caught a late flight to Montreal. He would fly to Toronto the next day, and connect to a plane back to his hometown of Edmonton, where he still lives. Air Canada footed the bill for five flights costing a total of $6,074.61. Mr. Stenhouse was later paid $4,588.05 for "consulting services" rendered.
Now 45, Mr. Stenhouse serves as intern pastor at the Community of Hope Church in Edmonton. As a Christian leader, he regrets feigning being a corporate security expert.
"I've wrestled with this question of ethics," he said. "I'm now on a journey of faith, discerning the truth and understanding God's will. If the end is the pursuit of what is the truth, then it justifies the means to some extent. I got Mark Hill to open up to me back then, but today, I would not do another undercover job."