A seismic international drug-smuggling scandal that led to the arrest, imprisonment and detention of 12 Canadians in the Dominican Republic for eight months began with a seemingly innocuous inquiry.
“I am looking for some charter services with your company. We have a couple of our client groups coming in from USA and Dubai next week… to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic,” the company wrote in a January email to Pivot Airlines, a charter company based in Toronto.
The email was sent by John Strudwick, the chief financial officer of purported real estate investment firm Trust Capital.
There were no immediate red flags — there was a company logo, working phone number and even a downtown Toronto office address.
Pivot Airlines Chief Executive Officer Eric Edmondson was told the company bought apartment buildings and turned them into condos.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Edmondson. “We were led to believe that they were potential investors into one of the projects that they were looking at doing in Alberta.”
Edmondson said they did “initial diligence” on the company — ensuring that the funds came from a Canadian bank — before giving the go-ahead.
Over a roughly two month span, Trust Capital paid for two charters to the Dominican Republic.
But as W5 discovered, the trips were not real estate ventures and Trust Capital was not what it seemed.
It was on that second trip in April when the Pivot Airlines crew discovered more than 200 kilograms of cocaine, worth approximately $25 million, in the avionics bay of the plane as it was about to depart from Punta Cana International Airport to Toronto.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
W5 started digging into Trust Capital to figure out its connection to the drugs and the sequence of events that led to the detainment of the 12 Canadians in the Dominican Republic.
Initially, every lead seemed to come to a dead-end.
Canadian corporate record searches turned up empty. The CFO, John Strudwick, didn’t appear to exist. There was no tenant named Trust Capital at that Toronto office tower. The phone number had been disconnected and emails to the company bounced back.
But then W5 started looking into Trust Capital’s financial transactions with Pivot Airlines.
Between February and April, the company paid close to $200,000 for two chartered flights with Pivot Airlines via wire transfers and cheques.
A cheque for one payment of $49,212.50 offered a clue: a location.
It showed some of the money came from ATB Financial in Edmonton.
Then a breakthrough: multiple wire transfers showed that about $150,000 had been sent to Pivot through a numbered company in B.C. A corporate records search revealed that the director of that company was Edmonton resident, Vick Mander.
Mander, according to his LinkedIn profile, was a real estate consultant in Edmonton. In 2019, he was interviewed by CTV News Edmonton — speaking on his family’s behalf after his father — a cab driver — was allegedly beaten by a passenger.
W5 called him but he hung up. So we travelled to Edmonton to ask him in person why roughly $150,000 in wire transfers were made through his numbered company to Pivot Airlines.
He did not answer the questions, only saying he had “a couple of meetings to go to,” before driving away.
Shortly after, Mander’s Linkedin account disappeared.
DRUG CONVICTIONS AND PASSENGER CONNECTIONS TO TRUST CAPITAL
After the crew and passengers were arrested in the Dominican Republic, Trust Capital continued its correspondence with Pivot Airlines staff.
“We need legal there ASAP,” said Strudwick in an email the day after everyone had been arrested. “If funds need to be sent there for retainer, I can send them down let me know.”
It’s still not clear who paid for the passenger’s legal bills but amidst that correspondence there was a revelation: this fake company supposedly had an employee onboard the flight.
According to text messages, passenger Sheldon Poirier was supposed to be the head of Edmonton and Calgary residential developments.
W5 did a background check on Poirier and found he had a possession for the purpose of trafficking conviction in Alberta from 2020.
W5 then did background checks on the remaining passengers from both flights chartered by Trust Capital — and found others with checkered pasts.
From the first flight, Jordan Shay Castor had been convicted in Alberta for possession for the purpose of trafficking in 2018, while Shaun Kocianic had a conviction for trafficking a controlled substance in 2019.
Another passenger from that same flight, Andrew Linden, had possession for the purpose of trafficking charges stayed in 2021.
While no criminal record, the fourth passenger — Kash Briscoe — was on both the first flight and second flight.
In total, four of the 11 passengers from both flights had some history with drugs.
Criminal lawyer Rahul Nanda, who has represented Poirier and Linden for other criminal matters in Edmonton — in addition to the passengers in the Dominican case — said that he did not know any of the passengers were employees at Trust Capital.
He was quick to defend his clients saying they only went down for a vacation.
Criminal lawyer Rahul Nanda (CTV W5)
“They have no criminal records back in Canada… These aren’t drug smugglers,” said Nanda. “Were there any text messages, any link to any drug syndicates, any link whatsoever with any of these passengers who’ve ever been charged previously in Canada with drug trafficking offences? Nothing.”
Briscoe did not respond to W5’s requests for comment.
W5 attempted to speak to Poirier multiple times through Nanda, but he refused. When approached outside a Dominican Republic courthouse in November, he covered his face and only offered W5 one thing: the finger.
Sheldon Poirier when approached outside a Dominican Republic courthouse in November (CTV W5)
It should be noted there was an eighth passenger on the Pivot flight down to Punta Cana — Khaled Rahime — who ended up going back to Canada early.
While there were questions about his sudden departure days before the drugs were found, the Edmonton resident told W5 he left because he “hated” the Dominican Republic.
“I left early because I wanted to go. It had nothing to do with anything that was going to happen or had happened,” said Rahime. “Absolutely seemed suspicious but I guess, you know, I’m touched by an angel.”
He claims he didn’t know who organized or paid for the trip or anything about Trust Capital.
Nearly eight months after the bust — and days after W5 travelled to the Dominican Republic to investigate — the case against both the crew and passengers was suddenly dropped because there was a lack of evidence to proceed.
The crew and passengers arrived back in Canada in early December.
Pivot Airlines crew members (left to right) Alex Rozov, B.K. Dubey, Rob DiVenanzo and Aatif Safdar celebrate their return to Canada at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., Dec. 1, 2022, after being trapped in the Dominican Republic for nearly eight months. (Eric Szeto/CTV W5)
But many months before their return, Pivot Airlines had handed over all the information it had on Trust Capital and its suspicious activities to the RCMP.
“In the early days… We gave [RCMP] all the information that we had… including all of the communications back and forth,” said Pivot’s CEO Edmondson. “We think there was wire fraud. We think there was a general fraud… we have faith in the RCMP. I sure hope they’re investigating.”
It’s not clear what the RCMP has done since then, however.
W5 asked the RCMP whether it’s investigating. The Mounties replied in a statement that, “the RCMP does not confirm, deny, or release information pertaining to active investigations.”