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Four day trial of Talal Khatib wraps up without verdict

The trial of a long-time Inuvik property owner and businessman charged with possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking and possessing the proceeds of crime wrapped up this week in Inuvik.
Talal Khatib’s four day trial wrapped up in Inuvik Aug. 19. During the trial, seven witnesses were called. Eric Bowling/NNSL Photo

The trial of a long-time Inuvik property owner and businessman charged with possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking and possessing the proceeds of crime wrapped up this week in Inuvik.

After four days of testimony from Aug. 16 to 19 where the Crown presented over 150 photos, two videos and called five witnesses, compared with two witnesses called by the defence, Judge Louise Charbonneau said she would need to consider the evidence before she could deliver her verdict in the trial of Talal Khatib.

Because of recent heart surgery, Khatib was allowed to attend the trial remotely from his home in Edmonton. Three of the Crown’s witnesses also testified remotely by CCTV.

An agreed statement of facts at the start of the trial noted Khatib told RCMP on Aug. 30, 2017 he was residing at 22 Kugmallit Road in Inuvik, though was not at the residence between Sept. 2 and 25. It also states RCMP executed a search warrant on the property on Oct. 20, 2017. Testimony given during the trial revealed there were at least two other individuals living on the property, including the lease-holder who will not be named because he has not been charged.

 A photo of drugs, cash and bear spray RCMP seized from 22 Kugmallit Road on Oct. 20, 2017 after executing a search warrant. The trial of the man accused of being the owner of the items wrapped up Aug. 19 but a verdict won’t be made until later in the year. NNSL file photo
A photo of drugs, cash and bear spray RCMP seized from 22 Kugmallit Road on Oct. 20, 2017 after executing a search warrant. The trial of the man accused of being the owner of the items wrapped up Aug. 19 but a verdict won't be made until later in the year. NNSL file photo

During a raid on Oct. 20, 2017, RCMP found a 64-gram chunk of crack cocaine wrapped in paper towel under a heating vent in a middle room. Two baby food bottles, one holding 173 grams and the other 124 grams of cocaine, were also located in the heating vent system in a basement portion of the property alongside several rolls of cash totalling $23,110. An additional $2,360 was found hidden inside a mattress in the back bedroom and another $563.24 was found in a discarded pair of pants belonging to Khatib in the same room. Another $200 was found in a jacket pocket near the front door, and Khatib had $180 on his person when arrested Oct. 20.

Lead investigator Const. Chris Main testified he conducted surveillance of the property on five occasions over the course of October with the assistance of two other officers. Over the course of the five nights, he said he counted 20 people come up to the window of the property, where Khatib was seen opening the window. Main said the person would then reach up and Khatib would reach down to touch their hand. Khatib would then disappear for “a few seconds” and return, reaching back down to the person visiting, who would then depart. On at least one occasion, Main said he witnessed money being exchanged by the two people.

Main’s testimony was corroborated by the two other officers who conducted surveillance with him, Const. Mackenzie MacGuffin and Const. Jordan Norstom. Court also heard a large plywood door had been erected mid-way up the stairs to the property, preventing anyone from knocking on the front door.

The hole in the floor and the man in the basement

Main told court he then acquired a search warrant and executed it Oct. 20 with four other officers.

Because Khatib was already under release conditions to come to the door whenever police came to see if he was following his curfew, Main said he knocked on the plywood door built on the staircase and when Khatib came to the window, asked him to come open the door. He complied and Main placed him under arrest.

Police then cleared the building, finding a woman staying in the suite. She left. Const. Philipe Casa noticed a hole cut through the floor in the back bedroom of the residence and the top of a man’s head. Officers then discovered the access door to the lower level of the residence was boarded up with plywood. Main said he found a crowbar on the property and used it to pry open the door. A man was found in the boiler room with a bed, laptop computer and a pipe. Testimony later revealed the man to be the lease-holder of the residence. He was placed under arrest but not charged in the incident.

Main said there were power tools strewn about the lower level, including bills and invoices in the lease-holder’s name, a Styrofoam cup filled with cigarette butts and a five-gallon honey bucket.

Two officers took Khatib and the lease-holder back to the RCMP detachment and put them in cells. The remaining three officers began searching the property.

On the inside of the window Khatib was seen during the surveillance was a couch with a rip next to the window. Main said inside the rip he found several packets of what appeared to be salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant. Under a cushion of the couch was a small bag of cannabis and on the table next to the window were binoculars and two cans of bear spray. Directly left of the window, a sign reading “In the shower” was taped to the wall with the words facing towards the outside. A mattress was on its side in the living room as well.

In the bathroom, Main said he found several bottles of medical marijuana and a larger Ziploc bag of cannabis below the sink.

Two scales were found in a heat vent in a middle room and police officers traced that vent to a piece of plywood screwed into the floor. After removing the plywood, police discovered a duct tape panel covering another hole. Behind the duct tape was the 64 gram chunk of crack.

Police then followed the hole back to the boiler room, where they found another panel of duct tape covering the vent. Behind that panel were the two bottles of baby food containing cocaine.

On cross examination, Main acknowledged police did not check the vent, drugs or money for fingerprints.

No evidence linking accused to charge: Defence

Defence lawyer Kate Oja said the evidence presented in court was extensive, but none of it linked her client to the two charges he was facing.

“There is no direct evidence of knowledge of the cocaine,” she said. “There was no cocaine found on his person. There is absolutely no evidence to establish it was cocaine being sold by Khatib.”

Oja called two witnesses, Abdallah Mohamed and Victor Ciboci. Mohamed was the owner of the building at the time, who testified that he was aware that Khatib was living with the lease-holder when they moved into 22 Kugmallit Road from 7 Raven Street, which he also owned. He also stated there was no plywood door on the staircase, no plywood blocking the entrance to the boiler room and no hole in between the two floors when he took over ownership of the residence July 17, 2017, and that the lease-holder was his first tenant in the building.

Mohamed said he only became aware of the modification to the residence between December of that year and January, when the lease-holder called him about a heating issue and he arrived there with a plumber. He added he watched the lease-holder use the hole in the back to move to the lower level to remove the screws holding the plywood onto the basement door.

He said he since sold the building.

Ciboci said he was called by the lease-holder in September of 2017 to deal with a problem with the hot water heater. He said the heater had a number of busted pipes and was missing an element. Upon fixing the problem, Ciboci gave the lease-holder an invoice for $425.

However, instead of offering him money, Ciboci said the lease-holder came out with a baby bottle of white powder and offered it to him, saying it was worth “way more than money.”

In her closing remarks, Oja noted Ciboci’s testimony was the only evidence before the court of an attempt to sell cocaine, and her client was not involved or even in the Northwest Territories when it happened.

She added police did not check any of the people seen going to the window and the court had no evidence of what it was they were buying. She also pointed out the crack cocaine was found under a sheet of plywood attached to the floor and the powdered cocaine was only accessible from the basement, which would have made it inaccessible in the time-frame police observed in Khatib coming to the window.

Oja also said there was no evidence the cash found in the mattress belonged to Khatib, nor was it ever established the back room was his, as items belonging to other people known in the house were also found in the same room.

“It’s a house with stuff everywhere,” she said. “A lot of the items were not catalogued by police. We don’t know where Khatib was sleeping.

“The Crown has not proven Khatib possessed cocaine beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not the court’s role to figure out what happened, only to determine if the Crown has met its burden.”

Look at the evidence as a whole: Crown

Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane said the question before the court was if there were reasonable alternatives explanations why Khatib was found in the building with cocaine and tens of thousands of dollars, and the judge needed to look at the evidence as a whole.

He noted if the crack and cocaine was not in the house to be sold it made no sense that it was there at all.

“Who would risk that amount of cocaine and money with that much attention of the public?” he asked. “Why would that cocaine be there for a purpose other than trafficking? It’s an outrageous risk.”

He said the court knows the plywood barriers and the hole between floors were not present before the defendant moved into the building, and pointed out Khatib was observed selling something from the window of a house he was later found inside with drugs.

Fane argued the fact the cocaine was inaccessible from beside the window during the police search didn’t mean it couldn’t have been moved there.

“The house has been modified to facilitate drug dealing,” he said. “It is a house with a purpose.

“The only reasonable inference is guilt.”

Judge Charbonneau said the court would meet again Monday to establish a date for her to read out her verdict.

A decision is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Courtroom 101 in Yellowknife at 1:30 p.m. Khatib will attend by video from his home in Edmonton.

About the Author: Eric Bowling

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