Judges reject theory that coke courier was a ‘dupe’
A long-running case, that cast a spotlight on the lure of mass drug smuggling across the remote Saskatchewan-u. S. border, has ended with the last of the offenders losing his appeal before the province’s top court.In a unanimous decision released this week, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld Ronald Charles Learning ’s conviction for possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking.Learning drew a nine-year prison sentence.When the appeal was heard in November, Learning’s lawyer argued the case against his client, now 36, was largely circumstantial, and that he was potentially an “innocent dupe” with no knowledge of the cocaine cargo.In rejecting the appeal, the court noted, “Mr. Learning ’s alternative theory is speculative at best.”Learning, originally from Golden, B.C., was one of six men arrested in Canada and the United States in an investigation, dubbed Project Faril, that targeted one of Saskatchewan’s largest drug importation schemes.Headed by a B.C. man named Brock Ernest Palfrey (who was sentenced in 2012 to 18 years in prison), the drug-shippers-forhire moved roughly 1.3 tonnes of cocaine along an indirect route from California to B.C., between January 2010 and October 2011.The cargo crossed into Canada at the Saskatchewan border near Montana, before heading out to B.C.When the regular courier was unavailable, Learning became the substitute driver on a single load of 30 kilos of cocaine bricks, worth between $1.2 million and $2.3 million.Working with an inside man, the RCMP substituted the real cocaine — but for about nine grams — for fake powder bricks before it was picked up by Learning at a meeting point near the border south of Val Marie on Oct. 1, 2011. The bricks were packed into hidden compartments in a Windstar van.At the same time, the courier gave the U.S. driver — the agent working with police — packages of pills and $10,000 cash for delivery to the States.The van was under surveillance from Saskatchewan to Salmon Arm, B.C., where the lone occupant, Learning, was arrested. In April 2016 after a trial, Regina provincial court Judge Marylynne Beaton found him guilty.In the appeal hearing, defence lawyer Matthew Schmeling had taken aim at the circumstantial evidence, arguing the surveillance wasn’t consistent, and raising the possibility of another driver who handed off the illicit cargo to an unwitting dupe — in this case, Learning.Justice Neal Caldwell, who wrote the court’s decision, agreed there were gaps in the surveillance. But, “there was no evidence to suggest anyone else had driven the van or that the van might have been driven by more than one individual,” he said.Agreeing with Crown prosecutor Wade Mcbride, the court found the evidence overall supported the judge’s inferences and the guilty verdict.The court also rejected the defence’s argument that the certificate of drug analysis ought to have been tossed out on a legal technicality.The decision was made unanimous by justices Peter Whitmore and Robert Leurer.
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