The preliminary inquiry for a high-profile kidnapping case is remaining in Penticton after security concerns were raised by sheriffs who recommended the inquiry be moved to Kelowna.
John Szanto, Kerry Ellis, Albert Fontaine and Carey Anderson are are all charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault and unlawful confinement or imprisonment relating to a 37-year-old Penticton man who RCMP reported was kidnapped and seriously assaulted in the early morning hours on May 21, 2015.
Multiple defence counsels, Crown counsel Kurt Froehlich, Judge Greg Koturbash and local sheriffs weighed in on whether or not the Penticton Courthouse was capable of handling multiple co-accused appearing in person safely or if the inquiry would be better off in Kelowna where facilities are better equipped to handle in-custody operations. The issue was raised after an inspector out of Kelowna requested sheriffs in Penticton ask that the case be moved over security and staffing issues.
Sgt. Scott Adams spoke on behalf of B.C. Sheriff Services on Aug. 5 in Penticton court. He raised concerns including staffing and the extra load of people in-custody at the courthouse having a ripple effect compounding safety concerns for the day-to-day matters elsewhere in the courthouse. Issues regarding the logistics of having an in-custody witness were also raised by Adams.
“Anything can be mitigated by throwing staff at it, but I guess we have to look at the bigger picture and how it will affect operations here locally,” Adams said.
All parties were in agreement that security at the Penticton courthouse is overdue for an upgrade.
“I’ve been advocating for better security at this courthouse for a long time,” said Koturbash, adding those concerns have “fallen upon deaf ears.”
“I find it more challenging getting in and out of a Costco than this courthouse,” Koturbash said, noting that the security issues were not a reflection of the sheriffs in Penticton.
“I just want to put on the record that our sheriffs unit in Penticton, I have a great deal of confidence in our unit in Penticton. We’ve dealt with serious matters in the past and I’m sure we’ll get through this matter as well,” Koturbash said.
James Pennington, counsel for Ellis and longtime Penticton defence attorney, pointed to the broader trend of trials being moved out of Penticton to Kelowna as a disservice to the public.
“This has been coming up for at least 30 years and, frankly, Penticton has always had the short end of the stick. We have always gone along with these requests to move and I’m from the camp that says absolutely not,” Pennington said. “This is a Penticton matter. The community has an absolute right, not only to be able to hear what has gone on because they could hear that through the media, but they have the right to be able to come and see the proceedings themselves.”
Pennington said the inquiry has been scheduled in Penticton for months, questioning the security concerns being brought up at this stage, with the 10-day preliminary inquiry set to start later in August.
“The sheriffs, the RCMP, court services have had months to adequately plan for this, and I’ll put on the record that it’s my belief the authorities have left it to this late stage simply to try and stampede everybody into moving it to Kelowna. I draw a line in the sand and say no, it stays here,” Pennington told the court.
Pennington also said that the same issues, compounded by the extra complication of having a jury, would be seen at the trial, which is several months away should it go ahead.
“Technology is our friend today,” said Judge Greg Koturbash, after it was determined that multiple accused appearing by video would help allay concerns relating to the upcoming inquiry.
The accused have elected a trial by judge and jury should the preliminary inquiry determine that there is enough evidence to go to trial. Crown expects to call four civilians and four police witnesses during the inquiry.
The accused are all currently in custody and Szanto is serving a three-year jail term in a federal penitentiary for an unrelated assault conviction last year.
The preliminary inquiry takes place from Aug. 16 to 19 and Aug. 23 to 26.