Low-flying helicopter used to smuggle illegal cannabis from Canada to U.S., police say

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A helicopter from Quebec, flying low to the ground to avoid detection, was used to ferry Canadian cannabis across the border into the United States in an illegal gun importation and drug exportation operation, the RCMP say.

Four men were arrested and a helicopter, truck and trailer were seized after six search warrants were executed in Ontario and Quebec in a joint Canada-U.S. probe that spanned 16 months.

It began from a chance sighting near the border.

It was about 8:20 p.m. on April 9, 2019, when a U.S. Border Patrol agent spotted a helicopter hovering low over a parking lot in Beaver Island State Park. The park is on Grand Island, N.Y., just a kilometre across the Niagara River from Fort Erie, Ont.

The helicopter quickly left, remaining at a low altitude, suggesting it did not want to be tracked by radar.

Border agents searched the area and, in the brush near a hiking trail, they found four red duffel bags, each stuffed with 25 sealed plastic packages of marijuana. In all, it weighed almost 50 kilograms with an estimated street value of US$150,000.

One of four duffel bags of marijuana found by U.S. Border Patrol after a helcopter was spotted hovering over a New York state parking lot, starting the probe. PHOTO BY U.S. BORDER PATROL

Although the helicopter got away, officials knew where it went: into Canada.

That started a joint investigation between American and Canadian authorities.

On Aug. 27, police made their move, searching six properties.

In Quebec, officers seized a helicopter and a truck and trailer allegedly used to move the illicit product along with 17 handguns and a shotgun. The guns are suspected of being restricted and prohibited firearms in Canada.

In Ontario, police found illegal marijuana grow operations. More than 800 marijuana plants and dried cannabis and approximately 400 grams of suspected cocaine were seized, according to police.

The RCMP said the group was cultivating marijuana outside of Health Canada’s regulations for growing legal cannabis, in the Greater Toronto Area, but would not specify more exact locations.

A view of the cannabis grow operation in Ontario that was raided. PHOTO BY RCMP

The RCMP declined to provide additional information about the guns because it is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, said Sgt. Penny Hermann.

“An investigation into the origin of the handguns is ongoing.”

The helicopter, a Bell 206A JetRanger, was used “on several occasions” to fly illegally grown cannabis across the Canada-U.S. border, between ports of entry and at low altitudes to avoid detection, she said.

A Bell 206A JetRanger helicopter costs about $1 million. Originally designed for the U.S. military and built in Mirabel, Que., it is popular with media companies for traffic and news reporting.

“This important disruption removed 18 firearms from a criminal organization that posed a significant threat to Canadian communities and brazenly exploited our shared border through the air,” said Michael Buckley, of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.

The investigation involved several law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border, including the RCMP, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Ontario Provincial Police, U.S. Border Patrol, Canada Border Services Agency, Health Canada and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada.

Another view of the cannabis grow operation in Ontario that was raided. PHOTO BY RCMP

The RCMP announced charges against four Ontario men: Kamal Deep Bassan, 36, of Vaughan; Ramindejit Assi, 25, of Burlington; Derek Chi-Yeung Ng, 40, from East Gwillimbury; and Parmjot Saini, 30, from Woodbridge.

Saini was arrested the day of the raids, the others on Sept. 2.

All of them face a litany of charges, including unlawfully exporting cannabis, possession of cannabis for the purpose of exporting it and possession of forged documents.

There are additional charges against some of the accused, including possession of cocaine against Ng and Assi.

“The RCMP continues to be committed to combatting transnational organized crime and keeping our citizens safe by removing illicit commodities off the streets and out of the hands of these groups,” said Insp. Ann Koenig of the RCMP’s Hamilton-Niagara detachment.

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