Elite B.C. RCMP spy unit devastated by abuse of power
Special O members say RCMP Superintendent Lorne Schwartz did not act on complaints against Special O boss Travis Pearson.
Photograph by: Jon Murray, PNG Archive
In June 2008, when RCMP Const. Lorraine Bergerman met her new boss, Staff-Sgt. Travis Pearson, she found his first words strange and troubling.
Pearson — a fast-rising, 38-year-old officer candidate and former professional standards investigator — had just taken over the elite RCMP surveillance unit known as Special O.
In one of the unit’s secret Lower Mainland offices, he approached Bergerman, a key administrator and a 25-year veteran, looked at her seriously and said: “Where are all the young women?”
It would only get more bizarre.
Launched in 1974, Special O gathered evidence on all the biggest British Columbia cases: Robert Pickton; Surrey 6 shooting; Air India terrorists; former premier Glen Clark, who was suspected of corruption; notorious juror Gillian Guess; international drug cartel players. All were targeted by Special O officers — people who don’t look or act like regular cops, many of them lifelong unit members born with natural talents for snooping.
Bergerman was put on her guard with Pearson right away. But she didn’t foresee that “O” would soon degenerate into a surreal parallel world, in which the nation’s purported top police spies would begin spying and plotting against each other.
And although Bergerman and her colleagues quickly noticed that Pearson seemed constantly to be furtively texting and dashing out of the office without warning, they couldn’t know that two young women he ushered onto the unit would allegedly become on-the-job sex partners who later claimed they were compelled into relations with Pearson and sexually assaulted.
One thing they never could have guessed is that after complaining to RCMP brass and citing evidence that should have raised red flags, they would be the ones shunted from the unit while management stood idle. They say Pearson’s leadership was upheld until August 2009, when a bombshell allegation of rape on a subordinate officer, Const. Susan Gastaldo, led to an investigation, a civil lawsuit from the alleged victim and, finally, a sensational sex misconduct hearing.
Apart from wrongfully having sex on the job, however, Pearson has denied all allegations. “I’m sorry for my disgraceful conduct and I will always be sorry,” Pearson sobbed during a 30-minute statement in which he begged forgiveness from the force and his family near the end of the misconduct hearing. “. . . my wife believes I should face the allegations before the board . . . but she will stand by me for the other slander.”
The RCMP disciplinary board found that the sexual relationship with Gastaldo was consensual.
After considerable soul-searching, Bergerman and others came forward to The Province, putting aside fears of RCMP management repercussions, to tell the public their opinion that Pearson wasn’t just having sex on the job, but was ruining careers and an elite unit with his scheming, harassment and abuse of power. “The RCMP is still a great place to work, and I don’t want to appear like I’m on a rant,” Bergerman said. “But what we went through, the channels we were supposed to go through, didn’t work. It can’t keep going on like this. I don’t want this to happen to other units or other people.”
For the past several months The Province has reported on the disciplinary case of Const. Susan Gastaldo and Staff Sgt. Travis Pearson, who were accused of having sex in a police car during work hours and exchanging intimate messages while Gastaldo worked for Pearson in Special O.
In May 2009, Gastaldo, who was suffering from an anxiety disorder and off on sick leave, was sought out by Pearson and brought into a graduated return to work at Special O under his guidance.
What happened next was either a consensual affair, or exploitation of a mentally vulnerable victim, depending on whose testimony you believe.
In the course of the hearing, Pearson admitted to having sex with Gastaldo in his covert SUV during work hours, but rejected a number of allegations in the testimony of Gastaldo and one other employee. That employee — a former subordinate of Pearson’s in the North Vancouver detachment — has her identity protected and is referred to as D.B.
D.B. testified she and her family felt they were stalked, and the family is still trying to recover from Pearson’s alleged intrusions. Like Gastaldo, D.B. claimed she was assaulted and subjected to veiled threats, and Pearson abused his power to ensnare her. The two women said they feared the consequences of reporting Pearson because of his connections with RCMP brass, and his “wingmen” — protected officers that he seemed to gather around himself.
Gastaldo testified that Pearson seemed to run a “snoop” network of Mounties and said he could produce damaging information on high-level B.C. Mounties. D.B. testified that Pearson said he would make a “shovel call” — what she believed to be a threat of violence from one of the “wingmen” — if anyone hindered their relationship.
During the tribunal, Pearson’s lawyer argued the relationship between D.B. and Pearson was consensual and challenged the accusations of stalking and implied threats. The tribunal hasn’t made a ruling on D.B.’s claims.
Former Special O members told The Province that in their opinion, Pearson played head games and used “nefarious” schemes, subtle threats, and abused his power.
“I totally agree with [Gastaldo’s] descriptions of intimidation and implied threats,” Const. Lynne Jarrett, a 26-year Special O veteran, said. “I do believe it, because it happened to me.”
“People say all Susan would have to do is speak up and tell the supervisor, then everything would be fine,” Jarrett added. “You hear all kinds of RCMP brass say, ‘Just speak up.’ Well, we tried two years ago, and look what happened. We were the problem kids. We got shuffled out. That is why we are speaking now.”
Soon after Pearson arrived at Special O, he targeted key positions and “slowly went about” replacing experienced members with hand-picked favourites, according to a number of Special O members.
“He was connecting himself with people that had some sort of character flaw,” Const. Bergerman said. It seemed like “he was building his little empire.”
According to testimony, one experienced operation co-ordinator was moved from the office to the road shift, and an officer who can only be called Cpl. P (because of a publication ban) was installed in his place.
Gastaldo testified that Cpl. P engaged in drunk driving and once arrived at her home in such a vulnerable state that she allowed him to sleep off the booze in a spare room before driving home to his family.
Sgt. J.D. Martin, referred to in testimony as Pearson’s wingman, was brought into the unit in October 2008.
A friend of Pearson’s from their days at the North Vancouver detachment, Martin had left the Coquitlam detachment, where he was facing a harassment complaint.
Martin, when confronted by The Province, confirmed he was facing the complaint when Pearson hired him. He would not answer what the complaint concerned, but said “it was dealt with.”
Sgt. John Johnson, the unit leader before Pearson’s arrival, told The Province that in Special O’s cafeteria on one occasion, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts appeared on TV and Martin made a crude comment, referring to her sexual desirability.
Const. Jarrett said she spent a significant amount of time with Martin on a training course, and he frequently made crude remarks about women.
In testimony, Martin said he was hired to help change the culture of Special O, and his efforts to get the unit to shape up led to friction.
“I was eager to come over and assist in bringing about some changes in the largest covert unit in the country,” Martin said.
Const. Jarrett said, however, that during interviews with Special O members in the summer of 2009, Pearson’s immediate superior, Insp. Dennis Erickson, claimed to not know who Martin was, or why he was at Special O.
As concerns over Pearson’s staff moves and the “bizarre” atmosphere in Special O mounted, the unit’s civilian financial administrator, Nancy Hirschkorn, decided to take the matter to RCMP management in Ottawa.
She compiled concerns from a number of members and detailed Pearson’s alleged policy infractions and immaturity, plus questionable purchases and staffing moves that allegedly detracted from the integrity and operational ability of the unit.
The administrator’s complaint was deferred from Ottawa back to B.C., according to email records. And in the end, Hirschkorn was chastised by Pearson’s supervisor, Supt. Lorne Schwartz, and told that Pearson was doing exactly what they wanted him to do.
At that point, many Special O members considered the once proud unit a writeoff.
“We were being hung out to dry because there was nowhere to go,” Const. Jarrett said. “The atmosphere was that he could do whatever he wanted and screw over anyone because he was invincible.”
In a list of complaints obtained by The Province, one move that seems particularly troubling is Pearson’s hiring of D.B. — his former subordinate and sex partner in the North Vancouver detachment — into a high security position for which she was neither qualified nor given sufficient clearance, according to Special O members.
D.B. said in testimony that she agreed to join Special O for several reasons. First, it would increase cash-flow for her family, and she felt she couldn’t say no or she would put her family at risk, she testified. According to D.B. the key, though, was that one of her superiors, Staff-Sgt. Glenn Magark, told her if she transferred to Special O, Pearson would come under scrutiny. If Pearson was under the microscope, she said, the relationship could be ended without her instigating the break.
Sgt. Johnson says that in his first meeting with Pearson in the summer of 2008, Pearson mentioned that he wanted to hire D.B.
“I said, ‘You can’t pay her more than $30,000 because she is not qualified, doesn’t have security clearance for the job you want,’” Johnson said. “And he basically hires her contrary to policy at about $70,000. He insisted they get a brand new Mazda SUV for her. It was crazy.”
D.B. testified that she only worked about 11 shifts at Special O in early 2009 before quitting, because contrary to her expectations that she and Pearson would be working in separate locations, he allegedly arranged an on-the-job sexual encounter in his covert SUV.
New RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who has admitted the RCMP suffers from a “culture of bullying and a legacy of botched investigations,” was not made available for an interview on claims in this story.
Supt. Ray Bernoties of B.C.’s E-Division said the division couldn’t comment on specific questions, such as whether the hiring of Sgt. J.D. Martin while he faced a harassment complaint was authorized.
In a prepared statement, Bernoties said “immediately upon hearing the concerns raised by members in Special ‘O’ in April 2009, an Inspector and S/Sgt began a review … many measures have been implemented in Special ‘O’ since the summer of 2009, including new leadership, clear mandates and ongoing reviews.”
Special O members say a series of interviews with Insp. Dennis Erickson actually did not start until June, when members unsuccessfully tried to trigger a “management review.”
Looking back, Const. Jarrett believes her career in Special O basically ended in her first meeting with Pearson in October 2008, when he asked for her opinion about a pilot project aimed at shuttling young recruits into Special O.
Veterans, including Jarrett, were concerned the move was just aimed at plugging vacancies to make the unit look good on paper, while diluting the talent pool of specialized surveillance officers. Jarrett told Pearson her concerns, and she says he took it badly.
“He put his head down on his forearms, with this Spider-Man toy beside him on his desk,” Jarrett says. “It felt like a child preparing for nap time. I thought, ‘This is how my new boss is handling my first real conversation with me.’ I think my fate was sealed, because either you were with him or against him.”
Jarrett and Bergerman say they eventually moved to new units after conflicts with Pearson played out in 2009. But they often call each other and start to cry, talking about how the unit to which they dedicated their careers has fallen.
The two want to stress that Special O can be salvaged, and the RCMP can, too.
“It is unfortunate it had to get to this point, but let’s try and fix this and give people somewhere they can go to talk to people,” Jarrett said. “I still don’t know what the attraction of management to Travis was, and why that took precedence over the complaints.”
In late December a board of RCMP adjudicators rejected Gastaldo’s claims that she was raped and coerced into an ongoing affair, allegedly due to her fragile psychological state and Pearson’s implied threats and extreme persistence.
The board ruled Pearson and Gastaldo were in a consensual affair, and both guilty of disgraceful conduct. In a move that stunned some, they said Gastaldo could be fired for slandering Pearson — while Pearson faces only demotion. Pearson, who was removed from leadership at Special O when Gastaldo launched a criminal complaint against him in August 2009, will learn his fate when his hearing resumes in February. Gastaldo is pursuing her civil claim.
A LITANY OF COMPLAINTS
This is a look at emails and interviews that suggest senior RCMP brass were presented with complaints regarding Staff-Sgt. Travis Pearson’s leadership of the Special O unit. RCMP members involved say the complaints were stifled.
EMAIL: Feb. 24, 2009, FROM: Nancy Hirschkorn, a civilian financial administrator, Special O unit
TO: Chief Supt. Marianne Ryan, of Pacific Region Change Management Team
Pearson has inappropriately hired a municipal employee and ‘requested her to have a new SUV and other requests inappropriate for [the position].’
Pearson made questionable equipment expenditures and funding requests, including asking for a new, more expensive SUV after already being given a ‘a brand new Nissan XTerra,’ requesting $30,000 for a new gym for Special O, buying sports equipment that never gets used.
Hirschkorn says under Pearson’s leadership the unit “gets more bizarre every day” and “this information can be verified by any member, except his “buddies.’”
EMAIL: March 2, 2009
The chief superintendent asks Hirschkorn if she wants to meet with the officer responsible for Pearson, Supt. Lorne Schwartz. Hirschkorn says no, since “Supt. Schwartz … is already aware of these concerns I have raised.”
She says she wants Ryan to attend, to hear Schwartz’s answers.
EMAIL: March 3, 2009
Schwartz writes a stern reply to Hirschkorn, establishing ground rules for a March 23 meeting. He says he will not be put on display and does not report to Ryan, and: “I am not aware of the concerns you have raised as you indicate … I am open and willing to meet but I will demand the appropriate level of respect.”
MEETING: March 23, 2009
Special O colleagues say Hirschkorn was “demoralized” and “shattered” by March 23 meeting results.
According to former unit head Sgt. John Johnson, members were chilled after Hirschkorn’s complaint was crushed. “She [Hirschkorn] thought she was going over to shed light on things that would be appreciated and investigated. But she was chastised by Lorne and basically told how dare she even question Travis, because he was doing exactly the job Lorne sent him to do …”
OUTCOME: March 25, 2009
After talking to Hirschkorn, Special O colleague Const. Lorraine Bergerman sent an email to the chief superintendent, stating “no wonder people don’t come forward.” The chief superintendent replied: “I can understand why Nancy is upset, Lorne seems to have a different style of dealing with these matters but it is his area.”