As Quang Hoang Tran sat handcuffed to a chair in an interrogation room, Const. Will Vander Wier sucker-punched him, breaking his jaw in two places.
The provincial Special Investigations Unit (SIU) cleared the Peel Region police officer and Tran was subsequently convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery.
But the seven-year-old case was turned on its head last spring when the Court of Appeal for Ontario threw out Tran’s conviction because, in the words of Justice Gloria Epstein, the Peel officers “beat him up” and “attempted to cover up their shocking conduct by destroying evidence, lying to fellow officers and perjuring themselves before the court.”
The court’s ruling in June outlined a flawed justice system in the Tran case — from the SIU to the prosecutor’s office — that allowed Const. Vander Wier to go unpunished.
The ruling prompted the SIU to reopen the case. Vander Wier was later charged with assault.
His case is before the courts.
Today’s story is one of an ongoing series probing police conduct in Ontario. A Star investigation of two decades of SIU cases has found police officers are treated far differently than civilians when accused of beating, shooting, running over and killing people.
Monday, we told you the story of an innocent accountant whose arm was broken by York Region Police when they wrongly accused him of stealing a car. The SIU did not lay charges.
In the Tran case, a man accused of vicious home invasions has now gone free because there was what the appeals court called “police brutality” during the interrogation of the accused.
Tran and other alleged gang members were accused of terrorizing two families, including sexually assaulting a woman by placing a gun in her mouth and vagina, carving a dollar sign into a man’s back, and pushing an 8-year-old girl down and telling her to “say goodbye to her parents,” the appeals court ruling states.
The home invasions took place in Mississauga in 2002. Some people were arrested and pleaded guilty. They implicated others, including Tran, who surrendered to police on March 27, 2003.
Const. Vander Wier and his partner, John Conway, drove to Hamilton, where Tran had surrendered to police in that city. According to testimony by Conway later at Tran’s trial, they had little evidence against Tran other than the allegations in a co-accused’s statement.
The following is an account of what happened according to transcripts from Tran’s original trial and the appeal court ruling that overturned his conviction.
During the drive from Hamilton to Mississauga, the Peel detectives tried to get a statement from Tran, who invoked his right to silence.
One detective told him if he did not speak “it’s going to be the hard way.”
At the police station, he was shoved and punched by both detectives, Tran testified at his trial. He said he was dragged along a metal railing and his head was slammed into a door.
He said detectives told him he would be made to “feel how the (home invasion) victims felt” if he did not cooperate.
According to the appeals court ruling, the detectives put Tran in an interview room that was not equipped with a video camera. Vander Wier punched Tran in the ribs and the jaw. Tran’s jaw bled “profusely.”
The detectives gave up on their attempt to get a confession and moved him to an interview room that had a camera, trying to get him to say he hit his chin on the table.
“Have you been treated improperly?” Conway asked Tran on the video recording. “Have we been treating you fairly?”
Tran stared at the floor and kneaded his fists.
“You feeling okay? You said your stomach’s not feeling good? Not too long ago you were on the ground,” Conway said.
The version given by Vander Wier and Conway, when questioned later, was that Tran hurt himself by falling to the ground when he was alone in the room.
Expert testimony heard at trial supported Tran’s version of events. The expert said Tran’s jaw, broken in two places, was “consistent with a blow to the jaw, not a fall.”
Tran’s jaw had to be wired shut and to this day he suffers from migraines.
After the assault, the detectives cleaned the blood, which Justice Epstein said was an attempt to “conceal their misconduct.”
Tran’s trial lasted four months in 2005, including a lengthy portion devoted to the assault in the interrogation room.
The trial judge ruled Tran had been beaten by police. In his 2006 verdict, the trial judge convicted Tran of conspiracy to commit robbery and sentenced him to 14 months in jail. However, he was found not guilty of robbery, the more substantial charge.
Tran appealed his conviction. Justice Epstein, after reviewing the case, said the misconduct in the case that started with the police assault continued into Tran’s trial.
Despite the trial judge’s ruling that there was “overwhelming” evidence of police beating Tran, Crown attorney Stephen Laufer still asked if Vander Wier could sit with him at the prosecution table to prepare witnesses.
The trial judge said no and banished both Vander Wier and his partner to the hallway during the trial. The Crown allowed Vander Wier to prepare witnesses outside the court.
At the appeals hearing, Justice Epstein said that was wrong. She described Laufer’s attitude toward Vander Wier’s brutality as “cavalier,” even approving of such abuse.
Epstein said the Crown’s conduct was “evocative of an alignment with police.”
Laufer declined to comment for this article.
Justice Epstein also took issue with the SIU investigation into Tran’s allegations of police brutality.
The SIU director at the time, John Sutherland, had decided not to charge Vander Wier or his partner.
“There is no evidence of any effective response to the police brutality here,” Epstein stated in her ruling.
Sutherland, now a judge with the Ontario Court of Justice, did not return the Star’s calls for comment. Officers Vander Wier and Conway declined through a Peel Regional police representative to comment for this article.
The SIU did not do its job, the appeals court judge wrote. Nor did the oversight agency, Epstein continued, provide an earlier court hearing in the Tran case with its reasons for clearing Consts. Vander Wier and Conway, except to say the decision was “confidential” and “justified.”
The Star found the SIU did not issue a media release about the incident in 2003, and the public was not informed. The agency does not tell the public about half of the cases it takes on.
After the SIU decided not to lay a charge, Tran, 24 at the time, went before a court to persuade a justice of the peace to lay a criminal charge against Const. Vander Wier.
The justice of the peace agreed with Tran and issued the charge of assault causing bodily harm against the officer.
But Tran did not show up for a court appearance and the Peel Regional prosecutor’s office, which works closely with Peel police officers such as Vander Wier, withdrew the charge. They did not provide any reasons for doing so, said Peter Zaduk, Tran’s lawyer.
Epstein’s blunt language caught the attention of current SIU director Ian Scott.
In July of this year, he reopened the case and charged Vander Wier with aggravated assault. Conway was not charged.
Tran declined, through his lawyer, to comment for this article.
Seven years later, he still has trouble chewing without biting his tongue, suffers from chronic jaw pain, loose teeth and migraines.
Conway is a detective in Peel Region’s robbery unit. Const. Vander Wier, because of his recent charge, has been temporarily moved off the front lines to the Peel police IT department.