A man indicted on 13 charges related to the possession and transfer of various prohibited guns has been found not guilty after Coquitlam RCMP failed to link the accused with the voice of an arms trafficker on a wiretapped call.
The charges against Austin Zamora stem from a larger investigation carried out by Coquitlam RCMP’s Drugs and Organized Crime Section, which was looking into suspected fentanyl trafficking under the banner of “Project E-Nightlife.”
Beginning in the spring of 2016, Andrew Leach and his girlfriend, Arghavan Ebrahimi, were the main targets of the investigation, which by 2017 included wiretaps of cellphones and audio probes in vehicles and residences to intercept private communications between Leach and others.
In December 2019, B.C.’s Court of Appeal upheld a 16-year jail sentence for Leach after he was convicted of running a dial-a-dope operation primarily dealing in fake oxycodone pills containing fentanyl. But Coquitlam RCMP’s investigations didn’t stop with Leach.
In one of the wiretapped conversations, Leach said he was interested in obtaining a gun and discussed getting a Steyr AUG — an Austrian-built, NATO bullpup assault rifle — and a fully automatic shotgun. On the other end of the line, an unidentified man said he’d take Leach to a storage facility at the end of the day.
Leach was recorded over the phone referencing “these items of fascination that you have” and asking “What you working with?”
“Anything big and quiet?”
That was taken to mean a larger calibre weapon with a suppressor, according to testimony from a retired police officer familiar with the coded language of firearms.
And the “fully auto” tactical short variety shotgun?
“Yep, you can come, you know what man, I should just bring you to the storage, just fu***** show you,” replied the unidentified man, later adding he wanted to buy “chicks” from Bogota, Colombia, and bring them by air, possibly through Toronto.
Police tailed Leach and Ebrahimi as they left their Port Coquitlam home, picked up an unidentified man and headed to a Public Storage unit on Terminal Avenue in Vancouver.
Two days later, police had obtained a search warrant, and once inside, found and seized a number of magazines, ammunition and six firearms, including a Steyr AUG assault rifle, a Sterling machine gun and an Italian made combat shotgun known as the Franchi SPAS 12.
“It is the type of weapon one would see in movies such as Jurassic Park or the Terminator and it is a prohibited weapon in Canada,” wrote the justice in her decision. Or as the former police firearms expert put it, it’s known as a “street sweeper.”
Altogether the guns were worth about $40,000 on the black market, according to court documents.
It was at that time when police found a piece of paper with information about ballistic vests on it, which according to a forensic expert, also bore a single impression of Zamora’s fingerprint.
Based on that evidence, the focus of the investigation shifted, the Crown later submitting that the unidentified man was Zamora, despite Coquitlam RCMP officers saying they were “certain” it was another man before the fingerprint and video evidence linked Zamora to the scene.
Despite three suspicious entries at the Public Storage facility where the guns were found, none of the video evidence captured by surveillance cameras connected Zamora to the scene and police surveillance could not recognize the unidentified man accompanying Leach on several occasions, noted the ruling.
Still, Zamora was arrested in January 2018 after he arrived at Children’s Hospital with his pregnant girlfriend. Police had warned hospital staff that his girlfriend might be in danger due to his criminal associations, but the justice wrote it appeared police did so to trigger his arrest.
Zamora was brought back to Coquitlam RCMP for questioning, but he never talked beyond telling the questioning officer to return him to his cell. And while the evidence Coquitlam RCMP had gathered was “obviously highly suspicious,” wrote the justice, it was also all circumstantial.
With more than six hours between the wiretapped phone call and the trip to the storage locker, the justice noted that “it is entirely possible that Mr. Zamora was sent along to escort Mr. Leach to the storage locker in place of [the unidentified man]…”
Moreover, analyzing the wiretap evidence, the justice wrote there was nothing about how the unidentified man spoke that “stands out to the untrained ear.”
Without conclusive evidence to prove Zamora was the unidentified man trying to sell the guns, he was found not guilty.