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Fentanyl overdoses: Alleged trafficking kingpin to appear in Vancouver court

07/30/2015 05:53 EDT | Updated 07/30/2016 05:59 EDT
Amidst growing alarm about a spike in fentanyl-related deaths, Walter James McCormick, a man accused of being a kingpin in the Lower Mainland distribution of the drug, is set to be arraigned in Vancouver provincial court Friday.

McCormick and his common-law spouse, Karen Marie Armitstead, face multiple counts related to Project Tainted, a police operation carried out in response to a rash of overdoses in October 2014.

A search warrant for their North Vancouver home is sealed, but details of the investigation are contained in B.C. Supreme Court documents filed in an attempt to seize their assets through civil forfeiture.

According to a notice of civil claim: "Mr. McCormick is a high level drug trafficker with access to large quantities of fentanyl pills and was ... the supplier of fentanyl as well as other illegal drugs to mid-level drug traffickers."

The claim goes on to allege those drugs were then supplied "to a large sophisticated drug trafficking network comprised of multiple drug trafficking lines and numerous 'employees.'"

Growing problem 

The allegations provide a glimpse into a growing problem highlighted this week by the fentanyl-related overdoses of Hardy and Amelia Leighton, a North Vancouver couple whose sudden deaths left their two-year-old son an orphan.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid which police say is being cut with other drugs in order to provide a cheaper and more addictive high. But fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

According to their responses to the civil forfeiture claim, McCormick is an ironworker and Armitstead is a registered nurse earning $90,000 a year at Lions Gate Hospital.

Both deny any illegal activity.

B.C.'s director of civil forfeiture is going after their $818,000 North Vancouver home, a 3.4-acre property on Gambier Island and a property in the Okanagan.

McCormick, 50, faces 22 criminal counts, including trafficking in fentanyl. 

Armitstead faces 12 counts, including possession of fentanyl for the purpose of trafficking, and both are also charged with possession of weapons.

None of the charges against them have been proven in court.

Their home, located in a family friendly North Vancouver neighbourhood, was raided in February.

"There were illegal drugs concealed in the crawl space. There was a significant quantity of illegal drugs hidden in the main floor storage room as well as in the bedroom along with a significant amount of cash," reads the notice of claim.

"There were 'score sheets' [used to record illegal drug transactions] in the waste paper bin in the second floor bathroom."

Growing problem

B.C.'s head coroner said drug overdoses as whole in British Columbia have not risen that much. But the detection of fentanyl as part of a mix of drugs in autopsies has soared to 25 to 30 per cent in the past three years.

The drug was linked to 13 deaths in 2012. In the first five months of 2015 alone, fentanyl turned up in 54 overdose cases.

Health officials have flagged the issue as a particular concern for recreational drug users, who may not realize the drugs they're using are cut with fentanyl.

They don't have the experience or tolerance of long-time heroin or oxycontin addicts and are unlikely to access facilities like Insite, Vancouver's safe injection site, which has successfully responded to a string of fentanyl overdoses.

The sudden death of the Leightons shocked family and friends. The couple, who were both in their 30s, were celebrating a move to a North Vancouver rental home and a yard for their toddler when they died.

McCormick and Armitstead are among five people who will be arraigned on a total of 44 charges in Vancouver provincial court Friday as part of Project Tainted. 

The civil court documents allege one of their co-accused is a drug trafficker who was working as a nightshift taxi driver. Another is accused of running a dial-a-dope operation.

Police allegedly seized over 500,000 pills suspected to be comprised of fentanyl, fake oxycodone, ecstasy and fake ecstasy in raids on 11 locations around the Lower Mainland.

Vancouver police wouldn't comment on the case because the charges are before the courts.

But Supt. Mike Porteous described the investigation in an earlier statement: "We went to the source and began working our way up from the street level drug dealers to those who are supplying fentanyl throughout our communities on a massive scale."

A lawyer for McCormick said he wasn't authorized to comment on the case and nor was a lawyer for Armitstead from the same office. Neither accused was at the North Vancouver home.

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