Man with alleged gang ties arrested after selling vapes to Greater Victoria students: police

Photo credit: Nicholas Pescod

A man who Victoria police say is associated with gang activity was arrested after he was observed selling vape products to students outside local schools, investigators say.

VicPD, in a news release Monday, says the man was arrested in January, when thousands of items were seized from him, including 859 nicotine vapes, 495 THC vapes, 290 THC gummies and 1.6 kilograms of dried cannabis.

Four imitation firearms, three knives, two masks and composite brass knuckles were also seized, according to VicPD in the release.

It was part of an ongoing covert operation called “Project Halo,” and police say the suspect was seen selling the products to students from Greater Victoria schools, including Esquimalt High School and Reynolds Secondary School. They say the man was also spotted on the property of North Saanich Middle School after hours.

Police say it was the first arrest in the operation.

“Officers observed the suspect selling vape products and interacting with students on and near school property in and around the Greater Victoria area during the day,” said VicPD.  

They say “Project Halo” continues as investigators “work to identify and build evidence against more individuals involved in gang and criminal activity who are targeting youth in Greater Victoria.”

It was last week when VicPD Chief Del Manak said police had arrested a gang member actively recruiting students. The chief said those recruited into gangs often do so unwittingly, lured by the appeal of buying items like vape pens and clothes.

READ ALSO: Victoria Police chief calls for reinstatement of police liaison program in Greater Victoria schools

Last Monday, Manak spoke at a Greater Victoria School District (SD61) board meeting and requested they reinstate the School Police Liaison Officer program, adding, “I’m respectfully requesting student safety be made a top priority in schools.”

The SD61 board, in a letter to school communities Friday, said school police liaison officers, or SPLOs, have not been in Victoria or Esquimalt schools since 2018.

“To be clear, the decision regarding whether to fund SPLO positions in the Victoria Police Department is not a decision that would be made by the Board of Education,” it said.

It added that student safety and well-being are prioritized.

“Our existing protocols in respect to critical incidents, lockdowns (hold and secure) and violent threat risk assessments continue to be in effect,” reads the letter.

Manak’s comments came after people rallied outside the SD61 office to bring awareness about the uptick in gang activity, with parent spokesperson Lori Poppe telling CHEK News it “just makes me feel scared and terrified for students because once they get embedded in a gang, that’s it.”

Police on Monday say they’ve been able to identify tactics used by gang members, like getting youth to sell vape products and then setting up a scenario where they owe a “debt,” which could be thousands of dollars. Another tactic sees newly recruited youth or young adults, regardless of gender or ethnicity, recruit more youth.

Police say students as young as 12 years old have been targeted.

Speaking with CHEK News last week, crime reduction counsellor Mia Golden said in her 10-year career, she’d never seen gang recruitment tactics this bold.

“They’re strong. They’re here,” said Golden. “…we’re seeing students and youth in schools, in middle schools, who are being groomed and recruited.”

VicPD adds that students “are often fearful for their safety and are hesitant to report to police or cooperate with investigations for fear of a violent reprisal.”

Rec centres and other public spaces are home to anti-gang information seminars across Greater Victoria, including Saanich, where Saanich Police Insp. Damian Kowalewich told CHEK News, “a lot of our seminars are completely full.”

VicPD says the organized crime groups involved in selling vape products to youth are also involved in other criminal activities, including drug trafficking, violence and weapons possession. It notes that smaller, local gangs are often offshoots of larger ones.

“I am proud of the work Strike Force has done in gathering intelligence and building evidence in order to make an arrest,” added Manak in the release. 

“This is not an easy task when we are on the outside looking in at schools, but our team is dedicated to taking action on gang activity. This is just one person of many who have been observed, and our message to those who are targeting our youth is, ‘You are not welcome in our communities, you are not welcome in our schools. We see you, we are watching you, and we are coming for you.'”

VicPD says the investigation is ongoing, with further details unavailable at this time.

On Monday, police shared a video showing the products seized:

-with files from CHEK’s Kori Sidaway, Jordan Cunningham

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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