Police, Crown Ponder Charges in Walkerton E. coli Tragedy
After a 21/2-year criminal investigation into the Walkerton water tragedy, police and the Crown are deliberating whether charges should be laid, several sources say, with a decision expected any time. While the decision is up to police, sources told The Canadian Press that investigators were deferring to advice from Crown lawyers given the high profile and sensitive nature of the case.
"You don't want to run into a situation where the police lay a charge . . . and then the Crown announces it is either withdrawing or staying the charges," said one knowledgeable source.
The criminal probe, led by Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Paul Chayter, began May 25, 2000, amid the pain, shock and confusion of the water-borne E. coli outbreak in the rural southwestern Ontario town of 5,000.
Since then, Chayter and his colleagues have logged thousands of hours interviewing scores of witnesses in an effort to determine whether a crime had been committed.
While the investigation was far reaching, sources said its main focus was on the two brothers who ran the Walkerton water system, Stan and Frank Koebel, and their underling, Al Buckle.
During the comprehensive $9.5 million public inquiry into the disaster, both brothers admitted falsifying crucial water-safety tests and log sheets and failing to disinfect the town's drinking water properly.
Stan Koebel, the 28-year manager of the utility, apologized for his role in the disaster but neither brother has spoken publicly since they testified.
Officially, police will only say their investigation is ongoing but the sources, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, said they completed their work roughly two months ago.
Given that seven people died and 2,300 people fell ill, some in Walkerton would welcome charges.
"My son is suffering and I don't think it's fair that nothing has been done about it," said Tracey Hammell, whose four-year-old boy Kody still has health problems resulting from serious E. coli poisoning.
"He has to suffer for the rest of his life, so other people should, too."
Others, such as Betty Borth, whose husband Norm was deathly ill from the outbreak, see little point in a prosecution.
"It's not going to change our situation any," said Borth.
Potential charges in such cases could include criminal negligence causing death or bodily harm. Breach of trust or fraud charges are also possibilities.
Lawyer Bill Trudell, who acted for Koebel at the inquiry, said it would be an expensive travesty to charge "the little guys," especially in light of the role the provincial government and others played in the disaster.
Moreover, Koebel, who lost his job and was forced to leave town, has already been humiliated and severely punished - at least in the court of public opinion, he said.
"How can you possibly suggest that anybody could pay a higher price? You want to lock up people who didn't set out to harm anybody? That's so backward. It's medieval," said Trudell.
In his inquiry report in January, Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor decided Koebel never intended to hurt anyone.
However, O'Connor also concluded that Koebel had lied when he claimed to be unaware of a damning laboratory report showing the town's water was badly contaminated.
Hundreds of illnesses could have been prevented had Koebel spoken up on time, O'Connor added.
However, under rules laid down for judicial inquiries, prosecutors cannot use self-incriminating evidence from the inquiry, including admissions of wrongdoing.
That meant police were obliged to conduct a wholly independent investigation that covered the same complex ground, with a key difference that officers could not compel witnesses to talk to them.
Many people refused to speak to Chayter, including Koebel as recently as two months ago, sources said.
In his report, O'Connor took the Conservative government under former premier Mike Harris to task for failing to properly assess the risks of its cost-cutting measures.
O'Connor also faulted the Ministry of the Environment for failing to enforce its own policies and its inadequate oversight of the Walkerton water system.
Witnesses also told the inquiry that the Walkerton system was overwhelmed by bacterial contamination due to flooding and that nothing the Koebels could have done would have prevented the tragedy.