Vancouver Police got a neighbour of Nigel Roberts at Nanaimo St. and McGill to bang on his door in the middle of the night to tell him that his truck was being towed. Roberts recalls racing out his backdoor with no shirt or shoes and seeing “cops everywhere with assault rifles”. An M16 assault rifle was pointed at his head. “They slammed me down on the ground”, he says, and told me to shut up, that I was under arrest and investigation for double homicide. There were even police with rifles on tripods, he said, pointed at his windows. Roberts was handcuffed “behind my back”, and his ankles were shackled.
The 26 yr. old Roberts was delivered to the Vancouver Police Station near Main & Hastings. He was put in a small room to wait for Detectives Dale Weidman and Rob Faoro who would question him about the murders.
Nigel Roberts has since been cleared. Detective Weidman testified in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this month that at the time of Roberts’ arrest, the VPD had “no direct evidence against him.”
Weidman has been testifying – he finished last Wednesday -- at the murder trial of Dennis Knibbs, who is charged with one of the murders which had taken place inside the New Wings Hotel on the Downtown Eastside on Apr. 4/05, the night before Roberts’ arrest. Knibbs is accused of using both a shotgun and a revolver to shoot Trumaine “Ekoh” Habib, who had just shot Knibbs’ cousin Ian Liscombe with the same shotgun.
Weidman was first called to the witness stand at Knibbs’ trial on Apr. 5th, 2007, almost two years to the day since he interviewed Nigel Roberts at 2:55 a.m. on Apr. 5, 2005. Defense lawyer Glen Orris asked Weidman to recall interviewing Roberts just hours after police had discovered two murder victims at the New Wings Hotel: "Obviously , you’re dealing with somebody who might be considered a suspect, is that correct?” Weidman responded, “No.... I certainly don’t have reasonable grounds to think he’s involved or responsible for it….Certainly I don’t have grounds.”
Weidman told the court twice that he had not played a role in the actual arrest of Roberts at his home at 330 Nanaimo St. Roberts, he said, had come to police attention a few hours earlier when he and a passenger in his vehicle were seen “driving through the crime scene”. A patrol officer had noted that Roberts fit the description of the suspect. “Loosely”, Weidman noted. Roberts is an extremely light skinned Black man, what some American Blacks call, “light, bright, and almost white”. Knibbs on the other hand is, as Roberts told detectives, “Jamaican dark.”
Roberts testified that he had driven to the New Wings Hotel in his truck, a Ford Explorer with Florida plates, the night before his arrest, to buy heroin. It was a trip Roberts – who testified that he has been clean for a year now -- made up to 5 times a day at the height of his three year heroin addiction. Roberts, who described his passenger Ryan Watson as also involved in heroin and being of the “same ethnic” as himself, told the court that they “didn’t even get near the New Wings that night”. “It was blocked off.” So Roberts pulled into a gas station, made a U-turn, and headed up to Main & Hastings where he purchased heroin.
It was several hours later, shortly after Roberts had taken a quarter gram of heroin at his home that he was lured out of the house by a ruse about his truck. He recalls being “pretty high, which is why I was up at 2:30 in the morning”. When he raced out his back door and encountered police with assault weapons, “They told me I was being charged with the murders” – a fact he repeated a number of times over the course of his four days on the witness stand. Under usual circumstances, Roberts explained, he would have been nodding out after taking “a smash of heroin” – but he was so “traumatized” by having an M16 pointed at his head and being told he was being charged with double homicide that he was not even close to nodding out at the police station.
One of the detectives can be heard during the videotaped interview telling Roberts, “Calm down, calm down.” This was after Detective Faoro made an accusation: “You fucked off”. Faoro was referring to the police claim that Roberts had been followed after being spotted near the crime scene. Roberts defended himself: “You put the lights on when you’re trying to stop somebody.” The police vehicle, he insisted, had “no lights on or nothing.” One of the detectives reassured Roberts, “You’re not going to jail for not stopping.”
When questioning Weidman, defense lawyer Glen Orris pointed out that his partner, Detective Faoro, had “used the fuck-word quite often during the interview” with Roberts. Weidman acknowledged that Faoro was not in the habit of using this word in his daily life. Certainly Detectives Weidman and Faoro have some of the characteristics of a ‘good cop-bad cop’ team. In court testimony last week, Constable Faoro spoke in an armoured, ‘nobody’s-going-to- put-one-over-on-me’ tone of voice. Weidman spoke in the relaxed style of an approachable person. One tactic of this detective duo that Roberts testified had unnerved him, was that while he was being questioned, one of the detectives kept leaving the room. Just like in NYPD Blue.
At the beginning of the interview, Detective Faoro listed three alternatives and told Roberts to pick one:
“1. You guys had fuck all to do with this
2. Those are your buddies in that place right there [the New Wings Hotel], lying there dead.
3. You guys did it.
Which one of those three is it?”
Roberts responded, “We had fuck all to do with it.”
Roberts did not speak in such a coarse style when he testified in court last week; he did not have a street-tough persona. And despite a large diamond stud earring in his ear, his style was more classy than flashy. The roughly 5’9” Roberts wore a finely tailored black suit during the entire four days of his testimony, beginning on his first day with a white shirt and a tie with chunky horizontal stripes of black and white, and ending on his last day with a pale yellow shirt with a yellow-grey tie. His dark curly hair with a receding hairline was cropped close to his head.
After interviewing Roberts, Detectives Weidman and Faoro released him later the same morning. But they took a second statement from him the following day, Apr. 6/05, a statement of which Roberts has no memory as he was “out of it” from his heroin addiction throughout this period. Roberts does recall a telephone conversation with Weidman on Apr. 6/05 though. Roberts claims to have called Weidman about his truck and his mother.
First his mother. Roberts stated in court that he had called Detective Weidman to ask, “Why did you call my mother and tell her I’m a heroin addict?” Roberts’ mother had telephoned him, after Detective Weidman had contacted her, and asked, “What’s this about you being a heroin addict?”
Now his truck. Roberts says he also called Detective Weidman about the fact that the VPD had not released his truck which had been impounded. He didn’t understand, he testified, why the detectives “release me” but “have my truck for a whole week.”
Roberts confirmed that his impounded truck is registered in Florida in his mother’s name, but added that the insurance was in his name. Roberts lived in Florida but moved to Vancouver in 2002 where he has an uncle and a cousin – “My mother’s from here”, he told the court -- after being released from prison. He had gone to prison in Florida “at a young age” which, he says, is partially what screwed him up: “The things I seen…” Prosecutor Michael Luchencko read Roberts’ criminal record aloud in court, a record which seems to have ended in 1999 when Roberts was convicted of an array of offences in Florida including: robbery, burglary, grand theft, and aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer with intent to kill. Roberts was sentenced to five years and served three. Then he came to Canada.
Blame Canada. It was in Vancouver that Roberts developed a heroin habit. When he arrived from Florida, his drug use amounted to using marijuana “every day” and drinking on the weekends and occasionally during the week. But he began snorting heroin in Vancouver and eventually was using that “every day”.
How could you afford to purchase heroin?, Luchencko asked, “I was doing real good,” Roberts replied, “I was living in Coal Harbour in a high rise and I was selling marijuana.”
In 2003 or 2004, Roberts began injecting heroin. He would sometimes “fall asleep at the wheel of my vehicle” while on heroin. “But it took away all my problems.”
One of Roberts’ problems was a bi-polar/manic depressive disorder. “At the time I hadn’t been taking my medication at all.” He recalled having highs and lows, real lows. “Sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing.” One of the reasons Roberts says he was opting for heroin was that he didn’t like the way the medication he had been prescribed for his bi-polar disorder made him feel.
Roberts speaks freely to police about people he knew at the New Wings
Roberts was a rich vein of information for detectives. He was familiar with the world inside the New Wings as he was there purchasing heroin several times a day. “If I could’ve, I would’ve lived there at that time,” Roberts testified. “I was really messed up.” He was well acquainted with both the dead and the living in this murder saga.
When Roberts was shown a photograph of 21 yr. old Trumaine “Ekoh” Habib by the prosecutor – Habib had absorbed several handgun bullets and a shotgun blast to the chest -- his voice took on a note sadness and fondness, “Yeeaah, that’s Ekoh.”
Roberts recalled Ekoh (pronounced Echo) Nabib as being young, about 5’8” or 5’9” and 160 lbs. “He usually kept his hair in corn rows”. When asked Nabib’s race, Roberts replied, “Mulatto, I think, Black and White”. Roberts noted, “He was ok with me,” alluding to reports of tensions between Nabib and some other players in this case. “I would call him a homeboy”, Roberts added. Excuse me?, the prosecutor said. “I was cool with him,” Roberts elaborated. “I would stop by his room, to talk, listen to music, smoke some weed.” Sometimes the two would “smoke some herb” in Roberts truck. “I remember him ‘cause I had a better relationship with him than Ian.”
Roberts relationship with Ian Liscombe had involved purchasing heroin. Roberts identified both Ian Liscombe and his cousin, defendant Dennis “Rocka” Knibbs, as dealers in the New Wings. He never purchased drugs from these dealers directly though. When a user arrived to purchase heroin, the dealer would have “a separate person hook ‘em up.” Roberts explained: “I would go to Ian and I would know who he had working for him.” Liscombe would point to someone. “I’d purchase my heroin from a crack head, another user.”
Roberts would then inject the heroin, “chill out” at home, and return to the hotel to purchase more.
Although Roberts’ heroin habit made him a New Wings insider who had valuable information for Detectives Weidman and Faoro, Roberts says his heroin habit made much of the information he gave these detectives inaccurate. He retracted much of it in court last week.
Roberts retracts statements he made to VPD detectives
Just minutes before he was to begin testifying at the Knibbs’ murder trial, Roberts button-holed prosecutor Michael Luchencko outside the courthouse and told him he would not stand by incriminating statements he had made in 2005 about the defendant, Knibbs, to detectives. Roberts has given two reasons for his retractions:
1) Roberts claims he was scared when being interviewed by detectives after police had pointed an M16 at his head and told him he was being charged with double homicide. Roberts had exaggerated claims about people at the New Wings such as Knibbs, he testified, in his desperation to convince detectives to shift their focus from him. He was scared that police were “trying to frame me or something, ‘cause it happens everyday.”
2) Roberts claims his heavy use of heroin while interacting with residents of the New Wings coupled with the heavy dose of heroin he had taken before questioning by detectives, resulted in his statement to police being rife with inaccuracies. “At the time I gave that statement, I was high as a kite, and I didn’t know who was who or what was what.” Roberts explained that now that he had been straight for a year, he was able to think straight again, to think more clearly.
Defense lawyer embarrasses Vancouver Police detectives
It was the job of defense lawyer Orris to convince the jury that statements Roberts made to police about his client were unreliable. Orris impressed upon the jury that Detectives Weidman and Faoro had extracted this statement from 1) a scared man without making him aware of his rights, 2) a track-marked, admitted heroin addict, without asking him if he was currently under the influence of drugs.
Orris began his attack by asking Weidman whether Roberts had been “chartered and warned” before detectives took his statement. Weidman gave three answers to this question during the trial. When first asked this question by Orris on Apr. 5/07, Weidman responded, “No.” When Orris posed the same question again on April 25/07, Weidman seemed prepared and replied, “I’ve since reviewed…” Orris cut him off, insisting that he wanted to know what Weidman knew at the time he took Roberts’ statement. Had Weidman been aware of whether Roberts had been “chartered and warned”? “No, I wasn’t”, Weidman responded in a low, almost inaudible voice. Then Weidman suddenly piped up with a revised answer, “I don’t remember that day.”
Orris then got detectives to admit that they had not asked Roberts about any medication or illicit drugs of which he was under the influence when his statement was being taken. “Did you ask him if he was under the influence of drugs at any time,” Orris asked. Weidman responded, “No.”
Orris asked if Weidman or his partner had asked Roberts about any other disorders. He has a bi-polar disorder, Orris said. “Does that ring a bell?” Weidman replied “No”, but at that point volunteered, “I remember him telling us about his heroin addiction.” When questioned further, Weidman confirmed that his partner, Detective Faoro, also had never asked Roberts if he was under the influence of drugs.
Orris then turned his attention to the second statement the detectives had taken from Roberts: Did you or your partner ask Mr. Roberts if he was under the influence of drugs? “No,” Weidman responded. Did you ask him if he was on “any other medication for anything at any time?”, Orris asked. “No,” Weidman responded.
Orris: But you knew he was into the heroin?
Weidmman: Yes, he told us.
Luchencko attempted a little damage control: Did you have any reason "to believe it was necessary" to ask the questions Orris had been suggesting? "No," Weidman said, explaining that he'd had consider experience working "in the skids" with addicts.
Orris continued this line of questioning when Detective Faoro took the witness stand: Wouldn’t it have been “fair” to ask Mr. Roberts, “Are you under the influence of drugs?” At one point Faoro said he had considerable experience with heroin addicts and that Roberts did not exhibit the signs, such as nodding out.
Orris raised his voice to a booming level: “Why not simply ask? He told you he was a heroin addict; he showed you his arm and his track marks.”
Faoro: "I didn’t think it was necessary."
Orris: "Asking him if he was under the influence of drugs would not have taken much time?"
Weidman and Faoro seemed to have rehearsed for Orris’ line of questioning; at times their testimony was so similar in words and phrases that it seemed scripted. They both used the term "lucid" to describe Roberts, for example.
Judge and prosecutor weren't buying Roberts' story
The judge reviewed Roberts statement to police and said it was "not incoherent".
Luchencko noted that he had spoken with Roberts earlier in his office and "at no time did he suggest there was a possibility of such a problem."
Upon first hearing of Roberts' retractions, Luchenko had told the judge: "I think this is a witness under some pressure." I think I know what you're getting at, the judge, told him. But nobody said it out loud.