The Big Story

Why is a Canadian flight crew being held in the Dominican Republic?

Episode Summary

And why isn't it a bigger story? Perhaps it's because the circumstances around their detention — the discovery of $25 million worth of cocaine in bags in a plane's maintenance bay — are so mysterious. But either way five Canadians have spent several weeks first in jail and then essentially under house arrest, without being charged with a crime. And even if they never are, it may still be months before they get home. So what has the Canadian government done for them? What do authorities in the Dominican Republic have to say? What is the airline doing about it? And what happened to the seven people the crew was supposed to fly back to Toronto before the plane flight was halted when the drugs were found? GUEST: Tracey Lindeman, writing in The Guardian

Episode Notes

And why isn't it a bigger story? Perhaps it's because the circumstances around their detention — the discovery of $25 million worth of cocaine in bags in a plane's maintenance bay — are so mysterious. But either way five Canadians have spent several weeks first in jail and then essentially under house arrest, without being charged with a crime. And even if they never are, it may still be months before they get home.

So what has the Canadian government done for them? What do authorities in the Dominican Republic have to say? What is the airline doing about it? And what happened to the seven people the crew was supposed to fly back to Toronto before the plane flight was halted when the drugs were found?

GUEST: Tracey Lindeman, writing in The Guardian

Episode Transcription

News Clip of Captain Robert Di Venanzo My name is Rob, and I'm a Canadian airline pilot, and this is my crew. Mr. Prime Minister, our lives are in danger and we need need your help.

Jordan I find it more than a little bit strange that a five person Canadian flight crew has been detained in the Dominican Republic for weeks now. As you heard, they have vocally petitioned our Prime Minister for help. They are still being detained without being charged with a crime. And yet I'm surprised because it's not a bigger story, it's not being ignored.

Don't get me wrong, people, including our guest today, are covering it. But there's no question that it simply hasn't resonated the way other incidents of Canadians being detained abroad have in the past. So why is that? Part of it is surely because there's so much that we don't know about the mysterious circumstances surrounding their detention. So what do we know? What has the Canadian government done for these people so far? And what might they still be reluctant to do? Oh, and finally, if the flight crew was detained, then what happened to the seven passengers they were supposed to fly back to Toronto? Who are those passengers and where are they right now?

I'm Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Tracey Lindeman is a Canadian journalist who has been covering the story of this flight crew for The Guardian. Hi, Tracey.

Tracey Lindeman Hi.

Jordan Tracey, who are the five Canadians that we're talking about today? What do they do?

Tracey Lindeman Yeah, so the five members of the Pivot Airlines crew, there's a pilot, there was a maintenance engineer, a couple of flight attendants. And so there are five Canadian citizens who were working on that aircraft, in addition to, I believe, seven passengers who were on board the flight.

Jordan And what happened on the flight? How did the story begin?

Tracey Lindeman So on April 5th, the maintenance engineer, his name is Bal Krishna Dubey. He was doing his final checks and he went into the maintenance bay of the aircraft that they were supposed to fly back to Toronto Pearson. And he went in there and he saw some bags. And they were just black duffel bags. He didn't open them. They didn't see what was inside. The pilot told me, according to the rules, they just flagged it to local authorities and to the RCMP. And then it was the local authorities who took the bags out and looked inside. So when they flagged the bags, they didn't know what was inside them. It was just that in the maintenance bay, which is a place where bags are not supposed to be, it's like a small room, like, full of computers, machines, stuff like that, that's really critical to the operation of the flight. There were bags stashed in there. And the pilot was very clear with me when I interviewed him that could have been dangerous if a bag moved while the plane was in air, like it could have shut off a machine or done something else to that effect. And so it was a big deal that those bags were in there.

And what was interesting to me is that the pilot, when I interviewed him, he mentioned how there were actually eight bags inside, but that the police, when they arrived, they only took out a few and then closed the door. And then when the maintenance engineer went back to check on the door, it wouldn't close. And when he opened the door back up, there was still more bags inside. And so they had to flag down the police again and have them take out the additional bags.

Jordan Okay, everybody's waiting for me to ask you what was in the bags?

Tracey Lindeman Well, there were lots of little bags of cocaine, or what is suspected to be cocaine, I suppose, and it seemed as though it was about 200 kilos of cocaine in those bags. There were eight bags.

Jordan What is 200 kilos of cocaine worth on the street?

Tracey Lindeman They're saying that it's worth about 25 million.

Jordan So the flight crew finds these bags, calls the authorities, brings them in, they open it up, they find cocaine. What happens next? And what was the crew expecting at this point?

Tracey Lindeman Yeah. Well, I think the crew just kind of stood on the tarmac watching the authorities do their thing. And as is the case in a lot of these situations, the police took photos of the contraband featuring the contraband itself and then featuring them with their dogs and the contraband in the pictures. And they kind of use these pictures for their press releases that they put up on the government website, talking about all those successful drug busts they've made to show that they're doing a good job. And so the crew is just kind of sitting there watching. And the pilot was telling me that the cops were letting them play with the dogs, touch the dogs, pet the dogs, and everyone is just kind of standing around not doing anything. And then they get put in a room, and then they end up waiting for a few hours, and then all of a sudden, apparently, local drug enforcement agent showed up and then took them away, and eventually they ended up being put in jail.

Jordan You know, I would expect, assuming that the crew is innocent, you find this stuff, you're helping the police out, you get congratulated, you get a reward, etcetera.

Tracey Lindeman Yeah, I mean, I think that's what they thought they were going to get. That is not what happened.

Jordan Well, when we say they were put in jail, what kind of jail? Where did they go?

Tracey Lindeman I don't know which jail it was, but as the pilot, Robert Di Venanzo, told me, the four men that were part of the crew, because there is one woman and she was put in a separate place, the four men were all put together in the same cell with maybe a couple dozen other inmates. And it was a pretty small cell. He told me it might have been maybe 12ft by 12ft, maybe 13ft by 13ft, and I guess it was some kind of holding cell. Maybe not people who have been sentenced or anything like that, but people who are just kind of scooped up and put in jail pending any kind of further court proceedings. And so they were there for nine days and according to them, once the inmates that were in their cell found out who they were, what they were doing, they started getting threatened by some of the inmates. You have to send us money or we're going to hurt you, and that kind of thing.

Again, according to the pilot, he was telling me that they had to sleep standing up. Sometimes the inmates kind of forced them to sleep next to the hole in the floor that served as a toilet. I can imagine they probably didn't sleep very much given the circumstances. And so maybe not a lot of food, not a lot of water, not a lot of sleep. They described it as hellish. And so they were just kind of facing these threats day in and day out until they finally got out on bail nine days later.

Jordan Why did it take them nine days to make bail and where are they right now?

Tracey Lindeman So I don't know why it took nine days for them to get out of jail. I guess they were waiting for a court date in which they were able to get bail put in place. And then, as far as I know, they won't tell me where they are. They won't tell me what city they're in or what's around them. If they are in the middle of the city, if they're in the middle of a jungle like, I have no idea. But it seems as though they're in some kind of safe house with armed security. A 24 hours armed security, which according to Pivot, is paid by Pivot.

Jordan Nine days in tiny Dominican jail is a really long time if these Canadians are innocent, especially under those conditions. During those nine days, what do we know about what our government was doing?

Tracey Lindeman I don't know much about what they were doing, and also from what they've told me, it seems as though maybe they haven't done much. I got some statements from Global Affairs Canada where they talked about, we're aware of the situation, we're working with our counterparts in the Dominican on this issue. When they put out that video on Pivot Airlines' Twitter page, they did so because of the Summit of the Americas. They were hoping that they could apply some pressure to force Melanie Joly to meet with her Dominican counterparts at the summit. And so I don't really know exactly how successful that was, but apparently there's some news about how the Canadian government is starting to talk to the Dominican authorities. Just before this interview I asked the Pivot Comms person for an update and he said we are incredibly grateful the Prime Minister has raised the case of our crew, the Dominican President directly and the Minister of Transport emphasized to us the government shared concern for their safety. With that said, it is clear that more must be done.

Jordan Do we have anything concrete that Canada is doing to get them out, get them legal help? I guess what I'm getting at is it sure seems like they're being a little more secretive about what's going on then you would expect them to be given that there are five Canadians in Dominican custody.

Tracey Lindeman Well, twelve if you count the passengers. Every time I ask them for more information, basically they tell me that they can't for privacy legislation reasons, like privacy law reasons, that's kind of to be expected frankly, from Global Affairs Canada. They often use privacy as a reason to not divulge details about something that's ongoing. And from what I know of the Dominican side of things, the prosecutor's office in the Dominican Republic can take up to a year to complete its investigation and so these people could be stuck there for a year. And I do know that they're very worried about returning to jail. They have told me a couple of times now that the prosecutor in their case is looking to have them return to jail. And they've told me also just before this interview that they're supposed to be due back in court in late July on that matter, and if their bill gets revoked they'll end up back in jail.

Jordan Have they been charged with anything yet?

Tracey Lindeman No, no one has been charged with anything.

Jordan So they could end up sitting in either Dominican house arrest, I guess, or Dominican jail for months or up to a year without charges and that's sort of the way the prosecution would be handled.

Tracey Lindeman That seems so, yeah.

Jordan You mentioned seven other passengers. What do we know about them? Do we even know if they're Canadian or who they are?

Tracey Lindeman I believe most, if not all, are Canadian. A lot of them seem to be from Alberta, a couple from Ontario, and what I know of them, like I have not been able to get in touch with them or family members yet. I am looking for a way to contact them. I don't know if they have phone access, internet access, I have no idea where they are. What I do know is that there were seven passengers on this charter flight and I think they may have known each other. It seemed as though maybe they were a group of friends from different parts of Canada that were traveling together to the Dominican for vacation. And so that's about all I know. And that's mainly from reading other news reports in Dominican newspapers primarily as well as an article that I saw on CTV.

Jordan So we don't even know if they are being held in the same way as the flight crew is currently, we don't know if they're in jail, we don't know if they were just released?

Tracey Lindeman No idea. And I don't think Pivot is responsible for them. I don't think Pivot is putting them up or anything like that. They're being also kind of hush hush about what the deal is with these passengers. Like the pilot wouldn't say anything about them, the comms person won't say anything about them. So I don't know if they're just not concerned with them or if there's something else going on with them that they are not telling us.

Jordan Well yeah, first of all, that a five person flight crew of Canadians being detained like this would be a bigger story. But even beyond that, if these seven folks had just gone missing when they were supposed to board a flight, that we'd be hearing from their friends and relatives back in Canada, like what happened to these people?

Tracey Lindeman Yeah, you would think so. There's a lot of stories in the Dominican, not just this year, but it's been going on for many years because of the Dominicans geographic placement kind of between South America and North America. I get the impression that it is somewhat of a hub for drug trafficking. And if you look on the government police website, they seize cocaine regularly and so that would indicate that it's part of a trafficking route. And so there's a bigger context for what's going on with the Pivot crew and these passengers that not everyone fully understands here in Canada.

I've been trying to work with Dominican journalists, trying to find maybe some Dominican freelancers who can work with me to help me get documents that are only available at courthouses. If any one of those are listening to this, please get in touch with me because I would love to work with you. So yeah, definitely there are dimensions to this that are just not known to Canadians because we're not there. I do know that Dominican courthouses don't publish documents in the same way that Canada does. So that's a whole other barrier to understanding this case.

Jordan Given that the Dominican Republic is such a popular tourist destination for Canadians, how worried are other airlines or potential passengers or flight crews about something like this happening again? I mean, it seems sort of one of those pretty random could happen to anyone things.

Tracey Lindeman Yeah, definitely. The captain of this flight talked about a little bit and then I've seen some other reporting trickling in since my story on the Guardian got published about like more airlines should be worried about this because the Dominican is a very popular destination for Canadian passengers and Canadian airlines. And so what does this mean? Are more Canadians going to be put at risk of similar circumstances where someone puts drugs on a plane, it gets flagged and then everyone that's on the plane ends up getting held?

This isn't the first time that a flight crew has been detained in the Dominican Republic for suspicion of drug trafficking. The case that I'm thinking of, of course, was the one in France in which two flight crew members were actually convicted in France of doing so. But this could set a precedent for Canadian travellers. It could set a precedent for other international travellers. And so you would think that the Canadian government would be doing a lot of work, I guess, to try and get this resolved, because they don't want to set the precedent in terms of maintaining diplomatic relationship with the Dominican Republic and other sun destinations where this may happen.

Jordan This is something you may not be equipped to answer, but I'm going to ask it just because I want your opinion as well. It really feels like in Canada, this should be a much bigger story, and it's not. And usually when something like that happens, it's because something smells a little funny. What's your impression?

Tracey Lindeman Yeah, I don't know why it's not big news. Maybe part of it is that they were detained April 5th.

Jordan 500 news cycles ago.

Tracey Lindeman Yeah. And so I think part of it could be that. Part of it could also be like, we don't know who these people are, we know nothing of the passengers. Maybe people feel a bit suspicious of what's happening. The crew clearly maintains its innocence, and I have not been able to ask anyone who is a passenger on the plane, but I assume that their lawyers are probably advising them not to talk to anybody anyway, given the gravity of the charges they are facing, which are international drug trafficking charges. And they have not been charged just, again, to reiterate, they're facing these charges. They have not been charged.

Jordan When you speak to them, because you have a line to them. What do they want Canadians to know and are they aware of I'm sure they wish everybody was outraged about it, especially if they're innocent. But are they aware that this is not making enough of a ripple to get them home quickly?

Tracey Lindeman Yeah. To your point earlier, I think because we don't really know what the deal is, right. We don't really have a clear picture of who's responsible for this, who did this, who put the drugs on the plane? And be in that absence of knowledge, we're all just kind of like, well, obviously someone on this plane had to know something about it, right? And I think that that kind of is the reason why maybe it hasn't been broadcast so broadly in Canada, but they do want Canada and Canadians to know about what's going on with them. And they want to pressure the government. They want Canadians to pressure the government to bring them home. They're really desperate to come back and to feel safe at home and to participate in the investigation process and judicial process in the Dominican remotely. That's what they want. Some of these people have kids. They have young kids. They're married. It's a major disruption to their lives and to the lives of the people they left back at home.

Jordan And I'll just leave with this. There's clearly still a good chance that they could end up back in that jail.

Tracey Lindeman If the court process in late July, I don't know what kind of evidence they're going to present. I don't know much about the Dominican judicial system, but that's the subject of their July hearing is to see if they're going to be put back in jail. And they're really, really, really hoping that they don't get put back in jail. But if they do get put back in jail, they could be up there for maybe ten months. Up to ten months, if that's the case.

Jordan I guess we'll see what happens then. Tracey, thank you so much for paying attention to this story and helping us bring it to more Canadians.

Tracey Lindeman Yeah, thank you.

Jordan Tracey Lindeman, writing in The Guardian. That was The Big Story. For more from us, head to Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Of course, you can email us [click here!]. And as always, you can phone us, leave us a voicemail. We've been getting some great suggestions for episodes. That number is 416-935-5935. If you see this podcast in your favourite podcast player, and for some reason you have still not reviewed it, please do us all a favour. I'll finally stop bothering you and move on to the next listener.

Thanks for listening. I'm Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We'll talk tomorrow.