Edmonton police are trying to reassure members of the city's South Asian community as they continue investigating an extortion scheme targeting local home builders of Indian descent.
More than 250 people packed a southeast community hall Thursday night to hear from a panel of officers who addressed the string of threats, drive-by shootings and arsons putting businesses and neighbourhoods on edge.
"It's absolutely terrible, and it's absolutely something that we take very, very seriously," said Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Deputy Chief Devin Laforce, who leads the investigation and support services bureau.
The fear and uncertainty in the community is understandable, he said. He noted that one of the home builders and their family was home when their window was show through.
Police fielded questions from the audience, submitted through text messages, about how the EPS is handling the case — ranging from why police aren't releasing photos of suspects after laying charges, to how some young men in the South Asian community are allegedly being pulled into criminal activity.
Edmonton Police Service Deputy Chief Devin Laforce says police aren't taking community concerns lightly in the wake of a string of threats targeting South Asian home builders in the city. (Nathan Gross/CBC)
Attendees also asked how police are handling safety concerns for alleged victims, or people who come forward with information.
"I'm very concerned about the community and our youth, in particular," said Varinder Bhullar, one of the attendees. He was encouraged to hear about efforts to address the ways young people are getting involved in crime.
"We need to find a way how we can get them out of this mess."
Bhullar also has concerns about the consequences to the city's South Asian community because of how they're being highlighted in the case.
"Historically, I've never heard of the victims' ethnicity being highlighted," he said.
"If there was the Caucasian community involved, would they have said this is the white builders getting targeted?"
EPS investigating 'criminal network'
Similar extortion schemes targeting South Asian business owners have been reported in B.C. and Ontario.
Edmonton police know of 10 home builders who have been targeted — most more than once, according to the officer in charge of the EPS drug and gang enforcement section.
The dedicated task force on the investigation has identified 12 "targets" allegedly involved in the crimes, said Staff Sgt. David Paton.
"We are investigating this group as a criminal network, and we believe there is a hierarchy among this group," Paton said.
From left to right: EPS Det. Devin Kokoski, Det. Jessie Poonian, Staff Sgt. David Paton, Sgt. Ryan Ferry and Laforce take questions at a town hall meeting on a series of extortions and arsons across Edmonton. (Madeline Smith/CBC)
All but one of those people are from the South Asian community, according to police. So far, investigators believe all the intended extortion victims have been South Asian home builders, but a few of the arsons "may have been mistakenly targeted," Paton said.
The case now includes 34 events, dating back to October — up from 27 police detailed last month.
The updated amount includes reports of suspicious vehicles and people that police are tracking, in addition to arson, firearms offences and extortions.
A total of 15 confirmed arsons are part of the investigation, plus an alleged attempted arson where two people were arrested on Jan. 29.
A criminal network in India is orchestrating the extortion scheme, police say. But Paton noted they're seeing young South Asian men in Edmonton carrying out crimes locally.
"We need this community to speak with their families. Have a conversation about the events that are unfolding in the city," Paton said.
"Know where your kids are driving your vehicles late at night. The reason I'm pointing that piece out is that we believe in many of these occurrences, the parents' registered vehicles are being used."
Police continue to urge people to come to them directly if they receive a threat or suspicious message.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who was also at the meeting, told reporters he's met with seven builders affected by the threats, and they're worried about the safety of their families and their businesses.
"I share those concerns," Sohi said.
"The information that EPS shared today, I hope, gives comfort for people to come forward and share their experiences."