Canada tow-truck turf wars lead to nearly 200 charges

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image copyrightYork Regional Police

Toronto-area police have laid nearly 200 charges, including murder and arson, in relation to a violent turf war in the breakdown lorry industry.

Police allege competition for control of the towing market has resulted in a "scene of violence" in the region.

Rival lorry companies were allegedly fighting over not just the profits of towing vehicles, but subsequent insurance frauds.

Police say the turf war was connected to several organised crime groups.

"Their fraudulent billing, fraudulent repairs, [and] fraudulent physiotherapy claims have earned them millions in illicit income," said York Regional Police Superintendent Mike Slack said on Tuesday, when announcing the charges. "And when these profits were not enough they staged collisions using drivers they recruited".

"As the profits increased, so has the demand for the territory, and the need to control that territory through violence," he said.

The region has seen at least 30 arson attacks believed to be connected to the towing industry over the past year, and multiple drivers have been shot at or killed, according to newspaper the Globe and Mail.

The crime spree caught the attention of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

"We're coming for you, and we're going to catch you. The party's over," he said last March.

The investigation, which was dubbed Project Platinum because of the high-end lorries being used by the companies, involved law enforcement from three police agencies and the Canada Revenue Agency.

The public learnt of the turf war last summer, when Toronto Police announced they had arrested seven drivers for gun and drug offences.

But Project Platinum, led by York Regional Police, sheds more light on the inner workings of the industry.

image copyrightYork Regional Police

The investigation found that the towing companies worked with complicit auto repair shops, car and truck rental companies, and physiotherapy clinics to defraud insurance companies.

Tow truck companies would hire fake drivers to stage accidents on roads and in parking lots, police claim.

When a group of insurance companies tried to fight the fraudulent claims in court, their law firm, Carr Law, became the target of violence, threats and extortion, according to police.

image copyrightYork Regional Police
image captionPolice search a property in Vaughan, Ontario

Police searched locations in several cities and towns in the Greater Toronto Area, including Hamilton, Brantford, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Markham, Oakville, Toronto and the towns of Aurora and East Gwillimbury.

Twenty people have been arrested and 191 charges brought forth, including one count of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, and multiple counts of fraud, arson and property damage.

Eight of those arrested remain in custody, including Mohamad El-Zahawi, 38, of Toronto, who was just charged with first-degree murder in connection to the death of Soheil Rafipour in 2018.

Mr El-Zahawi's next court appearance is on 21 July.

A first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Police also seized over 40 firearms, 11 tow trucks, and illegal drugs including cocaine, fentanyl and crystal methamphetamine, worth $1m Canadian dollars (£590,000).

"With the accused facing charges and their assets seen, we expect the extreme level of violence we have seen in our community to diminish," Superintendent Slack said.

Police expect more arrests to follow in the coming months, and they have called on governments to pass regulations for the towing industries. Currently, only 17 of Ontario's 444 municipalities require towing to be licensed, according to the Globe and Mail.

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