‘I lost everything’: Couple says Sask. witness protection program failed them
It was the promise of a fresh start that helped convince Shawn Balch and Tammy Spooner to enter Saskatchewan’s witness protection program.
“They asked me to help them and I did — and I lost everything,” said Spooner, 44.
‘I lost absolutely everything going into this program.’ – Tammy Spooner
The couple say they were promised treatment for their addictions and a new life away from Regina. Instead, they claim they were set adrift in a new city, away from their children, family and friends, and without the support they needed. They lost all of their possessions and continue to live in fear.
They have asked Saskatchewan’s Public Complaints Commission to review their case.
Spooner and Balch say, in retrospect, it may have been safer to work things out with members of the Native Syndicate street gang — a primary source of their troubles — than agree to testify against them.
“I could have made things right,” said Balch, 43. “There’s ways of doing things on the street. I could have not shown up for court. But I made a promise … and I kept my word.”
From drug addicts to dealers
Balch and Spooner went from using drugs, including cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, to selling them in 2015.
Balch said he kept getting robbed and needed “protection” so he struck a deal with the Native Syndicate.
“Out of respect, I went to them,” Balch said. He agreed to fork over about $1,000 a week in “taxes.”
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Despite that, the couple ended up on the wrong side of a dispute with Jeremy Arnold, otherwise known as “Cheese,” a high-ranking member of the gang. He claimed the couple owed him thousands of dollars.
The two were taken to a house. When Spooner went to use the bathroom, the beating began.
“I heard thump, thump, thump,” she said. “I ran out of the bathroom and one of Cheese’s men was punching Shawn, and he was on the ground, kind of curled up, and asking them to stop.”
She said Balch was sent home with broken ribs while she spent a day and a half selling drugs to pay back the money.
During that time, Balch was arrested by police for an unrelated incident and taken to jail. He agreed to give a statement against Arnold and other gang members in exchange for acceptance into the provincial witness protection program.
Spooner made a similar arrangement.
“For me, it was the right thing to do.”
She was flown out of the province within days of making her statement.
While the couple agreed to have their names and photographs published, CBC News is concealing the location where they are now living.
‘I wanted to get better’
The provincial government established the witness protection program in 2009 at the request of police.
“It was to help counter organized crime in the province — in particular, some of the street gangs that we see,” said Drew Wilby of the provincial Ministry of Justice.
Unlike the federal program, Wilby said it was intended to be “something that was temporary and could provide … relocation to ensure individuals who wanted to testify were protected.”
Since the program’s inception, an average of eight witnesses have entered each year.
From the beginning, things did not go well for Spooner. She said she was denied medication for withdrawal at her first treatment facility, as well as prescription medication because it was against the centre’s policies.
By the second day, Spooner was asked to leave.
“I was very angry, I was very upset, I was very scared — and I was very unco-operative,” she said.
Spooner was moved to a Catholic-run home, where she was encouraged to go to mass, Bible study, to sew and pray the rosary.
Although Spooner is religious, she said she knew it would not be enough to kick her addiction.
“They promised me a good treatment facility. That was one of the stipulations for me to leave [Saskatchewan],” Spooner said, her voice breaking. “I wanted to get better.”
‘Everything was gone’
Spooner stayed in the home for more than two months, expecting that her belongings back home were being looked after and would eventually be sent to her, as she was led to believe.
“I didn’t find out until about a month and a half later that … somebody backed up a truck and took everything,” Spooner said. “Everything was gone.”
It was around this time, Spooner said, that she relapsed for the first time.
A couple of months later it happened again, and she was kicked out of the witness protection program. Her appeal of that decision was denied.
Spooner said her handler gave her $125, told her not to buy drugs with it and sent her on her way.
“I lost absolutely everything going into this program.”
Shortly after Spooner was dropped from the program, Balch was getting his first experience with it.
A surprise visit
Having detoxed in a Regina jail cell, Balch was picked up by undercover officers, taken for lunch and driven to the airport.
‘You don’t put me in the heart of a downtown area, on a prostitute stroll, and expect me to change my life.’ – Shawn Balch
He stayed in a recovery house in another province and was later moved to an apartment, which Balch said was old and stunk.
Worse, Balch said, it was in a rough part of the city, frequented by addicts and prostitutes and punctuated by the wail of ambulance sirens responding to overdoses.
“You don’t put me in the heart of a downtown area, on a prostitute stroll, and expect me to change my life,” he said.
There were also concerns about security. Not long after Balch moved in, the previous tenant returned — someone he knew from Regina.
Both had been beaten in the same string of violent offences that eventually resulted in the arrests of several Native Syndicate gang members. Both men had agreed to testify in court and both had entered witness protection.
When the first man relapsed and was kicked out of the program, the apartment was given to Balch.
Afraid that the man would disclose his location, Balch asked to be moved, but he said his witness protection handler just told him not to answer his door.
“So for three weeks I didn’t even go out,” Balch said. “That’s not a new life to me.”
Struggling with mental health
Balch was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and began seeing a counsellor.
The witness protection program paid for two sessions each month, which his counsellor thought was inadequate. She said she twice requested the program provide more counselling for Balch, and when it refused both times, she kept seeing him for free.
(CBC News is not naming the counsellor to avoid disclosing the community where Balch was placed in witness protection. Balch did give her permission to talk with CBC News about his treatment.)
“I just saw how desperate he was, as far as his level of suicidality and hopelessness and isolation and just anxiety off the charts,” she said.
She questions the program’s handling of addicts, who are already prone to self-medicating to deal with mental health concerns.
“To not address that seems very much like setting them up for failure,” she said.
Wilby said the couple’s concerns could be investigated by the Public Complaints Commission — a provincial independent body that investigates police, including the special constables who work in witness protection. Wilby has sent a formal complaint written by Spooner to the commission for review.
‘They threw me on the street like a piece of garbage.’ – Tammy Spooner
While he would not speak to the specifics of this case, Wilby said if the program promises to look after someone’s possessions it should do so.
He said it is also important that the program keep witnesses informed on their cases – something Balch and Spooner said did not happen. Arnold ultimately pleaded guilty to robbery and other offences and was sentenced to seven years.
A few weeks after Balch spoke with CBC News about his concerns, he was moved to a new location by the program.
Balch said the apartment is nicer, but he continues to fear for his safety. He is asking the provincial program to give him a new identity, something that is possible under the federal witness protection program.
In the meantime, Spooner is seeking compensation for her missing possessions, as well as for her treatment in the program.
“It has been a nightmare,” she said. “We gave them what they needed to pick those guys up, to get them off the street. And then they turned around and threw me on the street like a piece of garbage.”
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