Ontario man files $7M lawsuit over 16 ‘wrongful’ charges related to human trafficking

Everoll Powell, a chef and restaurateur, had just picked up the morning newspaper and was headed to the Wimpy’s diner he owned in Lindsay, Ont. on Feb. 20, 2014 when he was swarmed by Ontario Provincial Police and Canada Border Services vehicles in the restaurant parking lot.

Powell, who has lived in the Kawartha Lakes area for more than 20 years, said he was handcuffed and charged on 16 counts related to human trafficking.

“I was just shaking. I thought these guys come in to kill me when I see all these police officers jumping all over. I heard something like a helicopter over my head,” Powell said from his home in Oakwood, about a 90-minute drive north east from Toronto.

“I’d never been in this position before. The only problem I ever have with police is a speeding ticket.”

WATCH: Powell describes the day he was arrested

After a two-year legal odyssey, the criminal charges were ultimately changed to a violation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, for which he receive an absolute discharge in 2016. Powell claims his life was destroyed by the wrongful arrest.

“This is the toughest thing in my entire life I’ve ever had to go through and I wouldn’t wish this even on my worst enemy,” Powell said.

He’s filed a lawsuit against the Ontario government seeking $7 million in damages for the “false imprisonment, malicious prosecution” and “negligent investigation by police.”

“I [felt] like my life was over, when the police told me that I’m looking at 14 to 25 years for something I’ve never done,” Powell said.

He claims he was racially profiled by police, who he says frequently pulled him over for being unable to identify a license plate, reports of a stolen vehicle, or throwing a cigarette out a car window. He doesn’t smoke.

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Powell also alleges OPP officers followed him and that several people who made complaints against him did so to cooperate with investigators to receive permanent residency. These claims were not verified by Global News and the claims in the lawsuit have not been tested in court.

The Ontario Ministry of Attorney General declined to answer questions from Global News.

“As this matter is subject to litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” a ministry spokesperson said.

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In a statement of defence to the lawsuit, the Ministry denied several of the allegations laid out in Powell’s claim and maintained there were “reasonable and probable grounds for the arrest and detention and charges against Mr. Powell.

“Including but not limited to statements from seven individuals who worked for Mr. Powell, where they were subject to poorer working conditions than Mr. Powell represented and significantly underpaid,” the statement said.

In a reply, Powell’s attorney stated that all of the alleged victims wanted to remain in Canada and were “promised Canadian permanent residency status, or assistance in acquiring it, if they ‘cooperated’, that is, to the extent that they apprised the OPP of information which would assist them in gathering evidence for [Powell’s] ultimate prosecution.”

The initial arrest

Powell emigrated from Jamaica in 1991 and hoped to his bring his love of Caribbean food to Canada. He opened his first restaurant in 1999 — Stranger’s Caribbean Style — before closing it in 2003. He opened The Boathouse Restaurant in 2007, overlooking Cameron Lake, in the small, picturesque town of Fenelon Falls — just over a 20-minute drive from his home.

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Facing a lack of cooks in the area with the specific culinary skills needed, he hired Caribbean nationals through the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Powell said the work of opening the Boathouse was relentless, but it paid off. Well-liked in the community and a success, he opened a Wimpy’s franchise in Lindsay in 2010. He also made plans to turn The Gypsy Cab Restaurant on Highway 35 into Felicia’s, enough space for 190 people, with a plan of later closing The Boathouse.

“It was really tough because I don’t see my kids. I leave when they’re sleeping, come back when they’re sleeping,” Powell said. “My family, nobody sees me.”

An image of the Boathouse Restaurant in Fenelon Falls, Ont. from 2013.

An image of the Boathouse Restaurant in Fenelon Falls, Ont. from 2013. (Google Earth)

His life was shattered that February in 2014 when he was handcuffed by police as part of a human trafficking investigation. OPP investigators also showed up at his home, with six cars and a bus to remove alleged victims, according to Powell.

“There was three kids in the house at the time. And my youngest was about three years old. And they came up in front my wife and told my kids, ‘we just arrested

,” he said. “My kids, they lost it. It was very sad. My wife didn’t know what to do.”

Powell, a man who had been cited by the community for his charity work, was arrested on eight charges of human trafficking and eight others of material benefit. He was also charged with possession of property obtained by crime over $5,000.

He was jailed for six days, placed on house arrest and prohibited from hiring staff for 2.5 years, according to court documents.

The RCMP close their investigation

OPP and court documents obtained by Global News showed the RCMP had begun a human trafficking investigation in August 2013, after the OPP received an anonymous tip about “girls that work under the table” at the Boathouse, and being forced to work for $5 an hour to “service” the workers in the restaurant.

RCMP Cst. David Burtch began a two-month investigation into the case interviewing several Jamaican nationals. None made complaints about Powell, including several individuals who lived at a home owned by Powell, according to documents. The RCMP declined to comment when contacted by Global News.

“We cannot talk about specific investigations especially if no charges were laid,” said Sgt. Penny Hermann with the RCMP.

The investigation was closed as there were “no indications of human trafficking and no need to contact the Ministry of Labour or CBSA Liaison in Jamaica,” documents show. Two people were deported for visa violations.

However, the OPP’s human trafficking unit began their own investigation in December 2013 after alleged complaints from Jamaican restaurant workers, over claims their passports were being withheld and not being properly paid. The RCMP declined to investigate the new evidence, according to a police document.

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OPP investigators ultimately spoke with at least seven individuals who accused Powell of misleading them about employment and underpaying them, documents show. This included at least two individuals who months earlier had made no complaints to the RCMP.

“These individuals indicated they resided in premises owned by [Powell], that they were severely underpaid, and that the working conditions were not what they had been promised when they left Jamaica,” the document said. “In some cases, [Powell] kept their passports and/or threatened to have them deported.”

Two men were allegedly rescued from a residence, according to documents, who claimed they were misled about their employment and only paid $400 for two weeks’ work.

Powell emphatically denies ever withholding pay, passports or making any kind of threats. He said he was always transparent about the work he was looking to hire, which was mainly kitchen work.

“I’ve had people working for me for five years that went back to Jamaica several times,” he said. “If I’m such a bad person why did they come back? Why didn’t you inform the authorities? They gave the RCMP one statement. And the OPP another.”

Global News called and emailed three alleged victims for comment but did not receive a response or they declined to answer questions.

Former employees speak out

Two former employees who spoke with Global News, Ashley Thomson, now 24, and Veronica Sova, now 32, said they never witnessed anything criminal or illegal occur at Powell’s restaurants.

“I never saw any of that and nobody ever seemed to be upset,” said Thomson, a family friend who worked at Wimpy’s for four years. “Everybody was always laughing and joking with each other… it was just such a fun space to be in.”

“I was there the longest, I was the most consistent and I would have been the one to see anything, if anything, and nobody talked to me.”

Sova said she was interviewed by the OPP and always maintained his innocence.

“The man’s life was just torn apart,” she said. “I have never had a better boss. Everol and his wife showed me the ropes and always were very respectful. They treated like their other employees the same way.”

A former employee described working for Powell

Sova, who worked seasonally at the Boathouse, said she often gave some of the alleged victims rides home from work. She said they were always laughing and seemed in good spirits.

“I would imagine if they were being somehow mistreated that they would have taken the opportunity to say, like, ‘hey, can you help us?’”

As Powell’s legal battle continued, the criminal charges against him were changed by a Crown Attorney in April 2015 to violations under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA).

Powell’s crime, according to an agreed statement of facts, was allowing employees designated to work at the Boathouse to also work at Wimpy’s — something he said allowed to help them earn extra money.

An absolute discharge

In July 2016, Justice Lisa Cameron imposed an absolute discharge on one count of unauthorized employment of foreign nationals under the IRPA and Powell agreed to pay $10,000 in restitution.

“Prior to Mr. Powell’s arrest, he had never been in custody. Once arrested, he spent six days in pre-trial custody and I accept that this is particularly harsh [for] an individual with no such prior experience,” Justice Cameron said, noting that in 15 years Powell had never violations under IRPA.

“I accept there has been a significant negative impact on Mr. Powell’s personal and business life as a result of being charged.”

WATCH: Black people grossly overrepresented in cases where Toronto police use force

Powell said that while he’s happy with the absolute discharge, he’s still working to clear his name. The nearly two-year legal case has left him ruined financially and emotionally devastated.

“Nobody’s going to hire me because when you Google my name the first thing you see ‘Everol Powell the human trafficker,’” he said. “Nobody’s going to rent me a place. Nobody going to offer me their business. So here I am, I’m stuck — no income, cannot pay my legal bills.”

Indeed, Powell is one of scores of cases where a person is criminally charged, their name is released by police, and then reported in the media. However, unless it’s a high-profile case, there is rarely follow-up by the media or police, if they are discharged or cleared of any wrong-doing.

It’s a cycle that defence lawyer Shane Martinez often sees repeated.

“Depending on the nature of the charges, the effects can be life-altering, especially when they have to do with allegations such as human trafficking or sexual assault,” he said.

Martinez, who was not involved in Powell’s case, has had several clients whose lives have been left in shambles after having their name widely publicized in the media following an arrest, only to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“They’re just trying to pick up the pieces and go back to creating a normal life with their family,” he said.

“That’s consistently made more difficult by the fact that the information that was originally released by the police is still out there for time immemorial perhaps.”

Martinez said the police conduct in Powell’s case should be reviewed by the province.

“To be labelled as a human trafficker, that’s something extremely serious,” he said. “If it was not sufficient for a federal body to lay charges, why did the provincial authorities decide to pick it up and move ahead with something where there was obviously a dubious base of information to proceed at all?”

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In response to questions from Global News, Staff Sgt. Coyer Yateman, head of the OPP’s anti-human trafficking unit, said investigators will “conduct an investigation and follow where the evidence leads regardless of what’s been done in the past.”

“We rely on witness statements to be truthful and accurate,” he said in an email. “If their information changes either by expanding or retracting earlier comments, that is something we will certainly look into and is part of the ongoing investigation.”

Coyer said that all officers abide by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and would “never racially profile or contravene any of the prohibitive grounds.

“Any inference of being targeted by racial comments would not be tolerated,” he said.

Meanwhile, Powell said the legal action isn’t just about money, but about “vindication” and acknowledgement from the province that he was wrongly arrested.

“I need people to know that I’m innocent. I’m a hard worker. I’m a community person. I’m a law abiding citizen. I’m an honest person,” he said. “I’m not going to go away and I’m not going to back down and I’m not going to stop till I get justice.”

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