Recovered items slated for government-run auction
By Jesse Robitaille
Nearly 400 one-ounce silver coins, about $390,000 in cash and a 2017 Mercedes-Benz E43 have been caught up in a civil forfeiture claim in British Columbia.
Citing drug trafficking, a civil claim filed by the B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) in the provincial Supreme Court on March 15 alleges the coins, cash, vehicle and two watches are “proceeds and instruments of unlawful activity.” Police seized 394 coins, $386,362.96 in cash, a Mercedes worth about $50,000 plus Hublot and Audemars Piguet watches at properties in Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby and Victoria during an investigation into the alleged trafficking of fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine.
“Typically, the CFO seeks an interim preservation order to prevent disposition of property while a related case remains before the courts,” Travis Paterson, a provincial public affairs officer, told CCN. “Once the notice of civil claim is filed, a person has 21 days to respond from the date they are served.”
The timeframes for civil forfeiture cases vary depending on the circumstances, Paterson added.
“With the exception of real estate, property forfeited to the Province of British Columbia, including vehicles, jewelry, coins and other property, is disposed of via public auction on the BC Auction website,” he said, adding the firm’s website is bcauction.ca.
The government-run BC Auction offers “unwanted and surplus goods from the provincial government, municipalities and other public sector entities to the highest bidder,” according to a 2015 report by The Province, a daily newspaper headquartered in Vancouver.
The CFO civil claim, which Paterson shared with CCN, names Byran Balla, Susan Bhatti, Brent Van Buskirk, Vu Bao Nguyen (also known as Franklin Munroe), Anthony Tin Dinh and Jong Won Lee. In addition to drug trafficking, the allegations include money laundering and failure to declare taxable income.
“The vehicle, money, silver and watches have been used by the defendants to engage in unlawful activities which variously resulted in, or were likely to result in, the acquisition of property or an interest in property, or caused, or were likely to cause serious bodily harm,” reads the claim.
By earlier this month, none of the defendants have responded to the civil claim, and no criminal charges have been laid regarding the claim, according to the province’s online court records.
Criminal charges are unnecessary to launch civil forfeiture claims, whose burden of proof is lower than a criminal conviction (a “balance of probabilities,” according to the province’s Civil Forfeiture Act, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt).
According to the CFO civil forfeiture claim, the Victoria Police Department (VicPD) and Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), the province’s anti-gang agency, began their Project Juliet investigation in April 2020.
“Between June and October of 2020, the VicPD and the CFSEU conducted surveillance on Vu Nguyen, Byran Balla, and Brent Van Buskirk and observed activity consistent with drug trafficking,” reads the claim.
During the investigation, police conducted “several undercover operations,” the claim adds. Several times, undercover officers allegedly purchased fentanyl through Balla and Nguyen.
“On July 31, 2020, undercover officers purchased a 3-gram sample of fentanyl from Vu Nguyen for $420,” reads the claim, which adds Vu Nguyen told undercover officers he was producing upwards of four kilograms of fentanyl each month. “Vu Nguyen advised that the cost of one kilogram of fentanyl would be $140,000 plus a $5,000 brokerage fee to Vu Nguyen.”
Last November, VicPD and the CFSEU used warrants to search apartments and houses in Victoria, Surrey, Burnaby and Vancouver. A month later, the CSFEU announced Project Juliet resulted in the seizure of $30 million in drugs, including fentanyl, and the arrest of three unnamed men.
According to the claim, police recovered the silver coins – believed to be one-ounce Silver Maple Leaf bullion coins – from Balla’s Fairfield Road apartment, in Victoria, alongside a replica assault rifle and $31,795 in Canadian currency.
“At all times Byran Balla was unemployed and did not have sufficient legitimate income to have acquired the Silver,” reads the claim. “Byran Balla obtained the Silver by participating in the Unlawful Activity.”