UPDATE: DEFENCE CALLS FOR IMPROMPTU ADJOURNMENT
VERNON - The Crown is sending a strong message about rising gun violence in Vernon by recommending a hefty prison sentence against a Vernon man convicted of multiple gun and drug charges.
Ronald Charles Learning was convicted in January on 21 charges, 15 of which are for weapons and firearms charges, two for unlawful identity documents, and three for possession for the purpose of trafficking.
Learning was arrested after authorities intercepted a package of heroin from Thailand and traced it to him in Vernon. At the time, Learning was on bail for drug charges out of Saskatchewan and was prohibited from possessing guns.
He was convicted last year in Regina Provincial Court for being a drug courier in a large cross-border smuggling operation and sentenced to more than eight years in jail.
Crown counsel Jeremy Guild asked Supreme Court Justice Gary Weatherill at a sentence hearing in Vernon court today, March 9, to impose a seven- to nine-year jail term. He said sentences imposed for similar cases in the past have not been successful in deterring the rising trend of gun violence in Canada, and here in Vernon.
“… Gun violence is still increasing. It isn’t getting any less. And all that can mean is the sentences so far haven’t gotten the message across. People in guns and drugs… are willing to take the risks,” Guild said.
Guild quoted statistics from the Vernon/ North Okanagan RCMP detachment indicating the number of firearm-related cases has risen in recent years to 20 in 2016 up from 15 in 2015, 10 in 2014 and 11 in 2013. Guild did not reference specific cases.
READ MORE: In the summer of 2016, the Vernon RCMP investigated a series of five shootings, three of which are believed to have been connected to the drug trade. One shooting resulted in a child being shot and wounded.
“The Vernon area is not immune,” Guild said.
When police searched Learning’s residence in January 2015 — after undercover officers identified him as the intended recipient of a box of 363 grams of heroin hidden in lamps — they found a stolen passport and birth certificate, various amounts of oxycodone, hydromorphone and morphine, a baggie of marijuana, and four handguns, some of which were hidden in an air vent. Money transfers to Thailand, digital scales and bundled cash was also found.
While Learning was not convicted of possession of heroin for the purpose of trafficking, Guild said it was clear he was part of a mid to high level drug syndicate. He said Learning was the ‘the boss’ in the operation and would arguably move the drugs to lower level dealers who would sell it on the street.
Guild said the semi-automatic handguns, three of which were loaded, would be used to defend the drug business, intimidate others, and also possibly be used as a form of currency. He alleged the guns might be traded for other items of value, and wind up in the community.
“That is the spread of harm,” Guild said.
He also noted there were children living above the Learning residence, a significant aggravating factor.
Learning sat dressed in civilian clothes in the accused box, frequently shaking his head and rolling his eyes at the Crown’s submissions.
Guild said the high sentence is needed to send the message that guns have no place in society.
“While Learning is not responsible for all of the violence, he is part of the problem, not the solution,” Guild said.
Learning is already facing a jail term of more than eight years in Saskatchewan, so a sentence on the high end could place him behind bars for up to 17 years.
“He chose a life of crime that seems to have continued unabated. He chose the repercussions of being caught,” Guild said.
Defence lawyer Glenn Verdurmen began his sentencing submissions by asking Justice Weatherill to consider imposing the sentence concurrent to Learning’s Saskatchewan jail term. That would mean Learning would serve his sentences at the same time, rather than back to back.
“We are talking about a sentence of 17 years of Mr. Learning’s life,” Verdurmen said.
That length of time is typically reserved for offences of extreme violence, including murder, Verdurmen said.
“That would put him amid those individuals,” Verdurmen said. “That would be a gross inequity.”
He also pointed to the lack of any conviction related to trafficking heroin, and said Learning is presumed innocent. He said Learning’s involvement in the drug trade, as described by Crown, has not been established.
“That’s conjecture. He shouldn’t be sentenced on conjecture,” Verdurmen said.
He said the Crown made inferences about Learning’s involvement in importing and distributing heroin that were not proven at trial. Learning was never charged with importing or trafficking heroin.
“If the Crown wants to rely on it, the Crown has to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” Verdurmen said.
Verdurmen asked that the sentence hearing be adjourned so transcripts from the trial could be reviewed, and if necessary, so that witnesses could be re-examined.
Justice Weatherill stood the hearing down Thursday afternoon and is expected to provide some direction later today on how to proceed.
— This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. March 9, 2017 to add an update from the afternoon court session.
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