By Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press on February 5, 2024.
LONDON, Ont. – Nearly six years after a woman alleged she had been sexually assaulted by five then-members of Canada’s world junior hockey team, the police chief of a southwestern Ontario city apologized Monday for how long it had taken for charges to be laid in the case, but offered no explanation for the delay.
London, Ont., police Chief Thai Truong said he could not reveal much about why the police investigation that began in 2018 was initially closed without charges in 2019, before being reopened three years later.
But Truong said he, on behalf of the force, was extending his “sincerest apology” to the complainant and her family for the time it had taken for the case to reach its present point.
“This should not take this long,” Truong said at a news conference Monday. “It shouldn’t take years and years for us to arrive to the outcome of today.”
Dillon Dube, Carter Hart, Michael McLeod, Cal Foote and Alex Formenton were charged with sexual assault last month. McLeod is also facing an additional charge of sexual assault for “being a party to the offence.”
Lawyers for the players have said their clients will defend themselves against the allegations.
Monday’s police update marked the first time the force has publicly addressed questions regarding its investigation into the allegations. The case, which also triggered investigations from Hockey Canada and the National Hockey League, has drawn scrutiny of how allegations of sexual assault are handled within sports organizations as well as law enforcement.
While the chief’s apology was “very important and symbolically significant,” it was also “very limited,” said Melanie Randall, a law professor at Western University whose work focuses on women’s autonomy rights and sexual violence against women.
Police do need to protect the integrity of criminal proceedings because their statements can be brought up at trial, she said. However, they also generally do “a lot of impression management,” and tend to “obfuscate the specifics,” she said.
“It’s one thing to say, yeah, there was a problem, but if you don’t explain exactly what the problem was and why it was a problem, and what you’re doing about it, it’s kind of an inadequate response,” Randall said.
Still, she said, it’s possible to draw inferences from the fact that police said Monday the officers who were initially investigating the allegations in 2018 are no longer involved in the case, and that the case wasn’t reviewed by the community-led committee meant to ensure such allegations aren’t inappropriately dismissed.
The violence against women advocate case review is a recently implemented system in which an independent third party, often victims’ advocates or other experts, works with police and reviews sexual assault investigations where no charges have been laid.
Police said Monday they could not comment on why the case wasn’t referred to the committee after the investigation was closed. They said the committee cannot review the case now due to the court process.
The charges in the case relate to an alleged incident at a hotel in London in June 2018, after members of the world junior team celebrated a gold-medal win.
Police said some members of the team went, after a celebratory event, to a downtown London bar where they met the complainant in the case. The woman then went to a hotel with one of the accused, police said, and the four other accused went to the same hotel, where the alleged offences took place.
Police said someone related to the complainant called the force later that morning seeking advice regarding an alleged sexual assault.
Police later decided to review the investigation in July 2022. London Det. Sgt. Katherine Dann said Monday that officers found new evidence that helped lead to the charges.
“Upon review of the occurrence, it was determined that there were additional steps that could be taken to advance the investigation,” Dann said, adding that the complainant “fully participated” throughout the investigation.
“Our team explored investigative opportunities in addition to the 2018 investigation … Additional witnesses were spoken to and we collected more evidence. I can confirm that some of this evidence was not available when the investigation concluded in 2019.”
Truong said he had not spoken directly to the then-police chief about why a review of the case was ordered, but said he understood that “information came to light as a result of the community.”
“Why it took so long will form part of the proceedings, but it is completely inappropriate for me to talk about those details at this time,” he said. “There will be a time where I’ll be able to speak about the matter, but I cannot jeopardize the ongoing case.”
Asked if he believed investigators would have handled the case differently had it not involved five hockey players celebrating a victory, the chief said he could not comment, but stressed the force is committed to improving how it responds to allegations of sexual violence.
Police on Monday also read out a statement from the legal representative for the complainant in the case.
“It takes an incredible amount of courage for any survivor of sexual assault to report to the police and participate in the criminal justice system. That is certainly true for E.M.,” the statement said. “Yet she remains committed to see this process through.”
Randall, the law professor, said the way the case has been handled is likely to exacerbate underreporting of sexual assaults.
“A sexual assault experience is typically a very distressing or even a traumatic experience, and then to have a protracted delay before even getting your so-called day in court only compounds the harm,” she said, calling it a kind of “institutional failure.”
“It compounds the already existing perception that, you know, a report might not be taken as seriously as it should be, it won’t be investigated as well.”
The case had its first court hearing earlier Monday, where lawyers for the players appeared on their clients’ behalf.
During the brief hearing, prosecutors sought and obtained an order protecting the identity of the complainant, which is standard in sexual assault cases, as well as that of two witnesses.
Assistant Crown attorney Heather Donkers also said the players’ lawyers would receive “substantial disclosure” in the next few days. Disclosure is the evidence collected by the prosecution against the accused.
The case will be back in court April 30.
Hockey Canada and the NHL, where four of the accused now play, had launched their own investigations into the case.
Hockey Canada acknowledged the charges Monday and said it has co-operated fully with the police investigation. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week the league would wait until the criminal case has concluded before commenting.
Dube plays for the Calgary Flames, Hart for the Philadelphia Flyers, McLeod and Foote for the New Jersey Devils. Formenton previously played for the Ottawa Senators before joining a team in Switzerland. All have been permitted to go on indefinite leave.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2024.