LONDON, Ont. — The satellite news trucks marked the spots of highest interest on an otherwise quiet and gloomy Monday in downtown London.
They lined up in front of the Queens Avenue entrance to the courthouse before most people had even arrived to work, accompanied by a bank of cameras and reporters producing live hits before the first appearance in court for five members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team charged with sexual assault.
The level of curiosity was not dimmed by the fact that none of Dillon Dubé, Cal Foote, Alex Formenton, Carter Hart or Michael McLeod was in attendance. Even their lawyers chose to call into courtroom No. 4 via video for a brief hearing rather than stand before the justice of the peace and a gallery filled almost exclusively with reporters.
“The circus has come to town,” remarked a local, and she wasn’t wrong.
Police address 2018 Canada world junior investigation
When the hearing was over, the satellite trucks moved south to the convention center on York Street and began setting up shop before the London Police Service was scheduled to give public remarks about the charges for the first time.
Since this story broke in the spring of 2022, it has captivated a hockey-obsessed nation. The fallout reached the highest levels of government, as parliamentary hearings were called amid public outrage over the handling of a civil sexual assault suit involving members of the 2018 Canadian world junior hockey team. Those hearings helped dismantle the upper echelons of Hockey Canada’s management structure and pushed major corporate sponsors out the door. Now, as the case moves toward legal proceedings and a potential trial, the appetite for information has only increased.
At one point during his news conference on Monday, London police chief Thai Truong reminded the media they did not gather to debate the merits of hockey culture.
“I’m not a hockey player. I don’t know (anything) about hockey,” he said. “This is a sexual assault investigation.”
More than 70 media members and a dozen cameras filled the room where Truong read out the charges facing the five men who were all playing professional hockey until surrendering themselves to police in London last month: two counts of sexual assault for McLeod, and one each for Dubé, Foote, Formenton and Hart, stemming from an alleged June 2018 incident inside a room at the Delta London Armouries Hotel following a Hockey Canada gala at which the team had been celebrated for its gold medal win.
Truong apologized to the alleged victim for the length of time it took to make charges in the case.
“I want to extend, on behalf of the London Police Service, my sincerest apology to the victim, to her family, for the amount of time that it has taken to reach this point,” Truong said.
He was standing in the “Salon E” room on the main floor of the London Convention Centre — just down a set of escalators from the ballroom where the Hockey Canada gala was held on June 18, 2018.
Despite the media and public clamoring for answers, London police spokespeople declined to shed much light on why they chose to reopen their investigation in July 2022 after initially closing it in February 2019.
Truong and detective sergeant Katherine Dann dodged questions on this topic; they repeatedly stated that sharing too much information with the public could jeopardize the case.
“It’s a great question. And it’s a question that everybody wants to know. And right now, I cannot answer that question,” Truong said. “It will truly compromise the current process. There’s a time and a place.”
“We can’t provide specific details about what happened over the last year and a half or so because that forms the evidence of the case,” added Dann at another point in the news conference.
One night in London: Allegations of sexual assault and a reckoning for Hockey Canada
Both Truong and Dann said reopening a criminal case should not be viewed as atypical.
“I would say it’s not abnormal for us to reopen a case,” Dann said. “If someone contacts our police service and shares they had a negative experience during the reporting process or that there was an issue with the conclusion of the investigation, then absolutely we will take a second look.”
“If you’re talking about criminal offenses, it’s not uncommon for investigations to be closed pending further information or evidence that arises,” added Truong.
And while London police went out of their way on multiple occasions to identify this process as one single, continuous investigation — rather than two separate probes — Truong acknowledged that the initial officers who investigated the complaint in 2018 are no longer actively working on this case.
“I can tell you they’re not part of this investigative team as we speak,” Truong said.
Earlier Monday, attorneys for the five players made appearances on their clients’ behalf with the Ontario Court of Justice in London. The court appearance was brief, lasting about 15 minutes and consisting largely of procedural matters. The court put a publication ban in place to protect the confidentiality of the alleged victim, referred to in court documents as “E.M.,” and two witnesses, and set a date — April 30 — for the next appearance.
Justice of the peace Tara Oudekerk presided over the court appearance, and Heather Donkers represented the Crown Attorney’s office.
Donkers said the Crown would be proceeding by indictment and that Meaghan Cunningham and Kristina Mildred have also been assigned to the case. Cunningham is the chair of the Sexual Violence Advisory Group, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office.
Donkers said the Crown will be sending over disclosure materials, which include audio/video components and paper-based documents, to defense counsel in short order. The next court date is expected to include review of that disclosure material and a Crown resolution meeting.
Hart, Formenton, Dubé and Foote are all facing one charge of sexual assault. McLeod is facing two charges of sexual assault, with the additional charge as a party to the offense.
According to Dann, “one charge he was laid with is in relation to his own actions, and the party to the offense charge is in relation to aiding someone else and committing the offense.” When asked how McLeod “aided” in the offense, Dann said she could not provide further details.
The London police department would not comment on the possibility of charging more people down the road.
“I will just say we’ve laid out the charges that we have reasonable grounds for at this time,” said Dann.
During Monday’s news conference, Dann read a statement from lawyer Karen Bellehumeur, who is representing E.M. According to the statement, the alleged victim is steadfast in wanting to see this legal process play out.
“It takes an incredible amount of courage for any survivor of sexual assault to report to police and participate in the criminal justice system,” the statement read. “That is certainly true for E.M., yet she remains committed to see this process through. We simply ask that the media and others respect her privacy and dignity as this matter proceeds through the court process.”
In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, Hockey Canada said it had “cooperated fully” with London police throughout its investigation.
The governing body said pending the completion of an appeal process as part of its own independent review, “all players from the 2018 National Junior Team remain suspended by Hockey Canada.”
When they appear for their next court date in London, the defense will have a better idea of the nature of the evidence they’re up against. Over the next 12 weeks, lawyers for the five players will have a chance to review the evidence collected by London police. They will use this time to strategize the best approach for defending their clients against these charges. All five players, through their lawyers, have maintained their innocence.
But even with the next hearing scheduled for April 30, a potential trial date is still in the distant future, with experts estimating those proceedings would start somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 to 24 months from now.
Given the high-profile nature of the case and the fact the investigation was at one point closed, the scrutiny around the London Police Service’s handling of these charges is likely to continue. In the absence of clear answers Monday, there will likely be more calls for accountability and transparency on behalf of the department when it comes to cases of sexual assault in the region.
And Truong and his department know they will be under the microscope after allowing such a long delay to occur in this case.
“It’s not something as the chief of police that I’m happy about, that it took six years. I truly am not happy about this whatsoever. I don’t think any of our members are happy about this,” Truong said. “That is why I apologized to the victim and her family. But I can assure you, I am confident — confident — that this will not happen again.”
(Photo: Peter Power / AFP via Getty Images)