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Dissuading young people from gang lifestyle a focus in Edmonton extortion case

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Edmonton police urged members of the South Asian community Thursday evening to come forward if they've paid the serial extortionist who's been targeting home builders and monitor the vehicles they share with family members.

Around 250 people attended the town hall event hosted by the Edmonton Police Service at the Ridgewood Community League.

Roughly two dozen questions were submitted via a text line and answered by investigators in charge of the case.

A Punjabi translator occasionally helped the exchange of information. Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, RCMP and Crime Stoppers also attended, the latter educating attendees about the anonymity of its lines of communication.

The questions for police ranged from technical basics to the reasoning behind investigators' tactics.

"What is organized crime? And how do these investigations work?"

"Our youth are being targeted to enter crime. What motivates them? Games? Finances? Immigration status?"

"Are police keeping an eye on charged targets, especially those that are out of jail?"

The town hall was the first time police spoke directly to the community, which had been a point of criticism since the arsons began to ramp up in late 2023.

Since mid-October, 34 events – a combination of arsons, extortion attempts, shootings, threats, and reports of suspicious vehicles or people – have been reported to police, who are calling the investigation Project Gaslight. Ten South Asian home builders have been targeted, although other people are believed to have been victimized as "mistaken targets."

During an update on the case Thursday, the investigators revealed they have identified "12 targets and many more associates" connected to the criminal network that is orchestrating the crimes. One of the 12 has fled to India but has "historical ties to Edmonton." Police also believe the scheme is being orchestrated out of India. However, the people behind the fires and shootings have all been young men (and one male minor) from Edmonton's South Asian community.

"Know where your kids are, know where your kids are driving your vehicles late at night," the town hall audience was told.

"We believe that in many of these, the parents' registered vehicles are being used."

Investigators said it's not always obvious what motivates young people to get involved in criminal activity, but sometimes it can be about obtaining a kind of lifestyle or being a part of something larger.

"Out of the 12 identified subjects in this investigation and others that have been caught up in this, my team has gone to every one of those homes and spoken with either those individuals or the families, as well. We extend an offer to assist them out of this criminal lifestyle. We talk to them about the reasons for why they participate and are they in trouble? Do they need assistance?" Sgt. Ryan Ferry said.

"We are getting some buy in and some positive response [and] some absolutely negative response."

Some of the 12 persons of interest were known from previous drug trafficking investigations, EPS confirmed Thursday.

'This is not hurting the builders alone'

"I was very happy to hear that the police is saying they're talking to the parents, they're talking to the kids, and they're trying to bring them … out of this trap," community member Varinder Bhullar told CTV News Edmonton after the meeting.

"This is not hurting the builders alone. This is hurting everyone in the community… When one house is getting burned, it'll take a year to build that house. If the insurance premium goes up, it will be everyone's insurance premium that's going up."

Among the builders who have spoken to CTV News Edmonton, the average daily cost for security guards at their construction projects or personal homes is $2,000 to $3,000.

Multiple builders say they are obtaining gun licences.

Police say the best action they can take is to immediately contact EPS when they are threatened, or if they have paid the extortion sum. They advised against deleting any communication with the extortionist.

Investigators are also asking builders and residents to record licence plates on suspicious vehicles in their communities and near their projects, as they believe the arsonists scout locations in advance.

EPS promised that any evidence submitted would not be made public until the court process.

As for the people arrested in a similar-looking extortion case in Peel, Ont., none have been connected to the Edmonton investigation, EPS told media after the town hall.

"There's certainly some similarities of these occurrences occurring across the country. However, the groups that are actually committing these offences, we have no information that directly links any of them together," Devin Laforce, deputy chief of the Investigation and Support Services Bureau, said.

The mayor also said he asked the federal public safety minister to ramp up coordination between Canadian and Indian authorities to investigate the international element.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nav Sangha

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