Thunder Bay
Chapter 4: The Ruthless Game
Agnew Johnston was a lawyer who represented the state against criminals. But he was a criminal himself, paying underage girls for sex. His defence? Everybody in Thunder Bay is doing it, so why are you picking on me? The story of a case that implicated Thunder Bay's elite. 
November 12, 2018

Agnew Johnston was a lawyer who represented the state against criminals. But he was a criminal himself, paying underage girls for sex. His defence? Everybody in Thunder Bay is doing it, so why are you picking on me? The story of a case that implicated Thunder Bay’s elite.

 

Clarification (11/30/18): Ryan says that “last January,” Thunder Bay police found a 17-year old girl who’d been trafficked to Thunder Bay. He is referring to an incident from January, 2017, not January 2018. 

 

Chapter 4 – The Ruthless Game.mp3 | Convert audio-to-text with Sonix

Download the “Chapter 4 – The Ruthless Game.mp3 audio file directly. This mp3 was automatically transcribed by Sonix (https://sonix.ai).

RYAN:
This podcast is funded entirely through support from listeners like you. To continue this work, we need your help. Visit patreon.com/CANADALAND, and keep independent journalism alive for as little as a dollar per month.

RYAN:
Please be aware that this episode contains a disturbing firsthand account of the sexual abuse of a minor.

RYAN:
Kids in Thunder Bay know the name Agnew Johnston. To them, it’s “Agnew. H Johnston Public School,” an elementary school around the corner from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High. It’s named after the late Agnew Herbert Johnston who was a prominent local minister for over 50 years. Johnston was a high-ranking official in the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and a respected member of the Thunder Bay establishment. This is a story about a different Agnew Johnston… His son, public prosecutor J. Agnew Johnston.

WOMAN:
Agnew Johnston was a, uh… He was a Crown attorney, an assistant Crown attorney.

LICHTENFELD:
Excellent Crown, I thought. Basically, a straight-shooter, which you don’t get that often in the court system.

WOMAN:
Well, he went astray I guess. Agnew had some difficulties. I don’t know if it was a drinking problem or a drug problem, and it led to bad behaviour involving young women.

BRIDGET:
Agnew Johnston was a Crown attorney, but he liked weird sex and he was perverted. He also developed a cocaine habit and he became a very bad alcoholic. I was driving the vehicle and I was pregnant with my son and I was 16. He wanted to have sex with the pregnant girl, and he paid quite well. It was bizarre and he had sex with a man in front of us. Like, another boy. And we had a transgendered girl from Winnipeg come in. We specifically brought her in. So he was having these big sex parties and his marriage was dissolving, I think.

LICHTENFELD:
And then Stephanie Edwards was found murdered.

BRIDGET:
You know, that was the first thing we thought. “Shit, he killed her to silence her.”

RYAN:
This is “Thunder Bay.”

WOMAN:
It was a pretty difficult upbringing, and it wasn’t just because of the religion. I think it was just a very tough upbringing because, you know, people don’t aren’t born that way. Something has to trigger it. So I always felt it was Agnew Johnston’s relationship with his father.

RYAN:
Agnew Johnston was raised to revere the law. His father had gone to law school before becoming a minister. He and his dad were both named after his great uncle, William Agnew Johnston, who had been Chief Justice of Kansas from 1903 to 1935. And just like his dad, Agnew went to Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, returning in the early 80s to practice in Thunder Bay. As a criminal defence attorney, Agnew represented marginalized people, sometimes going to bat for Native kids who had gotten into trouble. By his late 30s, after getting married and starting a family, he went to work for the Crown, representing the state against accused criminals. Even in that role, he defended the vulnerable. He helped bring the case against the Anglican priest Ralph Rowe, a Scoutmaster who, over a span of years, sexually abused as many as 500 Indigenous children from Northern communities. Rowe was eventually convicted of 75 sex crimes, and served five years in prison.

RYAN:
Agnew Johnston was liked and respected and it seemed like he was headed for big things. But behind the scenes his life had been falling apart. He’d started hanging out in strip clubs and cheating on his wife. He had developed a drinking problem. He got divorced and lost custody of his daughter. Then his father died. Agnew’s work in the Thunder Bay courthouse brought him into regular contact with the city’s drug dealers and prostitutes. At first they were his clients. Then, he was theirs.

BRIDGET:
Agnew Johnston was a well-known trick. He liked us young girls, any like young boys, too.

RYAN:
That’s Bridget Perrier. You heard her voice a little bit earlier. She would come to play a major role in the story of Agnew Johnston. But let’s hit “pause” on his story because first I need to tell you hers.

RYAN:
Bridget is one of many Native kids from the North, adopted at birth by a white family.

BRIDGET:
My story is a typical story. My birth mother was from White River, Ontario and she had to go to Thunder Bay, Ontario to give birth. She gave birth to me and placed me up for adoption in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I was adopted into a middle class, non-Native family. I had great parents, very community involved. My dad was… He was one of the directors for City Services. And my mom was a… She was a stay-at-home mom when she had us, but she also was a special needs teacher.

RYAN:
Bridget’s parents were also active in the church and her mom would often help out people who were having trouble, and needed a place to stay. One such needy soul was a man implicated in another clergy abuse scandal.

BRIDGET:
And little did she realize, though, that she was placing her kids at risk. And, um, I was sexually abused at the age of seven by a man that was invited to stay with us. And it destroyed me.

RYAN:
The abuse confirmed an idea that had been planted in Bridget’s mind earlier in her childhood: That she didn’t really belong, that she was less than other kids.

BRIDGET:
I lived in racism. I was a little native kid and raised to be white, you know, in this French Canadian family. But sometimes things would be said to me. Things like, my bad behaviour would be, “Well, she’s native. You know, that’s how Indians act.” My parents didn’t know about the abuse. I really, uh, hid it from them. But I started acting out around the age of 10. And, um, it started with the lying, the telling tall-tales, to stealing, to running away. And my parents placed me in the care of Children’s Aid.

BRIDGET:
The first group home I was in, I was sexually abused by the staff. So I got placed into a girls home. It took about three months for me to be recruited into the sex industry. The first trick I turned, I made $400. I was 12.

BRIDGET:
The woman who recruited me and trafficked me, she was a registered escort service in the city. She had a lodging license, she coached me to say, if the police came, that I was her niece, or her daughter’s friend, and nobody ever questioned. She had selected men who bought sex, that knew that she had a child. I serviced these men that were very high up in society. They knew, they knew my age. Like, some of them went to church with my parents.

RYAN:
The brothels of Thunder Bay, like its red-light district at the time, were well-known to citizens and police alike. It was just an accepted fact of life in a port town.

LICHTENFELD:
It was a constable in Thunder Bay City police from September 20th 1982 until November 11th… I believe it was 2006. I was on the Simpson Street beat for roughly 18 years.

RYAN:
That’s former Thunder Bay cop Andre Lichtenfeld. You met him in our last episode. His job made him well aware of the sex trade.

LICHTENFELD:
All of Thunder Bay knew, whether it be civilians, all the police, right from the <chuckles> front line officers, right up to the top. Everyone knew about the trade down there.

RYAN:
All of it happened in plain sight, all along Simpson Street.

LICHTENFELD:
Back then, it was bar, after bar, after bar down there. Most of them burned down, or closed down by now. Every weekend, it was just wall-to-wall people, fighting, scrapping, drinking, <chuckles> um, along with the prostitution trade. They all had their different corners. You had your gay males, you had your pregnant females. We always said the <chuckles> “250-pound plus” corner. You had your underage at another corner. They all kind of had their little territories and which corners they were on. It was wide open down there.

RYAN:
But some of the sex work in Thunder Bay occurred off the street and outside of jurisdiction of local law enforcement: Onboard the potash and grain freighters that sailed Lake Superior between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minnesota.

BRIDGET:
I was introduced on the ships at 12 years of age, by the woman that owned that brothel. The captain that she had me see, he was a sadist. He was the type… You know, basically he was paying the rape you.

RYAN:
According to Bridget, some of the girls who went aboard those ships never made it off.

BRIDGET:
So, they would have, like, big parties. Like, they would dock… And imagine these men have been at… on the boat for a while, so they want women. They would send a couple guys out and they’d bring them back. Um, one time, I was on the ships, it was… I was a little bit older. I think it was around 15 <scoffing chuckle> Not very… I know it sounds… But three years in the sex industry… You’re well seasoned after six months, so… And I remember being on the ships and I was with that captain, and he paid me a lot of money to go with him to Duluth-Superior.

BRIDGET:
And so I got on and he said, “I’ll take you shopping in Duluth.” That was like, “Okay I’m going to get this old fucker to take me shopping. I’m gonna make him buy me everything.” So, I get on, on the ship, and there’s some Native girls. And so, I’m in the captain’s quarters with the captain, and there’s a knock on their door. And they’re like, “Bridget, like, the girls are getting out of control. You need to come and talk to them.” And I’m like… I asked the captain, “What do you want? What… What do you guys do when they’re out of control?” And he said we’ll just throw them over the… Over. Overboard. And I thought “Oh shit, I’m on Lake Superior. I grew up on Lake Superior. That’s a very unforgiving lake.”

BRIDGET:
So, I went down to where they were all sitting in, like, the mess hall or the cafeteria. And they were so drunk, and one woman was fighting them. I was like, “What’s wrong?” And I guess, like, some of the ship men got violent with her, and I could tell, like, there was something really wrong. I calmed them down. I told them, “They will throw you off the, off the ship.” And they were, like, “Why?” And I’m like, “Throw you off the ship. Like, simmer down.” The one woman, she had been sexually assaulted. I went up and told Captain Jack. I’m like… I convinced him to let her off port. When we got to Duluth, I told them I’m gonna be right back. I’m gonna go wash my clothes and all that. I’m gonna drop her off, send her on a bus back to Canada. He had given me my money prior, and I just took off. I dropped her at the hospital and I got a ride back to Thunder Bay.

BRIDGET:
But after hearing that, I was leery of the ships. And the cops knew, like… See, they warned, they warned certain girls, “Don’t go on the ships.” The Thunder Bay police would give warning, but some of us… Like, they didn’t like me, so they wanted me to get killed. Because one time I dealt with one of the Thunder Bay police officers, and that fucker told me, “I can’t wait to tell your parents you’re murdered. I can’t wait to knock on their door and tell them you’re dead.” And I’m thinking, “Like, who says that to a 16-year-old? You know, mind you, at the time, he was charging me for robbery with violence because one of the johns wanted his money back after it only took him two minutes to do his business, and he felt foolish. So, he tried to take his money back and I beat him up.

RYAN:
Not only did the police know that underage girls were being trafficked, they also knew their names, how old they were, and much more. It was all documented in a reference binder any cop could access, but no matter how young the girls were, it was understood among police, they weren’t supposed to do anything about it.

LICHTENFELD:
What grounds? You’d be really stretching it to say that they’re in need of protection because if they’re sixteen and whatnot, they’re basically on their own, or they had been on their own for two or three years. They’re not reported as missing, they’re not breaching any conditions if they’re under charges or anything. With the prostitution law, unless you hear the conversation between the john and the prostitute, basically there’s not much you can do about it.

RYAN:
Celina Reitberger is a retired Indigenous lawyer who now sits on the civilian board that oversees the Thunder Bay police. She remembers learning about police inaction towards minors who were trafficked in the sex trade.e.

CELINA:
It’s despicable. It really is. I mean, the stories I was hearing, and I was pretty close to things, was that, um, you know, the police would take these young women off the streets, take them to the police station, charge them with, uh, you know, an offense, and then they’d take them right back to the street. They didn’t take them to Children’s Aid Society, because as far as I was concerned they were still children. They didn’t do anything to protect them. They didn’t do anything to rehabilitate them. They just treated them as a commodity. So, okay, um, you’ve been caught in the act. You’re charged, but here, carry on.

RYAN:
Those who worked Simpson Street had to take care of themselves.

BRIDGET:
We were some dysfunctional family on Simpson Street. You know, we all stuck up for each other. We wouldn’t allow certain Johns out there. We… If we knew if he was violent, we were all gonna gang up and beat him up. And even with the girls, we kept the girls in line. Like, you can’t be robbing tricks because that’s how we get killed.

RYAN:
The police didn’t help much, but that’s not to say they weren’t involved with the girls who worked Simpson Street. Some of them were. As customers.

LICHTENFELD:
There were a few senior members of the police force as well, that did their trolling down there. There were police officers that made use of the prostitutes as well. Um, there was a little bit of everything down there.

BRIDGET:
Some of the cops used their power, abused their power… Well if you didn’t give them oral sex, they’re going to bring you in on a breach. You know, “Oh, Bridget, there’s a warrant, but if you… Let’s go to your house and we’re gonna have sex and we’ll make sure that, you know, we don’t pick you up tonight.”

RYAN:
And it wasn’t just the police.

LICHTENFELD:
Well, specifically to provincial court judges, there was aldermen. There was mayor, he was down there all the time. But there were… There was teachers, there were businessmen downtown. Yeah. <laughs> Yeah, they were down there as well.

RYAN:
Judges, cops, teachers, aldermen, even a mayor. All of them seen by police, picking up sex workers on a street where children were trafficked. One of the known johns was Agnew Johnston. Bridget remembers the first time their paths crossed.

BRIDGET:
I was introduced to Agnew while he lived two blocks away from my family. I knew his daughter. I was introduced to him when I was twelve… Twelve? Twelve, thirteen. We would get him drunk on Blue Nun wine and steal his car and drive around. His wife would go to Ottawa, I guess, to visit her family. And he lived in a nice house and had lots of stuff, and he would just allow us to do whatever.

RYAN:
Did Agnew Johnston know that Bridget was underage? Without question. All of her johns did.

BRIDGET:
They knew I was young. Like, I remember one guy… He asked me, Are you Larry Perrier’s daughter? He goes, “I watched you grow up.” And I just was like… It made my skin crawl. The men that I serviced, like, I would see them at my brother’s hockey games. I would see them, like, you know, at church functions. So many times I’d have them say, “Oh, you look like my daughter.” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, I was on your daughter’s gymnastics team.”

RYAN:
Unlike some of Bridget’s clients, Agnew wasn’t violent. But he was extreme, and he was eccentric.

BRIDGET:
He paid well, but he was weird. He was bizarre.

RYAN:
Another girl Agnew saw many times was Stephanie Edwards, a good friend of Bridget’s. Agnew would later tell the police that he met Stephanie at the courthouse when she was 18, right as his second marriage was falling apart. It’s hard to know if this is true or if Agnew met her beforehand, when she was still underage. What we do know is that Agnew Johnston started paying Stephanie Edwards for sex. Andre Lichtenfeld remembers Stephanie and Bridget well. He describes them as “local leadership” on Simpson Street. They were both teenagers at the time.

LICHTENFELD:
Bridget and Stephanie, they were kind of the queen bees. They took a lot of the younger or newer prostitutes under their wing, I guess, show them the ropes <chuckles> and what to look out for, whatnot. They were kind of, kind of a mother figure down there for the other ones. She was always the biggest and the toughest one. Wouldn’t take crap from anybody. Uh, there’d been a couple of times when I, when I dealt with them, that if there was a real cool kook there or <chuckles> something different, they’d let us know right away. So, they were good for that.

RYAN:
The police knew about Bridget and Stephanie and they knew about Agnew, too. They even investigated him, based on tips they’d received, but quickly dropped it. Given what was normal on Simpson Street his behaviour may have seemed ordinary. But Agnew was no ordinary john. For one thing, as a Crown attorney, he knew these girls from work. One underage girl who Stephanie had brought over to his house, was a person Agnew knew quite well. He argued her rape case when she was 15 and lost. Her alleged attacker walked. When she showed up at his house some months later with Stephanie, he apologized for how the trial had gone and he paid her $400 for sex. Her boyfriend barged in and took her home before anything else happened. Agnew overpaid and overindulged. He requested multiple young partners at a time. He would get wildly drunk. He gave the girls he hired the run of the house, and he let them joyride in his car. All of that made him a mark.

BRIDGET:
And what had happened was Stephanie Edwards’s brothers, they robbed him, robbed his house, and they got caught. And she went to Agnew and said “I want my brother out of jail.” And he said, “No, they were in my house.”

RYAN:
Word spread that Stephanie Edwards was blackmailing Agnew. If he didn’t get her brother out of jail, she’d tell the world that he has sex with underage prostitutes.

BRIDGET:
And about a year later, she was murdered..

RYAN:
In January 1994, Stephanie Edward’s body was found in a snowbank behind the Slovak Legion. According to one published report, by the time her body was discovered, it had been torn apart by wolves. The cops found Agnew’s name in Stephanie’s notebook.

LICHTENFELD:
In any event, they came up with a little notebook that she had used for reference. <chuckles> It had her… a lot of johns names in it. A lot of information, who she’d been with and whatnot. A constable there, that I was very good friends with, he was in on that. And he actually looked through the book. He told me a lot of stuff that was in the book when it went in to evidence, when they seized it and whatnot. Within a week or so, it disappeared. No one has ever seen the book again.

RYAN:
The notebook put Agnew on a short list of suspects.

BRIDGET:
And we weren’t sure if, um, Stephanie was killed by him. You know, that was the first thing we thought. “Shit. He killed her to silence her.” Right? Like, the homicide cops, we told them.

RYAN:
Stephanie’s death rocked Simpson Street. Five hundred people showed up for her funeral. Why did they take it so hard? After all, it wasn’t uncommon for one of them to disappear or turn up murdered. The naked body of a native teen named Sandra Johnson had been found two years earlier in almost the exact same place, in the icy river next to the Slovak Legion. A Thunder Bay girl named Jamie McGuire would be killed in Winnipeg just a few weeks later. But Stephanie’s murder was different. She was the toughest among them and girls looked to her for protection. If Stephanie could be killed, so could anyone.

BRIDGET:
At this time, the tables change. One of us is dead. It was just too much. They couldn’t put it under the rug anymore.

RYAN:
Bridget and other girls told the cops about Agnew Johnston and about Stephanie’s brother and about the rumours of a shakedown attempt. Now there was a motive. Agnew became the prime suspect. The transcript of the police interview with Agnew Johnston at the Balmoral Street Police Station is an astonishing document. Sergeant Roger Dobson and Detective Mel Vilcek told Agnew directly, quote, “We’re looking for an alibi and we’re not here to dig up any kind of moral past.” Agnew gives them the alibi they request. He was with his third wife. “Obviously, we don’t want to go to your wife,” the cops tell him, expressing concern that it would be detrimental to his marriage. He says it’s okay, they should do what they need to do.

RYAN:
Agnew’s initial alibi was that he and his wife Michelle went out for dinner and then went home and shared a bottle of wine and a candlelit bath. The police asked him where they went out to eat, and he immediately changed this detail and said they ate in. He would later change the whole alibi, saying that he was at his stepdaughter’s birthday party. He also said that he hadn’t seen Stephanie Edwards in about a year, and even when he did see her, she was just one of many prostitutes he was using. The police then asked him if it was true, what they had heard from underage girls who had been friends with Stephanie, that he paid them for sex as well.

RYAN:
Yes, he admitted. She would bring other street people with her, he said. Agnew later claimed that his admission was just an effort to let the cops know he didn’t actually have it in for Stephanie, that she was nothing special to him. Just one of many. But in a separate interview, years later, he conceded that when he first heard she was dead, he felt relief. All of this pointed strongly in one direction. And then it went in a different one.

RYAN:
That summer police arrested a man named Robert Wayne Veley Jr. for the murder of Stephanie Edwards. There was copious evidence. Veley had a condom wrapper in his truck, and a matching piece of it was found at the crime scene, along with a condom that had his DNA on it. He had two receipts from a carwash from January 29th the day after the murder. He had traces of Stephanie’s blood on the inside and outside of his truck. His fiancée testified that on the night of the murder, they had an angry drunken fight and he stormed off with a tire iron. Stephanie’s injuries were consistent with blows from a tire iron. The Crown had an airtight case but Robert Wayne Veley Jr. maintained his innocence. He was sentenced to life in prison.

BRIDGET:
I don’t think Agnew killed Stephanie. The man who is incarcerated right now, he killed Stephanie. There was so much evidence. That guy was stupid.

RYAN:
Agnew Johnston was off the hook for the murder of Stephanie Edwards, but he had still confessed to other crimes. What were the cops supposed to do with that?

LICHTENFELD:
They start talking. “Well, I did this, I did that.” Okay, we have a 14-year-old, 15-year-old telling us what happened, what they did with Agnew Johnston specifically, and, uh, I don’t think they had a choice. They had the information, they had to go ahead with charges.

RYAN:
The truth is, it took six months for police to arrest and charge Agnew, six months from the day that Agnew Johnston confessed to police that he illegally bought sex from girls who the cops knew to be underage, to the day when Agnew Johnston was charged with five counts of obtaining sexual services from minors and one of attempting to do so. So what happened during that six-month period? Bridget happened.

BRIDGET:
Yeah, we told Henry Hess.

RYAN:
Henry Hess was a reporter for The Globe and Mail. Bridget and her friends blew the whistle. They told Hess everything they had done with Agnew.

BRIDGET:
Well, they needed to know. Listen, Agnew took an oath and we were starting to become afraid. Like, one of us is dead, you know? Another one’s body’s just been discovered frozen in a puddle. It just took Stephanie Edwards to die for the truth about the seedy side of the sex industry in Thunder Bay to be released. The police… Like, they immediately got a ban, right? Because it wasn’t supposed to be put out there. And how Henry Hess got a hold of it was, he… He had known that something bad happened, but he knew it was super “under wraps.” So, he came up to me and asked, and I told him. I said, “This is what’s going on.” We just gave him a candid interview but there was a publication ban. So The Globe and Mail, they went and fought to get it lifted and they got it lifted. See, the thing is, is we were portrayed as these evil little girls, plotting. And it wasn’t that.

RYAN:
Bridget’s not exaggerating about how she was portrayed in the press. After the Globe story came out nationally, the local Chronicle-Journal newspaper dedicated an entire article to a defensive Agnew through an interview with his former boss, criminal attorney Alf Petrone. Petrone said, quote, “Any hooker can ruin a person in authority just by making an accusation.” He described Agnew as a man of the “utmost integrity and loyalty.” Still, the public pressure worked. The police reopened their investigation of Agnew. A public demonstration was held. Stephanie Edwards’ parents were there, and protesters carried a coffin in front of the courthouse steps. Some protesters were there out of outrage over the Agnew Johnston case. Others were there demanding action on 30 unsolved murders, mostly of local Indigenous people.

RYAN:
So, Agnew was charged, released on bail, and went back to work. The attorney general’s office said they were too short-staffed to suspend him, so he kept working in an office where he had access to files about possible witnesses, and the girls who had given evidence against him. Every effort was made by the legal system to make this whole thing go away. The Crown offered him a very friendly deal: If he pled guilty to one charge, they would drop the rest and let him off with a conditional discharge. But Agnew, who was still drinking heavily, refused to admit any guilt, a decision he later deeply regretted. With his trial looming, he was eventually represented by lawyer Peter Ross, who decided on a “Hail Mary” defence strategy.

RYAN:
They would argue that, even though it’s illegal to solicit underage prostitutes, everyone in town was doing it. So, it was unfair to single out Agnew Johnston. Before Stephanie Edward’s death. Agnew Johnston used to hang out with two provincial court justices in judge’s chambers, and compare notes on the prostitutes they used. That’s what Agnew told Andre Lichtenfeld, according to Andre.

LICHTENFELD:
They used to have their little meetings in the judge’s chambers and discuss <chuckles> who was better, who charged, who did the better blowjob, who did the better this and that. And he said it was a common discussion amongst them. And I said, “Are you serious?” And he said, “Oh yeah. We talked about it all the time.”

RYAN:
Andre just happened to mention all of this while chatting with Agnew’s lawyer, Peter Ross. He was saying how unfair it was for Agnew to get singled out when judges, teachers and cops were doing the same thing without consequence. And that’s how Andre, by accident, became the star witness for Agnew Johnston.

LICHTENFELD:
I said, “Everyone’s down there.” He said, “Are you serious?” <chuckles> And he said, “Do you mind if I come out to your house one day and talk to you about this?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s no problem.” So, I think he took it almost at an angle that, “Okay you have one person of prominence that was charged.” And I think the way the papers read, it was, “He’s the only one of prominence that uses them.” Well, “No, he’s not.” <laughs> So, I think he kind of used that as, you know, the system singling him out, using him as a scapegoat.

RYAN:
Ross would argue that the charges should be stayed because it was a selective prosecution. He would tell the judge that it offends the community’s sense of fair play for Agnew to be put on trial for a crime so many others committed with impunity. But somehow, word of Andre’s affidavit leaked before he took the stand. Word spread throughout the legal community that a Thunder Bay police officer was about to take the stand and implicate, by name, judges, politicians and other prominent citizens as being known customers of sex workers. And that’s when the real shenanigans began.

RYAN:
At one pre-trial hearing, a fire alarm went off in the courthouse. Reporters who were covering the case all filed outside. While they were gone, the hearing was held.

RYAN:
Judge Roderick Clark later said that he didn’t hear any fire alarm. During another hearing, a court stenographer “forgot” to activate their tape recorder. At Agnew’s next court appearance, reporters were waiting in the courtroom that had been publicly listed as the one where the hearing would take place. But the time of the hearing came and went and nothing happened. Eventually, they were all informed that it had been moved, and was now over. There were a few reporters at these proceedings, but the courtrooms did have spectators. As many as 15 lawyers sat in the public gallery on behalf of their clients.

RYAN:
Who were the clients? When asked by reporters, they refused to say. The morning that Andre was set to testify, Agnew’s lawyer, Peter Ross, told him that he’d received a threatening late-night phone call from a Thunder Bay judge.

LICHTENFELD:
And he told them, if you ever want to work in Thunder Bay, no names are going to come out. They all knew I knew that they saw him down there. And so he threatened them and said, “You’ll never have any names come out. You’ll never work in Canada again.”.

RYAN:
Andre took the stand. He said he’d seen members of the judiciary with prostitutes on Simpson Street. He didn’t name names. Nobody did. For 20 years, the Thunder Bay legal community and the local and national press, chose not to identify any specific people implicated in the Agnew Johnston affair.

RYAN:
But we will. In a public court document, Andre said he saw Justice Roderick Clarke soliciting a prostitute. In a separate public court document, Bridget Perrier said she serviced Judge Clarke for money when she was still a minor. Judge Clarke is one of the judges I mentioned a moment ago, the one who held a hearing in Agnew’s case while reporters were outside the courthouse after hearing a fire alarm.

RYAN:
We asked Judge Roderick Clarke for a comment on this, and through the courts communication officer, he let us know that he completely denies these allegations. I will point out that Judge Clarke, who retired in 2008, has never been charged with this crime. In any event, Agnew’s strategy of pointing the finger at others to save himself failed. The judge at trial dismissed the argument that Agnew was being discriminated against, but he also dismissed four of the charges against Agnew. Most of them were because he deemed Agnew’s accusers to be unsavory characters with low credibility because they were prostitutes and because they did not declare their incomes from prostitution when applying for social assistance. They were teenagers.

RYAN:
Agnew was convicted of two counts of obtaining for consideration the sexual services of a person under the age of 18 years. He was sentenced to five months in prison. He served 90 days. Andre Lichtenfeld was a marked man from that day forward. He had broken the blue wall and his career on the Thunder Bay police force was never the same. A few years later, he crashed his police cruiser into a girder on the side of the St. James swing bridge while in pursuit of another vehicle. The chief had him charged with misuse of a police vehicle and conduct unbecoming of an officer. The police union, run at the time by a cop named Keith Hobbs, who would later become the mayor of Thunder Bay, declined to back him up. He had other legal problems, too: A weapons charge, and an accusation he had tampered with evidence to help a friend. It’s frankly hard to tell how much of his troubles were due to payback from his fellow cops, as Andre says, and how much were his own doing.

RYAN:
In any event, that was it for his career on the Thunder Bay police force. We spoke to him in his rural home about an hour-and-a-half north of Toronto.

RYAN:
Bridget Perrier, without whom none of this would have ever been known, had her charge against Agnew dismissed by the court. But she never suffered the indignity of being denounced by the trial judge as an unsavory character in public court. She refused to testify.

BRIDGET:
We didn’t want to testify against them. That was their job. They should have had their crown attorney on a leash. They failed, so they failed society. They failed us girls.

RYAN:
At the time, Bridget’s baby was very sick and would later die of leukemia. As a teenage mom facing a lot of issues, Bridget needed help and the person who provided it was Celina Reitberger, the Indigenous lawyer you heard earlier.

BRIDGET:
Oh, she was my son’s lawyer. <laughs> She’s a friend of mine. So, on top of us being harassed by the police, we were harassed by social services, and my son was taken away from me numerous times. So, she became Tanner’s guardian, and just made sure that he was safe. Yeah. And she… I would tell her everything, too, because I knew that if I died, or was killed, she had, like, my back.

RYAN:
So Celina became the legal guardian of Bridget’s baby. And, by the way, Celina’s husband was Alf Petrone, Agnew Johnston’s former boss, the man who called Bridget “some hooker” in the press.

BRIDGET:
He was my lawyer, too. Yeah, Alfie Petrone was my lawyer. Yeah.

RYAN:
After all that, Bridget got out of prostitution, and out of Thunder Bay. Today she runs an anti-sex-trafficking lobby group, and she travels the world fighting for her cause.

BRIDGET:
It took my son dying, and I had to run away from Thunder Bay.

CELINA:
She’s an amazing woman. She turned herself her life around and now she’s become an advocate for girls who are on the street. So, it’s pretty impressive. She’s a pretty impressive woman. She’s still around.

RYAN:
Bridget is writing a book about her life. It’s making a lot of men nervous.

BRIDGET:
I’m in the process of writing my, my memoirs. And I’ve had men from Thunder Bay, former… I won’t even call them… Okay, they’re former buyers of me… Get a hold of me and, and beg me not to use their name. And it’s, like, no. Like, I’m, I’m gonna use names because they never… And, you know, I have this argument with my family. “What about their families?” Well, what about my parents? What about me? I said to my mother, “None of them knocked on your door and said ‘Janine, can I buy Bridget so she can suck my dick? Can I get a blowjob from your daughter? Can I have sex with your daughter?’” Like, why are we protecting them?

RYAN:
Simpson Street today isn’t anything like how Bridget and Andre describe it in the 90s. There is the occasional sex worker there, or on Syndicate Avenue, or by the casino. But that’s a far cry from the wild open-air market that they remember. Bridget’s work involves monitoring the sex trade, so we ask her if it’s still a problem in Thunder Bay.

RYAN:
Human trafficking is still there and it’s even more rampant with these, you know, out-of-town boys. Because they’re bringing the ruthless game-manifest-game, you know? Like, when I say guerrilla pimping, that’s what they’re bringing to the table. They’re getting the girls addicted and they’re bringing them down south. They’re bringing them back here. And the sad thing is, these girls are now getting charged as traffickers, when they shouldn’t be charged. So, they’re using that old-school pimping. Like, not the pimping that when I was… They’re more brutal.

RYAN:
At first, we couldn’t verify any of this. We spoke to experts and academics to find out how bad a problem human trafficking is today in Thunder Bay, and what links the trade has to drugs. Nobody was really sure. Then, just as we were finishing this story, news broke that a massive human trafficking ring had been busted by a nationwide police operation.

MALE NEWSCASTER:
Forty-five charges laid against the 15, Operation Northern Spotlight. More than 300 officers engaging with 218 potential victims. The accused facing charges of forcible confinement, trafficking in persons, and assault causing bodily harm.

RYAN:
Operation Northern Spotlight, I should note, is a controversial undertaking for some sex work activists who feel it drives the sex trade further underground and makes sex workers less safe. In any event, Thunder Bay is a part of this ring, and it was reported that Thunder Bay police found a 17-year-old girl here last January, who had been trafficked here from her home in Southern Ontario. A police spokesperson called Thunder Bay “a hub’” where human trafficking and the drug trade are intertwined. It’s just as Bridget told us.

RYAN:
Finally, whatever became of Agnew Johnston? Bridget had one last encounter with Agnew.

BRIDGET:
I seen him after his fall from grace. I serviced him again. It was awkward. I was around 20 years old. I gave him a blowjob and I charged him $500, and he was, like, screwed up. Like, he’d lost everything at that point. He was, like, liquidating his house at that point. And I’d seen him and, like, he still was addicted.

RYAN:
He lost his job. Only after he was convicted did the Crown finally get rid of him. Then the Law Society held a tribunal on his license to practice law. They concluded the following: “Agnew Johnston has disgraced the name and achievements of his parents. His misconduct deals with the lives of children. Young persons need to be able to trust adults and those in positions of trust. The importance of maintaining the integrity of the legal profession in the eyes of the public requires a serious penalty. The lawyer must be disbarred.”

RYAN:
And he was. We tried for months to track Agnew down to hear his side of things, but nobody we’ve spoken to knows where he is, or if he’s even still alive. His last known lawyer never returned our calls. We know that, for years, Alf Petrone let him live in his abandoned law office in Thunder Bay’s old Lyceum Theatre, but Alf died and that grand building was sold by the city for $20,000. Today, it’s all boarded up.

RYAN:
We found a strange website Agnew posted a decade ago, but it hasn’t been updated in years and the email associated with it doesn’t work. Andre Lichtenfeld told us that he heard Agnew was working at a Thunder Bay pizza joint. But when we called, whoever picked up the phone said they’d never heard of Agnew Johnston.

RYAN:
The last word we found from him about his case was an interview he gave for a chapter in a book called “Lawyers Gone Bad.” He asked the author, Philip Slayton, “Do you think I could get readmitted to the bar? I’m thinking I’d like to move north and do legal aid for Natives.”

RYAN:
He did try to get readmitted, appealing the Law Society’s initial decision. His argument, which failed, was that the lawyer who represented him in his first tribunal was incompetent. That lawyer’s name is Chris Watkins. You may remember him. He was once the partner of another Thunder Bay lawyer who sexually assaulted a minor, named Sandy Zaitzeff.

RYAN:
These days, Chris Watkins has his own problems. News broke just a week ago, as I record this, that he was wanted by Thunder Bay police. He’s since turned himself into the cops. His license to practice law was suspended. But I guess that’s another story. Just as the story of Dan Mitchell, another Thunder Bay Crown attorney who was suspended just last year for sexual harassment, is another story. They’re all different stories, but after a while they all start to sound the same.

RYAN:
On the next, and final, episode of “Thunder Bay”…

MAN:
Everybody who lives here is trying to save Thunder Bay. Everybody. We love this place to death.

RYAN:
“Thunder Bay” is produced by Jesse Brown and hosted by me, Ryan McMahon. This episode was written by me, Jesse Brown, Kevin Sexton and Latifa Abdin. Additional research by Brigitte Noël. Music by Kris Dirksen. Mixing and sound design by Chandra Bulucon. Our work on this episode was built on journalism by many others, including Carol Sanders and Barbara Shecter, formerly of The Times-News. Henry Hess, Astanislav Oshwich, and Rudy Patel, formerly of The Globe and Mail. Jim Kelly, formerly of The Chronicle Journal and Jon Thompson of TVO. Special thanks to Tim Groves. Special thanks to the Minds of Madness podcast for helping spread the word about this show. You should check out that terrific podcast, too. CANADALAND’s managing editor is Kevin Sexton. We investigate, report and podcast with

Convert audio to text with Sonix. Sonix is the best online audio transcription software

Sonix accurately transcribed the audio file, “Chapter 4 – The Ruthless Game.mp3” , using cutting-edge AI. Get a near-perfect transcript in minutes, not hours or days when you use Sonix. Sonix is the industry-leading audio-to-text converter. Signing up for a free trial is easy.

Convert mp3 to text with Sonix

For audio files (such as “Chapter 4 – The Ruthless Game.mp3”), thousands of researchers and podcasters use Sonix to automatically transcribe mp3 their audio files. Easily convert your mp3 file to text or docx to make your media content more accessible to listeners.

Best audio transcription software: Sonix

Researching what is “the best audio transcription software” can be a little overwhelming. There are a lot of different solutions. If you are looking for a great way to convert mp3 to text , we think that you should try Sonix. They use the latest AI technology to transcribe your audio and are one my favorite pieces of online software.

More from this series
The verdict arrives in the trial that everyone’s talking about. Can there be justice? As Thunder Bay grapples with the truth about itself, people are still dying. Kids are still dying. So where do we go from here?
December 15, 2020
When a system is broken, you can work outside of it to create something new, or you can try to change it from within. But what happens when you need the system?
November 30, 2020
It’s infamous as the homicide and hate crime capital of Canada. And now, Thunder Bay has been officially diagnosed as racist. But so what? Does knowing this mean that anything will change? Welcome to Canada's first post-truth town.
November 16, 2020
New stories from Thunder Bay. Coming November, 2020.
October 18, 2020
A new investigative series about the cocaine smuggling ring inside Vice Media.
March 1, 2020
Different city, different secrets.
October 27, 2019
What if Thunder Bay isn't broken?  What if it's working just as it's supposed to?
November 25, 2018
Agnew Johnston was a lawyer who represented the state against criminals. But he was a criminal himself, paying underage girls for sex. His defence? Everybody in Thunder Bay is doing it, so why are you picking on me? The story of a case that implicated Thunder Bay's elite. 
November 12, 2018
all podcasts arrow All Podcasts
Thunder Bay