Accused went to police for protection, but later confessed to his role in the crime
A man accused of murder has lost his bid to get his confession to police thrown out, and the hearing where that was decided has pulled back the curtain on the shadowy world of the witness protection program.
Vince Shawyer is charged with first-degree murder and arson.
He’s accused of shooting Phillipp Woehrle in Edmonton on May 8, 2012, then setting the house on fire.
In the months after the killing, Shawyer went from a frightened witness seeking protection to a prime suspect who finally confessed to his role in the crime.
Shawyer’s defence team tried last week to get that confession thrown out. The hearing, held in an Edmonton courtroom, provided a rare glimpse into a program shrouded in secrecy.
So much secrecy, in fact, that CBC and CTV had to hire a lawyer just to be allowed to listen to some of the testimony during the voir dire, a kind of trial within a trial to determine admissibility of evidence.
“The public has a right to know the program exists, but does not have a right to know how it operates,” Alberta Justice lawyer Hillary Flaherty told the court.
How the story unfolded
The story started more than three years ago.
Vince Shawyer spoke of being too scared to breathe. He said he was on the run. He claimed he had just witnessed a murder and thought he could be next.
“I was terrified of everything,” he later said. “I was afraid to go anywhere. I was afraid to talk to people.”
With nowhere to turn, Shawyer decided to talk to Edmonton police. On June 18, 2012, he was interviewed by homicide detective Don Curle.
Shawyer painted himself as a scared victim, an unwitting witness to a horrible crime. Police thought he might need protection. So Shawyer was referred to the Edmonton Police Source Protection Unit.
That same day, he was interviewed by Officer X and Officer Y — their identities are protected by a court order. The officers decided to apply for Shawyer to be admitted to the Alberta Witness Protection Program.
The officers took responsibility for Shawyer’s safety while he waited to be formally admitted.
They gave him a new place to live in an undisclosed location, a $480 weekly allowance to cover his expenses and advice on how to lay low and stay out of trouble. In exchange, he had to sign an agreement that laid out all the terms and conditions.
In the voir dire hearing, Officer X testified: “We would explain that we are there for his protection, safety and security. We would be explaining the expectations we have of him with respect to admission to the program. Rules of contact, that sort of thing.”
Another key expectation was honest co-operation with investigators. Without that, the person hoping for witness protection could be removed from the program.
As the police murder investigation continued, Det. Curle got new evidence and began to think of Shawyer as a possible person of interest, rather than a witness. He asked Officers X and Y to contact Shawyer and bring him in for another interview. The second interview took place in an undisclosed location on July 11, 2012.
‘I’m being charged?’
“In his mind, he walks into the interview as a co-operating witness. He needs to co-operate or he loses the benefit of the witness protection program,” defence lawyer Clinton Bauman argued in court last week.
At the beginning of the interview, Shawyer was told he might be charged with murder, arson and accessory after the fact. He was incredulous.
“I’m being charged?” he asked.
Curle replied, “No, it says you may be charged.”
Shawyer was also surprised when the officer told him he was being detained. Even so, he decided he didn’t need to call a lawyer.
It took five hours, but Shawyer ultimately incriminated himself. He admitted he was involved in a marijuana grow operation at a rental house in Inglewood. He explained the drug ring was angry with Phillipp Woehrle because he had failed to pay the rent, so an eviction notice had been issued. While Woehrle was on vacation in Mexico, the grow op was dismantled.
On May 11 that year, Woehrle returned to an empty house. The boss sent Shawyer and Thaven Gardiner back to the house late at night to deal with Woehrle.
In the videotaped interview with Det. Curle, Shawyer said, “Phil wasn’t supposed to end up dead. He was supposed to be beaten up.”
Shawyer told the detective the plan was to assault Woehrle, then handcuff him to a pole in the basement. He repeatedly insisted he wanted no part of the violence, that he’s “not a fighter.”
“I did not want to be part of this,” Shawyer said. “They terrify me. If they can do that, I’m nothing. If there’s a ladder, I’m at the bottom. I’m holding it.”
He admitted he had a gun stuffed in his waistband during a scuffle with Woehrle, but insisted Gardiner was the only one who fired a weapon. One shot grazed the victim’s chest and the other hit the 28-year-old in the back when he was trying to get away.
‘I thought he was dead’
Shawyer said, “Then Thaven kicked Phil downstairs. I thought he was dead.”
He admitted he went along with an order to return to the house later to set the fire. After that, he left town.
“I wanted nothing to do with those guys anymore,” he told the detective. “I’ve been feeling pretty trapped ever since.”
The police withdrew their support for Shawyer’s admission to the witness protection program in September 2012. He was charged with first-degree murder and arson in December 2013.
During the voir dire, Shawyer’s lawyers argued the videotaped confession their client made to police was involuntary and should be ruled inadmissible.
Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson told the judge Shawyer was a liar.
“He continues to string along an enormous number of lies,” Finlayson said. “That’s a voluntary decision by him.”
In the end, Justice Adam Germaine agreed with the Crown. He ruled it would be dangerous to accept the notion that getting witness protection automatically rules out the admissibility of any statement made to police.
The confession will be entered as evidence at Shawyer’s trial, if it goes ahead as scheduled on Feb. 1, 2016.
Police may never know who pulled the trigger and killed Phillipp Woehrle. Last month, Shawyer’s co-accused, Thaven Gardiner, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was given a nine-year prison sentence.
As a result of last week’s voir dire hearing, the cloak of secrecy that surrounds the witness protection program has been at least partially removed.