Stolen trust. Lost cases: How a Toronto cop stole from his force, fed an addiction and wasn’t charged

Growing number of officers have been caught stealing drugs police have taken off the streets, transforming their forces' evidence lockers into crime scenes.

December 6, 2021

On his final day as a Toronto police officer, Det. Paul Worden sat down to an interview unlike any other in his 31-year career. Inside an Etobicoke conference room on a Friday in late January, he met with two other detectives — officers from the force's professional standards unit, the team that investigates cops.

At the beginning of that week, Worden had been prepping for an upcoming murder trial. It was among the scores of homicides the decorated officer had investigated as one of the longest-serving detectives on the squad, where he'd poured his efforts and hours into securing convictions. By Friday, his retirement papers were filled out, and he was the one being questioned.

The detectives turned on a recorder at 11:29 a.m.

That week, the unit in charge of Toronto police's network of seized property had brought forward troubling allegations against Worden. They'd picked up on a series of suspicious entries into evidence lockers inside police stations all across the city. Worden had been caught taking drug evidence — consistently, highly addictive oxycodone or Percocet pills.

"I thought that if I took out stuff that was due for destruction, it wouldn't harm anybody, and nobody would notice they're gone," Worden told the detectives.

Documents recently unsealed by an Ontario court provide new details about a controversial internal police probe that ended with no charges — including a 96-page transcript of that Friday-morning interview, in which Worden revealed how he'd sourced, then stolen, drugs from evidence lockers across town. Fuelled, Worden explained, by an addiction to prescription painkillers, he'd been taking the opioids for himself. He'd tried to take from inactive cases. But he'd also admitted to stealing drugs from ongoing investigations, including two homicide cases he was personally working.

The incident is the latest of a concerning trend: a small but growing number of officers have been caught stealing drugs police have taken off the streets, transforming their forces' evidence lockers into crime scenes. In 2017, a Halton police staff sergeant was arrested after swiping oxycodone from the drug vault he was entrusted to protect. In 2018, a Kawartha Lakes constable was arrested for taking $5,000 worth of hydromorphone tablets from a local pharmacy where he was investigating drug tampering. Last fall, a Toronto cop was discovered "vital signs absent" from a fentanyl overdose after stealing drugs from a major bust.

The thefts underscore the reach of a surging opioid epidemic indifferent to age, class or profession, and the risks of addiction for first-responders — including on-the-job injuries that result in prescription painkillers. They are also serious offense, representing a grave violation of public trust, one that can send ripple effects through the justice system, undermining the work of fellow officers and threatening, or collapsing, criminal prosecutions.

The fallout from Worden's thefts is only starting to be known. In his account to professional standards, he describes thinking of his actions as victimless — that by taking drugs from cases that were closed, or where they played a minor role, he'd believed there was no harm. That wasn't true. Federal prosecutors say his thefts contributed to six drug cases folding. Toronto police estimated that as many as 17 cases could be affected. In court, Worden admitted to stealing drugs as many as 20 times.

And the family of Toronto teen Jack Meldrum says it has been left feeling denied a chance at justice over their son's senseless stabbing. They had hoped for closure in a murder trial set to begin this year, but it was delayed at the last minute because of the investigation into Worden's thefts, and the case later ended with a plea — an outcome that's left Meldrum's family haunted by unanswered questions.

Unlike other officers caught stealing drugs from the evidence locker, Worden swiftly retired and was not criminally charged. That decision by Toronto police was lauded by some, including his lawyer, as a "progressive" recognition of a medical condition. But it has raised significant concerns among many in the legal community, who say Toronto police's handling shows an obvious double standard, proving that leniency for crimes involving addiction is being granted only to a select few.

Days after Worden's thefts were discovered, Toronto police tapped the Ontario Provincial Police to review "the entire matter," including the decision not to charge him and the vulnerabilities of the evidence locker system. Also under review: the impact of the detective's actions on criminal cases.

Worden told the detectives he "knew it's wrong, so I shouldn't do it."

"I never did until the addiction outweighs your common sense," he said.

Worden's thefts were discovered in mid-January soon after he walked out the back door of a North York police station carrying nine property bags containing drugs including codeine. In retrospect, he knew it didn't feel right. "I took a lot more than I ever had before," Worden told the detectives.

The suspicious removal, noticed within 48 hours and traced back to Worden, helped set in motion a review by Toronto police's property management unit, which prepared a spreadsheet of the officer's locker entries, finding 32 "suspicious transactions" dating back to 2018, according to a Toronto police report. On Jan. 26, 2021, the unit contacted the Toronto police professional standards unit to advise them of Worden's "irregular" entries. That night, Worden was called in to a meeting at police headquarters. He was immediately suspended from duty.

Now, three days later, he was giving what's called a compelled statement to professional standards, alongside Peter Brauti, one of Ontario's most sought-after police lawyers. Worden had agreed to detail how he'd removed drugs from the lockers, but had gotten immunity from criminal charges. "Neither your answers nor the fruits of an investigation arising from your answers can be used against you in any criminal proceeding," Det.-Sgt. Jordan Latter told him.

Worden started at the beginning. Fifteen years before, at age 40, he'd suffered the first in a series of injuries to his shoulder. It called for rotator cuff surgery, and his doctor prescribed him Percocet, a brand name for a high-strength painkiller containing the opioid oxycodone. Through the years, Worden kept reinjuring his shoulder, including one time during work, at use-of-force training. The injuries led to more surgeries. The surgeries led to more painkillers.

Over time, the prescriptions weren't enough, Worden explained. He was running through his pills early, then going through withdrawal. On top of the pain, Worden said he was going through stress from personal issues, and the pace of the homicide squad was unrelenting. Amid Toronto's rising murder count, his workload increased from 20 to 25 cases a year. When a new call came in, he could be up for 40 hours straight chasing leads; when cases went to trial, it meant long days in court. "I was taking more medication to get through the days, to work," he said.

One day, Worden told the detectives, he logged into a Toronto police network that catalogues seized property held force-wide, giving those with access a snapshot of what's being held in stations across the city. Clicking around, Worden said he noticed he could see the description of property — including if an evidence bag contained drugs, and sometimes specific details about what kind. He could also see when any item was marked for destruction, meaning it was no longer needed for a case, and would soon be picked up by a courier from the station.

He realized he could show up, enter the locker and take the drugs before the courier showed up. He told the detectives he thought it wouldn't be noticed, and "wouldn't harm anybody." He stressed he was acting entirely alone.

Homicide investigators often move in and out of police divisions. They go wherever murders happen, setting up temporary operations centres inside the local station in the division where the killing occurred, and many have an access card to property lockers. "If I knew where (the evidence locker) was, I would just walk to it," Worden said. "And if I didn't, I'd... show my badge. 'Det. Worden. Can you tell me where your property locker room is?' And they told me."

Once he'd taken the narcotics, Worden explained, he would strike them off the property report that listed what the courier was picking up, so that they'd assume there'd been a last-minute change.

"The courier would just think, 'Oh, they must not have put that in,' and they would just take the other stuff," Worden said.

But Worden hadn't solely been taking drugs set to be destroyed. Occasionally, when he couldn't find what he needed, he said he would remove them from active cases. Worden said he tried to find ones where "in the overall aspect of the case, (the drugs) were minor."

He'd also admitted to taking evidence from two active homicide cases, dating his thefts back to a 2009 homicide. Worden told investigators he'd swiped "less than five pills" soon after the murder of Gerald Brown. The Yorkville dentist was killed by a younger man who he'd been supplying opioids to in exchange for sexual favours, according to the transcript. There had been a lot of pills at the scene, Worden said, and "we had lots of other evidence." Worden also later admitted to taking three or four Percocet pills connected to a 2018 homicide he'd investigated.

"In this process," Latter asked, "did you ever consider that it may affect the cases that are ongoing?"

"I considered it. That's why I tried to be particular about the case," Worden said. "I didn't think they would be missed."

Even as the frequency of his thefts rose through late 2020 and into the new year, Worden apparently eluded detection, though there had been a close call. In October 2020, Worden took nine oxycodone pills due to be destroyed at an east-end station, and the removal was somehow noticed by another officer. Seeing through the entry record that Worden had gone in there, the officer called to ask about the missing property. Worden said there'd been a "mix-up" and he'd bring back the drugs. He returned and replaced the stolen pills with nine of his own from a prescription.

Latter asked Worden if the incident scared him off.

"No. That's what kind of gave me the confidence that this was a viable plan," Worden replied. "I seemed to be getting away with it."

Several recent cases of officers charged for stealing narcotics have involved Ontario cops who specialized in drug investigations, an irony not lost on judges. The thefts have presented a distinct challenge for the courts: balancing the officers' circumstances with condemnation of a serious crime.

As a supervisor of the Halton drug unit, Staff Sgt. Brad Murray had helped run a program encouraging citizens to drop unwanted medications at a pharmacy before he was arrested for stealing opioids from the drug vault. In 2018, he was granted a conditional discharge after he pleaded guilty to breach of trust for stealing 44 oxycodone tablets for personal use. His fingerprints were found on the property bag after he'd attempted to replace the drugs with decoy pills.

"Reality set in when I heard the words 'Brad Murray I am arresting you,'" Murray wrote in a candid apology letter sent to the entire Halton police force this year after resigning. "I could not believe that I had let this get so out of control."

Const. Jeff Burke was the lone drug officer at the Kawartha Lakes police service when he was convicted of breach of trust in 2019 after he stole cocaine and fentanyl from his force's evidence locker. He also swiped more than 1,500 hydromorphone tablets from a local pharmacy, where he'd been investigating a complaint that someone had been tampering with narcotics. The judge on his case noted Burke had been the sole drug cop in "a community ravaged by drug trafficking and addiction."

"In a cruel twist of fate, Officer Burke broke the trust of his community by stealing the drugs he was helping to get off the street — only to fuel his own addiction," the judge said.

Like Worden, both officers said their addiction began with a prescription. Murray was given Percocets for a series of injuries, some that happened on the job. Burke was prescribed opioids after a routine dental procedure, which he then combined with anxiety medication after suffering two serious on-the-job injuries, including a machete attack and being shot in the leg — incidents that gave him post-traumatic stress disorder. The disorder was a significant mitigating factor in sentencing for both officers: Murray, too, was diagnosed with PTSD, including for an incident where he responded to an "incredibly gruesome" scene where a child had been run over by a bus.

In recent years, police services have increased mental health and addiction supports as a realization has taken root: that policework exposes officers to line-of-duty injuries and repeated exposure to trauma, factors that are frequently cited by officers who say their addictions led them to crime.

Ontario police also know lives could be on the line. In 2017, Toronto police Const. Michael Thompson, a 37-year-old drug squad officer, died in his home in Durham Region from a fentanyl overdose. Although Toronto police say it wasn't possible to determine where he obtained the drugs that killed him, Thompson had regular access to street-level narcotics. After his death, Toronto police reviewed its protocol on how drug squad officers handle evidence, and then-chief Mark Saunders said he'd explore the possibility of drug testing officers, saying: "I don't want to lose any officers to anything, especially drugs of any kind."

Last fall, it nearly happened again. Court records obtained by the Star reveal that on Sept. 2, 2020, Toronto police Const. Lorenzino Censoni stole drugs that had been seized in "Project Sunder," an ambitious provincial guns and gangs initiative that netted scores of weapons and drugs. Censoni, a former drug squad officer, had helped weigh and document some of the seized drugs. The next day, he returned to the evidence locker and made small tears in two bags he thought contained cocaine. Hours later, after he failed to return home from his shift, colleagues found Censoni 50 metres from the station, inside his black Jeep Wrangler, unresponsive and bleeding from his nose. Next to him was white powder and a rolled-up evidence receipt from the Project Sunder seizure.

Paramedics restarted Censoni's heart. But the officer, in his early 50s, had suffered two cardiac arrests and was at one point "vital signs absent" — essentially, dead. Bloodwork later showed he'd ingested fentanyl. He was placed in an induced coma, remained in hospital for a month, then resigned earlier this year after pleading guilty to theft and unlawful possession of fentanyl. Also represented by Brauti, Censoni got a 12-month conditional sentence.

It's not yet known if Censoni's actions could impact any Project Sunder cases, which are ongoing. But prosecutions were put in jeopardy — or completely tossed out — by Murray and Burke's thefts.

"The community in Lindsay was deprived of justice in eight cases because of the conduct of Officer Burke," wrote the judge, handing him a sentence of 12-months' house arrest. There could be victims silenced by "aborted prosecutions," the judge said, or individuals "still on the street trafficking or buying illegal drugs putting the community at risk."

"It is not something that I can easily overlook because of an addiction," the judge said.

***

Steve Meldrum's voice broke as he addressed the Ontario Superior Court on a drizzly April morning. It was among the hardest days of his life, resurfacing some of the same emotions he'd felt the moment he learned his son was dead. He was angry. He was confused. And Jack was gone.

This moment — a chance to address the court, the judge and the youth involved in 15-year-old Jack Meldrum's killing — was nowhere near what Steve and the Meldrum family had imagined. They'd sought closure and clarity from a trial. They hadn't gotten it.

"I feel like a hostage," the father told the virtual court in his victim impact statement. "I'm a hostage in my mind because I know things that I can't unknow. I have seen things I cannot unsee."

A three-week, judge-alone homicide trial had been set to begin two months before, on Feb. 8. A youth, who cannot be identified under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, was charged in the senseless August 2018 stabbing near Etobicoke's Sherway Gardens mall that killed Jack Meldrum and Kristopher Quiroz-Brown, 19.

But on the eve of trial, there had been a sudden development. Prosecutors learned that one of the homicide investigators — Worden — was under investigation. The trial couldn't go ahead.

"Your Honour, unfortunately, Friday afternoon we were advised that one of the officers in investigating this murder is being investigated by professional standards," Sarah Leece told the court on the morning the trial was set to begin. The Crown now needed time to disclose any potentially relevant information to the defence.

News of the 11th-hour adjournment was called "leg-breaking" by Daniel Heath, one of the lawyers for the youth. "It is probably trite for me to say so, but it's deeply concerning," he told the court, noting that the delay put his client "right up against the 30-month wall" — the Supreme Court of Canada limit on how long a person accused of a serious crime, including murder, can wait to be prosecuted. Any longer and cases can be tossed unless the Crown can prove exceptional circumstances. Prosecutors are "well aware, I'm sure," of the implications of this delay, Heath told the court.

Jack Meldrum's parents and younger siblings were watching as the case ground to a sudden halt. In the hellish months after they lost Jack, a lanky, six-foot-three high school student who adored his brother and sister, the Meldrum family had shifted its focus to the court process, seeking justice. In February 2020, they'd attended preliminary hearings inside the Finch Avenue West courtroom, seeking to know the details of Jack's final moments. Throughout, Steve had scribbled extensive notes as a white-faced golden retriever, the court's emotional support dog, comforted Jack's sister Stella and mother Susan.

The family listened as the Crown built a case that, to them, seemed strong. The Crown had alleged that Jack had purchased about an ounce of marijuana from the youth, and that the youth had planned to rob him and brought along Quiroz-Brown to assist. Among the evidence the Crown said it would rely on was an alleged confession the youth had made to stabbing Meldrum once and accidentally striking Quiroz-Brown, inflicting the fatal wound to the back of his leg. At trial, an alleged confession of this kind could be strongly contested by the defence, but the bar is lower at a preliminary hearing, where a judge determines only if a jury could reasonably believe the evidence. An Ontario court judge ruled the youth should stand trial for both homicides, but stressed: "ultimate determinations about his guilt or innocence will be made at trial."

The trial never happened. After the last-minute delay, the trial was first rescheduled, then, on March 22, it was resolved with a plea.

The youth pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Meldrum's killing, a charge downgraded from the second-degree murder count he'd faced, and the manslaughter charge in Quiroz-Brown's death was dropped. An agreed statement of facts was read out, stating that all three young men arrived with knives. On this point, David Maubach, a lawyer for the youth included a qualification: his client "did not ever brandish or use a knife or any other weapon at any time during this incident." The youth received a sentence of time-served with credit of 24 months in custody and one year's probation. The agreed facts also said that, had he lived, police intended to charge Quiroz-Brown with second-degree murder in Meldrum's death (because he was deceased, Quiroz-Brown had no legal representation during the negotiation of the agreed statement of facts).

It's impossible to know all of the factors that led to the youth's plea. Negotiations between defence counsel and prosecutors are privileged, and legal experts not connected to the case told the Star there are often multiple factors involved in any decision to strike a plea deal, particularly in complex homicide cases. That includes other challenges the Crown may have faced with the evidence or witnesses. Steve Meldrum told the Star that during the "devastating" meeting where the family was informed the trial was off, the Crown explained in part that the delay had pushed the case past the Supreme court deadline, putting it in peril. (A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General did not respond to questions about the outcome because it was a youth case.)

But the Meldrum family will forever wonder what could have happened if the trial had not been delayed in the first place. Instead, they're left unable to reconcile the evidence they'd heard at the preliminary hearing with the admitted facts of the plea. The outcome, the Meldrums later explained, has left them without closure.

With no trial, "we, the families, unwillingly forfeit our chance to truly find out what happened that night, and the motive behind the attack," Finn, Jack's younger brother, told the court in April. "As you can imagine, that's not easy on us."

Likewise, a relative of Quiroz-Brown lamented the loss of a loved young man who would never get married, have children, or see the world — "Kristopher paid the ultimate price for the events that transpired that day," she said.

Susan Rampersaud, Jack's mom, wept throughout her 25-minute statement. She spoke to the virtual court from her living room, surrounded by enlarged photos of her firstborn child.

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