Not Guilty: Two acquitted in 2015 Project Harden drug raid

In this May 2015, file photo, firefighters help O.P.P. officers with a ladder as they take the letters off Cedar's On Wheels after a drug and firearms bust. Two men have been acquitted in their alleged involvement in the operation. (Cornwall Newswatch/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – Two men, accused of being involved in a 2015 cocaine and handgun trafficking ring operating out of a shawarma restaurant on Pitt Street, have been found not guilty of drug trafficking.

Judge Franco Giamberardino delivered his verdict today (Wednesday) following the trial of 40-year-old Paul Nassif and 42-year-old Hussein Yassin.

Nassif and Yassin were am ong eight people arrested in May 2015 during a multi-jurisdictional police raid dubbed Project Harden.

Nassif and Yassin were both initially charged with cocaine possession, cocaine possession for the purpose of trafficking and possession of proceeds of crime. Nassif faced an additional charge of possession of Fentanyl for the purpose of trafficking.

In his verdict, Giamberardino noted that the Crown withdrew its charge of possession for the purpose of trafficking against both men, because it was established at the end of the second day of the trial that Pierre Nassif, Paul’s brother, was connected to the cocaine seized.

“This, is my view, is a significant moment in this trial. It serves to highlight that the target of this investigation was Pierre Nassif, indeed, virtually all aspects of the evidence…involved communications…between the police agent and Pierre Nassif,” Giamberardino said.

Pierre Nassif was sentenced in October 2016 to five-and-a-half years in prison.

Giamberardino also had problems with the testimony of the Crown’s key witness – referred to by the judge as “police agent” Owen Jesmer.

Jesmer had been wearing a wire while conducting deals at the Cedar’s On Wheels location at 309 Pitt Street. His main objective was to deal with Pierre Nassif.

“It became apparent to me that Project Harden not only focused on Cedar’s but focused on Pierre Nassif. There were only a few instances where either Paul Nassif or Hussein Yassin were possibly involved in drug transactions. I had to caution myself against allowing the ever-present specter of Pierre Nassif and the very strong evidence against him, colour the evidence against the other men in this proceeding,” Giamberardino said.

The judge felt the police agent (Jesmer) had a “poor independent recollection of events” and mixed up Pierre and Paul Nassif in his testimony. The judge also noted Jesmer’s previous criminal record and outstanding charges “it appeared that they involved ” cocaine trafficking – charges that were eventually stayed. Later in his ruling, Giamberardino agreed with the defence, called him an “unsavory witness”.

As for the police-recorded conversations by Jesmer, Giamberardino said the two entered as evidence were “frustrating to listen to” and some portions were “cryptic” and “unintelligible”. “I was troubled by the unintelligible entries on the transcript (of the recording),” he said.

As for the Fentanyl trafficking charge, the judge accepted Paul Nassif’s testimony he had a large amount for an upcoming trip to Lebanon. Nassif has “chronic back and neck injuries” traced back to a car accident and lifting automotive parts. A prescription was also entered into evidence during the trial.

“As a general observation, I am certainly prepared to say, this was a professional, well-organized Project (Harden). The investigation involving Pierre Nassif was first rate. What becomes more difficult to characterize is the remaining small moving parts of this investigation that involved Hussein Yassin and Paul Nassif,” the judge said.

As for the restaurant operation, Giamberardino felt Cedar’s On Wheels was a “proper operating restaurant serving Lebanese style foods” and that both men were “working at least in some capacity” at the restaurant.

Giamberardino said the front of the building presented as “clean and organized” but “other parts of the building were messy, disorganized and some photos would reflect areas that were downright filthy.”

Between the events that transpired on the problematic recordings and the questionable testimony of the Crown’s key witness, Owen Jesmer, Giamberardino felt the Crown didn’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“To rely exclusively on him (Jesmer) in the absence of other comforting, credible evidence would be dangerous in my view. The police through their tight surveillance and best efforts at recordings go some way to relieving concerns but ultimately, in my view, don’t go far enough,” the judge said.