One of the most active prosecutors in the fight against the drug trade in Canada during the 1950s and 1960s was Saskatchewan lawyer Wilfred Heffernan. Hired by the federal government to prosecute all drug cases in western Canada, it was Heffernan who, at their first appearance in New Westminster court on December 23, 1965, read the charges to Dr Robert Henry MacLauchlan, Margaret Anne Cunningham (who married the doctor several weeks later) and their associate, long time criminal Joseph Sperling. All had been charged with trafficking in narcotics. As the Columbian (New Westminster’s paper of record at that time) reported:
After a 15-minute recess, while the court waited for special RCMP prosecutor Wilfred Heffernan, the three were crowded into the tiny witness box to hear the charge laid against them.
During the whole of his half-hour court appearance, MacLauchlan, wearing a grey suit without a tie, and Sperling, a thin man wearing a dark overcoat, appeared unmoved.
After reading of the charge Heffernan asked Magistrate Holmes to set bail for MacLauchlan and Sperling at $25,000 each and bail for Mrs. Cunningham at $2000.
Lawyers Nick Mussallem and Raymond Westaway, on behalf of the accused, objected to such heavy bail being set for MacLauchlan and Sperling.
In July 1971, Nick Mussallem was appointed to the BC Provincial Court, where he acquired a reputation for demonstrating first and foremost that the presumption of innocence was not some tiresome legal fiction to which lip-service must be paid but was the golden rule in his court.
In contrast, such an attitude apparently did not come naturally to Wilfred Heffernan. According to the memoirs of former BC Supreme Court Judge Thomas Berger, who as a young lawyer crossed swords on occasion with Heffernan, the prosecutor “[was] nettled whenever I was successful. He seemed to think it was a failure of justice whenever an accused person was acquitted.”
During the 1950s Heffernan prosecuted many of the eastern Canadian criminals who were members of the Montreal-based drug trafficking gangs. For example, on June 20, 1956, Heffernan led the prosecuting side in the case against Jean Paul Chevrier, Vincent Valois, Robert Tremblay, Marcel Frenette, James Malgren and Lucien Mayer – all of whom had been included in a 34 person police roundup the year before.
On occasion Heffernan received death threats from the criminal organizations he was doing legal battle with. Following his career with the federal Department of Justice, he joined the prestigious Vancouver law firm of Russell and DuMoulin, now known as Fasken Martineau.
Wilfred Heffernan died August 16, 1973 in Vancouver at the age of 70. Ken and I are eager for contact with any of Wilfred Heffernan’s family, friends or legal associates who might have anecdotes they are willing to share about this crusading prosecutor. Just check out our contact information on the home page of this website.
Wilfred Heffernan was an avid hockey player in his youth. In the photo above, which is courtesy of the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, Heffernan is the fourth player from the left.