Elliot Lake mall owner targeted by police

Search warrants filed in court identify Bob Nazarian as a key ‘suspect’ in the roof-collapse criminal investigation
Bob Nazarian, owner of the ill-fated Algo Centre Mall, talks to his son at the inquiry into the mall’s collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont., on Tuesday, July 23, 2013. CREDIT: Colin Perkel/CP
Colin Perkel/CP
Colin Perkel/CP

The real estate investor who owned the decrepit shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., when it collapsed, killing two women and injuring many others, has been identified by police as a prime suspect in their ongoing criminal investigation, according to court documents obtained by Maclean’s.

Search warrants executed by the Ontario Provincial Police reveal that Asadoor “Bob” Nazarian, 69, is under investigation for potential criminal negligence for failing “to maintain the structural integrity” of the Algo Centre, and failing to “take sufficient steps to remedy known deficiencies” in the building’s notoriously leaky rooftop parking lot. A resident of Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, Nazarian purchased the doomed plaza in 2005; a portion of the parking deck caved in seven years later, crushing to death Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37.

A sworn affidavit written by an OPP officer assigned to the Algo Centre case says “investigators have identified” Nazarian as a “suspect” in the probe, now more than two years old. “The magnitude of the investigation has proven to be extremely large and complicated,” wrote Det.-Const. Allan Gelinas. “The offence being investigated in this matter is criminal negligence causing death contrary to section 220(b) of the Criminal Code.”

Nazarian has not been charged, and may never be. Reached by telephone, he declined to discuss the continuing police investigation. “I cannot talk to you,” he said. “I have been told not to talk to the press.”

The Elliot Lake inquiry released its final report last week, a sweeping, damning indictment that implicated a long list of characters, from shoddy engineers to bumbling city officials to successive owners who knew the roof was a structural risk but refused to pay for repairs. As commissioner Paul Bélanger concluded: “The real story behind the collapse is one of human, not material, failures.”

While many locals welcomed the findings, Bélanger’s scathing conclusions triggered the obvious question: If so many were “greedy,” “negligent” and “incompetent,” why haven’t police laid more criminal charges?

Bélanger’s mandate was to discover the truth about June 23, 2012, and issue recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies; it is up to the OPP, independent of the public inquiry, to gather evidence for prosecutions. So far, police have charged only one person: Robert Wood, a former engineer who inspected the mall just 10 weeks before the failure, and concluded that the steel beams supporting the parking deck were “structurally sound.” (He faces two counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.)

But the search-warrant documents obtained by Maclean’s shed new light on the ongoing OPP investigation—and why it appears that only one other person, Nazarian, has been fingered as a criminal suspect.

Police seized thousands of documents from dozens of locations in the weeks after the collapse, including boxes of files and computer equipment from Nazarian’s home, his son’s office, and the hotel attached to the mall. “I reasonably believe that an examination and analysis of these devices will afford evidence in relation” to the offence of criminal negligence, wrote Det.-Const. James Hambleton, another member of the investigative team.

By the summer of 2013, more than a year after the collapse, police had interviewed 800 people and collected enough evidence to fill a 10-terabyte hard drive. “To date, investigators have identified two suspects in the Algo Centre Mall investigation, Bob Nazarian (the owner of the mall) and Bob Wood (the engineer who conducted the most recent inspection of the mall),” Gelinas wrote in his affidavit, dated Aug. 26, 2013. “Investigators have reviewed a great deal of the evidence and information collected thus far in the investigation. However, given the complexity and sheer magnitude of the investigation, further time is required to properly assess the totality of evidence.”

Wood was arrested five months later, in January 2014, and released pending trial. Building a possible case against Nazarian, however, has proven far more complicated because his Elliot Lake lawyer, Antoine-René Fabris, has claimed that some of the seized material is covered by solicitor-client privilege. Nearly 2½ years after police executed their search warrants, at least 738 documents remain sealed, off limits to investigators pending a ruling on whether they are indeed privileged.

In July, the Ontario Attorney-General’s office filed an application in Superior Court, asking a judge to “review the seized documents in order to resolve and rule upon the issue of privilege.” (Not all correspondence between lawyers and clients is automatically covered by privilege; only those records that discuss legal advice are confidential.) A court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 29 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

The original search warrants were filed in court as part of the Crown’s application.

Fabris did not respond to messages left by Maclean’s, so it’s not clear if he continues to claim privilege over all the sealed records. The Crown lawyer on the file, David Kirk, forwarded inquiries to a ministry spokesman.

Roger Oatley, a lawyer for the Perizzolo and Aylwin families, said he hopes police thoroughly investigate all potential criminal behaviour—especially in light of Bélanger’s harsh conclusions. “Any criminal responsibility, as far as the families are concerned, should be borne more widely by a number of people who could have prevented this tragedy,” Oatley says. “They are certainly pleased that charges have been laid against the engineer; they will be equally pleased if there are charges against Mr. Nazarian. But the families’ position is that the most responsible party is the city of Elliot Lake. It is incomprehensible that the city did virtually nothing to protect people using that building.”