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incident scene Apr. 19/incident scene Jan. 31

By  BERNIE BELLAN (Originally Posted April 21; updated Apr. 22; updated Apr. 24, updated Apr. 25; updated Apr. 25 evening; updated Apr. 26)  Posted Apr. 26: I've now realized that everything I've been saying about the Berents not having staged the attack on their own restaurant is undoubtedly wrong. It's not easy to admit that I was so wrong, but I will, and here's why:

 

 

 

I know that I've been writing as if I've been trying to solve a mystery re BerMax but something just dawned on me that will probably prove that the Berents did stage the whole thing: Maxim said the restaurant was totally dark when his mother was attacked. But I saw all the graffiti on the walls, on the floor - and it was everywhere. That would have to mean the attackers found the lights to all the rooms or they worked with flashlights (and how likely is that?) - and I was in every room when the lights were off; it was hard to find the light switches. And, why would the attackers turn on the lights only to draw attention to themselves with those huge windows at BerMax? Also, there was a safe in Maxim's office that was open. How did that safe get open, I wonder? It would have taken quite a long time for the attackers to trash the place, draw the graffiti - and get the safe open. And, if his mother had fainted, as she claims, how long would that have lasted? Long enough for the attackers to do all that damage? They didn't tie her up, so wouldn't they have worried she would come to? I have to admit: the police case makes a lot more sense than anything I might have written. I'm honest enough to admit that I was almost certainly wrong in saying that there might be another explanation. But that still leaves the question of motive. Why on earth would they concoct such a crazy scheme? Not for the insurance - it wouldn't have amounted to much. To get sympathy & increased business? Absolutely nuts.

But, if you haven't been following what I've been writing on this website until now and you want to read what I had written previously, keep going.

 Posted Apr. 25: After having met with the Berents for over 2 hours Wednesday evening - at BerMax Caffé (the first time any of the Berents have been back there since the destruction last Thursday), I think it's fair to say that they will have a very solid defence - if the charge of public mischief is actually brought forward by the crown. I have known Maxim Berent for 15 years, Oxana for 5 years, and just met Alexander tonight for the first time, which makes it extremely difficult to write objectively about this case, but I will try to do so here.

I grilled Oxana and Maxim about what happened last Thursday. I asked Oxana why the front door was left open if the restaurant was closed. Maxim answered that he often would leave the door open even after the restaurant was closed. I wondered why Oxana would be left alone then, but they both said that was often the case.

I asked Maxim where he was when the incident of vandalism allegedly happened. He said he was with his father at Home Depot.

(Updated Apr. 25 evening): The timeline for Maxim's leaving Home Depot will no doubt form a crucial piece of evidence, either to implicate him or perhaps to exonerate him. Home Depot is open until 10 pm. Maxim says that he bought something and that, if necessary, he can obtain a receipt from Home Depot to show what time he paid for the purchase. Also, presumably Home Depot would have surveillance footage showing Maxim and his father leaving the store. If Maxim can show that he was still at the Home Depot until close to 10 - and whether it was Home Depot on Empress or Kenaston, it's still a good distance from BerMax Caffé, when he says that he didn't discover his unconscious mother until 10:30, it may prove plausible.

Oxana told me that the police were showing her pictures taken from bus surveillance cameras. I'm not sure what the point of that would have been except perhaps to show that no one was seen walking into BerMax. But, there are so few buses on Corydon that time of night I don't know what good a photo from a bus surveillance camera would be - unless one of the shots happened to catch Maxim entering BerMax. Of course, there is the possibility that, if Maxim did trash the place, he could have done that before he went to Home Depot with his father.

One other point: The police suggested to Maxim & Oxana that Maxim hit Oxana. Both Maxim and Oxana denied that. I asked Maxim if he had a report from the hospital describing the nature of Oxana's injuries. He said that he didn't, but he would get one if necessary. I assume the severity of Oxana's injuries will become a crucial element in a court case.

I asked Oxana where she was when she was allegedly attacked. She said she was coming out of the kitchen into the restaurant area. I asked her whether she knows approximately what time that was. She said she didn't.

I asked her whether she remembered anything about the alleged attack. She said she remembers nothing. (Oxana was wearing a sling. She said her ribs still really hurt.) I asked her whether she had any bruises on her head. She said she didn't. So - it's a mystery how she was rendered unconscious, but I have no reason to doubt that she was unconscious. (Updated Apr. 25 evening): I hadn't watched Oxana's interview with Ismaila Alfa of CBC's Up to Speed until just a while ago. Oxana claims that she fainted when she was attacked.

I asked Maxim what time he returned to the restaurant. He said it was around 10:30. But the call for help didn't get made until 10:45 according to the police. Why did he wait 15 minutes to call, I wondered? Maxim says he doesn't know. Maybe he was in shock. (My suggestion, not his.)

As I note later in this article, I wondered why there were no security cameras in BerMax.I asked Maxim that. He said they didn't want to spend a couple of thousand dollars on security cameras. I told him that you can get good security cameras for a couple of hundred dollars.

I said to Maxim - as I also note later in this article, that I find it more than strange that their restaurant has been targeted 4 times within the past 6 months. I asked both him and Oxana whether they owe money to some bad people, specifically Russian Jewish Mafia. (Let's not kid ourselves; they exist in Winnipeg. I met one a long time ago - scary guy.)

They both absolutely denied that. I asked whether they have a lot of debts. Oxana said they have debts like any other business plus a mortgage on their home. As you can read later, the idea that BerMax might have been in severe financial trouble remains top of mind for me when it comes to thinking that, if their story is true, there's a plausible explanation for why they were attacked. Others (on Facebook especially) have noted that Oxana and Maxim don't exactly have the best public relations skills. Disgruntled employee (or employees)? Perhaps - but when you see the level of damage and the hateful graffiti, whoo boy - to think that was a former employee, well that's a tough one to ponder.

I suggested to Maxim something that was put to me by someone else: They would trash the place, take the insurance money, and then close the restaurant. Maxim led me around the restaurant showing me the destruction. Sure - broken bottles all over the place, a smashed TV screen, lots of horrible graffiti - but not a lot of expensive damage. So the insurance idea doesn't make much sense. So, what then? (I still go back to the notion that BerMax might have owed money to some really bad people. That makes the most sense to me, but an examination of their books should be able to show whether they were in such severe financial difficulty that only a Mafia type loan was keeping them afloat.)

But here's the part of the story that absolutely shocked me: All 3 Berents were taken in for questioning by police on Tuesday at noon - for 11 hours. They were told they could have a lawyer, but they declined to ask for a lawyer! I told them that any lawyer would have told them not to say a word to the police without a lawyer being present. Did they do themselves in as a result? Sure looks like it.

However, I asked Oxana and Maxim (Alex didn't say a word the whole time I was questioning Oxana & Maxim. I don't think he speaks much English.) whether the police told them they were frustrated over not having found a suspect or suspects? Further, I asked them whether the police admitted they were under incredible pressure to come up with suspects. They both answered yes to those questions.

I told Oxana and Maxim that they have to get a lawyer immediately. But the police took their phones, they told me. I asked Maxim how he had contacted me this evening then, and he told me it was on his iPad. I suggested the names of a few good lawyers and Maxim asked me to send him contact info, which I did. I told them that the police won't reveal anything about whatever evidence they may have and it will have to wait until it's turned over to the crown. At that point, I said, their lawyer can ask to see the evidence.

And this is the most frustrating aspect to this case. At the press conference today, Police Chief Danny Smyth was absolutely livid in how he expressed his anger over what the police have now determined happened. Over 1000 man hours spent on this case, he said - 25 different police assigned to it. Yet, as Constable Rob Carver admitted to me, all their evidence is based on forensic evidence. The Berents have admitted to nothing.

At this point I have no idea what really happened the evening of April 18. Was it a case of horrific antisemitism? Perhaps. Was it staged by the Berents themselves? Perhaps. But the public wants blood on this one. The level of anger at the Berents - as expressed online, is extreme. As I have been saying ever since this story broke, it's a complete puzzle. There are so many questions that will probably never be answered. But - unless the police have an ironclad case, as much as a lot of people want to see the Berents punished severely, at this point I just can't see the crown getting a conviction. It might not even come to trial. Maxim hitting his mother so hard as to leave her wearing a sling and trashing a restaurant that's been his pride & joy for 4 1/2 years now? Why? What's the motive, Wpg. Police?  I guess we're going to have to wait an awfully long time to find out whether the police can come up with an answer to that one because today they admitted they can't think of a motive.

Now, going backwards, if you haven't read my posts until this point, here's what I began writing about this case, starting Sunday, April 21:

  Three days after BerMax Caffé on Corydon Avenue was hit with what police are treating as "a hate-related crime in conjunction with a Commercial Robbery", no further information has been released by police.

Still, there are many puzzling aspects to what happened. For one, the police bulletin, issued Friday morning, April 19, says that "Officers determined that the business was likely the target of a robbery." "Likely"? Well, was there a robbery or not?

Second, if "an adult female within the café" had been assaulted, as the police bulletin states, would she not have seen the alleged assaulters? How many were there? Was the victim able to determine the gender of the attacker or attackers? Is there anything else that we could know about the alleged attackers?

(Update Apr. 22. Apparently the female victim was rendered unconscious. Maxim Berent, co-owner of BerMax, says "She can't remember. She was not in a good condition when I found her.")

(Update April 24: In my correspondence with Maxim on Sunday, April 21, he confirmed that it was his mother, Oxana, who was the so-called victim of the assault; however, I found Maxim's response to my question about how many perpetrators there were disingenuous in the extreme. In addition to his answer that his mother couldn't remember what happened, he also wrote "It was also dark in there".

"Dark"? I wondered to myself. What was Oxana doing there alone in the dark? Presumaby, the restaurant had closed. Also, when I attended the crime scene Friday at 12:30 pm, I noticed that there was no sign of forcible entry. Was the door open? I wondered. Then why hadn't the door been locked? I became more and more suspcious that something was terribly amiss, but if you read on, you'll see that I was on the wrong trail.)

In response to questions that I posed to the Wpg. Police Service on Friday, April 19, I was told by the officer responding (Rob Carver)  that "I’m unable to confirm the number of potential suspects. No arrests have been made, and we don’t make suspect information public at this stage unless we are releasing suspect descriptions."
But , as I noted in my response to Const. Carver, "That still begs the question why you don't want to give suspect descriptions."
 
Third, this is the fourth incident of vandalism that has occurred at BerMax in the past few months. Aside from the question why still no security camera was put in place, why is BerMax being repeatedly targeted? Yes, there was another recent incident at Temple Shalom (about which we reported three weeks ago), but the incidents at BerMax seem to be showing a recurrent pattern, with the word "JEW" being spray painted twice in January (the first time on a restaurant window, the second time on a fence in the adjoining parking lot and on the doors of the restaurant, this most recent time on a wall inside the restaurant.)
Interestingly, both the two most recent incidents occurred on a Thursday night.

While no news media have been allowed inside the restaurant since this most recent incident, apparently one news team,  using a telephoto lens, was able to take a photo showing damage inside the restaurant with the word "JEW" spray painted on a back wall.   

While the police have characterized this most recent incident as a "hate crime", the possibility exists, however, that something else is behind the spate of vandalism at BerMax. We are not going to disclose the information that would lead us to suggest something else may be afoot, but we would like to remind readers that in 2017, Jewish community centres throughout the United States were put on high alert by threats arriving over the internet. It turned out that the threats were all coming from a teenaged American boy living in Israel.

We're not suggesting that is what's been happening with BerMax. We just find it passing strange that one particular establishment has now been targeted with the same sort of graffiti on three separate instances since January. There are other Jewish owned restaurants in the area. To our knowledge they haven't been targeted for any sort of vandalism. Why just BerMax, we wonder? Is BerMax being singled out for some sort of retribution? While whoever did this certainly seems to be antisemitic, given the nature of the graffiti that have been spray painted - now on three separate occasions, one wonders whether the primary motivation for whoever has been doing this is something completely separated from antisemitism.

Of course, the evidence would point to what just happened as a hate crime. All that we're saying is that other possibilities exist and whoever has been targeting BerMax may have a motive other than antisemitism.

Update April 22:

We have now received more information about the incident that occurred Apr. 21. Apparently the victim of the attack was rendered unconscious. It was dark inside the restaurant. She does not know how many attackers there were. In addition to the word "JEW" spray painted on a wall, swastikas were drawn on the BerMax logo.

Further update April 22: Apparently the office of an organization known as Be'tlv, which is an LGBTQ group meant to organize events modeled after Tel Aviv style parties, was also trashed. The office is located next door to BerMax, but is accessible through BerMax. Also, the BerMax office was trashed. The organizers of Be'tlv did talk to police but, according to one of the organizers of Be'tlv, "We’ve been very upfront with the police, they don’t seem very interested in talking to us to date, but it looks like they’re still processing the crime scenes."

We've also checked with the owners of Bernstein's Deli, just two blocks from BerMax. According to one of the owners, "We have never had an issue or been targeted." Nor, for that matter, has any other Jewish owned (or formerly Jewish owned, but still with a Jewish name, i.e., Myers Deli) restaurant that we can think of ever been targeted with antisemitic vandalism. Again, I ask, why just BerMax, and why so frequently? But, it serves to confirm the worst fears of Jews (and many non-Jews) that the world is unsafe for Jews anywhere. And if the police are going to maintain tunnel vision on this story - thinking it was a clear cut case of antisemitism and nothing but, well then, if the motivation of the perpetrators was actually something quite different, the trail is likely to go cold. I have suggested to police that they look much more carefully at the relationship betwen BerMax and B'Tlv as a possible clue as to what's been going on. There is another possibility too that has been brought up in conversations that I've had with some individuals, but we'll leave that aside for the moment.

Updated April 24: Now that we know the whole thing might have been a hoax, I can come forward with the theory that I advanced to Wpg. Police earlier this week, also to several leaders of our Jewish Federation (who never responded to any of my suggestions that what happened at BerMax was not an antisemitic hate crime. I suppose it didn't fit their view that Jews are under attack everywhere, including Winnipeg.)

Here's what I thought: I've known for some time that BerMax was in serious financial trouble. I'm not privy to their financial records, but anyone who had been following events beginning last Septemeber would have known they were desperate to find some sort of answers to their financial predicament. Why do I say that?

On Rosh Hashanah BerMax went non-kosher after having opened as a kosher restaurant four and a half years ago. The reason, as Maxim told me, was that they were missing doing a lot of business because they were closed Friday night and Saturday. He also told me that most of their customers weren't Jewish. (I didn't buy that, but leave that aside for the moment.)

So - BerMax began opening Friday evenings and Saturdays - but two months later, it was again closed Friday evenings and Saturdays. So - the story Maxim had told me just didn't add up. More recently, BerMax had moved into hosting special nights for different groups. particually the Jewish gay group referenced previously.

But - and here's where I went off the rails with what I thought had really happened: Knowing that BerMax was in deep financial trouble and was resorting to all sorts of things to try & lure customers, I began to think that what had happened was that BerMax owed money to some very bad people. Think of it: A series of incidents with the word "Jew" spray painted on the windows and parking lot fence, culminating in an assault on Oxana Berent and the trashing of the restaurant. I surmised that someone was sending a clear message to the Berents - and that the antisemitic stuff was just meant to add to the intimidation. Also, when Maxim said his mother couldn't "remember" a thing about what happened, well, I thought, they're scared out of their minds and don't want to admit they're being shaken down. As I said, I sent my theory to police and, of course, there was no response.

One question that I had posed to Maxim Berent after the two incidents of alleged vandalism in January is why did they not have security cameras? Maxim's response at the time was that it was the landlord's responsibility. (The landlord is the owner of Looks Hair Salon and Spa, also located in the same strip mall.) I found Maxim's answer disignenuous.

Further update April 24: We just heard from Maxim Berent. He continues to insist the story of assault & vandalism is true. I pressed him on the question of how many attackers there were and why his mother was working in the dark. He says: "the police can't find anything it makes them look bad and the city is pushing on them to do something".

Const. Rob Carver told me today that the three members of the Berent family were taken in for questioning yesterday. He would not say what it was that led police to conclude that the Berents themselves had staged the incident, but said that several aspects of the case led police to be suspicious.

In defence of the Berents, however, it is hard to see how they stood to gain financially by staging the incident. When I suggested that there might have been a hefty insurance payout, Maxim dismissed that, saying  "Insurance money? They said that nothing expensive was damaged." I didn't see any damaged equipment when I was there, except for one broken TV screen - just a lot of broken glass and food strewn about. It wouldn't take too long to clean up.

It has also been suggested that the Berents might have been hoping to garner sympathy to the point where it would lead to a huge uptick in business at the restaurant. Hmm, that's a possibility, and might be part of the police case - but what a way to go about salvaging a business. On top of that, BerMax had gradually been becoming much more of a gay bar - working with the group mentioned previously, Be'tlv. Plans were for Be'tlv to hold increasing activities at BerMax - in the evenings. There were also plans for Be'tlv to begin operating the restaurant on Friday evenings and Saturdays - days that BerMax is now closed. But, there was not anything imminent in the works about Be'tlv actually taking over BerMax.

We will provide further updates as they develop.

Also please be aware that a comment which should not have been allowed to be published (my fault entirely, I published it without having looked at it carefully) and which was racist, has now been deleted - as have other comments that referred to that comment. I should be much more careful in screening comments. I apologize to anyone who rightfully accused me of allowing a racist comment to be published.

 

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#10 Mr.Danny 2019-05-04 15:04
I am pretty sure they are citizens, they've been in Canada a while.
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#9 Berent FamilyRon Lange 2019-05-04 01:42
Hi,Here I am again.Well, the truth seems to finally seems to be here.They are guilty of what they did,Liars and certainly not a honest Jewish family.It have certainly made it now more difficult for other Jewish families.I wonder if they are canadian citzens or only landed immigrants,if not citizens maybe they should get 6 months in jail.Then they probably would be expelled from Canada.Did they ever think about that?Lets hope that if they all get the boot out of Canada and are sent back to either Israel or Russia they should be HONEST there.What can the sentence be if they are found guilty ???? Ron
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#8 CamerasDanny 2019-04-27 19:01
Good surveillance cameras do cost a few thousand, the ones you can get for more than a couple of hundreds don’t worth much at might not be approved in court
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#7 Loser FamilyBruce 2019-04-27 14:10
This family belongs in jail, bunch of stupid crooks,

the food was terrible as well
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#6 Insurance + SurveillanceNate Morris 2019-04-26 02:20
Quoting Pete:
Why would the Cafe not have surveillance, especially in light of repeated incidents of vandalism? One would think that would be common sense, especially if the vandalism happened to be antisemitic.


1st thing I thought after repeated "incidents". No cameras? C'mon man! Mr. Bellan did a thorough report but should have asked the Berents for a copy of their insurance policy. Often, insurance companies offer discounts for surveillance. And the damage looked extensive enough to warrant at least a claim for several thousand in replacement furniture, equipment, clean-up & restoration. Disingenuous, indeed.
Final comment - Based on personal experience I can never rule out police anti-semitism from this our past Wpg police chiefs and several key members of WPS
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#5 Still not sureJacob 2019-04-25 19:06
The only problem with the organized crime/loan shark angle is generally the victims would report it and certainly not make such a public spectacle of it.
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#4 Mr.Peter Ross 2019-04-25 19:06
more than 60 police officers spent almost 1000 hours on this investigation before arresting these con-artists and you "don't buy it?"
Well, ignoring reality is your choice I guess, but please, don't try and convince others that what walks and talks like a duck, is a cat okay?
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#3 DanDAN DONAHUE 2019-04-25 14:24
I too, suspected there was much more to this and that most likely,
organized crime had a hand in things. Money laundering is everywhere in the restaurant business and many places wouldn't exist without it. Many a well meaning person has fallen victim to it out of desperation to preserve their struggling businesses. Bad debts, warnings and then the hit. Make it appear as a hate crime
as to deflect the intent. Bernie has been the only media source who didn't take the bait.
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#2 Good WorkPete 2019-04-24 21:37
You called it for what it was well before anyone else did. Good job!
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#1 Surveillance footagePete 2019-04-22 19:34
Why would the Cafe not have surveillance, especially in light of repeated incidents of vandalism? One would think that would be common sense, especially if the vandalism happened to be antisemitic.
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