Dale Carruthers & Randy Richmond
A suspected arson that destroyed a Blue Mountains cottage linked to the former president of the London Hells Angels was the catalyst for a two-year police probe into a gambling ring that led to his arrest on guns, gambling and tax evasion charges, The Free Press has learned.
The Jan. 5, 2018, fire in Thornbury, a small town northwest of Collingwood, prompted police to launch Operation Hobart, an investigation into an alleged multimillion-dollar gambling operation that police contend was run by members of the Hells Angels and an alleged Toronto crime family, Staff Sgt. Anthony Renton, the head of the OPP’s biker enforcement unit, said.
Property records show the now-destroyed luxury home and property at 363 Sunset Dr. in Thornbury belongs to Salvatrice Barletta, believed to be the mother of Robert Barletta, a founding member of the Hells Angels London chapter.
Barletta, 50, was one of 28 people charged with a combined 228 offences related to guns, gambling, participating in organized crime and tax evasion in the sweeping investigation that involved 17 law enforcement agencies including three police forces from Southwestern Ontario.
Held in custody since Dec. 13 when he was arrested aboard a plane at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Barletta is scheduled to appear in a Brampton court Monday for a bail hearing.
The former London strip club owner is charged with three bookmaking offences, five firearms-related charges and tax evasion.
Court documents show he’s jointly charged with Habiba Kajan, 43, for the gun charges, which include possession of a loaded handgun that had the serial number removed.
Investigators from Operation Hobart haven’t released the addresses of the homes or businesses searched, including five in London, but The Free Press confirmed the OPP raided Kajan’s house at 203 Commissioners Rd. on Dec. 12.
One week later, a late-night fire gutted the home, located on an upscale stretch west of the Highland Country Club.
London police ruled the blaze suspicious, just as the OPP did in the 2018 Thornbury fire, but no suspects have been arrested in either case, both of which remain open.
Investigations into both fires determined them to be “incendiary in nature,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal said.
There’s no way of knowing yet why the homes linked to Barletta may have been set on fire, Yves Lavigne, an outlaws biker analyst and author, said.
“We can speculate all day,” he said, but added, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”
Lavigne believes the killing of Hells Angels member Michael Deabauta-Schulde, 32, outside a Mississauga gym in March 2019 was the result of internal strife.
“This is Hells Angels killing Hells Angels,” he said.
Police contend Deabauta-Schulde was a member of the same illegal gambling operation investigated in Operation Hobart that led to charges against Barletta. Three Montreal men are charged with first-degree murder in Deabauta-Schulde’s death.
The Hells Angels, the largest outlaw motorcycle gang in the world, is rife with worry and division, Lavigne said.
“Everyone is concerned that someone else is a rat so they’re all looking over their shoulders. There is no trust. There is no brotherhood,” he said.
“There seems to be no one with absolute control who can sit down and say, ‘Hey let’s stop this stuff.’ There’s no one they can go to and say, ‘Can you fix this problem for us, we’ve got some friction here?’ People are operating on their own and they’re making mistakes.”
The Thornbury residence was worth about $1 million, media reported at the time of the fire.
According to records from the Town of the Blue Mountains, a permit to demolish the cottage was issued Jan. 15, 2018, at an estimated cost of $100,000. An application to build a new house, garage, patio and pool reached municipal council in November 2019..
The property owner’s name is not attached to the application. Phone listings link the property to an M. Barletta. It’s not known if that refers to Michelle Barletta, Rob’s wife. Property records show it belongs to Salvatrice Barletta.
An obituary for Domenico Barletta, published in 2018, lists his wife as Salvatricia and his children as Vince and Rob. Vince Barletta, who is not a Hells Angels member past or present, is Rob Barletta’s brother. The rest of the family listed in the notice also match Rob Barletta’s relatives.
The arson investigations are only part of the puzzle surrounding Operation Hobart and Barletta.
Police also worked with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to lay tax evasion charges against Barletta and Craig McIlquham, 49, both alleged to be full-patch members of the Hells Angels, the largest outlaw motorcycle gang in the world.
“Our investigation has demonstrated a consistent history of non-compliance for these two guys with Canadian tax laws,” said Stephane Bonin of the CRA’s criminal investigations division.
The CRA joined the OPP-led investigation in October 2018, Bonin said. “We are now playing a bigger role than we used to in pursuing tax evasion, money laundering and financial crime in general.”
Court documents show Barletta is accused of failing to paying taxes of $227,643 on a taxable income of $771,335 between 2015 and 2018.
“All income is taxable, including income or revenue generated from illegal activities,” Bonin said.
Police allege the gambling operation used five different websites that made $131 million in illegal revenues over five years, including $13 million from Jan. 1 to the beginning of July, police allege.