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New lawyer regrets his role in woman's kidnapping

|Written By Michael McKiernan

A Law Society of Upper Canada disciplinary panel has granted a Toronto man convicted of kidnapping and forcible confinement admission to the bar just a year after completing his sentence for the crimes.

Alan Honner was sentenced to 15 months of house arrest in May 2009 after admitting his role in a plot to rescue a woman from a suspected religious cult. Following a hearing last week, the panel found he had the good character necessary to become a lawyer.

On Dec. 21, 2005, Mirella Brun del Re was snatched in broad daylight from a street in Hamilton, Ont., bundled into a van, handcuffed, hooded, and held for 10 days at a remote cabin in an unsuccessful attempt to deprogram her after her parents became convinced she had been brainwashed.

Honner was friends with Brun del Re’s brother but had never met the woman before the kidnapping.

He carried out surveillance on her in the months before the kidnapping and then distracted her while she was grabbed. He also later visited her at the cabin and read to her from a book by a deprogramming consultant.

Brun del Re had joined an evangelical Christian group, the Dominion Christian Church, in 2002 and had become detached from her family. The Canada Revenue Agency revoked the church’s charitable status in late 2008 after it found misuse of donor money. Its founder, Peter Rigo, has repeatedly denied it’s a cult.

Honner told the hearing he agreed to take part in the scheme, one allegedly orchestrated by Brun del Re’s parents, in the late summer of 2005 when their fears about her safety escalated to the point that they believed she was in “mortal danger.”

“They were friends of mine who were in a very desperate situation, and I wanted to help them,” Honner told the panel.

He met with former members of the church who painted a picture of a controlling group but never attempted to contact Brun del Re herself. Honner said Brun del Re’s parents believed the kidnapping scheme was legal and that he regretted relying so heavily on their perspective.

“A big part of the moral failure was that I didn’t investigate myself,” Honner said. “I think they misunderstood the situation. I simply relied on what they said and what other former members and parents of former members had said. They all just sort of affirmed each other.”

Brun del Re left the cabin after speaking with an anti-cult consultant hired by her parents. Honner said he began to have doubts about the whole plan soon after.

He was eventually arrested in September 2006, the same day he started his studies at Osgoode Hall Law School. Honner said his experience there gave him a greater insight into his own actions.

“When I think about it now, I think we set out to do something we thought was good. In the process of doing that, we violated one of the most fundamental rights that we hold as sacred in Western society. We made the classic mistake of saying the end justified the means. I never really believed that and I don’t believe it now.”

The impact of the crime became obvious when Honner saw Brun del Re give evidence during pretrial hearings. “I saw a woman who wasn’t in any sort of danger, who didn’t want to be kidnapped or forcibly confined, and who made her own decisions,” he said.

“Human dignity is largely rooted in freedom, and that’s why people are free to make their own decisions and determine own ends.”

Law society counsel Susan Heakes said she was concerned by the amount of time and the level of planning that had gone into the operation, which she said gave Honner many opportunities to reconsider his participation. She also raised concerns about his understanding of the ordeal the victim had gone through.

“His empathy is somewhat called into question,” she said. “There’s little evidence he understands on a human level the implications of her kidnapping and 10 days of confinement.”

But Honner’s lawyer, Andrew Furgiuele, called the offence “an aberration.”

“It was not an indication of bad character but bad judgment,” Furgiuele said. “It was a misguided attempt to try and take her away from her situation of choice.”

Honner deserved credit for the remorse, including his guilty plea in April 2009, and maturity he has shown since the kidnapping, Furgiuele said. In fact, he and another family friend who pleaded guilty were the only people convicted over the incident.

Charges against Brun del Re’s parents and her brother were stayed on the eve of their trial in October 2009 after the victim withdrew her support for the prosecution.

Honner’s criminal defence lawyer, Daniel Santoro, told the panel during his testimony at the hearing that his client pleaded guilty in the face of opposition from his co-accused and that he reacted calmly when the news came through about the collapse of the prosecution following his own sentencing.

“He wasn’t angry or emotional,” Santoro said. “I was more angry and emotional than he was. His position was he made his decision based on the information he had at that time and that it was a reasonable decision at that time.”

During the criminal proceedings, Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Reilly explained the relatively light sentence given that Honner was “not a danger on the street.”

“I have hopes for you at the bar,” the judge said.

Honner has been candid with friends, family, professors, and colleagues since the offences, including his current employers at Bergmanis Preyra LLP, Furgiuele said. The personal injury firm hired Honner as an articling student within months of his conviction. He continued working there as a law clerk after completing his articles.

“He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes. We gave him a chance, and I’m happy we did,” Bergmanis Preyra partner Ron Preyra told the panel.

Honner, who has married since the kidnapping and now has three young children, said the whole episode has given him unique insights.

“It’s been a humbling experience and taught me to be more of an empathetic person. Carrying a stigma like a criminal record makes you more understanding about hardships people face.”

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