Mr. Big

Rafay

Mr. Big (sometimes known as the ‘Canadian technique’) is a covert investigation procedure used by undercover police to elicit confessions from suspects in cold cases (usually murder).

Police officers create a fictitious grey area or criminal organization and then seduce the suspect into joining it. They build a relationship with the suspect, gain their confidence, and then enlist their help in a succession of criminal acts (e.g., delivering goods, credit card scams, selling guns) for which they are paid. Once the suspect has become enmeshed in the criminal gang they are persuaded to divulge information about their criminal history, usually as a prerequisite for being accepted as a member of the organization.

The Mr. Big technique was developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia in the early 1990s. It has been used in more than 350 cases across Canada as of 2008. The RCMP claim that the person of interest was either cleared or charged in 75% of cases (the rest remaining unresolved and requiring further investigation). Of the cases prosecuted, an estimated 95% result in a conviction.

The use of this technique is essentially prohibited in some countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. In Germany, which has high standards for what comprises a voluntary confession, it may be more difficult to use confessions obtained by this technique. The procedure has been used by police in Australia and New Zealand, and its use has been upheld by courts in both countries.

In a Mr. Big case, the police usually place the suspect, typically someone socially isolated and financially disadvantaged, under extended surveillance, typically for weeks. Having thus learned about the suspect’s personality and habits, the police develop an interactive scenario. Pretending to encounter the suspect by happenstance, an undercover operative solicits a small favor from the suspect, perhaps to fix a flat tire. Exploiting this acquaintanceship, the operative soon offers entertainment, gifts, companionship, meals, and eventually employment.

The undercover operative pays the suspect appreciable money for petty tasks, such as counting cash or making deliveries, associated with fictitious criminal activity. As these tasks grow in importance and frequency, the suspect is treated as an ‘up-and-comer’ in a criminal organization. As many as 50 operatives may be involved, crafting ‘a steady escalation in association, influence and pressure, leading up to the creation of an atmosphere in which it is deemed appropriate to encourage the target to confess.’ Eventually, the suspect is introduced to Mr. Big, the fictitious crime organization’s kingpin, actually a skilled police interrogator.

Employing enticements and threats, Mr. Big tells the suspect of receiving from the police incriminating information about the suspect, whose impending arrest threatens the gang—to explain why Mr. Big must know the unsolved crime’s details. Mr. Big may offer to clean up the situation by framing someone else, perhaps a terminally ill confederate willing to take the fall for the gang. Or Mr. Big might claim that a mole within the police department can tamper with incriminating evidence. Sometimes, the confession is demanded to show good faith, loyalty, or trustworthiness, or serve as ‘insurance,’ to Mr. Big. The final meeting is usually recorded.

Once the police either obtain a confession or become convinced of the suspect’s innocence, the lavish lifestyle and elaborate underworld evaporate, and (where a confession has been obtained) the suspect is arrested. The Mr. Big technique is often a last resort in cold cases, or where the police’s strong suspicion is paired with insufficient evidence. The Mr. Big technique has been used to secure convictions in hundreds of cases, and has been highly effective in obtaining confessions from guilty suspects. Still, the technique also gives some innocent suspects compelling motivation to remain in the criminal organization; to maintain the new lifestyle and new friends, falsely confessing to Mr. Big may then seem an acceptable risk.

On the basis of a Mr. Big confession, Canadians Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns were sentenced to life for the 1994 murders, in Bellevue, Washington, of Rafay’s father, mother and sister, despite the lack of physical evidence and the presence of multiple alibis. Rafay and Burns are supported by multiple innocence projects and as of 2016 had been appealing their case for over a decade.

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