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Whitehorse man sentenced for drug charges, including conspiracy to traffic cocaine into jail, skipping trial

The Yukon courthouse in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
The Yukon courthouse in Whitehorse. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

A Whitehorse man will serve an additional seven-and-a-half months for plotting to traffic cocaine into the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) and the city at large, having hydromorphone pills to give to friends, and skipping his trial.

Taylor Duke, 21, pleaded guilty in territorial court last month to one count each of conspiracy to commit cocaine trafficking, possession of hydromorphone for the purpose of trafficking and failing to appear in court. His sentencing hearing was held in Whitehorse Thursday.

Duke was one of several people charged following an RCMP investigation into allegations of drug trafficking at the Whitehorse jail. Police obtained recordings of hundreds of calls placed on jail phones between Oct. 29, 2021, and Feb. 9, 2022; Duke, who was in jail from Nov. 12 to 16, 2021, both placed calls as an inmate and received calls from inmates after he was released.

According to admissions filed to court, Duke, on multiple recordings, "discussed supplying cocaine to individuals outside of WCC who were entrusted with facilitating its entry into WCC, as well as accepting payment."

He was also recorded speaking about trafficking cocaine more widely in Whitehorse, and about "using violence to ensure the compliance of other individuals assisting with the scheme, including for the purpose of collecting debts accrued by trafficking."

Police did not find evidence that Duke actually committed any acts of violence.

Officers arrested Duke along with three other people at a Whitehorse residence on June 1, 2022, as part of a larger operation on suspected drug trafficking dubbed "Project Monterey."

While searching the residence afterwards, police found, among other things, 388 hydromorphone pills which Duke admitted were his. While they were mainly for personal use, the admissions say that a "portion" of the pills "were possessed for the purpose of trafficking," which Duke undertook by sharing them with friends.

Duke was then scheduled to go on trial for the cocaine and hydromorphone-related charges last March but didn't show up to court.

Sentence 'excessively generous,' judge says

Crown attorney Kathryn Laurie and defence lawyer Jennifer Budgell largely gave a joint sentencing submission, asking that Duke get 18 months' custody for conspiracy to commit cocaine trafficking, and six months, to be served concurrently, for possession of hydromorphone for the purpose of trafficking.

Both agreed that by pleading guilty to those charges, Duke had saved large amounts of court time and resources by avoiding the need to take the matter to trial.

However, they differed on the fail-to-appear charge, with the Crown seeking an additional 90 days of incarceration and the defence, an additional 60 days.

Budgell pointed to several mitigating factors in the case, including Duke's guilty pleas, his relatively young age, his lack of previous criminal record and the intergenerational trauma he's faced as a Carcross/Tagish First Nation citizen. She also said he faced at times "difficult"  incarceration conditions during his stints at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, including being placed in "respiratory confinement" — essentially, isolated from other inmates — for four to seven days upon entry and at times being confined to his cell for long stretches.

While inmates typically should get around 13 hours a day outside of their cells, Budgell said there were stretches of time where Duke would get fewer than 10 hours due to lockdowns or staff shortages. During one particularly bad week in July 2022, according to Budgell, Duke only spent one hour outside his cell one day, and 15 minutes another day.

The Crown, meanwhile, argued that Duke deserved a longer sentence for skipping his trial because the Crown initially had witnesses willing to participate in the process but who changed their mind by the time a new trial date was set.

Yukon Territorial Court judge John Phelps was not pleased with the suggested sentences for the drug-related charges.

"I confess I have difficulty with the joint submission," he said, describing it as "excessively generous" to Duke. However, he acknowledged legal principles that largely require judges to accept joint submissions from the Crown and defence and sentenced Duke to the suggested 18- and six-month incarceration terms.

Phelps sided with the Crown on the sentence for Duke's failure to show up for his trial and sentenced him to an additional three months.

While the total sentence added up to 21 months, Phelps gave Duke 13-and-a-half-months' credit for the time he'd spent in pre-trial custody.

Duke is also subject to a 10-year-long firearms prohibition, a lifetime ban on restricted and prohibited weapons and a forfeiture of all items seized.

Duke remains in custody on a number of other charges, including a count of attempted murder laid after a 2023 shooting and several laid last week following a police drug raid in Dawson City.