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Sentencing for Lynn Valley Care Centre hoaxer delayed by court antics

The hoax left Lynn Valley Care Centre desperately short staffed in the hours after the first COVID death in Canada
Lynn Valley Care Centre staff greet an appreciative public during the seven o'clock cheer for front-line workers on April 17, 2020. | Mike Wakefield / North Shore News files

The man who perpetrated a hoax on the Lynn Valley Care Centre, leaving the seniors home desperately short-staffed amid its early outbreak of COVID-19, has had his sentencing delayed thanks to a series of disruptions of the court process.

On March 8, 2020 – the same day a Lynn Valley Care Centre resident in his 80s became Canada's first-known death from the coronavirus – Taymour Aghtai called the care home, posing as a public health officer. He told staff that no one should be coming or going from the building during the outbreak, which resulted in the cancellation of the next morning’s staff shifts.

After being arrested and charged, he pleaded guilty in December 2021 to one count of conveying a false message with intent to alarm.

Aghtai was due in North Vancouver Provincial Court at 9:30 a.m.on Friday for the Crown and his lawyer to make their submissions on what an appropriate sentence should be. But shortly after that time, Crown lawyer Lara Sarbit told the judge that Aghtai had refused to leave his cell at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre.

Judge Daniel Steinberg said it was “a display of [Aghtai’s] disdain for following court orders,” which would likely hurt himself at sentencing, and ordered he be brought to appear via video from the pretrial centre. Aghtai continued to resist until the judge ordered corrections officers to “use force if necessary.”

When Aghtai was finally before the court via video, he insisted on having a chance to speak with his lawyer, Josh Oppal. While the court was briefly adjourned for that, Aghtai instead hung up on his lawyer, and tampered with the video equipment, cutting his feed with the North Vancouver courtroom, the sheriffs reported to the judge.

He then told corrections officers he was having chest pains, which required a check by medical staff at the jail.

Steinberg noted that Aghtai was “as close as one can be to absconding” from the court but said he was determined to continue.

“He is not in charge of these proceedings and I’m not prepared, frankly, to make a concession that will give the impression that he is in charge,” Steinberg said, adding later, “We’re not going to have the tail wagging the dog.”

Aghtai was quickly deemed medically fit, and guards again returned him to the video room.

More than two hours after the sentencing was to begin, Sarbit began her submissions. Minutes later, Aghtai stood up from the video room and walked out of the frame. Soon after, the camera feed went dead.

After speaking with corrections officers again, the sheriff reported to the court that Aghtai had tampered with the video equipment once more and was rolling around on the floor, again, claiming to have chest pains.

The court stood down for a break in hopes the Crown could continue her submissions on sentencing. But Aghtai was taken to hospital for medical evaluation, thereby ending the day’s proceedings.

What followed was confusion over when the Crown and defence might be available to resume, further complicated by the fact 74-year-old Steinberg is about to “age out” of the justice system, which has a mandatory retirement age of 75, before the end of the year.

Frustrated, Steinberg asked Sarbit how long a sentence she’d be seeking. The maximum under the Criminal Code is two years less a day. Sarbit said she’d be seeking the maximum, plus three years of probation – but with time already served, Aghtai would only be subject to 45 days in jail.

“All of this fuss for 45 days?” the judge asked in disbelief. “The absurdity is, by delaying things, he’s sentencing himself to more than 45 days.”

The Crown and defence are due back for a brief court appearance next week to determine if there’s a date at which the sentencing can resume or if they’ll need to restart the process with a new judge.

Aghtai remains in custody on separate charges filed in Richmond provincial court.

Over the course of the outbreak at the Lynn Valley Care Centre, 52 elderly residents tested positive for COVID-19, 20 of whom died. There were also 26 confirmed cases among staff.