By BERNIE BELLAN

(Note: If you've already read our previous article about the BerMax incident, the following article won't contain any new information, but it should be more coherent than what we had previously - which was written more as a blog than an article.)
What began as the worst hate crime in Winnipeg history - within five days was transformed into one of the greatest hoaxes in recent memory.
It began with a police bulletin issued Friday morning, April 20 :


 

 

Bermax

On April 18, 2019, at approximately 10:45 p.m., emergency services personnel responded to a Medic call at a restaurant located in the 1800 block of Corydon Ave.
Responders located an adult female within the café who had been assaulted. She was conveyed to hospital in stable condition where she was treated and released.
 Officers determined that the business was likely the target of a robbery. In addition, the entire restaurant had been severely vandalized.  The vandalism included property damage and spray-painted, hate-related graffiti.
 The Winnipeg Police Service Major Crimes Unit is investigating this as a hate-related crime in conjunction with a Commercial Robbery.

That explosive post set off a chain of events that dominated the Winnipeg news cycle for the next five days. Then, on Wednesday, April 24, Wpg. Police Service released another, even more explosive post:
Winnipeg Police Service Major Crimes investigators have arrested 3 adult suspects in an incident that occurred on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at a restaurant located in the 1800 block of Corydon Ave. The following individuals were arrested on April 24, 2019;
Alexander Berent, 56 Oxana Berent, 48 Maxim Berent, 29
These individuals are all owners of the café. They are each charged with one count of Public Mischief and released. Public Mischief (CCC 140 (1)) occurs when an individual, with intent to mislead, causes a peace officer to enter on or continue an investigation based on a false statement or causing another person to be suspected of having committed an offense to divert suspicion from themselves.
Investigators believe that the initial report of a robbery was staged. Further, the anti-semitic graffiti and vandalism were also falsely reported as being done by outside suspects.
Hate-related crime is one of the most heinous acts we encounter as a society. It tears at the fabric of who we are as a country. False allegations of hate crime trivialize the trauma that genuine victims endure. The Winnipeg Police Service fully investigates all reports of hate-related crime. We encourage the public to report any suspected incident.

In between those two posts we began writing on our website that we were highly suspicious of the suggestion that what happened at BerMax Caffé was actually a “hate crime”.  We were suspicious because this was the fourth such incident to occur at BerMax over the past six months.
We posed a number of questions to Wpg. Police Service on Friday,  April 19, including why, with such scant information available, the WPS had issued a release that was bound to create a huge stir, not just in the Jewish community, but the general community as well?
Constable Rob Carver responded: “…some background on why the WPS would release preliminary information on this incident: as your email highlights, incidents such as this (hate-based crime, anti-Semitic attacks) profoundly affect both specific communities and the City as a whole. The current state of communication (social media, etc.) is such that details of this incident would be shared early on. It would be irresponsible of the WPS to not acknowledge the incident early, and confirm basic details to ensure that unsubstantiated rumours and speculation don’t take over the narrative. We only share information that would not impact our ability to properly investigate the incident. Additional information will be released when it is appropriate to do so. We always attempt to balance the public’s desire for details with our primary function of successfully investigating the crime.”

At that point I began writing an ongoing blog on our website, asking questions about this deeply troubling incident. I especially wondered why BerMax had now been targeted by vandals on four separate occasions since the fall. On April 21 I wrote: “While the police have characterized this most recent incident as a ‘hate crime’, the possibility exists, however, that something else is behind the spate of vandalism at BerMax...  We would like to remind readers that in 2017, Jewish community centres throughout the United States were put on high alert by threats arriving over the internet. It turned out that the threats were all coming from a teenaged American boy living in Israel.
“We’re not suggesting that is what’s been happening with BerMax. We just find it passing strange that one particular establishment has now been targeted with the same sort of graffiti on three separate instances since January. There are other Jewish-owned restaurants in the area. To our knowledge they haven’t been targeted for any sort of vandalism. Why just BerMax, we wonder? Is BerMax being singled out for some sort of retribution? While whoever did this certainly seems to be antisemitic, given the nature of the graffiti that have been spray painted - now on three separate occasions, one wonders whether the primary motivation for whoever has been doing this is something completely separated from antisemitism.”

That same day I received a text from Maxim Berent, co-owner of BerMax Caffé, in response to some questions I had asked him. Maxim confirmed that it was his mother, Oxana, who had allegedly been assaulted. When I asked him whether she saw her attackers, he responded that “it was dark in there”.
According to Maxim, his mother had been rendered unconscious by the attack. When she came to, he says, “She can’t remember. She was not in good condition when I found her” (which, we later learned from WPS, was supposed to have been at 10:30 pm.)
On Wednes-day, April 25, after the Berents had been charged by the WPS with public mischief, I was invited by Maxim to meet with the Berent family at the café later that evening. When I  met with them, I asked Maxim and Oxana a number of questions, including whether, when Oxana was attacked, she had been hit on the head. She said she hadn’t. I asked her how she could have blacked out then? She said that she tends to faint when she is extremely anxious.
Where had Maxim been when his mother was allegedly assaulted and the restaurant trashed? According to Maxim, he had been at Home Depot with his father. He says that he can obtain a copy of a transaction receipt to verify what time he was there. He says that he found his mother, unconscious,  at 10:30 pm. The police bulletin said emergency services personnel responded to a call at 10:45 pm, so the timeline makes sense.
But, when I attended the crime scene Friday afternoon, I noticed that there was no sign of forcible entry at BerMax; however, the restaurant closed at 9:00 pm that Thursday evening. Why was the door not locked? I asked Maxim. He said that he often left the door open, even after the restaurant was closed. (I leave it to readers to decide whether that sounds strange or not.)
But Oxana had still been in the restaurant, with the lights off. (She said she was coming from the kitchen into the serving area when she was attacked.) Why on earth would the door have been left open, I wondered, with Oxana alone in the restaurant? No doubt, that is a question that police asked as well.
So, the attackers had come in through an open door, Oxana fainted - and then the attackers began to trash the place? With the lights off? And draw all sorts of hate-filled graffiti on the floor, on the walls, and in every office (of which there are three) in BerMax? Did they turn the lights on to do that? But that would have drawn attention from passersby, wouldn’t you think? So, they would have had to do it with flashlights. Kind of far fetched, don’t you think?
But I also saw an open safe in Maxim’s office. So the attackers were able to open the safe, do all that damage, and Oxana is lying there having fainted? I can see how the police became suspicious - even though I admit that I was posting skeptically on our Facebook page and website about the police’s assertion that the Berents had staged the entire affair. In order for the police claim that the Berents staged the entire affair to bear out, it will be necessary to show that Maxim hit Oxana in order to produce the injuries that she sustained. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around that, but the idea that Oxana fainted - and didn’t hit her head, by the way, and was out the entire time until Maxim found her - well, I leave it to you to decide how credible that is.

I asked Maxim and Oxana whether BerMax was in deep financial trouble. Oxana responded that, just like any business, they had some debts. We have now learned that the Berents had some very serious financial issues. The CBC was the first to report that the Berent family home was about to be put up for sale. But, despite their major financial problems, the Berents  denied, both to the CBC and to me,  that their debts could have motivated them to stage the attack and vandalism. They insisted that  that insurance for the damage would not pay very much.
When I attended BerMax Caffé on Wednesday, April 24, I could see that, while there was a lot of broken glass, dishes and food strewn about, there was no damage to any of the equipment beyond a smashed TV monitor - so the suggestion that this was an insurance scam doesn’t make much sense. Maybe a few thousand dollars in damage - nothing more.

Various media reported that, according to the Manitoba Court Registry, BerMax has had a number of judgments filed against it, including a judgment of $112,358.61 awarded to the Business Development Bank of Canada in August 2018. Maxim Berent also had a judgment rendered against him personally for over $40,000 owed to RBC Visa.
But why did Oxana and Maxim think BerMax had been targeted four times within six months? I asked them Wednesday evening. “It’s because we’re Jewish,” Maxim answered. “But you call yourself an Italian restaurant,” I noted.  (On its website, it says “BerMax Caffé + Bistro is Winnipeg’s Trendy Italian caffé, restaurant, bakery, catering and specialty food.” BerMax had been a kosher restaurant from its opening in December 2014, but had decided to go non-kosher this past September - on Rosh Hashanah.)
I also said to them that, to my knowledge, no other Jewish-owned restaurant or restaurant with a Jewish name (such as Myers) has ever been targeted with vandalism. Why were they being targeted repeatedly, I wondered?

At the WPS press conference announcing the charges of public mischief against the three members of the Berent family, I asked Const. Rob Carver, head of the Hate Crimes unit (who, I must say, is a really great guy - very forthcoming with the press), “what it was that led police to conclude that the Berents themselves had staged the incident?” All that Const Carver would say was that “several aspects of the case led police to be suspicious.”
On April 25, once the charges against the Berents had been laid, I wrote on our website: “It is hard to see how they (the Berents) stood to gain financially by staging the incident. When I suggested that there might have been a hefty insurance payout, Maxim dismissed that, saying  ‘Insurance money? They said that nothing expensive was damaged.’
On our Facebook page someone advanced the idea that the Berents would hope to cash in on public sympathy after the supposed antisemitic attack, which would lead to a huge upsurge in business. It sounds crazy, but given the bizarre nature of this entire affair, it might be the only logical explanation for what happened - if it is true that the Berents staged the entire incident.

On the other hand, if they did owe money to someone scary, then it might make sense that the place was trashed and the Berents are afraid to name the culprit. That is a theory I developed early on, but I realized there were a lot of holes in that theory, so I stopped proposing it.

In the final analysis - while the police have gone full circle from characterizing something as a “hate crime/commercial robbery”, to a case of “public mischief”, the entire community is in shock. In the meantime, has there been a bigger story to hit Winnipeg’s Jewish community in recent memory?