Mountie who co-developed ‘Mr. Big’ undercover technique ‘lived and breathed’ his work
By Susan Lazaruk, Staff ReporterAugust 23, 2009
Hundreds of police officers gathered to pay their respects to lifelong Mountie Peter Marsh in South Delta yesterday, remembering his dedication to the call of duty and acknowledging the crime- fighting tool that is his legacy to the RCMP. Marsh, 58, who co-founded the “Mr. Big” technique for winning confessions in major crimes, died on Aug. 6, leaving behind his wife, Debbie, and two children. It was the Marshes’ 26th wedding anniversary.
Marsh rose to the rank of inspector and was in charge of all covert operations for the RCMP’s E Division in B.C. He continued to work past his optional retirement date after 35 years’ service, such was his devotion to the force. “He lived, breathed and worked his job,” said Staff Sgt. Al Haslett, a friend and colleague for decades. “He would work on something without stopping. He wouldn’t stop to eat some days. He was a fantastic, dedicated individual. “In his 38 years, he took four sick days before he got sick,” he said, referring to the cancer that ended Marsh’s life. It was through his dedication to police work, said Haslett, that the two of them were able to devise “through trial and error” in the early 1990s the “Mr. Big” undercover technique now common across Canada.
“He was thinking outside the box,” Haslett said. The strategy involves police officers posing as organized crime figures who try to persuade a suspect to admit to the crime he’s suspected of, usually murder, so he can join their mob. The undercover agents often arrange for suspects to observe the phony mobsters committing what they think are crimes, or pay them to carry out phony criminal acts to win them over.
Marsh trained police worldwide in the technique, which has since been used “in excess of 500 times,” and was most famously employed in B.C. to convict Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two teenagers charged in 1995 with the brutal murders of Rafay’s parents and autistic sister in Bellevue, Wash.
Their confessions to a “Mr. Big” helped convict them in a Seattle court in 2004. The technique has its detractors but Canadian courts, all the way up to the highest, the Supreme Court of Canada, have defended the procedure as legal, despite some cases not ending in convictions. Marsh “believed in accountability,” said Haslett. “His lasting legacy to the RCMP was the way he ensured the undercover programs were never abused.”
Marsh, “Pete” to his friends and family, was born in July, 1951, in Moose Jaw, Sask., the second-eldest of four children to parents whose ancestors all fought in the First and Second World Wars, said his younger brother, Kim Marsh, a retired RCMP officer.
He loved to hunt and was a good shot, he said. “You could say he grew up with a gun in his hand,” said his wife, Debbie. “He was a real outdoorsman and he loved to fish.” The family had moved to Druid, Sask., when Marsh was young and, at 19, he signed up for the RCMP after recruiters came to his high school in Plenty, Sask. Recruits at that time had to be male, 19 to 29 years old and single and had to promise not to marry for two years, said Kim. Marsh was posted to Cowichan Lake, Courtenay, Victoria’s drug squad, Nanaimo and back to Courtenay in its drug section. He also spent some time with an emergency response team as a sharpshooter.
On his second posting to Courtenay, he met Debbie Parker, a 21-year-old bank employee, who remembers knowing at first sight that this was the man she would marry. Life was anything but routine, with Marsh being sent away on long assignments and Debbie not knowing sometimes until the last minute that he would be gone for months.
“But when he came home, he never brought work home with him,” she said. They had two children, Courtney, now 20, and Jason, 17, and the family spent vacations skiing, waterskiing and salmon fishing in Nootka Sound. “He was a man who loved the outdoors, away from the phone and the computer,” said Debbie.
Marsh and his hunting buddy would spend three days on horseback in the bush, hunting grizzlies, ducks and deer. Marsh would coach hockey and baseball and mentor wayward youth, and Courtney fondly remembers her dad watching her soccer games. Haslett said Marsh threw himself into his off-duty life the same way he tackled his job. “He worked to the max. He lived to the max,” he said. Marsh would also be remembered for his “huge barrel of a laugh,” said Debbie.
“If you heard it and you didn’t see Pete, you knew he was nearby.”
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