Following on the heels of Making a Murderer‘s controversial “confession” scenes, Netflix is running a new original series exploring the dangers of possibly false confessions called The Confession Tapes. The first two episodes prominently feature a controversial police procedure known as “Mr. Big.”
What is Mr. Big? How do Mr. Big stings work? What’s the history of them? (Warning: There are plot spoilers ahead).
First the background on Mr. Big and The Confession Tapes on Netflix.
The first two episodes of the seven-part Netflix series focus on the convictions of two friends, Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, for the murders of Rafay’s father, mother, and sister in 1994 in Washington State when they were 18. Burns and Rafay were convicted in King County in large part, according to the show, because of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’ use of the “Mr. Big” technique on them (they had gone to Canada after the murders.) Unlike Making a Murderer, The Confession Tapes then switches to other cases for the remaining episodes of season 1, which just began streaming on Netflix.
According to The Globe and Mail, “Research suggests false confessions are involved in roughly a quarter of all wrongful convictions. The Mr. Big strategy is banned in the U.S., Britain and Germany, among other places.”
How It Works
The Mr. Big procedure involves undercover cops posing as mobsters or underworld bosses and then interacting with the target, in this case Burns and then, later, Rafay. The goal of the sting is to see if the targets will confide in the pretend mobsters about their supposed crimes.
The procedure works in part because the targets are promised something for the confession; in this case, the Mounties posing as two underworld figures named “Gary” and “Al” said they could get rid of evidence that was outlined in a faked police report against the two in the murders of the Rafay family, all of whom were found bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat inside their home.
Burns and Rafay ended up confessing to the murders on the videotape as a result of the Mr. Big sting, but they said in court that they are innocent, and Netflix says that police didn’t give enough credence to information that an Islamic group known as al-Fuqra might have been involved in the slayings instead.
According to The Toronto Star, the Mr. Big technique was created in the 1990s in Canada and “is an undercover operation aimed at obtaining a confession from a suspect, often someone police believe is responsible for a crime but have little evidence against. Often used in cold cases, the subterfuge involves convincing the target of the sting that he is consorting with criminals and must confess to a serious crime — usually to the boss, Mr. Big — to gain trust and entry into the criminal group.” Al Haslett, of the RCMP, now retired, was one of its creators and told CBC, “[We] seek the truth. We don’t go there, we don’t wake up in the morning and say ‘we’re going to get confessions.’”
CBC explained the sting procedure this way: “The operation involves undercover cops forming a phony criminal gang to solve murders (usually cold cases). After months of studying a suspects daily activities, an undercover officer posing as a gang member ‘accidentally’ befriends the suspect. Next, the suspect is offered easy odd jobs with the criminal such as driving a car from one city to another, or making bank deposits. The suspect is paid up to thousands of dollars for these tasks. Eventually, once the suspect trusts the gang, they are introduced to the crime gang’s boss – Mr. Big.”
Critics say that targets will confess to things that they didn’t do because they want to belong, profit or feel pressured or afraid.
Among other exchanges, the taped “confession” with Burns includes this passage, according to CBC:
Mr Big: “What? Both you guys woke up one day and said ‘Hey, let’s go off your family and f——g get all their money?’
Burns – Basically, essentially, yeah, I mean …
Mr. Big – How’d you f—-n do three people at once?
Burns – Not at once, it was one after the other”
According to CBC, “Rafay and Burns confessed to killing Rafay’s family to what they thought was a criminal gang who had been paying them to make illicit bank deposits.”
This site on the Burns-Rafay appeals (they remain incarcerated today) gives a list of Mr. Big cases overturned in Canada and a detailed explanation of how the Mr. Big sting unfolded in the Burns-Rafay case.
“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have long practiced an undercover technique known as Mr. Big, in which suspects are recruited to take part in fictitious criminal activities,” the site says. “Through these activities, undercover RCMP officers build trust with the suspects, offering them tantalizing gifts of money and desirable experiences. Eventually, the undercover officers add fear and intimidation to the mix, until confessions to unsolved crimes are elicited from the suspects.”
The “Mr. Big” approach has been controversial in other cases, not just that of Burns and Rafay.
In 2016, The Toronto Star reported, “The target of an elaborate, lengthy and ultimately failed ‘Mr. Big’ sting has filed a $19-million lawsuit against a dozen officers from three Ontario police forces who ran a controversial police operation aimed at solving Durham region’s oldest unsolved murder.”
Alan Smith, who was ultimately acquitted at trial, alleged that the tactic creates the risk of false confessions, according to The Star. Shortly after Smith was acquitted, reported The Star, “the Supreme Court of Canada placed strict new limits on the Mr. Big technique, ruling that any confessions produced during the gambit must be carefully scrutinized before being ruled admissible in court because of the danger of false confessions.”
However, in 2016, reported The Vancouver Sun, The B.C. Court of Appeal “upheld a notorious murder conviction based on an elaborate five-month Mr. Big sting despite tougher new guidelines imposed by the Supreme Court. The province’s highest bench said police did not cross the line during the 2009 operation even though Gary Donald Johnston received some $14,000 from Mounties posing as gangsters who also involved him in make-believe murders.”
Along the way, Burns and Rafay have picked up a lot of support from people who think they are innocent. The Seattle Times reported in 2011 that the “support for a new trial comes from Greg Hampikian, a forensic-biology professor at Boise State University and the director of the Idaho Innocence Project. He said he is convinced the two Canadians falsely confessed and that DNA evidence presented during their trial was misrepresented.”
According to the newspaper, he said that “there is ‘no forensic evidence whatsoever’ tying Burns and Rafay to the killings of Tariq Rafay, his wife, Sultana, and their daughter Basma.”
Burns & Rafay Speak
The Netflix show contains footage from the sentencings of Burns and Rafay in which both men maintain their innocence.
“I am tormented by the thought that I have been manipulated somehow into contributing to the fact that my parents’ killers to this day walk with impunity,” Rafay told the judge.
Burns insisted that both men are innocent and told the court: “We were unable to tell this jury about other suspects, who knew what the murder weapon was before anyone else was. We were prosecuted with a tactic wouldn’t be legal in this country.”