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Former city of Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs and his wife, Marisa, approach the courthouse for their trial of extortion on the morning of Nov. 18, 2019.

David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Former mayor Keith Hobbs walked into Thunder Bay’s courthouse on Monday to face charges of extortion, a case that has cast another shadow over a Northern Ontario city that has had more than its fair share of troubles.

Mr. Hobbs is facing prosecution along with his wife, Marisa Hobbs. The couple arrived at the courthouse holding hands, each wearing black. Another local resident, Mary Voss, is also charged. The Crown says the trio threatened a man in an attempt to force him to buy a house for Ms. Voss.

Crown prosecutor Peter Keen warned that extortion can be a “very ugly crime to prosecute,” and told Ontario Superior Court Justice Fletcher Dawson he would introduce videos into evidence, and a blizzard of text messages that flew among the principals.

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The name of the alleged victim, a prominent lawyer, is protected by a court-imposed publication ban. The indictment says the accused tried “to induce [the alleged victim] to purchase a house by using threats, accusations or menaces of disclosing criminal allegations to the police.”

Mr. Hobbs has denied the allegations, hiring Toronto lawyer Brian Greenspan to defend him. A veteran of the Thunder Bay police, Mr. Hobbs took office in 2010 for the first of two terms. He was charged in 2017 with extortion and obstruction of justice in relation to events alleged to have taken place in the fall of 2016. The obstruction charge was later dropped.

The first witness, Craig Loverin, a friend of the alleged victim, said in court on Monday that the alleged victim was drinking heavily at the time. He also said the mayor and his wife had become frequent visitors to the alleged victim.

The charges against Mr. Hobbs while he was still mayor rocked the community back on its heels. The police chief, J.P. Levesque, was even pulled into the case. Prosecutors accused him of tipping off Mr. Hobbs about the extortion investigation. He was found not guilty in January, 2018, on charges of obstruction of justice and breach of trust. He retired from the city’s police force last year.

The Hobbs case is only the latest blow to Thunder Bay in recent years.

A local man was charged with second-degree murder after an Indigenous woman was hit by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing car in January, 2017. In 2016 and 2017, the Lake Superior city of 110,000 had more murders per capita than any other metro area in Canada, and the region had Ontario’s highest per-capita rate of fatal opioid overdoses in 2017.

Two reports last year by outside authorities scrutinized racism in the police force: one by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and another by Senator Murray Sinclair. The OIPRD report, called Broken Trust – Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service, found that “investigations of Indigenous deaths and other interactions with police devalued Indigenous lives, reflected differential treatment, and were based on racist attitudes and stereotypical preconceptions about Indigenous people.”

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Some locals say that, however the Hobbs trial turns out, it throws a spotlight on the close-knit group of police, lawyers and politicians in the town.

“It is linchpin for a lot of the dysfunction in the city that we would rather not talk about, and frankly, don’t very often,” Lakehead University instructor Travis Hay said.

The current mayor, Bill Mauro, says the city is trying to move forward after its troubles. “As a community, you are trying to crawl out from under that," he told The Globe and Mail earlier this month, citing a new waterfront, a reviving core in the north end, and new jobs in the knowledge economy.

“So much good is going on,” he said in his City Hall office. “We are trying to let some of that oxygen into the narrative.”

The Hobbs trial is scheduled to last four weeks.

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