What looked like an anti-Semitic attack at a Winnipeg café that drew public concern and political condemnation was not a hate crime but an alleged sham staged by owners of the business, police said Wednesday.
Officers responded last Thursday to a report that a woman who worked at the BerMax Caffé and Bistro was assaulted and that the business was vandalized and spray-painted with hate-related graffiti. It was the night before Passover.
After a lengthy investigation involving 25 officers and 1,000 hours of investigative work, police said they charged the three owners of the café – including the woman who was reportedly assaulted – with public mischief.
“Last night, investigators formed the belief and came to the conclusion that the incident … was staged,” Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth said.
“I am hugely disappointed and frankly angry that this family has used hate and racism in such a disingenuous way. In doing so, they have allowed cynicism to creep into this discussion – cynicism that trivializes genuine victims of hate.”
Alexander Berent, 56, Oxana Berent, 48, and Maxim Berent, 29, were released on a promise to appear in court next month. They have not entered pleas.
Police were already investigating earlier reports of anti-Semitic graffiti at the café dating back to December. As news of last week’s apparent attack spread, a GoFundMe page was set up to help the owners. Politicians also condemned the crime.
“Winnipeggers stand [with] members of our Jewish community today & always, as we combat racism & antisemitism, & defend human rights together,” Mayor Brian Bowman wrote on Twitter at the time.
“We [should] all condemn last night’s act of hate at BerMax Caffe & Bistro & support wpgpolice its hate crime investigation.”
Be’TLV, a non-profit organization that led the fundraising effort, said Wednesday it will refund all money it had raised – about $900.
“Everyone at Be’TLV is shocked,” read a statement on the group’s Facebook page.
“We will co-operate with the police. All donors will be refunded.”
The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg said it was “deeply disturbed” to learn of the police allegations.
“Filing false complaints of criminal acts of anti-Semitism are not only illegal, they undermine the important work necessary to counter anti-Semitism and hate in all forms,” the group wrote in a statement to media.
“We reiterate our appreciation of the work of the Winnipeg Police Service and their continued support for the Jewish community.”
Attempts to reach the café’s owners via phone and e-mail were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Chief Smyth said he could not discuss a possible motive for what happened. He also said police will not change their approach to investigating future cases.
“We took it … in good faith and we will continue to do so. We have a strong relationship with many of the communities in our city.”