When Caitlin Potts mysteriously vanished from the Okanagan in 2016, police launched an extensive and expensive Mr. Big sting operation against a suspect in her disappearance.
That’s according to Jason Hnatiuk, who said he was at the centre of the investigation.
Hnatiuk said he was a friend of Potts, 27, but denied being her boyfriend. He said he met Potts at a tough time in his life.
“I had just broken up with the mother of my kids. I was feeling really lost in life,” he said. “I was lonely.”
Hnatiuk said that Potts was working as an escort.
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“There was an understanding that that’s the situation,” he said. “We would have drinks. We’d go to the club, dancing, all that kind of stuff.”
“I was working all the time, and then there’s this person Caitlin who’s fun and will hang out with me and stuff.”
“The thing about Caitlin is she’d give you the shirt off her back,” Hnatiuk said. “She’s tough as nails. That’s what I liked about her.”
“She’s athletic. She’s funny, hilarious.”
“So we’re talking to each other, hanging out occasionally when I have days off. That’s the scope of how I began my relationship with this person,” he said.
Hnatiuk was charged with assaulting Potts at an Edmonton hotel in August of 2014.
“She was there at that hotel, which was a known crime spot,” he said.
Hnatiuk claims that Potts got into debt with “some drug dealing guys.”
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“She calls me up and is like, ‘Hey, these guys have my property. They have my purse. I want to get out of here. Can you come help me?’
“And when I got there, she flipped it on me and told me if I didn’t pay the money to these guys, she was going to have me beaten up,” Hnatiuk said.
“So that’s what led to the altercation between her and I.”
“Yes, I freaked out and things went really sh—ty, and there’s cameras in the hotel (that) captured this.”
Hotel surveillance video showed Hnatiuk assaulting Potts.
“I got charged with assault with a weapon, and the weapon in question was me swinging Caitlin’s handbag at her,” Hnatiuk said.
“Because our court system is so inept, it took 34 months for me to go to trial for that day,” he added.
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By that time, Caitlin was missing. She was not in court when Hnatiuk was sentenced, although her mother Priscilla Potts attended the hearing.
“After a year of not seeing my daughter and seeing that, I was shaking,” Priscilla said at the time. “Of all the pain that she went through, all of the beating, I’m surprised she got up.”
Hnatiuk was sentenced to 14 months behind bars for the attack.
But shortly after the assault first happened, before Hnatiuk went to jail, he was released on bail and given a “no contact order” with Potts.
Hnatiuk said he ended up back in the Okanagan, and he had distanced himself from Potts.
“I’m finally getting my life back on track,” he said. “I get back involved with some people out there who are helping me with business and stuff. Things are starting to go my way.”
“And I’m actually being put up at an acreage around Enderby. My buddy has helped me with a place to stay.”
That’s when Hnatiuk said he got a phone call from Potts.
Hnatiuk said Potts told him she was having family troubles and was worried for her safety.
“She ends up coming down to the Okanagan, calling me out of the blue, telling me she’s in the area and like, can I help her out? And it’s like, ‘Man, why would you do that?’
“So she comes. She’s around this area,” Hnatiuk said, adding he told Potts he couldn’t have anybody staying at the property.
“So she freaks out and calls the cops on me,” Hnatiuk said. “And because I have a no-contact order with her because of that assault at the hotel, I get arrested for breaching bail conditions.”
“I get taken to cells, released,” Hnatiuk said. “At this point in time, Caitlin leaves. I told her, ‘You’re not welcome to be here.’”
Hnatiuk said Potts then went to a homeless shelter in Salmon Arm.
She later moved into a basement suite with a woman she met at the shelter, Hnatiuk said.
“She’s not living with me. She’s not my girlfriend. She’s a friend of mine that I met in a bad circumstance that got out of control because of the situation.”
Hnatiuk said that at one point, he had to go to Edmonton for a few days. He needed to leave just as problems started with the water well on the property where he was living in Enderby, he said.
Hnatiuk said he offered Potts some money to come and stay on the property and keep an eye on things as the crew worked to fix the pump.
He told her to “just let it be known that there’s someone here while they’re working.”
When Hnatiuk returned from Edmonton, he took Potts back to Salmon Arm where she was living with her roommate, he said.
Although he was adamant that the two were not living together, Hnatiuk said they did spend some time together in Enderby.
On Valentine’s Day in 2016, Potts posted an Instagram video of Hnatiuk blowing her a kiss. The caption reads: “This is my old love now best friend.”
Other posts suggest that Hnatiuk lit some candles, and the two had some red wine together.
Potts went missing eight days later on Feb. 22, 2016. She was last seen on surveillance video at Kelowna’s Orchard Park Mall.
Potts’ last message to her sister suggested that she was going to catch a rideshare to Calgary for a visit.
She then vanished without a trace.
“The police called me out of the blue, and said ‘Where’s Caitlin?’” Hnatiuk said. “And I’m like, ‘what, why, what’s going on?’”
“I was just blindsided,” he said.
Hnatiuk said he told police they could search the property where he was staying.
“I didn’t even wait for them to get a search warrant,” Hnatiuk said. “I told them, I was like, ‘You know what? I know if this continues and she doesn’t turn up, I know you’re going to get it anyways, so please come sooner rather than later because I don’t want people to say that I was trying to cover anything up.’”
Hnatiuk said RCMP, including the forensics team, were at his place for several days.
“They brought the whole squad, their cadaver dogs, full search and rescue, everything,” he said. “They went through the property with a fine-tooth comb.”
“There were helicopters and drones above the property non-stop.”
Hnatiuk said police seized his truck and “ripped it to shreds.”
“They destroyed my vehicle to the point where it was a write-off, taking the interior out of my vehicle, sending it to Ottawa,” he said.
Hnatiuk also said that he gave police his banking statements, and they have all his phone records.
“There’s not one drop of evidence, literally, because nothing f–king happened, and there’s nothing to find.”
“No one’s finding anything because the only person they’re investigating is me,” he added.
Hnatiuk also said that RCMP approached his friends and family.
“Do you know the first thing they do when they get them in the interrogation room? They say, ‘We’re investigating Jason Hnatiuk for a murder. What can you tell us about this guy?’” Hnatiuk said. “That’s the first thing they tell them.”
“They’re basically telling them that I killed this person, and how do you help them connect the dots so they can put me in jail for life,” he said. “That’s what it sounds like to me.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong. I lost my family. My kids don’t even talk to me. I’m like a pariah in Kelowna now.”
Hnatiuk has not been charged in connection with Potts’ disappearance.
He also said that police tried to carry out a Mr. Big sting operation on him for months.
A Mr. Big investigation is a police tactic whereby undercover officers typically lure a suspect into a fake gang, leading to a meeting with the “crime boss,” who tries to extract a confession.
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“This guy, an undercover (cop), came to my house, pretending to have a flat tire, and then proceeded to, like, crowbar their way into my life,” he said.
“I knew it was the cops the whole time,” he said, adding that his lawyer had warned him that he would likely be a suspect in Potts’ disappearance.
“I just went along with it because they’re giving me $300 a day.”
“We’d go to hotel rooms all over Western Canada and just count $100,000, and they’re pretending that they’re lending it to guys at exorbitant interest,” he said.
“I told them straight up, I’m like, “Listen, whatever it is that you guys are involved in, I’m not going to do anything with drugs, violence on any level. I don’t want to see any guns. If I see anybody get assaulted or hurt, I’m so out of here because I knew (that they were cops),” he said.
“They said, ‘Yeah, no, don’t worry about it man, it’s nothing like that. It’s just counting money.’ And that’s all we did for the next two and a half months.”
“They tried to put these scenarios together that we’re in this money-laundering scheme,” he said. “I went to all these apartments in Vancouver. They took me to this yacht in Coal Harbour, pretending it was this big master criminal dude,” he said.
“They had this warehouse in Vancouver that they would bring me to. I know now that it was probably seized property from actual crimes. There was a fancy boat and these nice cars,” Hnatiuk said.
He also alleged that police took him to a poker game.
“It was a roomful of cops pretending to be gangsters in a Texas Hold’em poker game for $100,000,” he said. “They told me I’m just there for security.”
Hnatiuk noted that Mr. Big schemes are generally not allowed in the U.S.
“It leads to false convictions at ridiculous rates because they pressure guys to say what they want them to say,” he said. “You’re supposed to be addressing the big boss to finally be fully accepted into the crime group. It’s a joke.”
Hnatiuk expressed concern that police are using taxpayer dollars for the Mr. Big investigation.
“These cops are going to the fanciest restaurants you’ve ever seen, ordering the most expensive stuff, acting like they’re these big players.”
“You should see how high on the hog these f—kers are living,” he said.
Hnatiuk said he also came under scrutiny when he was living in West Kelowna.
“They had video cameras in my home, and my house wired for sound,” Hnatiuk claimed.
He said he gets frustrated hearing that some people don’t think that he’s been properly investigated in Potts’ disappearance.
“I’ve been ridiculously scrutinized by the police, non-stop, to this day.”
“They have been on every facet of my life, everything. There is no stone unturned,” he said. “I’ve been vilified.”
Hnatiuk said he feels that police are trying to manufacture evidence. “They don’t have anything.”
RCMP would not confirm whether or not they conducted a Mr. Big sting in connection with Potts’ death.
“The RCMP has no comment to add about the role of Jason Hnatiuk, or any specific investigative steps or searches which may or may not have occurred, or evidence collected to date,” Cpl. James Grandy said in a statement.
“As in every case, investigators follow the evidence, and in the case of missing persons, would certainly look into the people and places they were last associated to in an effort to establish their movements,” he added.
“Investigators have concluded that Caitlin Potts was murdered and have treated this case as such,” Grandy said.
Kash Heed, West Vancouver’s former police chief, said Mr. Big sting operations are usually carried out in high-profile cases where police have some sort of evidence against the suspect, but not enough for the case to head to trial.
“So if they can get the individual to confess to a particular crime through various scenarios, that gives the added evidence that may be required to put the matter before the courts,” Heed said.
He believes it’s possible that officers turned to the tactic in Potts’ disappearance.
“In all likelihood, if they’ve exhausted all investigative leads, they may have tried this,” he said.
“(A suspect) is almost always put in some crime-based scenario which is almost too good to believe.”
Mr. Big sting operations tended to be more common years ago, Heed said.
“They’ve been under the microscope for quite a period of time,” he said, noting that there have been several court challenges against the police tactic.
“There’s been some questioning about how the officers are trained and what the officers will do to try to get a confession from an individual,” he added.
Heed said that in other cases, police have sometimes overstepped their boundaries.
He also noted that Mr. Big scenarios are costly to the taxpayers.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to really judge, did you get what you needed with respect to the amount of money that it cost, or were there other ways that you could have obtained that evidence?”
Caitlin’s mother Priscilla believes that Hnatiuk is still a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance.
“He played the system and detectives know that,” she said. “I haven’t given up yet.
Meanwhile, Potts’ family and friends continue to hold rallies to keep attention on her disappearance.
“Caitlin was beautiful, smart. She was overprotective of her friends, of us,” Priscilla said, adding that her daughter loved hugs and affection. “She was always busy trying to learn.”
“The family wants closure. You know, the family wants answers. Caitlin deserves justice,” said Jody Leon, a rally organizer, at an event in mid-July.
Anyone with information who has not yet spoken with investigators is asked to call the tip line at 1-877-987-8477.
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