TORONTO -- Serious concerns about possible favouritism in internal investigations in Canada's national police force are being raised in the wake of a W5 documentary about the issue and its connection to a B.C. murder case.

Critics are calling for the federal government to change the rules around the RCMP's Code of Conduct process so that Mounties can't avoid discipline and public disclosure simply by leaving the force.

"There needs to be changes to the system so a person can't thwart an investigation, and their own prosecution, by taking retirement," said Anthony Oliver, a lawyer for the family of Arlene Westervelt.

Westervelt drowned while canoeing with her husband Bert on B.C.'s Lake Okanagan in 2016. Three years later, authorities charged Bert Westervelt with second-degree murder. Last summer, the murder charge was stayed.

Bert Westervelt has said the charge was "dropped because I didn't commit any crime." The explanation given by the Crown was that there was new evidence which reduced the likelihood of conviction.

Exactly what that evidence was, authorities didn't say. The decision to stay the charge blindsided Arlene Westervelt's family.

"I had that same feeling of these electric currents going through my whole system. My whole body felt the same way the moment I heard that she died," said Arlene Westervelt's sister, Debbie Hennig.

Arlene Westervelt

Arlene Westervelt drowned while canoeing with her husband on Okanagan Lake in 2016.

A former Mountie told W5 he believes an internal investigation was started into the alleged misuse of Mounties' technology to unlock Arlene Westervelt's phone as a personal favour to her husband, a family friend, in the days following her death.

Chris Williams, who has been medically discharged, referred to a letter obtained through an access to information request that alleges an officer "provided his personal opinion of…to investigators. It is therefore alleged that … did engage in a potential conflict of interest between his professional responsibilities and his private interests."

The letter also says this Mountie "did direct… to use Cellebrite equipment to unlock a cellular phone for personal and unauthorized use."

Cellebrite is an Israeli company that makes technology used around the world by law enforcement to access data. Its use in Canada has been described in around 30 court documents, opening cellphones in cases from drugs to child pornography.

A W5 investigation reveals the potential abuse of the same technology may have been part of the reason why the murder charge was stayed.

Williams believes former Mountie, Superintendent Brian Gateley, had some involvement in unlocking the murder victim's phone.

"When I looked at the vetted document, the allegation was consistent with what I'd heard from other officers regarding high level officer misconduct," Williams said.

Brian Gateley

Brian Gateley is seen in this image from 2015.

According to the letter, the Assistant Commissioner Jim Gresham became aware of potential misconduct on Dec. 4, 2017. Nine and a half months later, Assistant Commissioner Kevin Hackett ordered an investigation into the alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct, the document says.

In the meantime, Gateley was promoted to acting chief of a B.C. anti-gang unit, the CFSEU. Then, he retired, getting another job at B.C.'s Organized Crime Agency. Provincial records show some of his superiors were on that agency's board at the time.

Williams said he confronted senior Mounties about this issue in July 2020 – less than two weeks before the charge was stayed.

Mounties wouldn't talk to us about member conduct for privacy reasons. But the force told CTV News it does finish investigations when officers retire, but it's no longer able to discipline them. That means Gateley could never be disciplined, or findings about the investigation made public, even if the RCMP believed he had some involvement in accessing the phone.

W5 spoke with Gateley but he said he couldn't talk because the RCMP told him not to speak to the media and he did not want to harm the murder case – harm Westervelt's sisters believe may have already been done.

Statistics show at least a dozen Mounties each year resign before their investigations are complete.

"If there are no consequences for this behaviour, they become a law unto themselves, and the justice system has no credibility," said Darryl Davies, a criminology instructor at Carleton University.

The potential misuse of the Cellebrite technology has prompted privacy advocates to call for greater scrutiny of its use at the RCMP.

"We have to get some proper oversight and really reel it in," said Ann Kavoukian, Ontario's former privacy commissioner. Using it with judicial authorization is one thing, but she said "the wild west, where you make these decisions yourself, making everything unencrypted in an unauthorized manner, that's completely unacceptable."

Toronto police wouldn't say whether they use the same technology. Nor would the Ontario Provincial Police.

The RCMP has said they don't believe any officer conduct caused the murder charge to be stayed.

The lawyer for Arlene Westervelt's sisters, Anthony Oliver, has called for an independent investigation into the case.

Anthony Oliver

Anthony Oliver is the lawyer representing the sisters of Arlene Westervelt.

B.C.'s attorney general, David Eby, told CTV News in a statement his heart goes out to the Westervelt family.

"This case remains under investigation. In an effort not to prejudice that process, I am limited in my comments," he said. "I can tell you that I have full confidence in the operations of the BC Prosecution Service and that the decisions they make are based on sound judgement, according to the evidence before them and the charge assessment standard."

Canada's public safety minister, Bill Blair, said in a statement, "Contraventions of the Code of Conduct are taken seriously and the RCMP is committed to handling conduct issues in a timely, efficient, and fair manner."