Toronto lawyer Scott Rosen was no stranger to heated litigation, representing business clients and acting as counsel in shareholders, real estate and commercial lease disputes for more than 25 years.
And while the 52-year-old did not shy away from forceful advocacy, even his most contentious matters stayed courteous and civil.
So when an assailant poured phosphoric acid on his head as he descended the stairs to an underground parking lot near his midtown Toronto office on March 28, 2018, Rosen figured it was a random attack by someone who was mentally ill. This, despite the fact the culprit resembled Anh Chiem, whom he was suing on behalf of her former son-in-law.
“I suppose there is a small chance it’s her, we are in litigation and court proceedings. That’s the only person I can think of,” Rosen told the police officers investigating the acid attack.
Twenty-one months later, at 5:30 pm on Dec. 18, 2020, Chiem, fueled with rage, ran over the civil litigator walking to his vehicle in a parking garage at his 234 Eglinton Ave. East law office. He suffered catastrophic injuries and died almost instantly. Prosecutors called it a “calculated and extremely violent act” that was captured by surveillance video.
It showed a U-Haul pickup driving directly at Rosen, dragging him along the cement wall, before bending like a piece of paper to the ground, the jury was told. After squealing the tires in reverse, the truck accelerated again before passing over its body.
On Tuesday afternoon, after about eight hours of deliberations, the jury convicted Chiem of first-degree murder. “Truly the most overwhelming case I have ever seen,” said Justice Peter Bawden while commending defense lawyer Naomi Lutes for her work on Chiem’s behalf.
After the verdict, the court officers guided the defendant quietly sobbing out of the courtroom. Rosen’s wife, Elise Middlestadt, grimaced looking at the woman who suggested during the trial that she had suffered more than Rosen. “All I can say is there was nothing more important to Scott than justice and today the right person was held to account,” said Middlestadt, who attended court every day. She and other family members will return to court on May 24 when Chiem will receive an automatic life sentence.
The judges were not told about the earlier acid-throwing incident, which remained unsolved and the suspect unidentified.
But those closest to Rosen had little doubt it was Chiem who showered him with the burning substance demonstrating what the Crown described as her “long-standing and undaunted resolve” to cause him harm.
Chiem continued to maintain that he had no reason to hurt Rosen.
During the trial, prosecutors Bev Richards and Corie Langdon presented evidence that litigation, her bankruptcy and unfounded complaints to the legal regulator about Rosen’s clearly established motives.
Rosen acted as counsel in three types of court proceedings involving Chiem. There was a protracted real estate dispute involving a parcel of property owned by her mother, Chau Chiem, over a development agreement with her son-in-law Peter Voong’s home-building company, Castleform Development Inc. Voong sued the Chiems in 2016 and they countersued.
Rosen was also representing Voong’s interests in a child and spousally supporting the court fight with Chiem’s daughter, Sandra Vo, although the jury did not hear about that feud.
But what sent Chiem over the edge, the prosecutors accused, Rosen was taking steps to prevent her bankruptcy discharge. Chiem was on the hook for costs related to the Voong lawsuit and also owed $350,000, most of that to Ontario casinos that sued her (a detail not shared with jurors.) She declared bankruptcy in 2018 hoping to wipe out her debts and end the civil litigation.
Rosen, acting in his role as counsel to a numbered company, had purchased two-thirds of her debt and was intending to seize assets including a house occupied by Chiem’s elderly mother.
Lutes tried, however, to convince jurors to reject the Crown’s theory that those legal imbroglios amounted to motive.
“There’s no doubt she felt aggrieved and unfairly treated,” Lutes said during her closing arguments last week. “She may have been angry but she complained to the Law Society, which is what people are supposed to do when they’re angry with lawyers.”
As well, by December 2020, Chiem still had protection from creditors, and there was no imminent transfer of assets, said Lutes.
She also argued that Crown had failed to prove the critical issue at trial: who was driving the white U-Haul pickup truck that ran over Rosen — the same vehicle Chiem had rented for three days prior to the killing. Lutes called to the stand a woman present in the parking garage who tested the driver was a safe, a witness the Crown said was unreliable.
On the prosecution witness list was a police officer who gave Chiem a ticket while she sat parked near Rosen’s office — the pickup truck’s license plate had been covered with duct tape; she denied placing it there.
The Crown also relied on the testimony of a man who was driving on Bathurst Street around 5:45 pm on Dec. 18 — about 15 minutes after Rosen died. He saw a woman behind the wheel of a heavily damaged U-Haul truck. He exchanged words with the driver and later recognized him as Chiem when his photo appeared on a TV newscast.
Chiem was on the stand for several days where he acknowledged renting the truck on Dec. 15, 16 and 17 and parked close to Rosen’s law office. The jury also heard she was loitering near his office earlier that month.
“She has not provided any explanation why she was there those days,” Richards said Friday during her closing address.
During the lengthy cross-examination, Chiem remained calm and didn’t raise her voice while being grilled by veteran prosecutor Richards.
Chiem’s language skills became an issue at trial.
Using a Vietnamese interpreter, Chiem suggested her English was such that she had no understanding of her legal predicament nor the effect of Rosen’s opposition to her bankruptcy discharge.
“If the jury believed her, it would substantially weaken the Crown’s case” as it relates to motive, Bawden said in a midtrial ruling when the jury was absent.
He allowed the prosecution to recall several witnesses to tell of interactions with Chiem that demonstrated his proficiency in English. They included a bankruptcy trustee who testified he witnessed an angry confrontation between Chiem and Rosen on Sept. 23, 2019, outside bankruptcy court.
“She knew full well what was going on and what her jeopardy was and she knew it was entirely the result of Scott Rosen,” Richards said during her closing address.
The jury heard few personal details about Chiem, who turns 65 in November.
Born in Vietnam, Chiem came to Canada with her parents and a son in 1980. The family settled in Halifax, where she worked as a seamstress and had two more children. When she moved to Toronto with three kids in 1989, their father stayed behind in Halifax. By then, Chiem was a Canadian citizen, according to defense documents filed with his bail application. (A judge turned down her release in the summer of 2021.)
While raising her sons and daughters in Toronto, Chiem worked on and off as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Missing was the detail that in 1999 and 2001, she was convict of operating body rub parlors without a license, contrary to city bylaws. Chiem was fined $2,000 and given two years probation.
Chiem’s later years were filled with trouble.
She suffered from depression and lived with her boyfriend, with whom she had a “volatile relationship,” along with her daughter and mother, and sometimes lived on the street, according to her bail application. Her “nomadic lifestyle” put a strain on her relationship with her children, yet they remained “supportive and respectful,” wrote Lutes.
At the time of her arrest, Chiem was receiving income through the Ontario Disability Support Program.
Two days before Christmas, with the city under lockdown, Emergency Task Force officers executed a search warrant at her son’s house where they found Chiem under a blanket on the floor beneath a bed.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION