The downfall of Peter Nygard
How the disgraced fashion mogul was finally brought to justice, decades after his first sexual assault
Shannon Moroney still recalls the “absolute terror” in the woman’s voice on the other end of the phone.
“How do I know you’re not a spy for Peter Nygard?” the woman asked Moroney.
It was during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. The Torontobased trauma therapist had been contacted by a non-profit organization in the Bahamas looking to refer two Canadian women who had been sexually assaulted. Moroney knew little else about the woman when she called her.
“I recognized the name Peter Nygard, and I was just thinking to myself, ‘The guy who designed polyester clothing for older women?’ ” Moroney said in a recent interview with the Star.
As the call with the woman continued, Moroney quickly did an internet search and was stunned at what she was seeing: recent news reports about a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual assault and sex trafficking, and Nygard’s New York offices being raided by the FBI.
“I say to the woman on the phone, are you one of his survivors?” Moroney said. “And she said, ‘Yes, it happened to me many years ago and I’ve just been so scared ever since, and I think I could use some help.’ “And that was how it began.” The year 2020 would prove to be the beginning of the downfall of the man who once ran the largest manufacturer of women’s clothing in Canada, owned multiple properties around the world and was described as the “playboy” of Canadian fashion.
After years of rumours and accusations swirling around the now-82-year-old Nygard — withdrawn charges, no criminal convictions and his own adamant denials — things kicked into gear: a classaction lawsuit filed in the U.S. quickly grew from 10 women to 57, and criminal charges soon followed, first in New York and then in three provinces, including Ontario.
Last Sunday, the Finland-born, Winnipeg-raised Nygard received his very first criminal convictions for sexual assault in the cases of four women whom he attacked in the top-floor bedroom at his former Toronto offices at 1 Niagara St. between the late 1980s and 2005. He was acquitted of sexually assaulting a fifth woman. A date for his sentencing hearing will be set on Tuesday.
The story of how Nygard was finally brought to justice involves U.S. civil lawyers who vetted a flood of claims; a therapist who advocated for her clients and helped them report decades-old allegations to the police at the height of the #MeToo era; and a billionaire “arch-enemy” who said he could not turn a blind eye to what he was hearing.
Most importantly, it involves the women themselves — now numbering well over 100 — including those whose allegations were dismissed, like former model KC Allan, but who kept speaking out.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I know he must have had a lot of help and a lot of support,” said Allan, who claims Nygard raped her in Winnipeg when she was 17 in 1979.
The early cases
Nygard was first charged with a sexual offence by Winnipeg police in 1968, according to a retired detective who spoke to CBC’s “The Fifth Estate” in 2021, but the charge was dropped when the complainant refused to testify.
He was charged with rape in Winnipeg in 1980, later withdrawn because that complainant also didn’t testify. The class-action lawsuit alleged in 2020 that he “used funds from the Nygard Companies to pay the woman off.”
Two women reported being sexually assaulted by Nygard to Toronto police in 1998, including the woman who would become the first complainant to testify against him this year. They both dropped their complaints, with the first complainant saying she became afraid for her life after learning that Nygard’s head of security had come to Toronto to find out more about the investigation.
Nygard has also threatened legal action in the past regarding reports of sexual misconduct. In 1996, he said he planned to sue the Winnipeg Free Press for writing about three employees alleging sexual harassment.
Allan is one of eight women whose cases of alleged sexual assault were forwarded to prosecutors by Winnipeg police in December 2020 after a months-long investigation. The prosecution office declined to pursue charges against Nygard, sparking uproar and causing the Manitoba government to order an independent review.
As a result of that probe, charges were laid this past July in the case of one complainant, with a trial date yet to be set.
“Winnipeg was his training ground, I feel that very strongly,” Allan said. “Had I known he was going to go on and be so spectacular at it, yeah I would have charged him at the time, in hindsight.
“You don’t know when you’re 17.”
‘Our phones got flooded’
The moment the first woman’s allegations against Nygard crossed her desk, Florida-based lawyer Lisa Haba said she realized “there was something gravely wrong here and it was an injustice that had to be righted.”
Haba’s firm pooled resources with another, DiCello Levitt, and lawyer Greg Gutzler in particular, to file a class-action lawsuit alleging sex trafficking and sexual assault against Nygard in February 2020, initially with 10 women: one American and nine from the Bahamas, where Nygard had a large compound.
It became, as Haba puts it, “the first legal action finally holding Peter Nygard accountable, or at least attempting to do so.”
The lawsuit alleges that Nygard used “a network of company employees … to kidnap, groom and entice children and women,” and that executives used a number of tactics to silence victims, including violence and payoffs.
Nygard has always denied any wrongdoing regarding this lawsuit and all of his criminal charges.
What the lawyers learned is that over the years, “there was effort after effort after effort to bring criminal charges, civil charges,” Haba said, and so the two firms worked to build a case “that was going to be supportable and provable.”
International news coverage led to women calling from around the world. “Our phones got flooded,” she said. “A lot of people saw that for once there was safety in numbers and for once they would not be individually targeted.”
She said the lawyers had “key information” that was not made public, and it formed part of a vetting process for each allegation. “The claims we accepted into the lawsuit were the ones we were able to vet and verify,” she said.
The lawsuit proved to be the catalyst. Within weeks of its filing, the FBI raided Nygard’s New York offices. He stepped down as chair of Nygard International, and the company later filed for bankruptcy. Criminal charges then followed between the end of 2020 and 2023 in New York, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg.
“If that civil suit didn’t come, this case wouldn’t be here today,” Nygard’s son, Kai Bickle-Nygard, told reporters after the guilty verdicts in Toronto. He became a whistleblower in recent years, proactively participating in the various probes against his father.
The number of women involved in the lawsuit quickly grew to 57, and includes three of the four women he was convicted of assaulting in Toronto. After reaching out to the legal team, they were connected with Moroney for therapy and eventually went to Toronto police.
The lawsuit was stayed by a judge in 2020, putting it on pause until further notice. Reasons for the stay are sealed, meaning the information is not publicly accessible.
Haba said they plan to re-file with over 130 plaintiffs once they’re able to do so. The women are primarily American and Canadian and their allegations span half a century, she said.
It was Nygard’s belief that his Bahamas neighbour and “arch-enemy,” billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Bacon, played a major role in shepherding women toward the class-action and the police. The pair have been involved in property disputes and costly litigation for years.
‘‘ I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I know he must have had a lot of help and a lot of support.
KC ALLAN, ABOVE, WHO CLAIMS NYGARD RAPED HER IN WINNIPEG WHEN SHE WAS 17 IN 1979
The New York Times reported in 2020 on Bacon’s efforts to find women with sexual misconduct claims against Nygard, with Bacon telling the newspaper that he felt obligated to take action after hearing of possible sexual abuse.
Haba said she couldn’t comment on the genesis of the lawsuit for confidentiality reasons but said, “Any accusation that his neighbour in the Bahamas had anything to do with this is just simply not true … I don’t represent Louis Bacon, I’ve never met Louis Bacon, I’ve never spoken to Louis Bacon.”
Bacon issued a brief statement after the guilty verdicts in Toronto. “For years, as I was made aware of the nature and extent of his abuses towards women, I did what I could do to assist and support his victims,” he said. “Today, finally, some justice has been served.”
While the civil action may have been the catalyst, it remains to be seen whether Nygard will ever face the plaintiffs.
When the lawsuit is unstayed, “if he has died before we get to that point, we will continue pursuing our lawsuit against his estate,” Haba said. “And if he is still alive, then we look forward to bringing the case against him.”
‘The advocate that I didn’t have’
The class-action lawsuit showed the women they were not alone, and Moroney then helped some of them take those claims to Toronto police.
A registered social worker, Moroney has personal experience when it comes to the criminal justice system; she’s been very public about how she learned her now-former husband was a killer and sexual offender.
Moroney has been a therapist and advocate to numerous women with allegations against Nygard, including four of the five Toronto complainants.
It all began when she was contacted in March 2020 by the Bahamas non-profit, Our Sanctuary, asking if she would accept the two women from Toronto into her practice. The organization had seen her listing in Psychology Today and soon referred more women to her, covering their therapy costs as well. The class-action lawyers were also referring women to Our Sanctuary, who in turn were connecting them to therapists, including Moroney.
The New York Times reported that Our Sanctuary was founded by human rights lawyer Fred Smith to support victims of sexual assault, and funded by “generous” donations from him and Bacon — something Moroney said she only learned later.
“Not that him even funding it is a problem,” she told the Star. “If I’m working with people who have been sexually assaulted, it’s great that somebody’s decided to put their money to an extremely important cause. So I don’t care what his motivation is.”
The contract with Our Sanctuary “clearly indicated that I would not be required to submit notes or even summaries of treatment, it was really just around payment, which was my standard fee,” Moroney said.
Many women said they came forward as a result of #MeToo, Moroney said, referring to the movement which gained traction in 2017 following sexual abuse allegations against disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Despite assertions by the defence in the Toronto criminal case, Moroney said there’s no proof that she inadvertently tainted the complainants’ evidence. “I wasn’t being given people who in any way, form, or fashion appeared to be making up what they told me,” she said.
Moroney said it’s her duty to help break down barriers to reporting sexual assault to police, if that’s what the client wants. There were no criminal charges yet against Nygard anywhere in 2020 as she reached out to various police forces. The first person she spoke to at Toronto police “really didn’t seem to understand the breadth and depth,” and initially things went nowhere.
But then in December 2020, just days before federal prosecutors in New York announced criminal charges against Nygard, Moroney said she got a call from Det. Const. Scott Taylor of Toronto police. And everything changed.
He told her that the Nygard file had just been put on his desk and that none of the complainants would talk to him unless he spoke to Moroney first, she said.
A “very caring human being,” Taylor would go on to interview the women, and a number of sexual assault and forcible confinement charges were laid against Nygard in 2021. He was taken from Winnipeg to Toronto, undergoing an 11-hour interview with Det. Rob Thomas against his lawyer’s advice.
“My own journey through the justice system really just made me become the advocate that I didn’t have; I know how isolating it is, not knowing where to go, to be filled with fear,” Moroney said.
‘‘ I loved my father, and it hurts to see all of these things. I knew a different man, and for me that bond was real … But there’s another personality within there, there’s something evil in there.
A public inquiry
KC Allan not only wants a public inquiry into the 2021 decision not to prosecute Nygard in Winnipeg — as has been called for by other women with allegations, as well as Moroney — but into how Nygard was able to get away with it for so many decades.
The inquiry needs to “call into question all law enforcement decisions, dating back to the first time his name crossed a police blotter,” she said.
Bickle-Nygard described his father as a “systematic monster” and said voices were “systematically silenced” over the years. The case needs to be examined “to see where that problem was, so that we can correct it for others in the future,” he said.
“I loved my father, and it hurts to see all of these things,” he said. “I knew a different man, and for me that bond was real … But there’s another personality within there, there’s something evil in there.”
The Manitoba government made no commitment to an inquiry in the wake of the Toronto guilty verdicts, citing the other ongoing court cases. Nygard still faces trials in Montreal and Winnipeg, while also fighting extradition to the U.S.
“I do believe he was supported and shielded during his crime spree — which is what it was, let’s not kid ourselves — and until we put those people on the stand and hold them accountable as well, justice will not have been served,” Allan said.
“This is the next phase of justice.”
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited