“I look in the mirror and I see a normal man. But I know I’m not normal.” – Karl Toft.
In three decades of reporting news, the following story was one of the most difficult to write. It’s about a man often described as Canada’s most notorious pedophile.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-80s, Karl Toft was a correctional officer/youth counselor at a boys’ reform school in Kingsclear, New Brunswick. Before that, he was an electronics technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force and a surveyor with the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission [now N.B. Power].
Toft also volunteered as a Boy Scouts leader. That’s because he wanted access to boys so he could have sex with them.
For his crimes, the man labeled as a predator and monster spent about a decade behind bars.
Toft, who was born in 1936, now draws a government pension and lives alone in a small apartment in Edmonton, Alberta.
It was 1991 and I was working in the newsroom at CBC Radio in Edmonton when a story broke over the wires that an arrest had been made in connection with the sexual assault of teenage boys at the Kingsclear Youth Training Centre, just outside Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital.
One of the workers, Karl Toft, was charged with nearly 40 counts of sexual assault.It was Big News.
Toft’s name went from one being whispered in the community to splashed in newspaper headlines and broadcast on radio and television stations across the country.
HIS ARREST NO SURPRISE
Karl Toft says he always knew he’d get caught, he just didn’t know when. In recalling the day he was nabbed, he says he was at home on Dundonald Street in downtown Fredericton when he heard a knock at the door. He opened the door and there stood two policemen. Game over.
Toft was given bail, but he used his freedom to try to kill himself. He drove to Florencevile, about an hour outside Fredericton, booked a motel room, popped 60 sleeping pills and drifted off to sleep, figuring he’d wake up somewhere warm. But an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found him. Toft was in a coma. He was rushed to hospital where he remained for several days.
After Toft pleaded guilty for his part in sexually assaulting nearly 20 boys at the reform school, he was given a 13-year sentence and shipped off to a federal penitentiary. I say his part because I’m convinced the man didn’t act alone; call it a ‘gut feeling’ that nags at me like an unpaid bill. But that’s a story for another day.
Toft now admits he had sex with about 200 boys. Some say the figure may be higher.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him for a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown in the sea.” Mark 9:42
Toft was released from prison in 2002, and three years after that he walked out of an Edmonton halfway house a free man.
A 2005 story by Edmonton Journal criminal justice reporter Chris Purdy included this quote from City Police detective Wil Tonowski, who supervised Toft: “He’s [Toft] optimistic. He really feels proud of himself that he has made these gains and proved to us all that he has no intention of reoffending. He just wants to live his life and be a good neighbour and friend.”
The officer also revealed that Toft had completed more treatment programs than any sexual offender in the country.
I first met Toft about a decade ago when I worked at the Edmonton Courthouse for 630-CHED News. Toft was there to get an extension to a court order prohibiting him from being around children. I immediately recognized him from the newspaper stories. Toft fit the public image of what a guard should look like: tall, muscular and authoritative.
Tonowski stood alongside Toft, near the main counter on the Provincial side. I’d worked with Wil on a number of crime stories, so I figured there wouldn’t be a problem if I walked over to Toft and introduced myself. Apparently there was a problem. Wil immediately intervened and warned Toft to be careful. I was not offended nor surprised by this. The officer was simply doing his job.
After Toft and I shook hands, I handed him my business card and said he shouldn’t be afraid to speak with me, adding that he had a story to tell. We reporters often say that when we’re trying to interview somebody. But it was true. Karl Toft had one hell of a story to tell — in fact a story that needed to be told, in part to help people understand how pedophiles operated [“grooming” their victims and all that] … and to show sexual deviants still running loose in the community that help is available.
As Toft checked out my card, I mentioned that I was originally from New Brunswick. Raising his eyebrows, he asked, “Where about?” “Campbellton,” I said. He then shared, “I worked near there, a long time ago [when he was with the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission].”
That was pretty much the extent of our talk. The two Mr. T’s — Toft and Tonowski — then walked out the northeast doors of the Courthouse.
I kept my fingers crossed that Toft would call at least one of the three phone numbers on my business card. But he did not. I wasn’t sure if he was disinterested, overcautious or afraid. Or, all of the above. No matter. The result was the same: Communication by silence.
Tonowski and I later talked about Mr. Toft, and he surprised me by what he had to say. He revealed that Toft was not only following his release conditions to the ‘T’, he’d passed an entrapment test with flying colours. Police had arranged for a boy to approach Toft in a grocery store. When the lad walked up to the pedophile, he immediately placed his basket of groceries on the floor and walked out.
The look on Tonowski’s face signalled he was pleased with how Toft had reacted. That piqued my interest again, and more than ever I wanted to interview him.
What was intriguing as well was that Toft asked for the restrictions. Hadn’t heard of that before.
WAYNE LAND & LUNCH
Fast-forward a few years and I’m on the blower to Wayne Land, an Edmonton lay-preacher with a reputation of reaching out to all — the famous [professional sports figures, say] and the infamous [convicted criminals]. Land is a ‘walk-the-talk’ Christian. I respect him because he pushes humanity in the right direction.
The World would be a far better place if it had more Wayne Lands.
Turns out, one of the many people Land helped was a man nearly all of Canadian society had shunned: Karl Toft.
Land said Toft was attending a revivalist-type church downtown [a former movie theatre, of all things] where a young couple, fully aware of Toft’s past, had asked him to baptize their newborn son. The request humbled Toft and reduced him to tears. Wow! Another cool story. I was now chomping at the bit to interview the guy.
Of that incident, Toft recalls:
“They came to me … this showed the trust the pastors in that church have towards me — they asked if I would pray protection over their son. I prayed for that child. I said to keep this child safe for the balance of his early life, to keep him safe from evil, especially people like me. Don’t let him ever be hurt by anybody like me.”
I asked for Land’s help in arranging a meeting with Karl Toft; a preliminary interview, if you will. He promised he’d make it happen, and he kept his word. In early May 2008, the three of us met in a restaurant in north-central Edmonton near the now-closed Municipal Airport.
The talk went well, although I could see that Toft was nervous. He didn’t say much and every now and then he glanced my way with a look that can be best described as studious. Land did most of the talking, as he usually does. He focused on Toft, asking how he was doing and inquiring about the support group he belonged to.
Land also encouraged Toft to stay true to the Lord.
After about an hour, Land stood up, pushed his chair back and announced he was leaving. He had some things to attend to, he said.
That left us alone. I could tell that Toft was leaning toward doing his first media interview, and when he said it would likely go ahead I gave him a thumbs up. We chatted for another hour and downed God knows how many cups of coffee. The man came across as honest about his transgressions and his “urges” [wanting to have sex with boys]. He said the last time he had sex with a boy was in September 1985.
Toft talked about how the Lord helped keep him on the straight and narrow. And for that, he thanked people like Land … and his younger brother, Gerald. Shortly after his arrest, Gerald had visited him in jail and prayed out loud for his salvation.
Gerald Arthur Toft, a contract worker with New Brunswick Department of Transportation, died in May 2003. His obituary makes no mention of his infamous brother …
Toft and I left the restaurant and walked to the parking lot. He headed toward his car, and I to mine — a 1979 Lincoln Continental, a stretch sedan the size of at least three Smart cars. Toft beamed at the sight of the old Town Car, saying it brought back memories of his time in New Brunswick.
We then went for a short spin, the luxury car floating down 118th Avenue.
THE INTERVIEW: MAY 2008
The interview took place about a week later on an overcast Sunday afternoon. We met at the same restaurant. Over coffee, I asked Toft, “How was your morning?” “I threw up,” he said, looking my way and stirring his coffee, adding, “… I didn’t go to church this morning.”
That’s when his cell phone went off. A member of his support group wanted to know how the interview had gone. Toft replied, “I haven’t done it yet.” He had obviously confided to a friend he was talking to a reporter. It was interesting to see the man had friends and acquaintances in addition to Mr. Land and some people at church.
For the interview, we sat in my car and chatted for a good hour. Before I hit ‘record’, I told Toft he had to be truthful because if he wasn’t — and I found out — it would unravel any good he had accomplished. He nodded yes.
The interview was all over the map. I was struggling to understand what makes grown men fall in lust with boys, and so I asked Toft if he ever dated any women. “Three,” he announced. “And how’d that go?” I asked. He looked my way. “Awkward,” he said. “Did you ever sleep with a woman?” I asked. The question rocked him. “No!” Toft shot back, turning away so quickly that his head glanced off the passenger door window. “That’s disgusting!” he blurted.
Toft also talked about how he had found both therapy and Jesus in jail. I joked, “What? … Jesus in jail? What was he in for?” His response wasn’t as smart-ass: “People need to know that God does wonders …”
THE EDMONTON SUN
I sold the story exclusively to the Edmonton Sun, spending most of the next day in the Sun newsroom working on it with City Editor Nicole Bergot. The following day — Tuesday, 20 May 2008 — the story was out about Canada’s most notorious pedophile breaking his silence.
Once more, Karl Toft’s crimes were laid out for all to see. But for the first time, the public heard what the man had to say.
The Sun promoted the three-part feature with front-page banners. Toft’s first media interview soon morphed into a national news item, prompting requests from a number of reporters for the man’s phone number. I turned them down.
Toft apologized for his hideous behaviour and asked for forgiveness from his many victims — and society. More important, perhaps, he said his hope was that anyone with a problem like his would seek help. “A great majority of offenders don’t realize the damage they’re doing,” he added.
Some readers praised Toft for confronting his problem, pointing out that he hadn’t offended in decades. Understandably, some were also disgusted … and suspicious of his motives.
Toft and I continued to meet, always in a coffee shop during the middle of the day when children weren’t around. He talked about his “urges” and what he was doing to keep them in check. He chose not to watch TV sitcoms that featured “attractive” boys. He has a computer but refuses to connect it to the Internet for fear of watching child porn. He also said it helped to attend a support group for pedophiles — and to attend church. “I’m not a “Bible-thumping Christian,” he pointed out, “but being a Christian has helped me a lot.”
[Toft later revealed he stopped going to church when he found himself attracted to a boy in the congregation. He now prays in his apartment.]
I asked him what he prayed about, and who he prayed for. “My victims,” he answered, “and less for myself.” “I pray for my friends, and ask God to bless them and keep them happy and peaceful.”
STILL IN A PRISON
Although Karl Toft is no longer behind bars, he remains in a prison of sorts … and he’ll be there until he dies. Toft cannot go into stores or to shopping centres when children are about, and that usually means he must shop at night. He can’t eat in a restaurant if children are there. He can’t be near a school, swimming pool, playground or a park.
Toft often wears sunglasses, even on cloudy days. He can’t own a van for fear of someone accusing him of trying to pick up boys, so he drives a sedan. And even that has been vandalized.
Restrictions, the hassle and the fear of being recognized all amount to an extension of his prison sentence.
There are two schools of thought: Some say the man deserves these conditions [and more] … but others point out that he has served his time and hasn’t hurt anyone in more than a quarter of a century. No matter. It’s a punishment the convicted pedophile must endure until he meets his Maker.
“That’s part of the consequences of what I did. If that’s my penance, I’ll pay it.”
“There is no cure for pedophilia,” Toft said, “but I have things under control.”
In September 2013, I spontaneously said to him, “Karl, I just can’t get my head around this pedophile stuff …” He stared at me for a few seconds with a thoughtful look, then spoke. “No, I don’t suppose you can …”
I’ll never understand pedophilia, a practice quite acceptable in ancient Greece … and let’s face it, fairly common today in places like Afghanistan.
HEAR TOFT SPEAK
Here’s a portion of the interview I recorded in September 2013. Toft talks about Doctor Lea Helen Studer, head of the Phoenix Program at Alberta [Psychiatric] Hospital — the shrink who gave him some sound advice; his living in denial; why his victims didn’t rat him out; how he took advantage of boys; his belief there is no known cure for pedophilia, his relationship with Jesus, etc …
The clip runs 07:05.
Toft and I met again on the 9th of December 2013, and once more he talked about what he was doing to keep himself on the straight and narrow, including praying. He was proud he hadn’t re-offended in such a long time. “That’s nearly 30 years,” I pointed out. “Yes,” he said, “but keep in mind I [molested boys] for nearly 40 years.”
Toft doesn’t understand why he wants to have sex with young boys. He says a prison doctor once told him he was “wired differently.” “Perhaps that’s it,” he said over coffee, staring into space.
I sensed he has wondered about that for a long time.
SERIOUS HEALTH ISSUES
Karl Toft is no longer in good shape. The man is now dealing with a number of health problems, including bladder cancer … but he thinks he may have beaten the disease. During his last checkup, his doctor told him the cancer was not only in remission but possibly gone altogether. He’ll know more when further tests are done.
The opposite is true of his battle with Parkinson’s. During one meeting, Toft’s hands could not stop shaking. I pointed out it was now easy for him to sprinkle sugar on his coffee.
Toft’s latest health issue is causing him to lose weight fast — 40 pounds in the past three months. An ailment called Achalasia often prevents food from getting to the stomach; the food becomes lodged in the esophagus and the person vomits. The explanation [courtesy of Wikipedia] is that Achalasia “is a failure of smooth muscle fibers to relax, which can cause a sphincter to remain closed and fail to open when needed.” Blockage.
It’s estimated that one in 100,000 people have Achalasia. “Trust me to have something that’s unusual,” Toft remarks.
The result is that the man can’t eat very much. He says doctors haven’t decided yet what they’re going to do. The former guard will likely go under the knife.
Toft can no longer walk great distances on his own. He must use a walker for any distance beyond a few hundred feet [100 meters].
‘ONE DAY AT A TIME’
I was in Fredericton a few yeas ago, and I phoned Karl Toft on my cell to say that I was standing over the grave of his brother, Gerald, the one who helped direct him to God. He broke down, then thanked me for calling.
Our last meeting was again in a coffee shop. “It’s one day at a time,” Toft concluded, his finger tracing the ring of a coffee mug. “I say thanks to the Good Lord when I wake up in the morning, and at night when I put my head down.”
“I’m at peace. I don’t have to look over my shoulder and worry about being arrested. Those days are gone.”
LIFE AFTER TOFT
In September 2014, while standing in the breakfast lineup at the McDonalds on Roseberry Street in Campbellton, New Brunswick, I was approached by a man of Asian descent who asked, “Do you remember me?” His face looked familiar and I was about to give him an answer when he flashed his business card: Gordon Hum. I told Gordon I remembered him well, that I had interviewed him in Edmonton two decades ago when Karl Toft applied for parole. At the time, Hum was upset about what had happened to him and other youngsters at Kingsclear.
Hum — one of the original whistle-blowers on Toft — also told members of the Parole Board that his attacker would be always be a pedophile. He was right about that.
Hum and I grabbed a seat and we began to talk. A young offender in his ‘early day,’ a bubbly Hum revealed that after Kingsclear he went to university and became a teacher, then a school principal. He had also worked as a ‘life-skills’ coach with the Parole Board.
The man is now retired, going to church and very active in Campbellton’s multi-cultural association.
Hum didn’t seem to know about the Internet piece I’d done on his attacker. I pulled out my iPad, got a WiFi connection and showed him the article. He began to read it. When he got to the end, he turned my way and said, “When you talk to Karl again, tell him I forgive him.” Interesting.
I made a quick call to Karl Toft and left a message. He soon called back, I passed my iPhone over to Hum and the two chatted casually for five minutes or so. Hum’s angry tone at the parole hearing years ago was replaced with gentle questions to Toft about how things were going in his life, how Toft handled going to church and so on. The conversation was friendly and respectful.
The subject of forgiveness came up as well. When Hum gave the phone back, Toft remarked, “I wish I had 100 more calls like that one.”
AN NHL LEGEND REACTS TO TOFT
Theo Fleury, Stanley Cup winner and Olympic Gold Medalist, has become the ‘poster boy’ of sexual abuse — and victims’ best advocate. He is the author of Playing With Fire and Conversations With a Rattlesnake, “raw and honest reflections on healing and trauma.”
More than any sports figure in North America — perhaps the world — Fleury has made people aware that sexual abuse happens and it causes considerable pain. The NHL legend autographs his books with the message, “Helping is healing and healing is possible!!”
In an interview in Edmonton on 19 November 2014, Fleury saluted pedophile Karl Toft for not reoffending for nearly 30 years … and for keeping his “desires” in check. “If he’s clean and working to stay that way, good for him.”
One of my last meetings with Toft was on Sunday evening, 23 November 2014. We met for about half an hour at a coffee shop in Edmonton’s west end.
Toft talked about an ailment he’s battling that prevents food from reaching his stomach. About halfway through our meeting he excused himself and rushed to the washroom to vomit.
He also talked about his friends [few in number], and the fact he hasn’t offended in nearly three decades.
We got talking about police officers, and how they may have tampered with evidence in a well-known homicide case in Edmonton. This brought what I thought was a surprise statement from him. He said, “You know, the police and parole officers I dealt with were professional and honourable. I have no complaints about how they treated me.”
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Karl Toft started 2015 with a bang. Literally. It was Friday, 2nd January and the temperature in Edmonton had plummeted to minus 20 or so when Toft walked out into his parking lot to plug in the block heater on his car. The cord snapped and Toft fell backward, striking his head on the ground.
For an hour no one saw him in the snow. Toft may have frozen to death had he not crawled through the snow towards the back door of his apartment building, where he was spotted by the care keeper.
Toft was rushed by ambulance to hospital, where he was treated and later released.