Reporters have a variety of beats: politics, education, health, aboriginal issues, environment, technology, aging movie stars … you name it. Whatever turns people’s cranks, there are beats and news bureaus to keep them informed and entertained.
For more than 25 years, my beat was criminal justice. Cops and robbers.
That meant trips to different levels of penal institutions: remand centres, jails and prisons. Quite often these were ‘fishing trips.’ On some days, there was nothing worth reporting — but sometimes there was a tug on the line that developed into a really interesting story.
You’re about to read some in this post.
What’s the difference, you ask, between a remand centre, a jail and a prison?
Remand Centres are detention facilities where those charged with new offences are held temporarily — ‘remanded’ — until they have been dealt with by the courts.
Jails are for those convicted of less serious crimes; car theft and break-and-enters. Jail sentences are two years or less.
Prisons — also known as penitentiaries — are home for the really bad guys and gals — those who went down for murder, armed-robbery, drug trafficking, etc. Sentences can be anywhere from two years to life, hence the term ‘lifers.’
Prisons have the highest level of security.
How it works in Canada is that prisons are operated by the federal government while jails and remand centres are run by the provinces.
I’m often asked what life behind bars is really like and what the cons and guards are like. Most folk haven’t been to jail or prison, even as visitors. They’re curious. They want to know if being incarcerated is anything like in the movies. The short answer is yes. Sometimes.
It goes without saying — but I will anyway — there’s tension, tragedy and sadness in prisons. But it’s not all negative. There’s also humour, some thoughtful moments — and success stories.
I’ve learned that nothing is black and white. The good guys don’t always play by the rules and the bad guys aren’t all bad.
I enjoyed the prison beat. That may sound strange but I get off on reporting on true crime. I also like the challenge of landing a big scoop.
Some might find the language in this post offensive. I make no apologies. It was all part of the cops and robbers beat.
Whenever I reported from the Alberta Legislature [boring], Edmonton City Hall [dull as ditch water] or the Edmonton Law Courts Building [cool!], I wore a suit and tie and I used appropriate language. Mostly. In prison, however — in the company of offenders who had long criminal records but were generally short on manners — I donned a plain shirt and blue jeans and used more colourful language. It was my job to get through to these guys, to hear what they had to say and that’s how I operated.
The only prisoner I dealt with who didn’t cuss was Colin Thatcher … more on the former Saskatchewan cabinet minister later in this piece.
I learned much while in the joint, and for that I am grateful. Some of my teachers did not have criminal records, but most did.
Featured in this post are stories involving the following …
- Tom Barrett, Gary Poignant, Ed Mason, Larry Donovan, John Grant, Kathy Little, Gordon MacAlpine, Judy Fantham, Stuart Bayens, and Mark Lewis [media].
- Landon Karas [prisoner]
- John Schimmens [prisoner]
- Willy Blake [prisoner]
- Ricky Luo [prisoner]
- David Rose [prisoner]
- Roy Sobotiak [prisoner]
- Rick Dyhm [corrections officer]
- Al Tessier [corrections officer]
- Mike Friedel [corrections officer]
- Shawn Murray [prisoner]
- Earle Hastings [Canadian Senator]
- Colin Thatcher [prisoner]
- Steve Ford [prisoner]
- Dean Cooper [prisoner]
- Jerry Crews [prisoner]
- Albert Foulston [prisoner]
- Patrice Mailloux [prisoner]
- Gord Lussier [prisoner]
- David Milgaard [prisoner]
- Michael White [prisoner]
- Damon Horne [prisoner]
- Wiebo Ludwig [prisoner]
- Lou [the biker] [prisoner]
- Jared Baker [prisoner]
- Tom Sheppard [prisoner]
- The Prison Shrink [should be a prisoner]
- James Dean ‘Dino’ Agecoutay [prisoner]
- William Wharry [prisoner]
- Richard ‘Ricky’ Ambrose [prisoner]
- Wilson Nepoose [prisoner]
- Gerry Buckner [prisoner]
HOW IT ALL STARTED
When I got into journalism in the late 1970s, it was never my goal to focus on criminal-justice. At the time, I had a strong interest in foreign development and so I did stories on that. I snagged the odd trip to the Third World and saw firsthand the wretched living conditions for so many on this crazy planet of ours.
[Check out Doctor Helen, the story of a medical missionary who built a hospital on the side of a mountain in Nepal.] https://byronchristopher.org/2014/08/22/doctor-helen/
After I joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] in the early 1980s, the plight of Canada’s Natives grabbed my attention. I then did articles on Aboriginal issues and because some of these stories ended up on the CBC National News, they were heard by millions of Canadians “from coast to coast.”
BUT. Those stories sometimes drew heat, particularly when the spotlight was on the rights of First Nations — ie. Indian bands that hadn’t signed treaties with the Federal Government — which, coincidentally, was the same government that controlled the purse strings for my employer, the CBC. Understandably, CBC management was also riled up — as were some of my colleagues in the newsroom. I get that. They knew their place. They had mortgages and car payments.
[See An Indian Protest: 1988. https://byronchristopher.org/2013/02/03/an-indian-protest/]
News stories on Natives also got the attention of Canada’s spy agencies, particularly its biggest — the one that reads our emails and monitors our phone calls without warrants — the Communication Security Establishment [CSE], the Canadian version of NSA in the United States.
When a former CSE agent shared with me the bit about our spies not getting warrants, I was stunned. Couldn’t believe it. “A warrant?” the spook asked incredulously, “Nearly all our searches were done without warrants …” So much for rule of law.
All things considered, I figured it was time for a change, a new challenge and all that.
Sorry for the long introduction, but that’s why I was … off to prison.
REPORTERS WHO LEAVE THEIR MARK
In the late 1980s, I decided to focus on a beat that was pretty much ‘owned’ at the time by Edmonton’s two dailies, the Sun and the Journal. The newspapers often had scoops from the Edmonton Institution — the ‘Max’ as we knew it — a sprawling complex at the northeast corner of the city.
The papers got exclusive stories because their crime reporters [Tom Barrett of the Journal and Gary Poignant of the Sun come to mind] took the time to cultivate their contacts.Speaking of contacts, it’s worth mentioning that reporter Ed Mason of CHQT Radio and CHED Radio in Edmonton cultivated his police sources and probably landed more exclusive, kick-ass crime stories than any print, radio and TV journalist in the country, not that anyone keeps such stats. Or cares.
Put it this way, radio stations in Edmonton faithfully monitored Mason’s reports to see if they’d been scooped again. The man worked his police contacts like Russian David Oistrakh worked his violin.
My plan was to develop a solid working relationship by connecting with as many prisoners, guards, prison brass and pastors as I could. Taking a cue from the successful reporters, I would cultivate my contacts by calling them from time to time, seeing how they were doing, finding out what was new in their lives — and if there was anything happening at the joint the public should know about.
Having a business card is all well and good, but it’s better if the person whose wallet has found a home for your card knows you have a sincere interest in them.
Unfortunately, the media has far too many users who not only burn bridges but blow the abutments to hell.
LANDON KARAS — PrisonerLet’s get one thing straight. A vast majority of those behind bars are guilty — but Landon Karas of LaCorey, Alberta isn’t one of them.
I first saw Karas in 2005 during his murder trial in Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton. The 21-year-old was in the prisoner’s box with an armed guard close by. In the gallery were more than a dozen family members, some media people and a few curious types from off the street.
58-year-old Doreen Bradley, operator of the A&W fast-food restaurant in Bonnyville, had been strangled and stabbed dozens of times at her acreage home near LaCorey in July 2002. The woman’s body was discovered on her living room floor by a co-worker wanting to know why she hadn’t shown up for work.
Crime scene photos show the victim on her back, eyes open and staring at the ceiling as though in a trance. Covering her semi-nude body were dozens of black, small puncture wounds — but not a lot of blood. That’s because Bradley’s killer continued to stab, even after her heart stopped beating. Her executioner clearly had some anger-management issues.
RCMP investigators tried to solve the crime. Their first step was to ask locals to donate blood. They did this because they wanted to find a match for some DNA [allegedly] found at the scene.
In the spirit of civic mindedness, masonary worker Fred Karas gave a blood sample. That led to a request from the Mounties for a blood sample from Fred’s 21-year-old son, Landon.
Months later, officers announced they had found a DNA match. That’s was just after Landon Karas was picked up by the police and driven to the RCMP detachment in Bonnyville where he was charged with first-degree murder.
The young man would later be accused of sexual assault as well since the police theory was that the victim had been raped. An aside here, the Medical Examiner was of the opinion that Doreen Bradley’s wounds were not consistent with a sexual assault.
The murder weapon was never found. Was it a knife? A screwdriver? We don’t know.
Here’s where things got screwy: A crown witness testified that around the time of the murder, she spotted Landon Karas at the Fork Lake Campground — about 40 kilometres away. If that was true, Landon was not the killer.
So why was he charged? Simple. A Mountie claimed he found Karas’ semen on the victim’s vagina. That evidence effectively cancelled the testimony of a key witness.
Other witnesses claimed that at the time of the murder, Landon was not at the campground — but with them. The DNA evidence cancelled their testimony as well.
DNA evidence — planted or otherwise — can be pretty convincing. Even though its credibility is suspect, especially nowadays, DNA evidence is still a game-changer.
The jury trial dragged on for weeks and I was there for all of it. I did not know Landon from Adam but from what I saw of the conflicting testimony, I didn’t think the young man was guilty.
The trial stunk to high Heaven. Sitting in court, I got the sense we weren’t being told key information … and that the RCMP were never seriously challenged about their evidence.
When the 12-men and women jury finally reached a decision, they quietly filed back into the courtroom, one-by-one, entering through a back door, all avoiding eye-contact with Landon Karas.
For the accused, that wasn’t a good sign.
“Guilty,” announced the jury foreman. I went, like, WTF??
Everyone was stunned, and I mean everyone. Even the crown prosecutor shook his head. He couldn’t believe it. Karas family members immediately broke into spontaneous crying and wailing.
Landon then spoke to the court and in contrast to the jury members, he didn’t avoid eye contact. The young man spoke with conviction. He maintained he did NOT kill Doreen Bradley. He was pissed, just shaking with anger.
A guard then slipped a pair of handcuffs on the now convicted killer and escorted him to a side door. Shocked and shackled, Landon Karas was led away to begin a new life in a federal prison … somewhere.
Turns out, his first stop was the Edmonton Institution, the Max.
A few weeks later, I met Landon at the Max where he had started to serve his sentence of ‘life-25.’ The young man struck me as intelligent, focused and determined. Landon was different from other first-time prisoners in that he didn’t seem to be scared.
Landon Karas was later moved to a medium-security penitentiary in the foothills community of Grande Cache, Alberta. He’s still there. I’ve not been out to see him but we have talked on the phone a few times.
We last spoke on Saturday, 19 November 2016. Landon was somewhat upbeat and looking forward to getting his Automotive Service Technician certificate, adding that he had scored good marks on his tests.
The inmate, meanwhile, gets to reduce the cost of his incarceration by repairing government vehicles — at $4.00 a day. Tax-payers, take note.To help pass time in the joint, Landon reads, researches his case and does leather crafts.
Landon’s father always felt the RCMP investigation was faulty, and that’s putting it politely. Fred Karas was of the opinion that investigators with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could have — and would have — planted evidence to frame his son because Landon had been a pain in the ass to them.
Fred also wondered why the jury hadn’t worked it out. The 12 men and women had a choice but at the end of the day, they had more trust in one Mountie who claimed to have found Landon’s semen on the victim than several witnesses who swore the accused was miles and miles away at the time of the murder.
What it came down to is that the DNA evidence, valid or otherwise, effectively neutralized important evidence that would have helped Landon.
If lie-detector tests had been given to both witnesses and the RCMP investigator who claimed to have found Landon’s semen on the victim, I have a good idea who would have blown every gasket in the machine.
Fred talked about the time he spotted a male juror napping during the trial. It must have happened during the day-long testimony and cross-examination of witnesses who presented stats on DNA evidence. I nodded off too. Heady, boring stuff.
Frederick Peter Karas died of cancer on 17 June 2014. The soft-spoken bricklayer was always tortured — and believe me, that’s the right word — because he strongly believed his son was innocent.
Landon Karas wasn’t allowed out to see Fred in his father’s final days, but the two did speak on the phone.
Fred’s wife, Bernadette, took a call from Landon one day and even though her husband was in a coma, she put the phone to his ear so Landon could say good-bye … and thank you.
The last thing to go in a dying person, I’m told, is the hearing. That may be true because in a Facebook post, Bernadette wrote, “When Landon was talking, you could see Fred’s expression change, so I knew Fred heard him.”
“I totally and fully believe,” the loving but fiesty step-mother shared, “Landon had NOTHING to do with this crime! I went through every file, video and crime scene picture and nothing points to Landon. This is another David Milgaard case.” [Milgaard was the teen who spent 22 years and change for a murder he had nothing to do with. The real killer was eventually found.]
I’m positive that stress contributed to Fred getting cancer. The man was so torn up over his son’s murder conviction that he always looked sad. Down. No one can tell me that kind of heart-breaking anguish does anybody any good.
The way I see it, Fred’s failing health was proof that the pain of a wrongful conviction isn’t just felt by those behind bars. If there’s a terrible injustice, the entire family and their close friends do time as well.
Fred Karas told reporters he suspected that Landon’s semen was recovered from the seat of a pick-up truck where Landon and his lover made out. Another aside here, Landon’s girlfriend was married to a police informant. Feel free to connect the dots.
Do police plant evidence? It’s taken this blue-eyed reporter many years to come to the realization but yeah, hate to say it, sometimes they do. The bigger question is: How often does that shit happen? I don’t know and perhaps I don’t want to know.
The Karas family described the murder and subsequent rape allegation as ‘ridiculous’ since Landon was madly in love with another woman — someone, incidentally, who wasn’t two or three times older than him. Landon’s girlfriend was in her 20s. The victim was nearing 60. Like that makes sense.
It’s also worth noting the young man had no history of aggravated assault, sexual assault, break-ins … or weapons charges.
Only one witness saw the killer leave Doreen Bradley’s property that morning. They described the suspect as a middle-aged man with shoulder-length hair who tore out of the yard like a bat out of hell — in a welding truck. Karas was less than half that person’s age, was bald … he wasn’t a welder and he didn’t own a welding truck.
Before the jury’s verdict came down, three men — Fred Karas, his brother John Karas, and the Crown prosecutor — stood outside the courthouse puffing cigarettes. According to family members, the prosecutor shared a secret: He didn’t think there would be a guilty verdict because the evidence just wasn’t there.
That’s an honest Crown.
When the jury foreman announced ‘guilty,’ the Crown prosecutor told the judge he wasn’t expecting to hear that. When a guilty verdict surprises the Crown, it says all you need to know about a possible wrongful conviction.
Here’s a helpful tip for those who are facing serious criminal charges: Think twice about going with a jury — especially in Alberta where voters once elected to the position of premier, a drunk who only got as far as grade nine.
Chances are, Landon Karas would have never gone down for Doreen Bradley’s murder had he been tried by judge alone. That’s because judges rule on facts, they don’t always roll over for the police … and they usually don’t sleep on the job.When I asked locals if they believed Landon Karas was a killer [and a rapist], the reaction was disbelief, laughter, disappointment — and anger. Aside from the RCMP and those jury members, I’ve yet to find anyone who believes Landon Karas murdered Doreen Bradley.
According to the Corrections Canada security rating scale, Landon is now classified as a low security risk and because of that, the prisoner wants to be transferred to a minimum security institution, something closer to home. But because of the rules, that won’t happen until Landon first admits he took Doreen Bradley’s life.
Landon speaks highly of his parole officers and case workers but, let’s face it, these people must work within the system. They don’t make the rules.
Landon will never admit to murdering Doreen Bradley, just as drifter David Milgaard would never admit to murdering Gail Miller in 1969.
Someone at Corrections Canada and the Department of Justice needs to take another look at whether the playing field is level.
Keep in mind that nearly two dozen people in Canada have now been proven to be wrongfully convicted of murder. That’s not a typo: Two dozen. Lord only knows the real number.To illustrate how suspicious Landon’s guilty verdict was, Landon shared that he jokingly gave this proposal to corrections officials … [the clip runs 0:48]
Accompanied by two prison guards, Landon Karas made the trip to his dad’s grave near LaCorey in the spring of 2016.
The visit lasted only an hour.
The shackled prisoner also got to lay some flowers at the grave and mingle with family members.
No journalists were present. The visit was hush-hush. For security reasons, any temporary release by convicted killers is always top secret. The moment reporters get wind of one of these visits, they’re cancelled immediately.
Before Landon was led away, he uttered, ‘до побачення тато’ … Ukrainian for ‘Goodbye Dad.’
Landon Karas has a great number of friends who believe he should be released. Pronto. They’re taking their cue from his March 4th birthday [get it? ‘march forth’] and they’re working hard to get him out.
They’re hoping Ottawa will listen, especially now that there’s a new Justice Minister. A word of caution here: I’ve seen this movie before. The same bureaucrats who prepared reports and ran the show for the previous administration are likely still at their same desks … and they haven’t changed the way they do things.
These government bureaucrats do a better job of protecting the ‘system’ than the innocent.
They’re also not thrilled about having a spotlight shone on Canada’s judicial system, giving Canadians reason to second-guess it. For any judicial system to work properly, it needs people to buy into it.Ed Scarlett, who knew Landon Karas through the Alberta Fish and Game Association, describes Landon as a good leader and a good example. In a Facebook post he writes, “I have felt for a number of years now that Landon’s continuing incarceration is another of those cases where the incestuous legal oligarchy has lept to unsupportable conclusions, supported by law enforcement people who serve their own arrogated perceptions rather than consistent, thought-out positions of fundamental justice.”
“Enough!” Scarlett proclaims, “Landon Karas should be released from prison now!”
A Facebook page has been set up to get Landon Karas out of prison: Next time you’re Facebooking, search for Free Landon Karas.
The system got it wrong with David Milgaard, Landon Karas, etc … just as it got it wrong in the United States where 100 innocent people who would have been executed have now been exonerated. One hundred for Christ sakes.
BUSINESS CARDS AND SCOOPS
One of my stories involved a behind-the-scenes account of a 1991 hostage-taking at a penitentiary in Saskatchewan where shotgun blasts sent a couple of cons to the Promised Land.
Exclusive information in the story landed CBC Radio in Edmonton its first major reporting award for investigative journalism. More on that coming up.
While I was in the joint, I passed out my business card to cons, guards and prison management, going through my allotment of cards in record time. When I put in an order for a new batch of cards, our supply clerk, who was aware I was on a prison beat, asked, “Do you really want your home phone number on your card?” I replied, “I sure do.”
Most reporters prefer not to have their home numbers public but I wanted my dealings with those I interviewed to be as transparent as possible. I didn’t feel there was a great risk by having a home number on a business card. Still don’t. Nothing untoward has ever happened to me outside those prison walls because of stories I’d worked on.
Both CBC Radio and 630-CHED [which I would join in 1996] would broadcast more than their share of scoops from prisons, jails and remand centres. It’s great to be first with a story. It’s also fun. To use a baseball analogy, landing a scoop is like hitting a home run or, better yet, a grand slam.
On the other hand, rewriting a news release is like getting on base with a walk. Some call that pay cheque journalism.
Before I go any further, let’s get some things out of the way: It’s believed that all prisoners claim they’re innocent. Sorry, not true. The majority of cons readily admit to their crimes. They know darn well why they’re behind bars and most will say so. What they’re often tight-lipped about, however, are details … especially if it’s a homicide or if the victim is a child.
But if one really gets to know the cons, they just might reveal some nasty stuff they got away with — including murder.
Toward the end of my reporting career, a killer serving time for murder shared that he’d killed a second man — but got away with that one. I said, “You’re lucky I’m not your parole officer.” I asked when this had happened. “A long time ago,” he said, ducking the question. And the victim’s name? “None of your fucking business …” The inmate wasn’t proud about the murder, but he seemed somewhat pleased that police could never prove it was him.
I never followed up on that alleged killing. At that point, I had my fill of murders. So toxic they are. My head could only take so much.
It’s good protocol to let prisoners broach the subject of why they’re behind bars. Here’s a tip to journalism students: If you’re in the joint trolling for stories, don’t ask a con what they’re in for. Let them bring it up. They’re expecting you to pop The Question. Surprise them. Keep your peace.
That’s not to say that inmates feel that police played fair, that the judge was fair — or that the news media didn’t look for dirt and sensationalize their crimes. That’s a whole different matter.
Cons usually don’t have a lot of time for reporters. In their view, we’ve made them ‘look bad’ — even if they’re more than deserving of the negative coverage.
Another myth is that everyone in the joint deserves to be there. Not true. Yes, there have been a good number of wrongful convictions — and the system being what it is, there will be more. Our judicial system is flawed, resulting in a number of innocent people spending time. Canada alone has about two dozen [proven] wrongful murder convictions. Incredible, isn’t it?
God only knows how many other wrongful conviction cases are waiting to be exposed. I shudder to think of the number of people around the world who are in this predicament.
The governments in power [including Ottawa] will go out of their way to make it difficult for wrongful convictions to come to light. That’s no accident. The ‘status quo’ wants the public to believe the criminal justice system is always on the up and up. Perception is everything.
While the system isn’t a complete sham, it’s far from perfect. The late Bob Sachs, an Edmonton criminal defence lawyer, once shared that the wrongful conviction rate in Canada was as high as 20 percent. Other lawyers have said it’s about 10 percent. Who knows the actual number.
Maybe a system with an efficiency rating of 80 or 90 percent isn’t too bad after all. But let’s be clear on one thing: There are many wrongful convictions. Too many.
JOHN SCHIMMENS – Prisoner
The head of the Inmates Committee at the Edmonton Institution in the 1990s, John Schimmens, had influence and power. He was top dog. Word was, Schimmens could order cons to be killed … or he could stop a hit.
Schimmens was also a great contact. He was about a year older than me [I was born in 1949].
With his confident demeanour and slicked-back hair, Schimmens reminded me of Arthur Fonzarelli, ‘The Fonze’, a fictional character played by Henry Winkler in the 1974-1984 TV sitcom, Happy Days.John Schimmens was doing time for 2nd degree murder. The long-time criminal had taken a baseball bat to Renne Hammond of Calgary, batted 1.000 on his head and took him out — over a drug debt. For that, he got 10 years.
I once asked Schimmens, “How much money did this guy owe?” “$100.00.” “Christ,” I said, “for a lousy hundred bucks you blew away 10 years of your life??” You could talk to Schimmens that way and — usually — he wouldn’t get upset.
I can’t recall what our meeting was about, but Schimmens and I were once in a conference room at the Max. We sat at a small table, just he and I, alongside a bullet-proof glass window that looked into an office where two correctional officers were sitting around a table as well. One guard was out of our line of sight. The other had his back to us; he sat on a chair sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup.
Forget now what we were talking about, but Schimmens was trying to get his point across about something. However, I kept cutting him off, a bad habit of mine when I get excited. I cut John off one too many times and he suddenly lost it! He reached over, grabbed my collar and began twisting hard. Really hard. I couldn’t breathe. [And yes, I finally shut up.] Through clenched teeth and a shaking fist, Schimmens made this gentle request: “Will you shut the fuck up!?’
I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t. I reached over and grabbed his collar and did the same. I squeezed as hard as I could.
Schimmens then released his grip, and so did I. “Fuck,” he said, “I didn’t think you’d grab me …”
The guard, meanwhile, just a few feet away, continued to sip coffee oblivious to what had just taken place. I didn’t report Schimmens; that’s not my style. Besides, I had more to gain by keeping my mouth shut [you can take that either way], because the man was a valuable contact. And of course, I’d been in the wrong. I should have been a better listener.
Some of Schimmen’s anger was reserved for prison administration, not just for people who interrupted him. Most of the cons at the Max were, of course, Canadian, but there was one prisoner from Columbia, South America. He was a big-time drug dealer who was busted for smuggling cocaine. A LOT of it.
The coke was on an aircraft that crashed in New Brunswick. The smuggler ended up at the Max in Edmonton where he developed a quiet following of sorts from other cons — and it was all because he’d showed them photographs of his mansion back in Columbia. You can imagine. The cons were bedazzled at the big money that could be made from drug-trafficking.
One con who wasn’t impressed was John Schimmens. He felt the Edmonton Institution should not have let those photos in because prisoners were getting the message that crime not only pays but pays very well. As any sleaazy investment banker will tell you, it can pay very, very well.
Another side to prison life that the public rarely saw — or perhaps didn’t want to see — was that convicts like John Schimmens organized fundraisers for charities.
The head of the Inmates Committee also helped organize events to lift the spirits of fellow prisoners, whether it was a softball game between the cons and my CBC Radio team … or a boxing match with trained boxers from the outside. Clearly, this ‘multi-dimensional’ individual wasn’t all bad.
You’ll see more of John Schimmens in this post … and you’ll learn about his fate.
SOCIALS AT THE MAX
I attended as many socials as I could. Members of the public were allowed in — well, those who didn’t have criminal records — and inmates were almost always in a better mood when visitors showed up. Their spirits were given a boost. Christmas was an especially good time for that.
The Native prisoners always had big socials [known as ‘powwows’] with plenty of food, music and speeches. I took in some of their events.
It was either late summer or early fall and I was sitting on the boards of a hockey rink in the huge exercise yard [the boards remained up all year round] and making notes about what an elder had said about Native spirituality, healing and all that.
Suddenly, a young Native prisoner — low to mid-20s I reckon — uninvited, plunked himself down beside me.
He opened up by telling me who he was. The name rang a bell. But not loud enough. “Fill me in,” I said. He explained that he’d killed a man at a party in northwestern Alberta. “I remember now,” I shared, “you were either drinking or on dope, right?” “Drunk,” he said.
Given the uplifting mood of the day, I figured it was a good time to ask the young killer if he had done any soul-searching, or thought about his victim. “That was one cocksucker,” he blurted. “When I get out,” he continued, slowly nodding his head up and down, “I’m going to piss all over his fucking grave …”
The con then stood up, shook my hand and ran off to grab some grub. I took that to be a ‘no.’
I don’t know what ever became of the guy; perhaps he’s now an investment banker on Wall Street … or working for the Central Intelligence Agency; maybe he’s a bureaucrat with Indian and Northern Affairs. Or, in an early grave. Who knows where these people end up?
WILLY BLAKE – Prisoner
Not all prisoners were like the fellow who wanted to piss on his victim’s grave. Certainly not Willy Blake.
Blake, born in 1951 near Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories, got on the wrong side of the law when he was a teen after he ran away from a residential school.
Willy Blake was sent off to jail in 1973 … and 20 years later, he walked out of a maximum security prison a free man.
The Chief of the Native Brotherhood at the Edmonton Institution was respected by both staff and inmates for his positive attitude and for having turned his life around. It’s nice when the system works.
Blake never stopped preaching about the need for First Nation people to get back to their roots — and to stay the hell away from drugs and booze.One time, I interviewed Blake and another con at the Max … but in my rush to meet a deadline, I actually mixed up their offences and the item went to air with incorrect information. Hey, excrement happens. Within minutes, my phone in the newsroom rang. It was Blake’s wife — and she wasn’t happy. “You said my husband was a bank robber!,” she blurted, “he’s NOT!! Willy would NEVER rob a bank! …”
She was right. Blake was serving time for killing a prisoner at Stony Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg, Manitoba. I had defamed a murderer. The item was corrected and rebroadcast — and when that happened, the Universe quietly slipped back into alignment.
A few years ago, I got a surprise phone message from Blake. I returned his call and we had a good chat, the first in two decades. The man, who was now living near Cardiff, a small community about half an hour’s drive northwest of Edmonton, pointed out he was true to his vow: He’d gone straight, stayed out of trouble … and he was still sober.
Blake phoned because he was upset that funding for Native rehab programs in the prison had been cut. He thought it might be a news story.
Here’s a funny: One of Willy Blake’s prized possessions was a letter he received from Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, inviting him for lunch at a big shot hotel in Edmonton. The letter was addressed to ‘Chief William Blake’ at the Edmonton Institution. Mind you, Blake was serving a life-sentence for murder and no way he could chow down with the PM.
Blake showed the special invite to inmate Colin Thatcher, the former Saskatchewan cabinet minister convicted of killing his former wife. Thatcher read the letter, handed it back and said, “No wonder the country is in such a mess …”
Mulroney’s letter ‘disappeared’ after Blake, going along with the joke, filed a request for an escorted leave to meet the P-M.
Willy Blake eventually got parole. He was released in 1993 — with some negative publicity and hype, which I found odd. The newspapers made a big deal out of a convicted killer being back in the community. Duh. It happens all the time, folks. Many killers have done their time and are now out, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. They pass us on the street, in shopping malls, share a seat with others on a transit bus and stand behind us in a line-up at the grocery store. And we have no idea what they did once upon a time …
Blake returned to the Edmonton Institution, but he wasn’t wearing handcuffs. He was a free man and employed. Blake was hauling wood for the Native sweat lodge in the prison yard. The man had already taken several loads to the joint before one of the guards took a second look and said, “Hey, aren’t you Willy Blake?” “Yes.” “What are you doing here?” “I’m dropping off wood for the sweat lodge.” The guard immediately called prison management.
The firewood never made it to the sweat lodge. Fearing drugs or weapons might be hidden in the shipment, the wood was set alite … outside the prison fence.
John Schimmens once complained about a remark I’d made [in frustration and anger] to a meeting of lifers, prisoners serving life sentences, usually for murder. A con convicted in the shooting death of a police officer had taken a cheap shot at the Edmonton Sun. I wasn’t in the best of moods that day and so I fired back, “Is there anyone here who’s in for a brave act?”
Schimmens advice was: “Don’t talk to them that way, Byron. You’re destroying what little pride they have.”
It may have been a coincidence, maybe it wasn’t … and it may have been an accident, but I doubt it. Soon after, in an area of the Max not covered by security cameras, I was hit hard by one of the cons, a little prick I didn’t know. It happened in the evening. The con was part of a group getting off work in the industrial area. It was a direct shoulder-on-shoulder hit. I saw him coming and I could tell by the look on his face he was going to ram me. I braced myself and leaned into him. We hit hard; his right shoulder hit my left shoulder. I kept my balance, as did he.
But the bastard got me good and my shoulder ached for days. I was hoping that he hurt as well.
Word about the incident soon got around. I was called to an office in the administration area where the head of security asked me to take a seat. He then flipped open a file folder and began to read through some notes. “This incident near the shop,” he said, “can you tell me about it?” I replied, “I have nothing to say,” I told him, “it’s over and done with.” “Very well,” the officer said. He raised his head, closed his file shut and said, “Thank you for your time.” End of meeting.
I probably could have identified the ‘offender’ but, again, I figured I’d get more mileage by not making an issue out of it. As expected, Schimmens found out about my meeting in the office. “Heard you didn’t rat him out,” he said softly, leaning towards me. Next to child rapists, one of the most despised people in prison is a snitch.
Did this change my opinion of guys in the joint? Sorry, it did not — and will not. I still believe that few are behind bars because of acts of courage. I don’t regret making the comment.
Another time Schimmens pulled me aside and offered this tip: “Do not trust these guys, Byron. 98 percent are ‘pieces of shit.’ Be careful with anything they tell you.” I tried to lighten things up with a little humour. “So much for the guards, John, but what about the cons?”
In that respect, the Head of the Inmates Committee was on the same page as most guards, police, parole officers and members of the public.I interviewed a rapist serving time at the Max who had information on the real killer of Saskatoon nursing aide Gail Miller, the young woman everyone thought teenager and drifter David Milgaard had raped and murdered in 1969. John [I can’t recall his last name], said he had spoken with fellow prisoner and rapist Larry Fisher and that Fisher confided it was he — not David Milgaard — who had murdered Miller. ‘Holy shit!’ I thought.
At the time I got this information, Milgaard was serving time at a pen just north of Winnipeg. I’d been asked to look at his file at the request of [the late] CBC Radio producer Bill Cameron in Saskatoon.
More on Milgaard later in this post.
When John Schimmens found out I’d met with a ‘skinner,’ the sin of all sins, he pulled me aside and said, “Don’t expect much cooperation from us [meaning guys who weren’t in for sexual offences] if you continue to talk to rapists and ‘baby killers.’ The boys sure had a hate-on for sexual offenders. “You have a choice,” Schimmens warned, “it’s them or us …”
It was easy to pick out the skinners. [See? Schimmens even got me saying it.] The sexual offenders had what I would call outgoing personalities, not unlike a slick used-car salesman flashing one of those fake, greasy smiles. “Hey there, buddy, how ya doing?” … and all that jiving. Sexual offenders also come on like that.
I will say one thing about male and female deviants who take advantage of children: They’re the lowest of the low. But I still want to talk to them. I want to find out what they’re thinking, why they behave the way they do. After all, what adult in their right mind would want to have sex with a four-year old?
In the end, nothing happened to me. In spite of all the bravado, I continued to meet with all prisoners, skinners included.
SCHIMMENS MAKES PAROLE
John Schimmens was eventually given parole — at least twice — but for some reason he ended up back in the slammer.
His supporters claim it was because of lame excuses.
The first time Schimmens made parole, in the late 1990s, I happened to come across him in downtown Edmonton. He was a passenger in a taxi and I was in my car, about to pull out into traffic. Traffic was at a crawl. Schimmens rolled down his window and yelled, “How the hell are you, Christopher?”
The cabbie pulled over and as the meter ticked away, we had a brief chat … well, enough time for Schimmens to tell me where he was staying. It was odd not to see him behind bars.
John Schimmens had snagged a nice room on the bottom floor of a halfway house in the downtown area, immediately north of MacEwan University. He’d saved money from prison jobs, plus a few thousand dollars from an injury settlement when his hand was mangled by a closing cell door.
The former top prisoner at the Max was now a free man. And like all men and women when they’re released from prison, he was seriously pumped.
Schimmens beamed and showed me more than a dozen paintings he hoped to sell at a profit. He was not only free but he was going to show the world what he could do. He vowed not to screw up the way many paroled cons had.
Before we left the halfway house, Schimmens nodded in the direction of a female guard sitting on a couch with a male parolee. The two were necking. “See that broad?” he said, lifting his eyes, “she’s banging that guy …”
Now you know why guys so badly want to make parole. I get it now.
We left by a side door. It’s here where Schimmens stopped and pointed to a dumpy, three-story walkup apartment building next door. “They sell a lot of dope in there,” he said. “LOTS,” resting his arms on a mesh fence,” “Ironic, isn’t it?” he said, glancing my way, without really expecting an answer. “A halfway house right beside a fucking crack house.”
A police source confirmed Schimmen’s intel and so I did a story pronto for 630-CHED Radio, giving the location of the crack house.
Just minutes after the item aired on one of our morning casts, News Director Bob Layton got a phone call from Edmonton Police. Two years of their work [surveillance on the crack house] had just gone down the drain. Layton, a huge police supporter, was clearly disappointed.
It never took Schimmens long to sniff out life’s ironies. “Remember old so-and-so,” he said, “the medicine man who came to the Max?” “Yup, sure do.” “Well, I saw him downtown,” Schimmens went on, “and shit, the guy was pissed out of his head … staggering across the street!” Schimmens laughed, slapped his knee and said, “Christ! Crazy Indians, eh?” [Note to American visitors to this site, ‘eh’ is Canadian for ‘huh.’]
I asked, “Was he the same joker who got caught trying to smuggle pot in a sacred ‘medicine bundle’?” [the drugs were detected by a dog at the front gate]. The question prompted Schimmens to laugh even more. “Nope,” he said, “that was a different goof.” ‘Goof’ is one of the most disrespectful terms one can use in the joint.
I did a news item on the Native ‘medicine men’ who’d been busted at the main gate with pot in their medicine bundle. As far as I could tell, no one else touched that story. Can’t be stepping on toes.
Where is John Schimmens today? He’s free. And I mean free. In March 2014, the long-time prisoner left the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, covered in a white sheet and in the back of a van from the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Schimmens was 65. Prison officials didn’t say what caused his death.
A relative said he died from cancer of the liver because of Hepatitis C … possibly ‘bad blood’ he got during an operation. Hmmm. These things happen in the joint.
In any case, John Schimmens spent his final days in the Palliative Care Unit. Damn. Wish I’d known that. I would’ve made the trip to Saskatoon to pay him a visit. I would have told Schimmens that while I didn’t like it that he killed someone, I admired him for helping others, me included.
DEATH SENTENCE FOR PRISONER LUO
Ricky Luo [pronounced: ‘loo’], a Vietnamese “boat person” and refugee, was a hood wannabe. Luo was serving time because he’d knifed to death a young man — a complete stranger, no less — in front of the victim’s shocked girlfriend. It was what police would call a “road rage incident.” The murder happened in Edmonton, at the southern edge of the High Level Bridge.
Luo was a short, slightly-built man with jet black hair who always seemed to be in the company of a bigger con. I can’t recall him ever smiling, only smirking.
Luo was the man cons went to when they wanted drugs. His life came to an end in a pool room in B Unit after he turned down a request from two cons to extend them credit. One of the cons shoved a sock down Luo’s throat, strangled him and tossed his body under the pool table. All 24 prisoners in B Unit — wait, make that 23 — went down to check out Luo’s body.
The alarms went off when guards worked out why Luo hadn’t returned to his cell. I was on the phone at the time with cop-killer Jerry Cruise. Cruise was going on about how he was having a hard time getting clearance to allow his girlfriend in for their wedding and suddenly all hell broke loose. “Gotta go!” Cruise shouted over the racket, “something’s happening here …” Click.
For several days the entire Edmonton Institution — not just B Unit — was on lockdown which is standard whenever there’s a suspicious death in the joint. And it’s not because inmates are in mourning. A lockdown serves two purposes: it’s an ideal opportunity for guards to search for weapons and other contraband … and the inmates are given a message: behave or you’re confined to your cells 23 hours a day. Everyone is punished, even the majority that did no wrong.
If some miracle had occurred and Luo was brought back to life, the cons may have killed him again because they were so pissed.
I spoke with a con from B Unit [who did not want to be identified] who said he walked in on the killing of Ricky Luo in the pool room. He said he saw a prisoner flat out on the floor — at the time he didn’t know who he was — and that he was being garroted [strangled with a piece of wire or cord]. The con on guard at the door said something like, “nothing to see here, Dude … move along.”
Some years later, David Rose confessed to prison authorities that he’d murdered Ricky Luo.
I only had one encounter with Rose. It wasn’t pleasant, but I got to see him in action. Rose walked up to me at the tail end of a meeting of about a dozen Native prisoners. I said, “What are you doing here? You’re white.” His explanation was that he was interested in Native spirituality. Okay. Whatever.
Rose then asked, “Do you know who I am?” I took a good look at him and said, “Yeah, you blew away a cabbie in the west end.” [Note: A taxi driver was shot to death in west Edmonton — allegedly over a drug debt. His lifeless body was discovered next morning by children going to school. The victim’s blood-streaked face signalled he wasn’t sleeping.
Rose immediately lost his cool and shouted in my face, “Is that ALL you know me for?” I didn’t quite expect this, and I had to think fast. I couldn’t say, “Hey, that was your signature killing! …” Thank goodness I knew a bit more about the man. “No,” I said, “that’s not all I know you for … as a matter of fact, you’re a terrific hair stylist!” Rose gave haircuts at the joint, and yes, he was good at that. He smiled and said, “Why, thank you.” We shook hands. Never saw him again.
Native spirituality, my ass. That joker should have been in an anger-management class, or in solitary confinement. Or in a prison’s special handling unit [SHU].
What I really wanted to ask Rose was why he’d shoot a man in the head, of all places — not only killing him — but ruining his hair. To my way of thinking, no true hair stylist shoots somebody in the head. Just saying …
According to the Vancouver-based website prisonjustice.ca, nearly 200 inmates die in Canadian prisons every year. Few cross over because of old age.
ROY SOBOTIAK – Prisoner
I once asked John Schimmens if he could use his “influence” to stop a contract on Roy Sobotiak, the Edmonton man who went down for the February 1987 murder of his former babysitter, 34-year-old Susie Kaminsky.
Sobotiak’s trial had drawn a lot of media attention. Here’s why: the story goes that he and Kaminsky, a single mom, were making out when Sobotiak decided to get kinky, but his lover wanted no part of it. It’s alleged that Kaminsky was then strangled, dismembered in a bathtub, her body parts stuffed in garbage bags and tossed in a dumpster. Nasty stuff. Sounds like something drug lords in Mexico would do.
Right off the bat, Edmonton Police suspected Sobotiak. The detective who first questioned him at his apartment downtown said the man was pumped. “They’re like that when they kill someone,” he noted, puffing his chest out to make the point.
More than two years later, Sobotiak was busted in a sting-like police operation at the Chateau Louis Hotel, near the Municipal Airport in north-central Edmonton. An undercover cop gained Sobotiak’s confidence, plied him with booze, and while the suspect was totally pissed [at one point he staggered to the bathroom to have a leak], he confessed to killing Kaminsky.
He also provided the undercover cop with all the gruesome details, including how difficult it was to cut off her legs.
The confession was secretly recorded by a video camera hidden in an air-vent in the ceiling of a room at the Chateau Louis while detectives in the room next door, rubbing their hands with glee, watched everything on monitors. It was a “got ’em” moment.
Sobotiak later said he made up the whole story to impress his “friend,” in the hope he could peddle drugs and make some coin. Think of it as a low-budget Mr. Big Operation.
Susie Kaminsky simply disappeared. Her remains were never found. A detective said he went out to the city dump to look for body parts, but couldn’t find anything because the place was so big. “Have you ever been out to the dump?” he asked. The cop described searching for evidence there as “trying to find a needle in a haystack.” I can imagine.
After a jury pinned a second-degree murder conviction on Sobotiak, the man was transferred from the Edmonton Remand Centre to the Edmonton Institution. Sobotiak was detained in ‘F’ Unit, where new arrivals quietly end up. Not many knew the notorious killer was at the Max. But word got out just the same. Prisons are terrible places for secrets.
Sobotiak phoned to say he was being held at the Max, and so I arranged to get in to talk with him. I’d met him previously at the Remand Centre — and yes, he also had my business card.
Sobotiak was worried. He heard there was a price on his head. But he didn’t know who would take him out, who was putting up the money … and how much cash was involved. All he knew was that his days were numbered.I was suspicious about the contract killing. There’s so much BS and bravado in prison; it’s as bad as when the Alberta Legislature is sitting.
To help get to the bottom of things, I met privately with head-prisoner John Schimmens. Schimmens confirmed that a relative of Kaminsky had put up some money [I won’t disclose the figure, nor will I reveal his relationship to Susie], and that two guys in the joint — gentlemen Susie had known, put it that way — were more than eager to cash in.
I asked Schimmens if Sobotiak’s killing could be stopped. He immediately flew into a rage. “This is none of your fucking business!” he shouted, “you can’t come in here and tell us what to do!” The tirade continued. “What concern is it of yours if Sobotiak lives or dies? …” I tried to defuse the situation with a little humour. “John,” I explained softly, “I’m trying to do a story on the guy. If he croaks, all my hard work goes right down the drain …”
Then something remarkable happened. Schimmens smiled and said, “Can you get me on As It Happens?” [The respected CBC national current-affairs radio program based in Toronto.] I asked what he had in mind. “If you can get me on As It Happens,” he promised, “Sobotiak won’t die.” “It’s a deal,” I said, and we shook on it.
“What sort of things are you involved in at the Max that would interest As It Happens?” I asked. Rubbing his chin, Schimmens replied, “Well, I’d like to start up a needle-exchange program for the drug addicts here. “Perfect!” I said, “As It Happens goes for shit like that.”
I put in a call to CBC Toronto and within a day, the head of the Inmates Committee at the Edmonton Institution was on As It Happens, going on about the need for a needle-exchange program at the joint. John Schimmens, who articulated well, I must say, was heard by millions from coast to coast.I remember clearly when Edmonton Police pulled up outside the CBC Radio building. Reporter Dave Cooper looked out our second-floor window and announced, “Looks like you have visitors, Byron.” I didn’t stick around. It was Friday afternoon and I was leaving anyway for a camping trip to the Rockies. I grabbed the cassette tape of my prison interview with Schimmens, escaped down a stairwell and got the hell out of Dodge.
When I returned to Edmonton, I gave the tape to CBC management — which gave it to our lawyers — who put it in a sealed envelope and gave it to a judge. I can’t remember whatever became of the tape, can’t even say if the judge heard it.
Roy Sobotiak is still alive and eating prison food … and some relative of Susie Kaminsky didn’t get to fork out thousands of dollars. How would this have worked anyway? If the hit-men got paid money up front — but failed to come through — what would her relative had done? Complained to the Better Business Bureau???
Sobotiak continues to phone, although not nearly as much as before. I last heard from him on 19 December 2018. He was at the medium security Matsqui Institution near Abbotsford, 70 kilometres East of Vancouver, B.C. “I can see some Canada Geese outside my cell,” he said of his digs. “I have a view of a mountain as well. Nice to see some nature.”
“How old are you?” I asked. “55” he said. “That reminds me of those TV commercials,” I offered, “freedom 55.” “Yeah,” he said. The con pointed out that he’s coming up on his 30-year mark.
Sobotiak added that he hasn’t had a minor incident in the joint in the last ten years. Even so, he says, he was turned down yet again when he last applied for parole, in November 2018.
“It’s been decades of mental torture,” he says.
Keep in mind that when Sobotiak was sentenced for second-degree murder, he was given a ‘life’ sentence with no chance of parole for 16 and a half years.
The man had been doing time in the maximum security pen in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Sobotiak had a parole hearing in September 2015 — but the night before, he called to say he didn’t hold out much hope he’d get parole because he won’t admit to the crime.
Sobotiak described the system as “blackmail” because prisoners are pressured into pleading guilty so they can get a chance at parole.
The man is still adamant he didn’t kill Susie Kaminsky. I take no position on his guilt or innocence.
He also says he has Hep C, which he contracted in 1993 following a bloody dust-up with a prisoner.
In the early 1990s, Sobotiak called one night from a prison — for the love of me can’t remember where now — but I told him that I couldn’t talk long as I had to get out the door to talk to an Indian Chief. The interview was to take place at a hotel in the city. “For Christ sakes,” Sobotiak warned, “Stay away from the Chateau Louis!”
Sobotiak was arrested on 27 September 1989, two days after his 26th birthday. He got 2nd degree murder, with no chance of parole for 16 and-a-half years. So far, he has served more than a decade beyond that.
On Sunday evening, 13 September 2015, Sobotiak called again to say that his appeal had been rejected. “More bullshit,” he said, “they’re still demanding an admission of guilt.” He called it “extortion.”
In Canada, a parole board is made up of non-elected, government-appointed hacks. According to Sobotiak, incarceration is the fifth largest industry in Saskatchewan. “Think about it …”
Roy Sobotiak also said he mentioned to parole board members there had been an attempt on his life in 2013, “… and they didn’t even bat an eye. And when I said, ‘Colin Thatcher got parole and he maintained his innocence,’ they replied, “this hearing is over.'”
I asked him about the attempt on his life. He explained that he was attacked by an inmate who tried to rip his scalp off, but that another inmate intervened. “You’re going to kill him,” said the second inmate to which the attacker [a double killer] replied, “that’s what I want to do.”
I got along with most of the guards. The constant searching for contraband and the drug scans at the main gate were a pain in the ass, but I realized the officers were only doing their jobs.
I have been to prison scores of times but never once tested positive for narcotics. It helps I don’t use dope nor lived with anyone who does.
Guards will ionize test everything from a driver’s licence, trousers, hat … even our tape recorders. The first time a visitor tests positive they’ll be told so [with the drug identified], but usually they’re allowed in just the same. Lawyers sometimes test positive to cocaine, and guards will tell them [wink, wink] it’s likely because they’re handling $100 bills. I was told that at the Edmonton Institution, if they test positive a second time, the information is quietly passed on to City Police, and the visitor isn’t told about it.Guards were caught between a rock and a hard place. Offenders — the term correctional officers use for inmates and prisoners — would often unload on them about how they’d been screwed over. Even if it was true — there’s nothing the officers could do about it. Their job was to house them until they’d served their time, and hopefully help them along the way with job training and some spiritual guidance.
Guards have an uphill battle. They have to put up with verbal abuse, threats and, occasionally, extreme violence. Case in point: a middle-aged guard, working near the Edmonton Institution gymnasium in the 1990s, found out the hard way that inmates can go violently crazy. The guard was in his office when a prisoner suddenly rushed in without warning and repeatedly stabbed him, known in the joint as “shanking.” The guard nearly died, his wounds were so severe. The attack left his mind messed up and he spent time in a psychiatric hospital. The man never returned to the prison, and who can blame him?
One of the most tedious guard jobs is to drive around the outside of the prison in a pick-up truck, with nothing but the radio and a loaded rifle for company. Around and around they go, slowly, the tall mesh fence crowned with razor sharp wire sliding by their window. The constant circling by an armed guard in a truck is a deterrence to a break-out, of course.
I once said to one guard at the Max, “Man, that’s gotta be one boring job!” He said, “It is … the guys in those trucks sometimes get stuck with that shift because they’re in shit with management.”
RICK DYHM – Corrections Officer
For a number of years, Rick Dyhm was the media liaison person at Edmonton Institution. Dyhm was regularly quoted in the newspapers and was often on radio and television explaining a “news event” at the Max, or giving the prison’s perspective on an issue. He was professional, well-spoken and thoughtful.
The two things I liked most about the man is that he always returned phone calls, and he never messed up on my paperwork. When I scheduled a visit to the Max through Dyhm, his paperwork was always at the front gate. The officer was reliable.
He also had guts, minus the bravado. We shared a noon meal one day in the prison dining hall, surrounded by hundreds of cons who could have easily taken him out. Dyhm brought me there because he wanted me to see what the prisoners were eating. It wasn’t the Four Seasons, or even Swiss Chalet, but the food was far healthier than most fast-food joints. Then again, I’m a wieners and beans kind of guy. The food at the Max is prepared by prisoners.
Rick Dyhm took no crap from the cons, called a “spade a spade” and the inmates respected and trusted him.
For a long time, Dyhm ran inmate rehabilitation programs at the Max.
We often met for lunch, usually at a restaurant a few miles from the joint. We talked about prison issues, sometimes personal stuff like where our lives were going, CBC politics, whatever — but never with any booze. Just coffee or water. Dyhm was ‘real.’ I liked him. He was a straight-shooter and I trusted his read on prisoners.
The odd time, other guards — friends of his — would join us for lunch. One day, a former prisoner sat down at our table; Dyhm had worked with him at the Max. I could tell Dyhm was impressed with how the guy had turned his life around. You could see the spark in the officer’s eyes when the con spoke of how he’d been off booze and drugs for years and was finally making an honest living.
From that meeting, I saw that people like Rick Dyhm — and he couldn’t have been the only correctional officer out there like that — wasn’t just in it for the pay cheque. He had a genuine interest in people; in this case, men who’d gone off the rails but were now back on track.
Mr. Dyhm, who turned 60 in late December 2014, is now retired from prison work. We still meet for lunch and talk about where our lives are going.
AL TESSIER – Corrections Officer
I can’t imagine correctional officer Al Tessier ever being in management’s bad books. The lanky officer was an outstanding guard and human being. He took time to try to understand prisoners, where they were coming from … and the sad lives many lived before ending up on the wrong side of the law.
Over coffee one day, Tessier shared that he’d just done an intake [where incoming prisoners are processed] and had to search a young male. Before he could complete his search, the prisoner began to cry. The con’s story was that he’d been raped as a youngster. Al looked at me and said, “That’s why I do this job, so I can help these kids.”
Tessier pointed out that inmates often went to extremes. If they found God, they’d walk around reading and quoting the Bible … but if they had a hate on for someone, it could lead to a vicious killing.
Tessier was the kind of man who drove around his neighbourhood in northeast Edmonton on the coldest of nights [minus 35 to minus 40 degree celsius] looking for stranded motorists whose cars failed to start. He pulled out his jumper cables and gave them a boost. No charge, just a good guy helping another.
The gentle giant retired a few years ago.
In March 2014 Al Tessier died suddenly from a heart attack. When I heard the news, my mind flashed back to the time Tessier gave me a private tour of segregation [“the hole”]. He asked that I step in one of the cells, which I did. Clang went the door behind me, locking shut. Al stood on the outside laughing. “Ha! Try and get out, Christopher!”
RIP, Mr. Tessier. You were one of the good guys.
MIKE FRIEDEL – Corrections Officer
The guard known as ‘Fireball’ often worked the bubble [a small, secure area for guards] in A-Unit at the Max.
Although Mike Friedel was built like a wrestler, he was gentle and soft-spoken. There was an easy-speak and thoughtfulness about the man that in itself was somewhat disarming.
‘Fireball’ had a reputation for being “straight up” with the prisoners and for having a healthy rapport with them. What I’m saying is that inmates and guards alike respected the big guy — and in the joint, that’s 95 percent of the battle.
Keep in mind that not only prisoners are doing time; so too are the guards — the ultimate ‘front-line’ workers. Guards deal firsthand with violent and mentally unstable prisoners, search their cells, confiscate contraband … break up fights between frenzied, armed combatants, guards mop up the blood — and, remember, they walk among them, unarmed … and outnumbered 50 to one.
Correctional officers are either courageous and thoughtful … a bit crazy … or a combination of the two. I’m told that many prison guards suffer from post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. No kidding.
Friedel, now retired, spent a combined total of 30 years at Edmonton Institution and at Dorchester, New Brunswick, the ancient federal penitentiary just outside Moncton. Friedel spends his summers in the Maritimes and winters in Arizona. He is what’s known as a “Canadian snowbird.”
On Monday, 7 September 2015 I met with Mike Friedel and former prisoner Willy Blake at a family restaurant in the west end of Edmonton.
Friedel arranged the meeting. He had been Blake’s guard in both Edmonton and Dorchester and wanted to see how the man was doing and what he was up to.
It may seem strange that a former guard would want to get together with a former prisoner, one convicted of murder no less. Actually, it’s not terribly unusual. Human nature being what it is, when guards interact day in and day out with prisoners, relationships develop; it’s the meaningful relationships that stand the test of time.
Friedel had time for Willy Blake, a man he described as “someone who walked the talk” about Native spirituality, rehabilitation, making a contribution to society and all that. The officer wasn’t alone. Some reporters, such as David Kirkham of CBC Radio, felt the same way.After the two settled in at the table, Blake was quick to remind Friedel of a bet the guard had jokingly made with him [and lost] about a quarter of a century ago — a wager he still hadn’t made good on. “I was not going to give you a bottle of vodka!” Friedel shot back. “… wasn’t about to blow my pension over a bottle.” “A deal’s a deal,” countered Blake.
For nearly three hours, the two garrulous men shared stories about prisons, guards, wardens, transfers in the middle of the night, segregation, escapes, inmates they liked and didn’t like … and fights to the death. I lost track of the number of stories about cons who lived by the sword and died by the sword. Of the hundreds of men who have died in custody, few went peacefully in their sleep.
Some of the talk was about cons who had failed to make it on the outside after serving their sentences. Blake expressed his disappointment about the men he knew so well inside the joint who, when given what they sought so badly — their freedom — then sought refuge in a needle or a bottle. The irony was that they were still behind bars. “Too many,” Blake said, his head moving from side to side, “too many.”
I learned a new term: hot-loaded. Right out of the blue, Blake remarked, “Did you hear that so-and-so died in ‘Drum’ [the federal penitentiary in Drumheller, Alberta]? He was hot-loaded!” “What’s that?” I interjected. Hot-loaded, he explained, was when an inmate deliberately kills another with a drug overdose, such as heroin. An odd term to pick up in a family restaurant, but there you go.
The talk shifted to a famous breakout at the Edmonton Institution one stormy winter night in the late 1970s. Blake was to have been part of that breakout, but he changed his mind at the last minute when he heard that a few prisoners from Ontario also took a keen interest in an unauthorized furlough. Blake said he just didn’t trust cons from Ontario.
Prisoner Harvey Andres, the brains behind the operation, had managed to get hold of some wire-cutters and a handgun. How’d that happen? Explanation: The wire-cutters belonged to a construction crew doing maintenance work at the joint. When the workers were packing up their tools to leave, they told the guards they couldn’t find their wire-cutters.
Officers then went looking for the tool. They asked the Head of the Inmates Committee if he knew anything, and he swore on a stack of Bibles the boys didn’t have them. This may shock you, but the guy was lying through his teeth. He knew damn well that a prisoner had pinched the precious tool and that it was safely hidden away, waiting to be used on the outside fence.
So how does a handgun and ammo get in a federal prison with high security, including metal detectors? Here’s how: The weapon — known as a ‘zip-gun’ [an improvised gun] — had been taken apart and smuggled into the joint in the gas tank of a motorcycle. Cons repaired motorbikes and other vehicles as part of their shop training.
The night a fierce blizzard struck Edmonton, Andres and four other cons decided to make a break for it. Wrapped in white bedsheets [making it impossible for the guards in the towers to spot them], and using the stolen wire cutters, the cons quickly snipped their way to freedom. In just minutes, the razor wire-crowned chain link fences had two big holes in them.
When the guards realized some prisoners were busting out, they opened fire with high-powered rifles. No zip-guns for these boys.
However, not one slug found the mark. This didn’t speak of the guards’ marksmanship — it spoke of their character.
One of the prisoners [from Ontario] fled back into the prison when shots rang out. Another had snagged his clothing on the fence and was hung out to dry, so to speak, while a third lay spread-eagled in the snow, as in “I give up! … don’t shoot!”
A fourth con, Rick Vanier, wasn’t going anywhere, especially after he was shot in the leg — not by the guards — but by Mr. Andres. The ringleader’s thinking was that if Vanier was hobbling, he’d be a major distraction … therefore improving his own chances of getting away. Andres was never known as a team player.
Armed with his zip-gun, Andres scampered through the drifting snow, turning back now and then to take a pot shot at the guards in the towers and the one in the patrol truck. Just like in the movies.
Mr. Escapee was collared a few weeks later — but not before he held a couple hostage, scaring the living daylights out of them.
There was another casualty the night of the bust-out. A career ended for a correctional officer — after his first shift on his own. The young man was driving around the perimiter of the prison [“outside patrol”], when he was alerted about the breakout. He sped around to the scene, where shots were being fired. The guard stepped out of his truck, but in a big panic forgot to put the vehicle in park [he left it in neutral] and the truck rolled over his foot.
His career as a guard was sealed when Andres’ trial started and the guard ignored a subpoena to appear as a witness.
Gotta say, It was a cool meeting between the retired guard and the retired con. It was the highlight of my day, hearing all those stories. I felt I was back at the Max again.
The meeting ended with Friedel picking up Blake’s meal tab. “There’s your bottle of vodka,” he quipped. Blake shot back, “Well, you finally paid up!” The con smiled, extended his hand and the two shook on it. Debt paid.
We walked out to the parking lot. Blake was driving a pick-up truck; I had my Elantra and Friedel, a spiffy Chrysler rental. Blake, who had turned his life around, did the same with his pick-up.
As the con pulled away, he smiled and gave a big wave to the guard known as Fireball.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Call it fate. Or bad luck. Perhaps good luck. No matter. It happened on a Sunday morning in 2004 and Friedel — while employed as a guard at the Dorchester Pen [near Moncton, New Brunswick] — had dropped in to a convenience store in Memramcook.
Pulling up at the same time was a con on parole, Pat Callaghan of Labrador. Callaghan, who was packing a .38 special, was with two losers from Nova Scotia. Their plan was to hold up the clerk — but fled when they spotted Fireball.
Callaghan eventually blew his parole and ended up back in the joint. That’s when he shared the near-miss story with Friedel.
HOSTAGE-TAKING & REPORTING AWARD
Not all correctional officers were like Fireball, Rick Dyhm and Al Tessier — especially those involved in the fatal shooting of two inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert in the early 90s. Background: Three crazy cons had taken a guard [Mr. Juker] hostage in the prison’s industrial area. To end the standoff, guards fired in tear gas, then used a fork lift to break open a large door, allowing Juker to escape. ‘Squeeze out’ is perhaps a better way of putting it. Juker was on the heavy side.
Shotgun blasts took care of two of the three hostage-takers, Gerry McDonald and David Warriner. The third, bank-robber Shawn Murray, escaped the shotgun pellets — but not the boots of the guards. After Murray surrendered, the guards used his head as a soccer ball. A prison worker who tended to Murray after the incident said she barely recognized the man because his face was swollen so badly.
Once outside the prison, the guards were caught on camera celebrating, giving one another “high five’s.”
The issue was this: Were the prisoners executed after they’d been overcome by teargas? Murray’s account was that they’d already given up. The shooter’s account … well, there was no account. The shooter [whose identity was never made public] did not have to testify at an inquiry because the RCMP ruled he was only the “mechanism.”
What was interesting is that both bodies arrived at funeral homes with not only bruises on their faces, but in one case, makeup had been applied to cover up the bruises. It backed Murray’s claim they had been kicked repeatedly after being shot.
I put in a call to Murray only to be told by Warden James O’Sullivan — the man known as ‘Jimmy O’ — that he’d been shipped out the previous day to another prison “somewhere in Canada.'” I said, “Isn’t Murray in the Special Handling Unit at a federal prison near Montreal?” Silence.
That’s exactly where Murray was, because it’s where I reached him for an interview.
Shawn Murray and I recorded a number of phone interviews in 1991. Here’s a snippet [0:08] of Murray’s account of how hostage-taker Jerry McDonald was first overcome by tear gas, then shot …
Warden O’Sullivan’s response to my question of “Were those two inmates executed?”: “That’s a question that shouldn’t be asked.” His quip made the CBC Radio National News. One caller to our newsroom called O’Sullivan’s remark one of the funniest he’d heard. So did the CBC lawyer in Toronto who vetted the story.
Shawn Murray’s version of how things went down in the hostage-taking shook our audience. CBC National TV then jumped on the story, followed by the rest of the mainstream media. The stories led to a Senate investigation — and to my first national investigative reporting award, the first for a journalist at CBC Radio in Edmonton.
News of the award made the Globe and Mail, the Edmonton Journal, The Canadian Press/Broadcast News and a number of other media outlets — including the Tribune in my hometown of Campbellton, New Brunswick.Make no mistake about it, the two prisoners who were shot and killed that day at the Prince Albert pen were mean and twisted, or as one con described them, “two crazy fuckers.”
One of the dead men was from Manitoba, the other from Newfoundland. The guy from Manitoba [David Warriner] had gunned down a cab driver, shooting him in the back [firing through the back seat] — all because the cabbie had taken a wrong turn. Wounded and in pain, the cabbie stopped his vehicle, opened his door and fell to the ground. He begged for his life as his passenger stood over him. Bozo-brains responded by emptying the rest of his handgun into him.
I spoke with the parents of the killer; they struck me as decent folk who’d tried everything in their power to raise the kid right, but nothing worked. One of his early antics was to try to burn down his school.
Meanwhile, the Newfie — who had a rap sheet longer than his arm — make that two arms — broke into the home of a lawyer in Newfoundland and slit his throat while the man was in bed with his girlfriend. The victim was a Crown prosecutor who’d previously dealt with McDonald. His girlfriend called 911. The lawyer survived.
‘Crazy fuckers’ seems like a good description of those two. I had no personal dealings with the men during my time in the joint.
Liberal Senator Earle Hastings investigated the hostage-taking. He came to the conclusion the Israeli-made tear gas used by the guards was so powerful that it should not have been used indoors — and because the hostage-takers had been overcome by the gas anyway, there was no need to blow them away with shotgun blasts.
Then again, hindsight is always 20-20. I’m not sure what would have been running through my mind if I was a guard and my partner [guard Juker] struggled to get out while these two psychos were running around and desperate, aware their hostage-taking had failed miserably.
Senator Hastings also pulled a few strings and got the Federal Government [Ottawa} to pick up the tab for shipment of McDonald’s body to Newfoundland. The mortician at the funeral home in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, said the corpse was riddled with shotgun pellets. The prisoner died after being shot in the back. He figured McDonald would have been alive for about 15 minutes.
I lost track of Shawn Murray. While in his new prison in Quebec, Murray was attacked by another inmate — but he grabbed the knife and killed his assailant. What was suspicious about that attack? It’s where it occurred — in the prison’s Special Handling Unit [SHU] — a prison within a prison — where security is the highest. Inmates just can’t walk in the SHU with a knife. Impossible. Cons are always searched thoroughly. The assault on his life happened not after I interviewed Murray [by phone]. Hmmm … was that an arranged ‘hit’?
For a while, Murray’s kid sister in British Columbia wrote with updates on how her brother was doing. She revealed that Shawn had a screwed-up childhood, was always in trouble with the law and had become a bank robber. One of his bank jobs was in Edmonton in the mid-1980s.
I was tipped off about how the Prince Albert hostage-taking went down by two bikers who approached me during a social at the Edmonton Max. Lou and Tim, both wearing “biker” sunglasses [for some reason bikers at the Max often donned sun glasses] walked up to me in the exercise yard. “You a reporter?” one asked. “Yup,” I said, “what’s on your mind?” The guys had just been transferred in from Prince Albert Penitentiary and they had a story to tell about how the hostage-taking ended.
I devoted a lot of time to this file [most of the hours never made it to my timesheet], getting information from not only prisoners but prison management — plus a great contact at the John Howard Society [who shall remain anonymous] … and Claire Culhane, the prisoners’ rights activist in British Columbia [now deceased].
News of the award prompted a phone call from Lou the biker. Lou wanted to meet. I drove out to the Max, got there early and was chatting it up in a conference room with a Native prisoner spending time for the murder of a prostitute in Saskatchewan. Forget his name now, but he was a big dude who wore tank tops to show off his muscles.
In walked the two bikers, both wearing sun glasses again. Lou raised his right arm, snapped his fingers and spoke only two words: “Fuck off,” code for ‘could we have privacy please’? The hooker-killer smiled a fake smile and departed.
On a small table at the far end of the room was a coffee urn and a stack of styrofoam cups, some sugar cubes and that dreaded artificial whitener. God, I hate that shit. The bikers said nothing as they poured fresh coffee into three cups. Lou raised his cup and said, “You did good.” I was quite taken by this and so I remarked, “Well, that’s quite something because you fellows never open up with your feelings …” With a sharp cough, Lou cut me off. I remained quiet until the subject was changed to the weather or some innocuous thing. The meeting ended shortly after. Neither one of these boys would ever make it as a speech-writer.
I did not mind Lou. He was an ‘enforcer.’ It was his job to beat the snot out of people who owed someone money.
More on Lou the biker later.
COLIN THATCHER – Prisoner – [Part 1 of 2]
Colin Thatcher, former Saskatchewan cabinet minister, was one of the most interesting prisoners I interviewed. He was educated, well-spoken … and courteous. Not very often you sit down for an interview and an inmate apologizes for his body odor because they just had a workout. Thatcher also didn’t swear, a rarity for people doing time.
Thatcher had been convicted of the January 1983 murder of his former wife, JoAnn Wilson. Wilson died when she was shot in the head in the garage of her home in Regina, Saskatchewan.
It was the late 1980s, and Colin Thatcher leaned back on a chair in one of the meeting rooms at the Max. The former Saskatchewan cabinet minister was dressed in green prison fatigue with his family name in small white letters on his chest. He didn’t smile and his arms were folded, tell-tale body language that he wasn’t terribly keen about being interviewed.
I told Thatcher I’d treat him fairly, that I wanted an update on how things were going with his appeal. Because he was not just cautious but ultra cautious, I yanked the cassette tape out of my Sony 142 recorder. “See this?” I said, “it’s yours. If you feel I’ve screwed you in this interview, keep your tape.”
We did the interview and everything went fine. Thatcher gave straight-forward, clear answers … and I walked out of the Edmonton Institution with his cassette tape.
That night and all next day, CBC Radio broadcast portions of Colin Thatcher’s first interview behind bars. It was the top news story in Western Canada.Thatcher was — and likely still is — a huge fan of the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. He knew everything about the team. The man knew a lot about football, period. One Friday afternoon, I was away from the newsroom [CBC Radio] and a part-time reporter, sitting at my desk, took a phone call from Thatcher. She was rather excited that she’d spoken with the Colin Thatcher. When I returned, the reporter asked, “Why was Colin Thatcher calling you?” I explained, “Well, sounds silly, but I follow the Sports Select gambling game [where one gets to bet on games] and every Friday, Thatcher phones with his predictions for the NFL matches coming up on Sunday.” Thatcher was often right on with his picks.
In the early 1990s, I did a live interview on CBC Newsworld on Colin Thatcher, basically an update on how things were going with his attempt to get a new hearing. There was wide interest in Thatcher’s case, not just in Saskatchewan, but across Canada. The man was described by some as Canada’s J.R. Ewing, from the fictional TV series, Dallas. I took no position in his guilt or innocence; whether his trial was fair was another matter.
I am of the opinion his trial was not fair.
I came across a document which I released in the CBC TV interview. It was a bombshell. The audience didn’t suspect a thing. The interviewer, in Calgary, asked if there was anything new to report. I told him there was. I reminded him that Colin Thatcher claimed to have been at his ranch, west of Moose Jaw, at the time of his wife’s killing in Regina, 100 kilometres away. Thatcher also claimed to have telephoned his girlfriend in Palm Springs, California at about 25 after 6 that evening [the murder was around 6pm]. If what Thatcher was saying was correct, there’s no way he had time to pull the trigger and drive all the way to his ranch, especially in the dead of winter, icy roads and all that. Impossible. It’s doubtful that Mario Andretti, using the world’s best snow tires, could have done it. Conclusion: Colin Thatcher did not pull the trigger.
Thatcher also had witnesses who said he was at home at the time of the murder, but because they were his children — and a babysitter — their evidence was not given much weight. Thatcher was not charged with the murder until about a year later, and by then his phone records had been destroyed. Therefore, his alleged phone call to California could not be verified. Worked into the mix was that the man was drinking at the time, and perhaps his memory wasn’t clear to begin with.
The murder trial began and Thatcher’s girlfriend in California — soon to become his ex-girlfriend forever — was a Crown witness who gave evidence against him. The woman denied getting a phone call from Thatcher the night of the murder. Turns out, she was correct on that. She was then asked — by the defence — if Colin Thatcher could have been mistaken, perhaps she phoned him …? “No,” she said. Her testimony helped sink Thatcher, and off to prison he went — for 22 years.
I reminded the Newsworld host of these events, then revealed that Thatcher’s girlfriend had in fact called Thatcher from the hotel she worked at in Palm Springs. The announcer asked how I knew this. At that point, I held up a document showing a record of long-distance calls that were made from her workplace. And there it was: a call to the Thatcher ranch at 6:24pm the night of the murder. Checkmate. In other words, a key crown witness had lied on the stand. Thatcher had been right all along about speaking to his girlfriend the evening of the murder. The viewing audience of that Newsworld interview now realized that Colin Thatcher sure wasn’t in Regina when his former wife was murdered.
The interviewer asked where I got that document. I did some ducking and told him to zoom in on a large ink stamp in the upper right-hand corner. It was the mark of the Regina Police Department. The document, I explained, was from the files of the Regina Police. That was damning. Not only had a Crown witness perjured herself, both the Regina Police and the Crown withheld information that could have helped the accused, at least help him get a fair trial.
Colin Thatcher could still have been charged with Wilson’s murder — if police had evidence he hired someone to do it. However, jury members were asked to decide from three options … a] Thatcher was innocent, b] that he himself had shot his ex … c] that he had someone shoot her. If the Crown had not been deceitful about the Palm Springs phone call, jury members would have had only two choices, not three.
At Thatcher’s murder trial, the scales of justice were bent out of shape. That begged the question: If a former cabinet minister can’t get a fair trial, what hope is there for the average person?
It was a bombshell interview, and there were consequences. The CBC Newsworld producer in Edmonton who lined up that interview, Larry Donovan, was canned soon after. Surprised? Donovan, a former News Director at CKUA Radio in Edmonton, was a solid journalist. Things went downhill for the man after that. Once Donovan got out of journalism, however, he bounced back. I ran into him at a Costco store in Edmonton in the summer of 2015. He was confident and at peace. Donovan’s core strength? His integrity.
A Saskatchewan con who spent decades behind bars for a string of bank robberies, James Dean [Dino] Agecoutay, once remarked that for all those imprisoned at the Max, Colin Thatcher had ‘fallen the farthest.’ “Many of us,” he went on, “lived on the streets before we ended up here. But Colin was ‘one of them’ [meaning establishment] — and look what they did to him.”
It was Agecoutay who said that Thatcher — one of the most educated prisoners in the Max — would help other cons with their correspondence, correcting grammar and restructuring the letters so they made sense.
More on Colin Thatcher later in this post.
EDMONTON AM … ‘LIVE FROM THE MAX’
It’s unusual for a media outlet to do live programming from a federal prison, but CBC Radio in Edmonton did just that in the spring of 1993. And to thank, we have someone at CJCA Radio in Edmonton. CJCA — at the time, at the top of the ratings heap — was working hard to have their popular phone-in show broadcast live from the Edmonton Institution. John Schimmens tipped me off about it. So did the Assistant-Warden, Al Swaine.
I said, “Johnny, can you do me a favour? … stop it.” He asked why. I told him CJCA would likely only sensationalize things … “and that would be awful.” Schimmens said, “What do you suggest?” I said, “Let me get the CBC morning crew out there and we’ll do a proper job.” After weeks of memos flying back and forth between the suits at CBC and the suits at Corrections Canada — along with the blessing of the Inmates Committee — on the morning of 15 of April 1993 about a dozen CBC workers, myself included, arrived in the darkness to get ready for our live broadcast. Boxes of gear had to be checked by guards.
The entire three hours of Edmonton AM went out from the Max that morning. Some of our interviews were canned [pre-recorded], but most were live. Overall, things went well. Prisoners and prison officials had interesting things to talk about. The running joke that morning was that CBC had a “captive audience.”
We got our first news story before we went to air. In the middle of the night, a drunk driver had spotted the bright lights of the Edmonton Institution and mistook it to be a gas station. As I say, he was inebriated. And so he pulled in to sober up. A guard spotted a car weaving into the parking lot, and went out to investigate. When the drunk rolled down his window, the officer called police and the man was charged with impaired driving.
That was one cool story, ya gotta admit.
One of the photos I snapped that day …
STEVE FORD – Prisoner
At 5:30 am on the 1st of August 1989, 17-year-old Stephen Arnold Ford took an axe to his mother and father, Kathleen and Stephen, at their home in Airdrie, north of Calgary, killing them both. Neighbours awoke to their chilling screams. I’m even creeped out writing about it.
In the summer of 2009, after spending two years at a halfway house in Victoria, British Columbia, a parole board granted the 37-year-old double-killer full parole.
According to a story by Katie DeRosa in the [Victoria] Times Colonist, Mike Church — a neighbour of the Fords — said that Steve Ford’s parents would have wanted their son to have a second chance at life. “I would think they would be praying to God now that he’s out,” Church said, “[that] he’ll make something of his life — just like when they were alive. They were always encouraging and loving.”
The newspaper also quoted Rudy Froese of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, who became friends with Steve Ford when the killer was doing time at the Edmonton Institution. “There is such a thing as a second chance,” Froese said. “I’m sure at night, when he lies awake, [Ford] wonders what it would be like to have a mom and dad. I’m glad he’s [in Victoria] and not in Airdrie because of all the publicity surrounding the case.”
I remember Ford-the-prisoner as shy and soft-spoken. Because of his young age, he seemed out of place in a federal prison. If Ford hadn’t been wearing prison garb, I would have thought he was a visitor. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look about him that seemed to say, “What have I done?” Other than small talk, we didn’t chat a lot.
DEAN COOPER – Prisoner
Dean Cooper once shared he had great parents who stood by him — even after the murder.
As for the killing that ended one life and changed his forever, Cooper said that he and a buddy robbed and murdered an innocent man at a pawn shop in Calgary. “No one deserved that pain,” Cooper said at the time, “especially the victim, his friends … and my parents and friends.” Cons rarely talk like that. My read is that Cooper’s rehabilitation started not by sitting across the desk from a counsellor, but from standing in front of a mirror.
A con once pointed out to Cooper, “You mean your parents brought you to Disneyland [California]?? They must have cared, man. What the hell happened to you?”
Dean Cooper has now spent more than half his life behind bars. He’s currently at a minimum security prison near Gravenhurst, about two hours’ drive north of Toronto. His girlfriend, Linda, also lives in Southern Ontario. Cooper got a transfer out of Alberta so he could be near her.
For three days in December 2014, Dean Cooper had his first unescorted time away from prison — known as a UTA [unescorted temporary absence]. And for the first time in a quarter of a century, the killer had his first meal as a [nearly] free man — at Swiss Chalet — a block or so away from his halfway house in Brampton, [just west of Toronto]. He was not accompanied by a guard, just his girlfriend.
Cooper has his sights set on getting out and starting all over again.
I got a phone call from him on Thursday afternoon, 17 September 2015. He was out on another unescorted pass and at his girlfriend’s house. I could hear her talking in the background, and so I asked what she was up to. “She’s ironing a shirt for me,” Cooper said in an upbeat voice one doesn’t hear very often from behind those prison walls. “We’re going out for a meal,” he said, “… and she likes to dress me up.”
In February 2016, Dean Cooper turned the Big 5-0. And on 24 March 2016, word came from prison officials that a bed is waiting for him at a halfway house in Brampton. All went according to plan. In late March 2016 Cooper was shaking hands with staff and inmates at the halfway house.
He later found casual work at a plastics manufacturing company in nearby Mississauga; by summer he had been hired full-time — with benefits.
JERRY CREWS – Prisoner
Jerry Crews is in green prison garb in the group photo [above], sitting next to killer Blair Pelletier.
On the 25th of June 1990, Crews — born and raised in Nova Scotia — partnered with Albert Foulston, a long-time criminal and drug addict who was out on parole. The pair robbed a branch of Scotiabank at the northwest corner of 124th Street and 107th Avenue in Edmonton. [Note: in Edmonton, streets run north and south, avenues east and west.]
Crews did the hold-up and Foulston drove the getaway vehicle. In con parlance, Mr. Foulston was the ‘wheel man.’
They hadn’t gone far when they were spotted by a police officer who heard about the bank robbery on his radio.
When Crews and Foulston realized they were being tailed, they sped down an alley — only to find their path blocked by construction. The robbers were trapped.
In the police cruiser was one officer — 33-year-old Constable Ezio Faraone. The policeman noticed the getaway car scooting down an alley, and he went after it.
Faraone then spotted one of the suspects — Albert Foulston — standing alone, arms in the air, fingers twitching.
Foulston was cornered and it looked like he was giving up. The officer approached Foulston, gun drawn.
But Albert Foulston wasn’t surrendering. It was a trap.
Crouched in the back seat of the getaway car, holding a loaded shotgun — finger on the trigger — was Jerry Crews. When the officer walked by, Crews popped up and blasted him … with both barrels.
The first shot hit Ezio Faraone in the chest; the second got him in the head as he fell to the ground. The officer died on the spot.
I was working in the newsroom of CBC Radio News on 75th Street when “breaking news” came over our police scanner: We heard “Officer down!” I was ordered to the location, only to find the area cordoned off with yellow police tape. Parked near the lifeless body of the policeman was a white van from the Medical Examiner.
Faraone’s body was covered with a plastic tarp; the only thing visible were his black boots.
Facing the alley was a walk-up apartment building; people stood on their balconies taking everything in. Real life drama. Police cars, overheads flashing, continued to pull up.
Standing alongside me that day was Kelly Gordon, a reporter for CHQT Radio in Edmonton. The years would pass and Gordon would find himself on the other side of that yellow tape — as a communications officer with the Edmonton Police Service [EPS]. Kelly later said ‘adios’ to the media business to become a long-haul truck driver.I met both Albert Foulston and Jerry Crews at the Edmonton Institution, but didn’t have a whole lot to do with either.
ALBERT FOULSTON – Prisoner
Albert Foulston — later to make parole and, like his cocaine, blow it — struck me as someone wanting attention.
I interrupted a gathering of about a dozen lifers, sitting on chairs in one of the meeting rooms. Foulston seized the opportunity to rub the bald head of a colleague, glancing my way to see if I had noticed him.
Jerry Crews was the more “thoughtful” of the two, strange as that may sound since he’d executed a man. You could sit down and have a talk with Crews; not so much with Foulston who seemed to be scattered, the result of too much narcotics, perhaps. There’s a reason that stuff is called dope.
According to a 16 March 2016 story on 630-CHED Radio in Edmonton, Foulston died at a house in northwest Edmonton. It wasn’t immediately known how the cop-killer checked out, except that his death was “non-criminal.”
At 1:17 pm on Tuesday, 15 March 2016 police were called to investigate a sudden death at 13222-121 Street.
It didn’t appear to be a suicide. An autopsy should determine how Albert Foulston died. A man who served time with Foulston said, “If it wasn’t an OD [overdose] I’d be shocked.”
Foulston didn’t die a free man. He remained a prisoner of sorts because he was 5-star drug addict.
Foulston had a brother who ate prison food as well. Just can’t recall his name now. In fact, both Foulston boys put in time at the Edmonton Institution.
Want to know how two boys from a fun-loving, caring family ended up in a federal pen? That’s because they weren’t from a fun-loving, caring family. Papa Foulston used to get his boys to fight, just so he could watch them for “entertainment.” I wonder how many Happy Father’s Day cards he got.
Back to Jerry Crews. He was a prisoner who kept a low profile, under the radar if you will. Crews phoned from the Max one evening, the reason for his call I can’t remember now. I do recall, though, him sharing that he’d spent time in foster homes when he was growing up in the Maritimes. I told him that I’d been a foster parent.
Crews also mentioned he was having trouble getting his fiancé into the joint for visits. He was hoping to get married, he said, but the guards were giving him a hard time. [His girlfriend reportedly worked out of the Law Courts Building in downtown Edmonton, adding a whole new meaning to courtship.]
The con felt he was being mistreated because he had taken a policeman’s life. I said, “Guess that happens when you blow away a cop — and a popular one at that.” Crew’s response was that he had no idea the officer was so well liked. He seemed surprised that Constable Faraone was a good guy.
Suddenly, Crews broke away from the call because alarm bells at the prison were going off. I could hear them ringing loudly. “Gotta go!” he shouted over the racket, “something’s come down here.” A guard in B-Unit had discovered a body under a pool table.
Crews is not eligible for parole until 2017. I haven’t had contact with him for decades.
There’s another sad footnote to Ezio Faraone’s murder. At the end of a news conference at the main police station downtown, Police Chief Doug McNally asked us to turn off our microphones and to put down our cameras. The man wanted to get something off his chest. A reporter with one of the Edmonton newspapers — the Sun if I’m not mistaken — had telephoned the mother of Ezio Faraone in Vancouver to get reaction to her son’s death, and to find out more about the man.
Problem: Mrs. Faraone did not know her son had died. A policeman arrived at her house and was about to knock on her door — with the dreaded ‘next of kin’ notification — when he heard someone inside screaming. The officer found Mrs. Faraone, in the kitchen, weeping uncontrollably.
Chief McNally described the reporter’s actions as “despicable.” The Chief, normally a soft-spoken, even-keeled kind of guy, was royally pissed. He struggled to hold back from telling us what he really thought. No one said a word.
And that’s how our news conference ended: In silence. We packed up our gear and got the hell out of there.
My guess is that the reporter assumed Faraone’s mother had already been told. However, when phone calls are made that soon after an occurrence, one is “rolling the dice.” It’s not entirely the reporter’s fault. He would have been under pressure from his editor to get something the other media outlets didn’t have. Back in the early 90s, the news business was a very competitive one.
To honour the memory of the slain officer, the City of Edmonton built a small park in his name at the north end of the High Level Bridge, southwest of the Alberta Legislature. The focal point is a bronze statue of Officer Ezio Faraone helping a child.
Judy Fantham left Mothercorp. Last I heard, she was Director of Organizational Development for Toronto Housing Community, described as the largest social housing provider in Canada.
There was an odd footnote to our April 1993 broadcast. For days, the Max had been abuzz that CBC Radio was coming out. As Colin Thatcher noted, the cons had worked hard to clean up the joint. The floors were spotless.
PATRICE MAILLOUX – Prisoner
Unknown to us at the time — Patrice Mailloux and Roger Hardy — two prisoners who had just transferred in from penitentiaries in Quebec — planned to bust out while the guards were in the gymnasium, preoccupied with our radio broadcast.
Mailloux and Hardy worked in the prison kitchen. Guard Mike Friedel warned his supervisors that something was cooking — and it wasn’t food.
Turns out, the warning fell on deaf ears.
What happened is that the cons grabbed the keys to a delivery truck that was parked in the prison yard. Their plan was to ram the vehicle through the fence [like in the movies, I guess] and again, like in the movies, eventually make their way back East and live happily ever after. God knows what these goofs were thinking.
But in their excitement, they rammed the door key in the ignition and couldn’t get it out. Wrong key. Wrong time. Wrong Place. Isn’t Karma a bitch?
A guard walked up to the two cons and said, “Let me give you a hand with that, boys,” and within seconds both Mailloux and Hardy were sporting prison jewellery — handcuffs. Off to the hole they went.
This was no escape from Alcatraz. I’ve now stopped saying, ‘How stupid can you be?’ … because, let’s face it, some people just take it as a challenge.
After the failed bust-out, it suddenly dawned on guards why a car — which appeared to be “broken down” — was parked alongside the highway next to the Max. That was their getaway car.
It was the last time a radio station was allowed into the Edmonton Institution to do a live program, and Mailloux and Hardy were largely responsible. That’s sad because our program shed some light on what life in the joint was like.
Patrice Mailloux — originally from the Tracadie-area of Northern New Brunswick — was doing life for the murder of a teenage girl in Moncton in November 1987. The con — out on day-parole at the time — executed Laura Davis, a 16-year-old who was working at her parent’s convenience store on St. George Street. Mailloux ordered the youngster to her knees and, using a handgun, fired a bullet through the top of her head. He then scampered out the door with his loot — $85.
As far as I could tell, Mailloux has never shown remorse for the murder.
The victim’s father, Ron Davis, continues to show up at Patrice Mailloux’s parole hearings to ask board members not to blow it this time.
A live softball game, now that was a different matter. In 1995, I brought in our CBC Radio softball team for a friendly “exhibition game” with the prisoners. We won handily, but that wasn’t the point. The real winners were the prisoners who had fun and got to ‘escape’ for a few hours.
Before the first pitch was thrown, a rifle-toting guard manning one of the towers went through the rules with us … and there was a list of no’s. I’ve forgotten them all — but one. The rule that stands out after all these years is that we were not to approach within two metres or so of the fence, a no-man’s land area set off by a while chalk line. If a softball went past that line, we were to get the guard’s permission to retrieve it. Given the number of foul tips, it happened a few times. No problem. Ask permission. Permission granted. Throw the ball back into play.
One time, however, a prisoner went to get a ball that had pinged off the fence. But he didn’t ask for permission from the guard. The con got up and walked over, without a care in the world. Just as he crossed the white line, he faked being “gunned down” — complete with the sound effects of a machine gun. The prisoner hit the dirt with his arms and legs flailing. All that was needed was for him to squirt ketchup on himself. The antics cracked everyone up. A great ice-breaker. Even the officer in the tower, with a birds-eye view of everything, got a kick out of it. I too enjoyed the horseplay. It demonstrated once again that a maximum security penitentiary wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Because I was nursing a hamstring injury, I couldn’t play. I sat in the “bleachers” with a clipboard on my lap, surrounded by two dozen cons. The prisoners were taking in all the action, shouting words of encouragement to the home team. One prisoner joked, “Remember, three strikes and you’re OUT.” He laughed at his own joke, as did others, then glanced back to see the reaction.
A young prisoner was passing out cans of Pepsi. From the way he was “jiving” and playing the part of Mr. Personality, I figured he was in for a sexual offence. I thanked him for the soft drink. The guy sat down alongside me and introduced himself. Didn’t recognize his name, and so I told him that I hadn’t seen him around before. He responded, “You probably know my sister.” I thought to myself, where’s this going? He went on to tell me that he was the younger brother of Jan Arden, a well-known pop singer based in Calgary. I said, “No shit.” The guy then revealed he’d killed a young boy in British Columbia. Again I said, “No shit.”
A few months later, Arden popped around to CHED Radio for an interview. We chatted for a while in the newsroom and I asked if she had a brother who was doing time. Turns out, she did. It was the young man I’d met at the Max. Arden went on to say that he had raped and killed a boy. She added that the crime so devastated her family, and that it was especially hard on her mother and father. I could imagine.
GORD LUSSIER – Prisoner
Most cons have ‘partners,’ someone they hang out with. Colin Thatcher’s partner was Gord Lussier, a former bank robber and drug addict. He was also a hit-man, but I wasn’t supposed to know that.
An unusual pair, you gotta admit. Thatcher looked and spoke like a bank executive and Lussier looked like a bank robber, tattooed with big scars on his arms from either knife attacks or suicide attempts, I wasn’t sure which. Didn’t ask either.
It was interesting to see how well the two got along. One memory I have of Lussier and Thatcher is them in the weight room, in a corner of the gymnasium at the Max. Thatcher was on his back, struggling to pump some heavy weights. Standing right alongside him was Lussier, his eyes focused on the weights slowly inching upwards. “You can do it, Colin,” he said softly, “you can do it, you can do it …”
I got a phone call from Gord Lussier’s wife that her husband was being held in segregation at the Max over some issue — forget now what that was — and he wanted to talk about it. I drove out to the prison one evening to hear what Lussier had to say.
After spending about ten minutes in a small lawyer’s room by myself, staring at the drab concrete walls, the door opened and there stood an unfriendly guard and a handcuffed Gord Lussier. The prisoner was wincing. I could see his cuffs were too tight, and so I said to the officer, “Could you please remove his handcuffs?” The guard refused, citing the restraints were for my own safety. “I can handle this wimp,” I assured him. That was complete bullshit of course, but I was only trying to ease the tension. Still, the officer refused to take off the cuffs. In frustration, I said, “Well, I guess there’s no interview, thanks for wasting my time,” and I stood up to leave. The officer then unlocked the cuffs and walked away.
Lussier slowly made his way into the room, rubbing his wrists. With a wink, I motioned for him to take a seat.
The heavy door closed with a sharp click, leaving Lussier and I alone. I recorded a short interview, essentially his grievances about how the warden was running things. A typical prison story, if you will. I warned Lussier that if this went to air, he’d only be in more trouble with management. Years have passed and my memory isn’t clear as to how the hardened prisoner responded. I can’t recall if he said something like, “I have given this much consideration and am prepared to face the consequences” … or if he said, “I don’t give a flying fuck.” But it was one of the two.
Lussier then asked how his friend Colin Thatcher was doing, particularly how his appeal was coming along. Being in segregation meant that Lussier was essentially cut off from the world, certainly the mainstream prison population. I filled him in on what was happening with Thatcher’s appeal.
Lussier then asked if I’d give his friend a message, and I said, “sure thing.” I was about to write everything down in my notepad when it occurred to me that Lussier could just as easily record a message on my cassette tape recorder. And so he did just that, holding the mike for a very personal, heartfelt message. I was surprised by what this former druggie had to say. It was beyond thoughtful. Lussier told Thatcher to hang in there, that God was looking after him … and that he was always in his prayers. Christ, I didn’t expect that.
I then made my way to ‘B Unit’ and asked a guard to unlock Thatcher’s cell and ask him to come down to the interview room, at the entrance of the unit. A few minutes later, in walked Thatcher, looking a little skeptical. “What brings you here?” he asked, taking a seat at the table. I told him that I’d just spoken to Gord Lussier. “Oh yeah,” he said, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. “Is he back here now? He was transferred to the SHU [the Special Handling Unit] in Prince Albert.” I replied, “Yes, he’s back here … in seg.” I added, “Colin, Gord has a message for you,” and I reached over and hit ‘play’ on the tape recorder. And there, like magic, was Gord Lussier speaking to Colin Thatcher … with some powerful words of love and encouragement.
To catch every word, Thatcher leaned forward and put his ear to the speaker. When the message ended, he smiled and looked my way. “Could I hear it again please?”
After the recording was played a second time,Thatcher nodded but said little, aside from ‘thank you.’ We shook hands and I bid him good night. The former cabinet minister who lifted weights with a bank robber made his way up the stairs to his cell at the far end of ‘B Unit,’ and I made my way home. You can file that under ‘Maintaining Contacts.’
One more thing about B Unit: of all the units at Edmonton Institution, ‘B’ was my favourite. At the entrance to B Unit were three fish tanks with some gold fish swimming about. It was the job of the cons to feed the fish and change the water. The three tanks were different sizes with signs that read ‘Minimum,’ ‘Medium’ and ‘Maximum.’ Today those fish tanks are not permitted in the joint.
COLIN THATCHER – Prisoner – Part 2 of 2
Colin Thatcher spent about a decade at the Edmonton Institution. Towards the end of his time there, he applied for a transfer to the pen in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, so he could be closer to his family.
A guard promised to let me know when something was decided with Thatcher’s request for a transfer. I was trolling for stories at the Max one day when the guard pulled me aside and said, “Thatcher’s moving out tomorrow … he’s off to Bowden.” Bowden is a medium security prison just south of Red Deer, Alberta.
I checked the gymnasium. No Thatcher. If he wasn’t in the gym, he had to be in the chapel. Prisoners liked the chapel for two reasons: it was a haven and it was quiet. Make that three: phone calls made from the chaplain’s office were not monitored by guards.
I caught up to Thatcher in the newly renovated chapel. He was just leaving the office and I said, “Colin, you’re moving out tomorrow. Start getting your stuff ready — and not a word to anyone.” Thatcher asked if he was going to Prince Albert and I said, “No. Bowden.” He thanked me for the information and promised not to tell anyone.
Next day, I was writing the morning news run on CBC Radio when a call came in from a guard at the front gate. “Thatcher has just left in a [prisoner transfer] van,” he said. Click. I made the transfer of Colin Thatcher to a new penitentiary the lead item on our 8:30am news. Once Broadcast News picked up the story, everyone had it. Of course, few gave credit to the CBC. They ran the story as if they were the first to find out. Hands up if that surprises you.
When I met Thatcher again — this time at the penitentiary in Bowden — I told him about the guard tipping me off about his move. The Bowden Pen is right alongside the main highway to Calgary. “So it was you,” he said, “because the cars and trucks honked non-stop …” Apparently one of the radio stations in Red Deer asked drivers that morning to give Thatcher a warm welcome by honking as they passed the prison.
I made the trip to the Bowden penitentiary in part because fellow CBC reporter David Kirkham wanted to meet with Thatcher. We drove to Bowden on a sunny but cool fall day. The guards at Bowden, I thought, were not as polite nor as professional as the guys in Edmonton, but we got in. The three of us met in a lawyer room upstairs. Kirkham and Thatcher had talked on the phone a few times, and they were now finally meeting face to face.
Kirkham asked Thatcher, “So what’s your theory about what happened [to Joanne, the murder victim]?” Thatcher, sitting across the table, looked down and said, “I don’t know.” It was clear he didn’t want to talk about it.
Thatcher, however, opened up about one con in particular at his new prison. Bowden has a lot of sexual offenders.
He was particularly shocked at a sexual crime one of the cons had committed, and he tried to tell us about it. But he just couldn’t finish the story. It was that disgusting. “There’s a guy in here,” … then he stopped. “I can’t talk about it.” “Come on, I said, “this place is crawling with skinners, what the hell.” “Well,” Thatcher went on, “this fellow from St. Paul …” And he stopped again. I knew instantly who he was talking about because we did stories on the guy.” “Come on, spit it out,” I said. David didn’t say a word. “Well,” Thatcher said, “this man worked at a funeral home and …” Again he stopped. I said, “So what did he do? Come on …” “I can’t talk about it,” he said, shaking his head from side to side. Finally, he blurted: “HE HAD SEX WITH A DEAD PERSON!!” And, in a monotone, disinterested voice, I said, “And your point is …?”
The twisted humour would not have been a surprise for Thatcher because more than once at the Max I had cracked a bad joke and he’d say that God was going to punish me. [“He’s going to strike you dead, Christopher!”] And I would respond, “He is punishing me … I’m working at the CBC!”
Though he never talked about it much, Colin Thatcher found ‘religion’ while in prison. Religion is always a very personal thing, and so I usually didn’t ask about it. His pastor and good friend at the Max, whose name escapes me now, once told Thatcher, “Byron is just making a joke, Colin. Come on, lighten up.”
Many cons find Jesus in prison, prompting me to ask John Schimmens once, “What did He do? And how much time’s He serving?”
Colin Thatcher eventually made parole, and when he got permission from his parole officer to travel to Edmonton, we got together at a Swiss Chalet restaurant in the west end of the city, on 170th Street and 107th Avenue. This was around 2005 or so. Thatcher was in town to see an Edmonton Oilers game. I recall asking him if watching the struggling Oilers play was part of his sentence.
Thatcher was in the company of prison lay pastor Wayne Land, whom he’d met in the joint. At the time, I was reporting for 630-CHED Radio in Edmonton.
It was different seeing Thatcher as a free man. He was relaxed. He laughed and smiled more. When a customer spotted us at the restaurant, the guy did a double-take, stopping in his tracks. Thatcher then did the biker thing and popped on a pair of sunglasses. I was worried the customer might call a newsroom and there’d be a camera crew waiting for us when we got outside.
It was at this meeting where I suggested to Thatcher that he do his first interview as a “free man.” Initially he refused, saying he didn’t need the publicity. I said, “People want to know your story, from your perspective.” I also suggested he write a book. He said no to that too, but did say he had a lot of material since he had kept his writings from prison.
After the meal, the three of us went for a spin in my old car, the ’37 Oldsmobile. Thatcher said he’d often spotted it in the parking lot of the Edmonton Institution and wondered if he’d ever get to ride in it. I told him I got a good deal on the car because the dolts at General Motors put two of the doors on backwards. Turns out, the old girl had been assembled in Regina in late 1936 at a time when GM had an assembly plant there.
THE THATCHER RADIO INTERVIEW
As for the interview, Colin Thatcher said he’d think about it. I felt he was sincere, I didn’t get the sense he was putting me off or telling me something I wanted to hear. About two weeks passed and my cell phone rang. It was Thatcher. The interview was a go.
We picked a date and time and I got a private phone number from him where he could be reached.
The interview was done in one of the recording booths at CHED. I worked on the tape for a few more hours … and next morning, the exclusive ‘breaking’ story was released. It was, of course, our top story. It was everyone’s top story.
Canadian Press/Broadcast News, the wire service which served hundreds of media outlets, was given an advance copy of the interview — on the condition they not release the story until CHED had gone with it first.
When the Thatcher story hit the ‘wires,’ it went national. Just about every media outlet in the country ran it.
Canada’s best-known prisoner gave a personal and insightful account of his life behind bars, what it was like to finally be a free man after 20-plus years — and his plans to write a book. Colin Thatcher wanted to title his book, Odyssey: Anatomy of a Frame.
People who didn’t care for Thatcher didn’t care for the interview, but those who supported him rallied behind him even more.
The story also ticked off some reporters in Saskatchewan because Thatcher had repeatedly turned them down for interviews. When he was released from prison, he also told them he wouldn’t do another interview. The disappointment of the Saskatchewan reporters didn’t bother me one bit. It’s one thing to get scooped, it’s another to get scooped by someone in another province.
I did a number of interviews for both newspapers and radio stations based on the CHED story.
It took Thatcher a year or so to finish his manuscript and publish his book [by ECW of Toronto], which eventually took the title of Final Appeal … Anatomy of a Frame.
When Colin Thatcher’s book was released, I did his first media interview as well. That was 10 August 2009. For that interview, I drove to Moose Jaw, in Southern Saskatchewan, to meet with Thatcher directly. The publisher, ECW, had couriered an advance [hard cover] copy of the book to my house in the west end of Edmonton. Within minutes of it arriving, I was on the road.
I stayed up late in my motel room in Moose Jaw reading the 400-page book and jotting down questions to ask Thatcher. I finally finished reading around 3 in the morning, then set two alarms to wake up at 8:30.
Thatcher promised to drop by the motel at 9.
At 9 exactly — and I mean exactly — my room phone rang. In sock feet, I walked out to reception to meet Thatcher.
The former Saskatchewan cabinet minister checked out my spacious suite and gave it a nod of approval. I closed the door and handed him his book; it was the first time he’d seen it. He gave it a quick glance and remarked, “Hmm, so this is what they did with the cover …”
I’d initially booked a lower-priced room at the motel but when I arrived, was told that my accommodation had been “upgraded” — free of charge. I was now in a large, executive suite. Strange. I didn’t know what to make of that … especially after seeing a mysterious object shining in a ceiling vent. It sure didn’t look like ‘original equipment,’ put it that way.
After Thatcher plunked himself down in a chair at a small table in the corner, all ready for the interview, I had a ‘Roy Sobotiak moment’ and, pointing to the ceiling vent, asked, “What do you think that is behind the grate?” Thatcher studied it for a moment, tilting his head to get a better look. In a flash, he was on his feet. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, his car keys in hand.
I paid my bill and we climbed in Thatcher’s pick-up truck, a Dodge Ram. The noisy diesel motor came to life and we slowly made our way through Moose Jaw to a beautiful, sprawling park at the southern edge of town.
On the way I spotted a street sign that read, Thatcher Avenue and so I said, “They don’t hate you here that much, Colin … they named a street after you.” “That’s my father,” he said, without bothering to look where I was pointing. I knew that, of course; I was only pulling his leg. Colin’s father, Ross Thatcher, was a former Premier of Saskatchewan. A tough and respect man, I’m told. Never met him.
The setting for the interview was perfect, or just about. We sat at a picnic table and talked for about an hour … but for the first ten minutes or so, a park worker operating a grass cutter was making a lot of noise. That buggered up the audio a bit, but overall things went well. One by one, Thatcher answered my questions; I checked them off as I made my way down the list. I had several pages of questions.
Once the interview was done, I checked the cassette tape to make sure everything was there. We shook hands, I snapped a few pictures and immediately hit the road for Edmonton, six or seven hours’ drive away. I was physically and mentally exhausted — but had to return to Edmonton to file my story to MacLean’s, a national weekly magazine based in Toronto.
The Thatcher book-interview story had been sold exclusively to Maclean’s. It was their scoop.
It was evening when I finally got back home — a few coffees, soft drinks and a roadside snooze later. I then phoned an editor at MacLean’s who deliberately stayed back at the office, waiting for my call, and fed him the raw tape of the interview.
The editor was professional and easy to deal with. He worked into the night on the interview. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Thatcher interview would be Maclean’s cover story.
Once Maclean’s hit the stands, Colin Thatcher and I spoke on the phone and it didn’t take him long to say that he didn’t care for the photo they put on the cover. “It’s a terrible picture,” he said. “I just knew when the photographer [Marianne Helm] took that shot, that it would be the one they’d be using.” I responded, “Well, you have always said you were innocent of the murder … you’ve spent 20-plus years in the joint … why would you want to be smiling?”
I’d sent out ‘feelers’ to about ten media outlets about the exclusive Thatcher book interview. Most expressed an interest. I promptly wrote off those who “communicated with silence.” There’d be no second knock at their door.
One major news organization, CTV National News, expressed a very keen interest in the Thatcher interview. We spoke numerous times on the phone about it. But then I found out CTV was trying to land the Thatcher interview on its own. One of their staff had contacted Thatcher’s lawyer in the hope of getting him to talk to them first. Nice guys. “Thanks for the story idea, Byron.”
In two days, the four-page Maclean’s story was on the stands.
I’d also given portions of Thatcher’s book to an Edmonton crime website, Last Link on the Left, operated by media-watcher Stuart Bayens.
Once the Thatcher magazine story was public, the mainstream media was chomping at the bit to talk to him as well. He turned down few media outlets after that, always doing the interview in the same park in Moose Jaw. According to Thatcher, one reporter showed up with a copy of Maclean’s as his research material.
Maclean’s paid well for that interview, plus my mileage. Their cheque arrived within a couple of weeks. They kept their promises.
Below is page one of the four-page spread [click to enlarge]. The rest of the article can be found online by clicking here:
In July 2015, Colin Thatcher’s son, Regan, was appointed to the bench by the Harper Conservative government. So now it’s Justice Regan Thatcher. In a phone chat with Colin Thatcher on 8 July 2015, he says his son wasn’t political — and he’s not even sure if he voted Conservative.
I last spoke with Regan, then a Winnipeg lawyer, in the late 80s or early 90s, not sure. I was with CBC Radio in Edmonton then and working on the Thatcher file. I once asked Colin why he called his son Regan. He said he named him after U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
A PROTEST GOES SOUR
It was the Spring of 1993, and the NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and the Montreal Canadiens was in full swing. Players were popping in goals and fans were hurling abuse when the referee didn’t make the right call. The behaviour of the fans was not unlike the behaviour of prisoners at the Edmonton Institution after they were locked in their cells for a few days. As I say, prisoners detest lockdowns.
It was evening and I was trolling the joint for stories, notepad by my side. As I walked past B Unit, Sharon, one of the guards, shouted, “Byron! come see this! look at this mess!” Sharon was absolutely right. It was a mess, worse than any teenager’s bedroom. The inmates had decided to toss their evening meals, trays and all, on the hallway and against the concrete wall. There were potatoes, meat, carrots and juice everywhere. “Wow,” I said, “is the food here that bad?” Sharon was in no mood to laugh. She stood at the end of the top range, hands on her hips, like women do when they’re ticked, telling me that the guys were pigs.
There are two tiers on each unit; upper and lower. I first walked down to the lower tier. Nothing but spilled food and trays everywhere. Same thing for the upper tier. Wait. I could see that at the very end of the tier that everything was clean, as if one cell was empty. I tip-toed through the mess [with Sharon yelling, “Be careful or you’ll slip and break your neck!”] until I got to the end. I knocked on a cell door. Colin Thatcher’s face appeared in the small opening. “How’d you get in here?” he asked. “Easy,” I said, “I climbed over the fence and walked into the receiving area.” He rolled his eyes. I continued: “I’m here to do a story on WIMPS who refuse to take part in peaceful, legitimate protests …” Thatcher rolled his eyes again.
I could hear the play-by-play of a playoff hockey game coming from a small television set [the TV was on a desk opposite Thatcher’s bunk]]. Los Angeles and Montreal were playing in the Stanley Cup final. “Who’s winning?” I asked. “Montreal,” he said disappointingly. Thatcher was rooting for the Kings.
Colin Thatcher was a hockey fan period. During a social at the Max, I noticed that two members of the Edmonton Oilers had gone out to the Max to pay Mr. Thatcher a visit — a forward whose initials are Dave Hunter; the other a trainer, Peter Miller.
DAVID MILGAARD – Prisoner
What article on prisons would be complete without something on the ‘poster boy’ of the wrongfully convicted, David Milgaard?
It was the fall of 1991 and some friends were over for an evening meal at my apartment in South Edmonton. We were just about to dig in when the phone rang. Surprise. On the line was David Milgaard, calling from a penitentiary in Manitoba. I hadn’t spoken with Milgaard before, but I certainly knew who he was.
In 1970, a jury found David Milgaard, then 16, guilty of the 1969 rape and murder of nursing aide Gail Miller in Saskatoon. The year before, her bloodied body had been found in snow in an alley. Rumours started swirling in the 1980s that Milgaard — who had been behind bars for two decades — didn’t do it … and that the real killer was a known rapist in Saskatoon, Larry Fisher.
However, Milgaard hadn’t called me about his own case. He wanted to know how a prison pal of his [whose last name was McDonald] had died in the botched hostage-taking at the penitentiary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Coincidentally, I’d been researching the Milgaard file, talking to as many people as I could, and I can only surmise that’s how he got my business card which had my home number. I opened my manila file folder and broke the news to Milgaard: “Your buddy was hit in the back with a shotgun blast.” He also wanted to know if his pal had suffered before he died. “Appears so,” I said. “I’m told he moaned for about 15 minutes, then died.” “Is this off the record?” Milgaard asked and I said, “You phoned me for information, David, I didn’t call you …”
We didn’t talk long as my food was getting cold. Ain’t nothing worse than cold salad.
A few months passed and Milgaard phoned again, from the same prison in Manitoba. But this time, I was at my desk in the newsroom of CBC Radio in South Edmonton. Because it was Milgaard, I asked him if I could record our talk. He said ‘sure’ and the interview began. Turns out, he had some explosive information — as in ‘big scoop’: He had fired his long-time lawyer and friend, Hersch Wolch. I went, “Holy shit!” or something like that.
Milgaard said the reason he canned his lawyer was that his case wasn’t moving along fast enough, and he was ticked. I said, “So, what did Wolch say about this?” and Milgaard replied, “Haven’t told him yet.” Well, I guess you can fire someone through the media. I then asked, “What does your mother [Joyce] think about this? “Haven’t told her either,” adding, “I’m pissed off at her too.” Hmmm.
I did not run the story. Just too many red flags. Next morning [at the exact same time], my phone rang again. It was Milgaard and he sounded worried. “Did you run that story?” he asked, with a tone of desperation in his voice. “No,” I replied. “Thank God!” he said, “… Mom and I had a meeting last night and we “sorted everything out.” A relieved Milgaard paused for a while, then asked, “Why didn’t you run it? …” I explained that he sounded anxious, and so I held off. Milgaard thanked me profusely. I said, “It’s no big deal, man.” He said, “It is to me … I owe you one.” I said, “Don’t worry about it … just help a stranger and we’re even.”
The day wrongfully-convicted David Milgaard was finally released from prison, he was by far the biggest news story in Canada. He walked out of the joint a free man, at last, surrounded by his lawyer, Hersh Wolch, and a pack of reporters. But Milgaard said nothing. He got into the back seat of a car and went straight to his mother’s townhouse in Winnipeg. From there, he phoned for his first interview. Let me tell you, that was big. The only story that could have topped Milgaard’s release from prison would have been if Mother Teresa had given birth to triplets.
[I was on my way to Saskatchewan when Milgaard phoned my office. I had left a recorded message on my tape deck for Milgaard to speak with my good friend, CBC Radio reporter David Kirkham. David did the interview and as I drove on a highway I could see that CBC National News was leading with it. Kirkham would go on to do several enlightening feature stories on Native spirituality in the joint; including an insightful piece on what it was like to be in a sweat lodge ceremony.]
Fast-forward a few months and David Milgaard was living in Vancouver. It was here where he would meet his future wife, Marnie. Marnie, who was working at a library, had gone outside for a smoke and Milgaard, walking by, bummed a cigarette off her. The two fell in love and got married. After Milgaard got a multi-million dollar settlement from the government, the pair travelled to Europe and Australia. Milgaard kept in touch during their travels, sending me emails with photos attached. That was a bit of a novelty back then. [Marnie was tech savvy] However, the two eventually split. When I think about how they met, there’s proof that smoking isn’t a good thing.
Let’s back up a bit. Soon after Milgaard was released from prison, he made his way to Edmonton. By then, I’d spoken to him on the phone a number of times, but I had not met him in person. One summer afternoon, my doorbell rang and there stood David Milgaard — without any shoes. That’s right. He was standing on my porch in his sock feet. I said, “Where the hell are your shoes?” “I sold them for smokes,” he said.
I put him in the shower to clean up, and later that night, brought him to a shelter downtown. While driving down The Whitemud Freeway — and this has to be one of the strangest memories I have of David Milgaard — he stuck his head out the front passenger window and began to sing, at the top of his voice, with the wind whipping his hair about. The man was in another world, certainly not prison. I thought, hey, what the hell, he’s free.Milgaard continued to phone, from his new home in Vancouver. He expressed an interest in going to the Rocky Mountains. I often camped in the Rockies with Mark Lewis, public address announcer for the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League. At this point, Milgaard had not yet been exonerated for the murder of Gail Miller. He was out of prison, yes, but on parole … while officials with the Department of Justice took another look at his case.
His parole officer in Vancouver rang and said, “What’s this trip to the Rockies David is talking about?” Milgaard wasn’t supposed to leave British Columbia unless he had permission. I assured his parole officer that Milgaard wouldn’t be a problem and that he’d be back in Vancouver.
It was mid-April and Lewis and I met Milgaard in Jasper and we drove to a [private, okay illegal then] camping spot south of Jasper. Oh. When we met Milgaard, standing outside the old train station in Jasper, he was on the sidewalk in sock feet. The man needed smokes again. Lucky for him, I had an extra pair of running shoes in the car.An interesting point: the three of us went for a stroll near the Athabasca River, not far from our camp. I spotted a tall evergreen tree, a dead one. Okay, nearly dead then. I figured the old tree would be good firewood, and so I took an ax to it. It came crashing down with a huge thump, branches flying everywhere. Milgaard was startled and said, “What’s the beef?” [meaning, what are the charges?] He knew it was illegal to fell a tree in a national park. I handed him the ax, saying, “Hold this,” then answered his question, “We’re not worried — you’re the convicted murderer!”
It was about 11 in the morning and the sun was already doing a number on us. “Time for a beer,” said Milgaard. Keep in mind that we were in western Canada, three times zones behind eastern Canada so, when it’s 11 in Alberta it is two o’clock in Ontario and three in the Maritimes. Lewis glanced at his watch and announced — “I have a rule: no beer before noon!” Milgaard, trying to be agreeable, nodded. We could all wait another 30 minutes. The silence was broken by ‘pssst,’ the sound of a can of Canadian beer being opened. Mark Lewis closed his eyes, took a sip of cold brew, glanced my way and said, “It’s gotta be noon somewhere in Canada.” With a huge smile on his face, Milgaard hurried to the cooler.
The hot sun was also doing a number on the snow that was piled high on the tall mountain peaks, several miles away. About every ten minutes or so, a small avalanche of ice and snow would tumble down the mountain side … and every 30 minutes, there was a big one. Milgaard grabbed my binoculars, plunked himself down in a meadow — with a can of beer for company — and caught all the action. We spotted the avalanches first and heard the rumbling noise two seconds later. Man, those suckers moved fast. I’ve done numerous news stories on people getting killed by avalanches in the Rockies. I could see why they had little time to escape.
We were staying at a spot we named ‘Negan Wutchee’, Cree for ‘in front of mountains.’ I suggested to Milgaard that he help out by chopping some wood for our fire. Tell me. What guy camping in the Rockies — wouldn’t take pride in showing his prowess with an axe? Milgaard chopped ONE small log into half a dozen pieces and laid down the axe. I said, “Is that it?” “Yup,” he said. I said, “Shuffles [his prison name], “Christ, we’re here for three days …”
Milgaard complained that I was a “slave-driver,” mimicking the sound of a whip cracking. I shot back, “I now have PROOF you didn’t kill Gail Miller!” … to which he replied, “What evidence is that, Christopher?” I said, “You’re too fucking lazy to kill anyone.” A nervous Mark Lewis was certain blows would be thrown, but after a beer — maybe three, maybe four, maybe five — all was forgotten.
That night, around a white man’s campfire [meaning tall flames], with the wood crackling, Lewis tried to engage Milgaard in a discussion about what prison life was like. But he’d have no part of it. “Too much fucking shit,” he said. We didn’t bring it up again. It was clear that prison life had tormented our guest.
David Milgaard spent some time running back and forth to a small stream nearby to check out the mountain trout. “Look, two fish!” he shouted, waving his arms in the air. Then three fish. Four. Five. Milgaard kept running from the stream to where Mark and I were resting on lawn chairs in the spring sunshine, enjoying some cold brew and contemplating the meaning of life. “What the hell is it with Milgaard and these damn fish?” Lewis asked. I explained that, to prisoners, fish represent freedom.
The best response came from Milgaard himself: “I wish Dad was here,” he said, “… we could go fishing.” Milgaard longed to spend time with his father, Lorne. About 10 years later, Lorne Milgaard died from cancer. In his last months, I got a number of phone calls from David, wondering what could be done to save his Dad.
David Milgaard now lives near Calgary. He has two children — a boy and girl — but he’s separated from his second wife, Cristina [from Romania].Milgaard and I still get together, though not nearly as much as before. When he comes to Edmonton, he hangs his hat at my house.
During one visit, he wanted to hear ‘Wheatkings,’ a non-hit song by the Canadian pop group, Tragically Hip. The song is about Milgaard and that he was wrongfully convicted. There’s also a reference to a “late-breaking story on the CBC,” which Milgaard says is about the time CBC Radio did that [exclusive] story on his release from prison.
If you’re looking for a touchy-feely story about David Milgaard, here it is: when Milgaard was found guilty of the murder of Gail Miller, in 1970, I was working at CJDC Radio-TV in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. I was reading television news and I came across a wire story about a drifter who’d raped and stabbed to death a nursing aide, leaving her body in the snow in an alley. I thought, what a son-of-a-bitch. For years, I hated Milgaard’s guts and I wondered what I’d tell him if our paths ever crossed.Years would pass — indeed, a decade or so — and I began working on the Milgaard file. It was at the Max in Edmonton, interviewing a prisoner who had spent time with both Milgaard and Larry Fisher. Fisher had confessed to the con that he had murdered Gail Miller. This new information hit me … and it nagged at me, like a dark secret I didn’t have the courage to share with anyone, especially Milgaard.
It took a while until the pieces came together, and then I realized — that after all those years — I’d been dead wrong about the guy. However, I wasn’t alone. At the time of Milgaard’s murder conviction, how many Canadians figured he was innocent? Only Milgaard’s family.
However, most weren’t as bad as a close friend of Gail Miller [she will go un-named because I never knew her name anyway]. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the nurse met my daughter Sonja and the two got talking about David Milgaard. Turns out, Miller and the nurse had been friends, and the nurse revealed that she couldn’t stop hating Milgaard — even though it was widely known he wasn’t the real killer. After more than two decades of anger towards Milgaard, she just couldn’t stop hating him.
Why was David Milgaard exonerated? It wasn’t because the Canadian Government readily wanted to fess up to another judicial miscarriage.
The Government really doesn’t give a rat’s ass if someone behind bars is innocent. For all they cared, Milgaard could have committed suicide in prison [I’m told by a family member that he did try to take his own life]. Milgaard was freed because of the semen on Gail Miller’s panties, which had been stored in a filing cabinet in the basement of the Department of Justice in Ottawa. When forensic investigators did a DNA test on Miller’s underwear and matched it to DNA from Larry Fisher, there was a match. Ooops. Sorry, Mr. Milgaard about those two decades you spent behind bars … thanks to taxpayers, here’s some cash for your troubles.
Bravo to the scientists who discovered we all have DNA ‘fingerprints.’
I held off apologizing until Milgaard drove up from Vancouver to Edmonton one spring day, so he could talk to my journalism students at NAIT, the Northern Institute of Technology.
Milgaard was standing in my kitchen reading a story in the Edmonton Journal [below] about his appearance at the school. “Hey,” he said, pointing to the newspaper article, “we’re both mentioned in the story.”
When Milgaard finished reading the story, I told him that I needed to apologize for something. I then explained that for many years, I thought he was a real bastard for killing Gail Miller — and only much later did I realize that he didn’t do it. “My apologies,” I said. Milgaard put down the newspaper, walked over and gave me a hug. “Let it go, Byron,” he said, “… it’s okay.”
Oh. Something else … for the past 20 years, when I’ve been with David Milgaard, he hasn’t always been in sock feet.
The real killer of Gail Miller, Larry Fisher, was finally convicted of the 1969 crime — three decades later.
According to Global TV, Fisher died in a prison in Abbotsford, British Columbia on 9 May 2015. He was 65. I never met the man.
For an hour and 15-minute podcast with Steve Bujold, David Milgaard and myself, click here. This was first broadcast in late September 2016.
MICHAEL WHITE – Prisoner
I spent considerable time with Michael White, the former soldier who went down for the murder of his pregnant wife, Liana, in Edmonton in the summer of 2005.
The 29-year-old hospital clerk had been stabbed repeatedly. White, 28, said he didn’t do it … and that he loved his wife.
About a week after Liana vanished, her nude body was discovered near the top of a shallow ditch alongside a dirt road between Edmonton and St. Albert. Next day, Michael White was charged with his wife’s murder.
Most of my time with White was when he was out on bail [that is, after his arrest and before his trial]. After his murder conviction, I met with him a number of times at the Edmonton Institution.
Someone in administration at the Max [whose name I will not reveal] once asked, “What is it with Michael White? He’s not like the other inmates …” He sure as hell wasn’t.
I explained that White hadn’t been behind bars before, had no prior history of violence … and that his murder trial was suspect.
I hate to disappoint those who thought this “dummy” was 100 percent guilty … but in addition to White’s trial stinking to high heaven, there’s new information that suggests he didn’t commit the crime — and there’s another suspect police should seriously look at.
This is not to say Michael White is innocent or guilty. I’m pointing out some inconsistencies based on my observations, plus the observations of others. But was White wrongfully convicted? Based on this article — and other media stories you may have read on White — you make the call.
Bad Reporting, Police Work, Even Worse Lawyering …
Reporters took a police theory [“Michael White led searchers to his wife’s body”] and turned it into a fact. Like magic. However, that’s not terribly unusual in the news biz. Happens all the time. Journalists most always take information from the police and publish or broadcast the information without verifying it. [Are you sitting down?] Some reporters are huge supporters of the police — boosters, in fact. They’re known as ‘cop-suckers.’
Reporters were privately calling Michael White ‘stupid’ and a ‘killer’ — a year before his trial had started.
White had no hope in Hell of getting a fair trial, especially after he chose to go with a jury. When you realize that Albertans once elected as Premier [the highest elected position in the province] an alcoholic buffoon with grade 9 education ...
Of all those who “dropped the ball” on the White file, lawyers were the worst. By far. It’s hard to describe the unprofessionalism and lack of dedication of some in this trusted profession. It was beyond disappointing.
Lawyers talked a big game, made big promises, gave reassuring smiles and all that — but in the end, it was all talk. Bullshit.
Michael White was told by his first lawyer that the charges wouldn’t stick and White bought into the lie. When his trial was over and the dust had settled, White realized he’d been duped.
Turns out, the cheap talk wasn’t so cheap. The false assurances came at a tremendous personal and financial cost to both Michael White and his family.
White would likely be a free man now if he’d accepted the Crown’s offer of manslaughter in early 2006, but he was adamant then — as he is today — He. Did. Not. Kill. His. Wife.
Put another way, if he had “played the game,” he’d likely be on a tractor now at his parent’s farm in Ontario.
Soon after White arrived at the Edmonton Max, in early 2007, he was beaten badly by a gang of about a dozen Native prisoners. The unprovoked assault was caught on a security camera. However, White refused to press charges against his assailants, saying, “That’s the way it goes, Byron, they believe what they read in the papers.” White chose not to press charges because he didn’t want to rock the boat. The Max was now his home and he had to get along. During one meeting in the visitor’s room at the prison, White pointed out to me one of his assailants, who was sitting in the corner. The con was meeting with a lady friend. I briefly looked his way, he returned the glance, then resumed holding hands with his visitor. “Well it doesn’t look like he’s gay,” I remarked, ” … and between the two, they might have a full set of teeth.” Sorry, I don’t have a lot of respect for dickheads who gang up on someone. They’re lost souls, cowards who piss their beds.
Canada has far too many wrongful murder convictions — and those are just the proven screw-ups, acknowledged by a Federal Department of Justice … an outfit that may be more interested in protecting the image of the ‘system’ over those who have been wrongfully-convicted.
DAMON HORNE – Prisoner
It was the early 90s when I first met Damon Horne, at the Edmonton Max. Horne was serving time for robbing banks. It was Horne, a member of the Inmates Committee, who started the prison’s recycling program. Horne was also known as a ‘jailhouse lawyer,’ who spent a lot of his time in his cell pouring through law books. He often gave “legal advice” to cons.
Horne wanted me out at the Max to talk about his technical arguments for a new trial. His beef was that police couldn’t prove that the bank had used marked [script] money during one of his holdups. Horne wasn’t saying he was innocent, he was just saying that police evidence was flawed.
Horne arrived holding so many binders he had to rest his chin on the top binder to keep the load steady. But we had no place to meet. All the meeting rooms were being used. I went to the administrative area [out of bounds for prisoners, except for the cleaners] and asked the Warden’s secretary if she could help. She offered use of their boardroom, of all things. The binders hit the big, shiny boardroom table with a slap and before I could make any notes, the secretary opened the door and said, “Can I get you gentlemen anything?” That’s funny, I know. ‘Gentleman’ is so out of place when addressing reporters. I said to Horne, “Sir, what would you like … coffee or tea?”
The secretary returned a few minutes later with one cup of tea, one cup of coffee, sugar, real cream … and some cookies. All on a tray. Pigging out on the goodies, an excited Horne turned, checked out his surroundings — the smile on his face indicating he approved wholeheartedly. He then remarked, “Jesus, what kind of pull do you have here?”
For the life of me I couldn’t make heads or tails of Horne’s argument for a new trial. Then again, I didn’t pour over legal books the way he did. I wrote up a story for CBC Radio on what Horne claimed were critical mistakes by the trial judge. Within a few days — believe it or not — a judge in Edmonton set Horne free.
Word quickly got around the Max, like wildfire, that “Damon had beat the rap.”
Horne pledged to find meaningful work and go straight. He did go straight — straight to a clothing store where, in spite of the warm summer weather, he picked up a balaclava. You know what’s coming next. He and his girlfriend then robbed a bank in the north end of Edmonton. To be specific, Horne was the holdup man and his honey did the driving. What the woman lacked was experience. She panicked as she sped away from the bank, blowing a red light. Bang! Their get-away car was creamed by another vehicle. Damon Horne had gone from tea at the joint to being T-boned.
Horne took off on foot with the loot, leaving his girlfriend in the car, still gripping the steering wheel in shock. Nice guy. After police collared Horne, the con was put in the back of a cruiser and taken to the main police station downtown.
It was 5:25 in the afternoon, same day, when an excited Horne phoned me at home. He said he was in a police holding cell downtown. “I’m supposed to be phoning a lawyer,” he whispered, “but I’m calling you instead.” I reached for my notepad. Horne then blurted, “I’m being charged with robbing a bank!” I went, “Whoa, what bank’s that?” “I don’t know,” he said. Horne pulled the phone away and called out to an officer. “What bank did I ALLEGEDLY rob?” The cop shot back, “Well, it sure wasn’t a SPERM bank, Damon. Ha. Ha.” It’s always nice to hear a little wit in the holding cells.
It was now 5:26 and we had a newscast in four minutes. I thanked Horne for the news tip and immediately filed the information with our newsroom. The breaking story of the arrest of the just-released Damon Horne led our 5:30 cast. It’s always cool to break a police story before the police communications officer knows about it. Now that’s a scoop with an asterisk [*] beside it.
Horne’s next move was to try to marry his girlfriend. I’m not making this up. His thinking was that she couldn’t turn evidence against him if they were man and wife. Put it this way, it was a quick decision to get married … no time to discuss honeymoon plans or where to get a bank loan.
His girlfriend must have wondered if her fiancé would leave her at the altar, like he did at the intersection.
Another Einstein move by Horne was to subpoena nearly a dozen people — myself and a city policeman included. We all gathered in an anteroom alongside a courtroom in Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton, and every one of us was pissed. You could say that Horne was upping the ante by ordering us to appear at his trial … in the faint hope of impressing the judge?? God knows what he was up to. No matter. Horne was about to get T-boned again, this time by a judge.
I was the first called into court. I didn’t know why I was there so I walked over to Horne, who was standing beside a desk that had a stack of legal binders, the same binders he had in the boardroom at the joint. Horne had traded in his old blue jeans and new balaclava for a suit, compliments of his elderly mother who sat anxiously in the gallery, hoping her son could pull another rabbit out of the hat.
I asked Horne, “What the hell’s going on?” The judge overheard this and he wanted to know who I was. So I told him. He also wanted to know why I was in court. I said, “Your Honour [I love that bullshit term] I’ve been subpoenaed by Mr. Horne — but I think he’s guilty. The judge immediately slammed his gavel down, announcing “Dismissed!” I said, “Thanks … your Honour.” Before I left the courtroom, Horne remarked, “Fine for you, Christopher, you and your ‘government job’ …”
His Honour heard the entire exchange.
I then popped in to the anteroom and shared with everyone on how they could get excused early. They beamed.
But not Damon Horne. The judge soon found him guilty and handed him a stiff sentence. Horne was headed back to prison. Talk about recycling. The last thing Mr. Horne would have heard in that courtroom — besides his mother’s sobbing — was the ratchet sound of cuffs being put on his wrists.
Horne and the wheel-lady went their separate ways, so they never did tie the knot. Horne relocated to a federal pen in Drumheller, in Southern Alberta, a place known in prison circles as “Drum”. I don’t know where his former girlfriend ended up; last I heard, she was living in Edmonton. I phoned her after Horne’s trial and she said the bank robbery caught her completely by surprise. Who knows, maybe she now operates a driving school.
In 1995, Damon Horne was back in the news again. No, I wasn’t invited, but Horne held a news conference in the chapel of the Drumheller prison where he told reporters that all prisoners in Canada were tarnished by the “heinous crimes” of a few violent offenders. “I would like to change the image of people in prison,” he said. “The public is not informed to the extent they should be,” Mr. Horne went on. “All prisoners are getting caught in what amounts to a hate campaign by hard-line citizens’ groups … and the Reform Party.”
WILSON [WILLY] NEPOOSE – Prisoner
Willy Nepoose had something in common with more than 20 Canadian prisoners — David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin and Donald [Junior] Marshall, to name but three — he had been wrongfully convicted of murder.
Based on the evidence of two lying drunks, the Samson Cree Indian went down for the 1986 murder of an Edmonton woman whose body was found in a gravel pit near Hobbema, southeast of the city. The victim had been strangled.
In the next four to five years, Nepoose — himself a heavy drinker with a rap sheet of minor offences — would endure a sort of psychological strangulation behind bars, one that would crush his spirit.
The stunning thing about the Nepoose case was that the evidence was there all along; the RCMP just either didn’t investigate, or they didn’t investigate properly. As a kid growing up in the Maritimes, we often heard that the Mounties “always got their man.” What we didn’t hear was that it wasn’t always the right man.
Not until former Mountie Jack Ramsay started his own investigation did the courts order Willy Nepoose to be released from prison.
It was at the Edmonton Institution where I interviewed Nepoose … on 19 December 1991. It was his first and second-to-last media interview behind bars. CBC-TV did the last one, minutes later.The backstory to the Nepoose interview was that everyone knew the man was being released in a couple of days, and so I got on the phone to John Schimmens of the Inmates Committee. I asked Schimmens to get Nepoose on the line. He did — in minutes — and Nepoose readily agreed to an interview. We then worked out a time when this would take place.
I added the Wilson Nepoose interview to our CBC newsroom “shot list,” which we shared every morning with our counterparts in television news. TV was in a different building, a mile or so down the road. Before long, TV had taken it upon themselves to invite one of their reporters to my interview, which prompted a phone call from Schimmens. “If you want,” the con said, “I can stop those TV guys from coming in here.” I said, “No, let them in.”
CBC TV needed the boost. When it came to ratings, CBC TV was like the [current] Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League: pretty well dead last.
TV reporter Grant Gelinas and cameraman Glenn Freeman arrived, but I made it clear they were piggybacking my interview — not the other way around. I’d speak with Nepoose first and when I was done, they could have their time with him. We only had a certain amount of time and reporters have a reputation for taking as much time as they want, and screw the next reporter waiting in line. I was once burned by a dip-stick reporter who did that. But, give Gelinas and Freeman credit, they were more than decent and fair.
A guard escorted Nepoose to the visitor’s room and the prisoner slowly shuffled to a table, where I began asking him questions. We talked about his time in the joint, his murder trial, what went wrong, how he’d been framed … and his plans for the future.
Nepoose struggled to speak; his speech was slurred as though he was heavily medicated … but his thought-process was clear. [the car’s motor was running but the tires were flat, put it that way.] I had not talked to Nepoose in person before other than to say ‘hi’ when we passed in the hallways.
Once the TV boys did their thing, we were gonzo. Next day, so was Willy Nepoose.
Willy was soon the centrepiece at a news conference in the boardroom of Peace Hills Trust, a Native bank located on 109th Street in Edmonton, just south of Jasper Avenue. I was at that newser, along with about a dozen other reporters and camera people. I was setting up my microphone at a table in front of Nepoose when he looked at me and said, “How are you doing, Byron?” That surprised me as I didn’t think he’d remember my name.
It was our chance for a little chit-chat, and I again thanked him for making time to see me at the joint. He smiled and said, “Well, I didn’t really have a choice …” I said, “What do you mean, you didn’t have a choice?” His answer: “Johnny [Schimmens] said he’d kill me if I didn’t talk to you.”
WTH? [What the hell?]
Once the newser was done, I got on the blower to Schimmens. He confirmed what Nepoose said. I was furious and in the best diplomatic tone I could muster, asked, “What the fuck are you doing threatening to kill guys if they don’t talk to me? I don’t need that shit.” Schimmens’ response was simply, “Well, you got your interview, didn’t you?” I said, “Yeah, but that’s not the way things work.” “Oh yeah?” he shot back, “that’s how they work in here …”
Private investigator Ramsay proved that Nepoose could not have committed the murder. He also exposed how the Mounties — his former colleagues, mind you — had screwed up big time. He proved there had been deliberate malice. The Nepoose case was a complete sham. Officers knew that the testimony of their two star witnesses was bullshit, and when one sobered up and tried to retract her statement, the Mounties threatened her.
Nepoose should have never been convicted of that murder, let alone charged with it. Sounds to me like some lazy and dishonest RCMP officers just wanted to clear the books — and they didn’t care if their man was innocent. That’s not right.
Wilson Nepoose was never fully exonerated — and he was never compensated.
Also, he never recovered. For a while, the man was free, yet still a prisoner haunted by a terrible injustice. His family, led by his brother Lester Nepoose, worked around the clock and spent thousands of dollars to clear his name.
No one from the Department of Justice has ever picked up the phone and said, “How can we compensate you?” Pricks.
On December 31, 1997 — while Canadians were sipping booze at New Years parties — Willie Nepoose had a few drinks himself and staggered off into a howling blizzard, never to be seen alive again. His remains — essentially a skull — were discovered next spring. The former prisoner was identified through dental records and a wallet found nearby.
A white wooden cross marks Nepoose’s grave in a cemetery not too far from his home.
What happened to Wilson Nepoose brought to mind the words of an Edmonton criminal defence lawyer who once said that when you’re dealing with the criminal justice system [meaning, the police and the courts], “You’re rolling the dice …”
WIEBO LUDWIG – Prisoner
In April 2000, Pastor Wiebo Ludwig, leader of a small Christian community near Hythe in Northwestern Alberta, got 28 months for oilfield vandalism and for counselling an undercover police operative to buy dynamite. One well-head was cemented in, while there had been an explosion at another.
Led by Ludwig, the people of Trickle Creek had protested about deadly sour gas leaks. They complained to civic officials, the gas industry, government regulatory bodies and to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — but nothing was done. The leaks got worse. Still nothing was done. At that point Wiebo Ludwig decided to take matters into his own hands. “If the oil companies run roughshod over your lives,” he said, “you have to take defensive action against them, whatever is necessary. You can’t just let them kill your children.” [Wikipedia]
No one was hurt in the explosion, but that can’t be said for the gas leaks. At Trickle Creek, a baby was delivered stillborn and scores of animals were born with defects. Deadly gas leaks, of course, are illegal — but only if the perpetrators are convicted. In this case, no one was even charged. Welcome to Canada’s judicial system.
Ludwig accused the Mounties of looking the other way, certainly upwind from the leaks.
Wiebo Ludwig was sent to a federal medium security prison at Grande Cache, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Every weekend family members made the 500-kilometre round trip to visit him.
The “eco-environmentalist” or “eco-terrorist” [take your pick] was released after serving 19-months.
I’d first met Wiebo Ludwig during his trial at the Courthouse in Edmonton. That’s where I gave him my business card. I worked at CHED Radio then. I also gave him a line that CHED was rolling in the dough and the station paid 500 million dollars for story tips. Every week!
I didn’t think much of it until Ludwig called my home one night from the prison in Grande Cache. It would be his first [and, turns out, only] media interview behind bars. At the time, I wasn’t able to record phone interviews from home, and so I put Ludwig on hold, phoned the newsroom at CHED [spoke with operator Ken Cameron], hit ‘link’ and, like magic, all three parties were connected by way of a three-way call. Ken said, “We’re rolling,” and the interview began …
An aside here, Ken Cameron was more than an operator. Ken [whose last name was really Camphaugh] had a long career as a country music DJ. Besides Edmonton, Ken also worked in Lethbridge, Camrose, Calgary and Vancouver.
Ken, a heavy smoker and drinker, died at home from a heart attack on 10 February 2015. He was 58.
Ludwig mainly talked about living conditions at the joint and how he was spending his time. He also hinted that he should have dealt with the gas companies differently. However, the man still maintained his innocence. He also said the obvious — that it’s not right gas companies get away with poisoning people.
The Ludwig interview was lead item on our morning news. That morning, a television news crew from Edmonton was on the highway to Grande Cache in the hope of interviewing Ludwig as well. No luck, not without making proper arrangements. It wasn’t like Ludwig could stroll out to the fence and have a chat with the reporter. That only happens in the movies.
Later, in October 2000, I obtained a copy of a letter Ludwig had written to Suncor Energy, apologizing for the way he handled things.
Wiebo Ludwig died from throat cancer on Easter Monday, 9 April 2012.
You can read a more in-depth post on Ludwig and his Trickle Creek community in this same blog, check out ‘God, Family and Big Oil.’ https://byronchristopher.org/2012/09/14/god-family-and-big-oil/
LOU [THE BIKER]
I’ll call him Lou The Biker because for the love of me, I can’t remember his last name. Seems Lou had a French name, but I can’t say for certain.
Lou was an ‘enforcer.’ He had encounters with folk who had drug debts.
I met Lou [and his partner, another biker] in 1991 during a social in the exercise yard of the Max. The boys had just transferred in from the federal penitentiary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where there had been a fatal hostage-taking. Two of the three hostage-takers were shot dead by guards.
The two bikers feared that Shawn Murray, the surviving hostage-taker, would not be around much longer. I gave the cons my CBC business card and Lou — who hadn’t said much at that point — shook hands and said he’d be in touch.
Lou kept his word and phoned. We usually got together when I was around to the joint. Strange thing, though, Lou never said a whole lot unless he was spoken to.
One time I decided to ask him about “biker protocol.” I wanted to know why, when I passed about a dozen bike gang members one day on the highway with my motorcycle [a small Honda] that the guys caught up and surrounded me. Lou squinted as if he didn’t believe what he was hearing. “That was STUPID,” he said, shaking his head.
I continued. “So these bikers,” I said, “took off, but they kept within the speed limit. And because I was in a hurry to get to work, I had to pass them again.” “That’s REALLY stupid!” injected an agitated Lou. I finished the story: “They surrounded me a second time, this time at the traffic lights outside CFRN-TV in the west end, at 184th Street. They revved their motors,” I said, “and glared as though they wanted to punch me out.” “Jesus,” Lou said, “you’re fucking lucky they didn’t DRAG you to work …”
Just so we’re clear on this, Lou hadn’t found Jesus.Lou once gave me a cool little story about some scamsters in the United States who had sent him a letter — while he was an inmate at the Edmonton Institution, of all places — enticing him to buy some [swamp] land in Florida. “Wow,” I said, “Kick-ass story.” But Lou was cautious about going public with it. “Don’t run anything until I talk to my lawyer first,” he said, “… because I don’t wanna get sued.”
It was Sunday afternoon, a slow news day at best, and so I ran the story about a prisoner at the Max getting a letter in the mail to buy land in Florida. The Edmonton Sun heard it and went with the story. After it hit the papers, Lou called in a huff. “I’m going to be sued!” he exclaimed. I shot back, “Lou, no one is going to sue you. You’re a penniless prisoner. You did the right thing by exposing a scam. This is all good.”
Lou was silent. I could tell he was thinking.
Then I screwed up. I said, “Lou, if you’re still bothered by this, why don’t you and I have a ‘go’ at it in the boxing ring at the Max?” “WHAT!?” he shouted. [I’d fooled him completely.] “YOU-THINK-YOU-CAN-TAKE-ME?” he asked incredulously. I replied, in the calmest voice I could muster, “Lou, I’m glad you wear sunglasses … because I’m going to beat the shit out of you.” There was a strange noise, then the line went dead. “Hello? … hello?”
Soon after, my phone rang. On the line was an animated John Schimmens. “What the hell did you say to Lou?” And so I told him. “Byron,” he said, dragging out my name, “By-roooon, you can’t joke with Lou … he doesn’t understand humour.” “Lou was so pissed off,” Schimmens said, “that he ripped the receiver from the phone.” [breaking a metal cord in the process] Oh shit, I thought, both Lou and I are in do-do now.
I asked Schimmens to get Lou to phone me. The man did, but he wasn’t saying much. Mr. Biker was still ticked. I explained that I’d only been JOKING — and that I could never, ever, ever — in a thousand years — make that two thousand years — take him in a fight. “I was just pulling your leg,” I pleaded.
I could almost hear the hard-drive on Lou’s shoulders whirring and processing this new information, then he announced in a soft voice, “Okay, it was a mis-understanding then.” Wow, I thought, that’s a big word. But given what had just happened, I kept that to myself.
A way to demonstrate how Lou didn’t have a great sense of humour is to relate the following joke. Mind you, this isn’t the kind of humour that would ever make the rounds at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, just so you know. If you were to ask Lou the Biker, “How can you tell that a Chinaman has broken into your house? Answer: Your dog’s been eaten … and your kid’s schoolwork is done.” If Lou heard that, he would have said, “Why do those guys eat dogs?” [I thank a certain CBC announcer for that joke.]
A few months later, Lou the Biker and I met again, this time in the gymnasium at the Max — during a boxing tournament, of all things. Lou was sitting on a chair against a far wall, manning the drink dispensers, handing out soft drinks and coffee. I plunked myself down beside him. “You!” he shouted, “You really had me going there! …” We smiled, then watched the boxing match. Lou sat there jiving, as though he was in the ring.
For a few minutes, neither of us said a word. Then Lou looked my way. “Want to know something?” he said, without waiting for an answer. “I ain’t never killed a man …” I was about to compliment him on the thoughtful comment but he kept talking. “But you, Byron — I don’t know about you … you might’ve killed lots of people.”
Lou and I lost touch. We drifted apart, as bikers and reporters do, I suppose. I remained in Edmonton while Lou was transferred to the pen in Drumheller. It was at ‘Drum’ where he ran into — who else? — John Schimmens. Schimmens phoned. “Just ran into Lou,” he said. “He asked about you. Lou says you’ve got more balls than brains.”
Lou, if you’re reading this article at a cyber cafe — one financed by bikers, say — please take note that when we meet again, I will beat you MERCILESSLY.
It was at the Max in the early part of 2008 when I first met Jared Baker, the young Edmonton man who was high on crystal meth when he blew away his pregnant 19-year-old girlfriend.
Late in the evening of 23 November 2005, Olivia Talbot answered her townhouse door on Millwoods Road East in South Edmonton only to see her buzzed-out boyfriend holding a rifle. Jared Baker fired three bullets in the teen’s stomach and two more in her head. In just minutes, the poor teen went from standing at her doorstep to standing outside the Pearly Gates.
In October 2006, a court found Baker guilty of first-degree murder. That meant no chance of parole for 25 years. Talbot’s distraught parents were more than pleased with the verdict.
Prisoner Baker had visits from his mother and father, and that’s where I got to chat with him — in the visitor’s room at the Edmonton Institution. We talked not so much about the shooting death of his girlfriend, but how drugs had screwed up his life. The soft-spoken Baker shared about how he had moved from marijuana to crystal meth, and that his life went to hell soon after.
Baker asked if I could get the word out on the dangers of drug use. I suggested he put his thoughts down in writing, and so he did …
Last I heard, Jared Baker was at a federal prison near Ottawa Ontario. He had been serving time north of Toronto but asked for — and received — permission to transfer to a different joint so he could be closer to his girlfriend.
I’ve not kept in touch with Jared. But when my doorbell rings late in the evening, he comes to mind.
TOM SHEPPARD – Prisoner
Can’t recall if I ever met Tom Sheppard in the joint, may have said ‘hi’ to the man as we passed each other in the hallway, not sure. But I recall Sheppard’s name because I once did a story on him. We’re talking early 90s here. I was with CBC Radio at the time.
At some point in the early 1990s, Sheppard got into a fight at a bar in downtown Edmonton and he got the worst of it. The con who used to traffic in stolen goods to pawn shops in Edmonton and Calgary made his way to his mother’s townhouse in South Edmonton, only to die on her deck. So, manslaughter, right?
Yet, there was no news release from Edmonton Police.
Where did I get this story? It was from a contact — a prisoner at the Edmonton Institution. Word got around the joint pretty quick about Sheppard’s demise — but what befuddled the boys was the lack of news coverage about his death. The cons opened the morning newspapers, and not a word about it. Sheppard didn’t even make the news briefs on page 31. So, what happened?
I’ll tell you what happened …
First clue: Edmonton Police claimed they knew nothing of Tom Sheppard’s death. “How could that be?”, I thought.
I then phoned the RCMP, thinking that my source may have confused ‘South Edmonton’ with ‘South of Edmonton?’ Second clue: Calls to several RCMP Detachments south of Edmonton confirmed that they had no record of Sheppard’s death.
What was going on here? Was this a bogus report?
The mystery was solved with a call to the Medical Examiner’s Office [the morgue]. “Do you have a man by the name of Tom Sheppard visiting you?” I asked a contact who worked there. “Sure do,” he said. “What the hell happened to him?” “Blunt-force trauma … to the head.” Translation: Mr. Sheppard had his noggin pounded. “Can’t tell you more than that,” the contact said, “… you’ll have to talk to Edmonton Police.” At least I got that much.
I made another phone call to the Edmonton Police. I informed Kelly Gordon — a former radio reporter working in Police Communications — that Alberta entrepreneur Mr. Tom Sheppard had indeed been beaten to death. I went on to say that if he wanted confirmation, he should contact the ME’s office. Gordon’s response was interesting: “Are you doing a story on this?” “Yes.” “When?” “In about three minutes …”
Within half an hour, Edmonton Police issued a news released on the arrest of a man in connection with a deadly attack at a bar in downtown Edmonton. However, the alleged assailant [whose name I can’t recall] never went to trail. The judge dropped charges because of a “technicality.”
I asked the Head of the Inmates Committee what the hell that was about. John Schimmens summed it up in two words: “Cop informant.”
THE SUSPICIOUS SHRINK
I can’t identify this controversial psychologist, but he worked at a federal prison “somewhere in North America.” The shrink was responsible for the release of some killers who went on to murder again once they were out on the street. Prison officials maintained the cons should not have been let out, but the good doctor’s assessment had more ‘weight’ [to use a legal term] … and the doc got his way.
[A psychologist studies how we think, feel and behave from a scientific viewpoint and applies this knowledge to help people understand, explain and change their behaviour. Source: Canadian Psychological Association.]
The word around the joint was that the shrink was having sex with prisoners. Both guards and inmates noted that soon after an assessment by the psychologist, the cons would head straight to the shower. Another example of a man thinking with his small head instead of his big head. If those reports were true — and I suspect there’s something to them — the predator was responsible for the deaths of innocent people.
Hmmm. For this shrink, ‘therapist’ could be broken down into two words: ‘The rapist.’
I phoned the shrink at his office — twice — and left messages. Neither call was returned. I wanted to talk to him about what I was hearing at the joint. I also put in a call about the shrink to someone who worked in administration at the prison. More communication by silence.
Corrections Canada eventually took action against the man, and good for it. But the on-going rumours about his poor judgement and illicit relationships only fuelled suspicions that some folk do the crime — but not the time. It especially irked prisoners, who were behind bars for breaking the law — and here they were in the company of a predator who was getting away scot-free, and pulling in a good wage to boot. And we wonder why people think the judicial system is a joke?
JAMES DEAN [DINO] AGECOUTAY – Prisoner
It was 1980s and a cold winter day in Regina, Saskatchewan’s capital. A 14-year-old Native lad aimlessly walked the streets downtown, searching for a car to steal. He found one and sped off. The teen pulled over to the side of the road and made an interesting discovery: in the trunk were not one but two shotguns. One was brand new, shiny, still in the box. There was some ammunition as well.
The kid popped two shells in the new shotgun, laid it down on the front seat and headed out of town. He was hungry and needed cash. To paraphrase a Johnny Cash song, Out Among The Stars, “He can’t find a job but Lord he’s found a gun …”
The youngster was about to pull off his first armed robbery. He pulled up at a gas station on the edge of town and began to fill up. Then came the Big Moment. Nervous, the kid walked into the gas station with the barrel of the new shotgun resting on his forearm.
Behind the counter was a tall, older man, a friendly sort. The kid ambled up to the counter.
The cashier immediately fell in love with the shiny shotgun. “Wow! he said, “w-h-a-t a gun!!” … and without warning he reached over the counter, grabbed the gun and began checking it out. Ooops. This wasn’t in the script. The man looked down the sights as though he was blowing ducks out of the sky. “Beautiful,” he said, “… just beautiful.” He then opened it up. “Whoa!” he said, staring at the stunned kid. “Did you know this was LOADED?” “Yup.” “Better be careful, son,” he said and handed the gun back.
The youngster didn’t know what to do. He no longer had the heart to rob the guy. However, the cashier sure liked that shotgun. And so, a deal was struck. The kid walked out with $40 cash [plus the gas in his stolen car] … and the cashier was the proud owner of a brand new shotgun.
That kid, James Dean Agecoutay — soon to become known as simply Dino — was to learn that he had to be more “authoritative” if he was ever going to make a living as a robber. In time, Agecoutay would perfect his skills and take down banks across Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It was always the same financial institution: the Imperial Bank of Commerce. Who says there’s no loyalty among thieves?
Agecoutay and his mother celebrated every bank job by buying new furniture for their penthouse suite in Regina. Agecoutay sometimes got himself a whole new wardrobe as well. He liked new clothes and he loved dressing to the nine’s, even for a bank hold-up. From an old clip I saw of an armed robbery Agecoutay pulled off, he was one sharp-dressed dude.
The long arm of the law eventually grabbed Dino Agecoutay and off he went to the Big House. That’s where I ran into him; he was on the Inmates Committee at the Max. The con gave an inspiring talk about Native spirituality, of all things. I suggested to Agecoutay that if he ever got released, he might want to consider a career in journalism. Don’t laugh. According Allan Wachowich, former Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta, the Edmonton Journal once had a reporter who spent time for bank robbery.
I offered to give Agecoutay classes on how to become a reporter. He was excited as hell and looked forward to the weekly lectures. The guards found a room, brought in a small blackboard and we were in business. The con arrived dutifully on time, proudly holding the CBC notepad I’d given him. Agecoutay was a keener. He paid attention, didn’t interrupt very often … and he took notes.
Agecoutay often talked about how tough things when he was a kid. No father. On the streets, inner-city streets no less. Fights with fists, guns and knives. Tough schools. I was reminded of a famous line by the late American comedian, Lenny Bruce: “I won’t say ours was a tough school, but we had our own morgue. We used to write essays like: What I’m going to be if I grow up.”
At one point, Dino Agecoutay started to give me pointers on HOW TO ROB BANKS. You read right. I thought, what the hell, given the cutbacks we’re having at the CBC …
Agecoutay’s main tip when robbing a bank was, don’t be nervous! “Be calm and confident,” he said. “And DON’T go in with your gun blasting! None of this bullshit of firing into the ceiling,” adding, “I just hate guys who do that. And don’t make the tellers afraid by pointing a gun at them,” he said, “they’re scared enough as it is. When they hand you the money,” Agecoutay summed up, “say something like, ‘have a better day.'”
What Agecoutay forgot to mention was that his trademark ‘have-a-better-day’ comment was used against him at his trial.
Had I known then how Damon Horne would screw up so badly, I would have invited him in to hear Agecoutay speak.
Agecoutay talked about the ‘bond’ amongst bank-robberies. That was news to me. “Unlike the Brinks [armoured car] guys,” he said, “we stick together.” He revealed that when he was on the street in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on the lam after busting out of a jail in Saskatchewan, a car pulled up and the driver said, “Get in.” Once inside, Agecountay said he was given $1,000 cash. “It’s for some of my holdups” said the driver, “– ones you took the rap for.”
Agecoutay explained that police had cut a deal: if he fessed up to a string of bank robberies — even though they weren’t his — they’d put in a word to the Crown prosecutor about a reduced sentence. And you thought bank investors had funny math?
Dino Agecoutay eventually got parole. For a while he lived with the secretary of Edmonton’s mayor and landed a job at one of the Native newspapers in the city. Neither venture lasted too long.I once saw Agecoutay at West Edmonton Mall, which has a huge indoor amusement area, exciting rides and all that. The former bank robber was on the dreaded roller coaster ride, the same one that killed several people in 1986 when the wheel bearings seized and it crashed to the concrete floor, several floors below. It’s one scary ride. But it didn’t fizz Agecoutay. While others stepped out of the small coaches, shaking in their boots, Agecoutay was smiling. “That was quite a rush,” he said, “just like a shootout with the police.”
I was told that Agecoutay once sang and played his guitar before a sold-out crowd at Northlands Coliseum, during a half-time break at a major rodeo show.
But it wasn’t long before Agecoutay was in trouble with the law again. He got caught stealing a pack of gum from a grocery store in Edmonton. And according to Agecoutay himself, he also did some “enforcement” work to earn extra dough, once breaking the arm of a man in Sherwood Park [near Edmonton], walking into a bar to do it and walking straight out again. As he told it, the guy was slow in paying off his gambling debt. Agecoutay talked about the attack, and how much money he’d been paid [somewhere in the $5,000 range, if I recall]. I said, “Christ, what the hell are you doing, man?” His defence was that he needed the money … and besides, he only broke one arm — not two — as per the arrangement. Some of that Native spiritually must have rubbed off.
Agecoutay left the Mayor’s secretary to live with a blonde who worked at a store that rented porn movies. The gal supplemented her income … [are you ready?] … by being a prostitute. I could see where Agecoutay’s new life was headed. Though he stayed away from bank holdups, he got caught doing drugs again, failed a piss test and was sent back to the slammer. His old girlfriend summed things up this way: Agecoutay couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to be ‘James Dean’ or ‘Dino.’
The last time I saw Agecoutay was at the Max. I surprised him cleaning up one of the meeting rooms. He wore an old pair of slippers with holes in them. I said, “Dino, you fucked up.” “I know,” he said, “I know …” I then thought back to how often Agecoutay talked about Native spirituality, and that it seemed rather shallow now.
On my way out, a guard asked who I’d seen that day. So I told him. He remarked, “Ha, that’s the con we caught screwing another con.” By the sounds of it, Dino was what they call the ‘insertive’ partner, as opposed to the ‘receptive’ partner. Yes, those are real terms. In any case, I didn’t see that one coming, no pun intended.
One phone call from Dino Agecoutay stands out. He phoned from the Max to talk about journalism. We were going on and on until Agecoutay pointed out that he had to get off the phone. “We don’t have many phones,” he explained, “and there’s a line-up behind me of guys wanting to call someone.”
“Don’t want to piss anyone off,” he continued, “there are a lot of killers in here, you know.”
Last I heard, James Dean ‘Dino’ Agecoutay was out of prison and living somewhere in Manitoba. And according to a con who spent some time with him recently, Dino has found Jesus. Gosh, did Dino meet Him while he was in the joint? A lot of people behind bars claim to have found Jesus. Don’t ask me why He was doing time.
William Wharry was a young Edmonton dope dealer who packed something as deadly as cocaine and crystal meth — a high caliber handgun.
In the early morning hours of 18 October 2005, the 23-year-old was driving down a residential street in north-central Edmonton when he came across a noisy group that had just left Orlando’s Pub. They were walking in the middle of the road and still very much in a celebratory mood after marking the 18th birthday of Sara Easton. Easton was with them.
Some “beaked off” at Wharry when he tried to get around the rowdy bunch. Words were spoken and about half a block down the road, the dope dealer stopped, reached for his handgun, leaned out the open window, fired three rounds in the air and sped off.
When Wharry heard the news next morning, he realized that he’d taken a life. One of his slugs had hit a pickup truck, another ended up in a tree … while the third bullet struck Easton in the forehead. She died on the spot.
Wharry agonized over this for a while, then went around to see Richard Sanders, an outreach pastor at the Shiloh Baptist Church. “I don’t want to be labelled a monster,” he told Sanders. “William,” the preacher assured him, “Monsters hide in the dark. You’re coming into the light.” The pastor described the killer as remorseful, physically ill … and broken.
Edmonton Police charged William Wharry with murder.
In April 2007, a judge found Wharry guilty of the reduced charge of manslaughter. Later that year, he was sentenced and shipped off to prison. The man put in some time at the Max in Edmonton.
An interesting sidebar to the trial was when defence lawyer Naeem Rauf argued that his client should not get a long sentence since he didn’t intend to kill Easton, and that he was extremely remorseful. Rauf pointed out that Wharry came from a good family, turning around to face a dozen relatives seated quietly in the gallery behind him. “Well,” said Justice Sheila Greckol, “how do you explain if Wharry came from such a good family he ended up a drug dealer?” Rauf had a great comeback. ‘Well, your honour,” he said, “what’s the explanation for the DAUGHTER of Alberta’s Chief Justice [Catherine Fraser] having drug-related convictions in Vancouver?” Checkmate. The courtroom went silent.
Well. I hurridly made notes and included the gem in my news reports. I was working for 630-CHED Radio. But the three other journalists in the courtroom made no mention of the exchange in their stories. I kid you not. Staring straight ahead at the judge, their pens never moved.
A few months later, select reporters received invites to a wine and cheese celebration of some sort at the Courthouse. I didn’t get an invitation — even though I not only worked out of the Courthouse, but actually had an office there. A lot of judges turned up. And just for the hell of it, so did I. A senior guard spotted me leaving the elevator, marched over and extended his arms to block my path. “You’re not invited,” he said. I thanked him just the same, because I took the rejection to be a compliment.
What I should have said was, “Is there still some dope left? Or did the daughter of our Chief Justice make off with it?”
William Wharry may be out now, not sure. After Wharry was convicted, I had no contact with him or his family.
Here’s a copy of the letter William Wharry wrote to the family of Sara Easton …
RICHARD [RICKY] AMBROSE
Ricky Ambrose, another con at the Edmonton Max, had killed two policemen in Moncton, New Brunswick in December 1974.
While behind bars, Ambrose met a news reporter and married her. Years later, his parole was revoked after he allegedly laid a beating on the woman. Although never charged with the assault, he was quickly returned to the Max.
I saw Ambrose many times, mostly as a prisoner but also a free man: in the 90’s, when I was doing an interview at the Parole office and he dropped in with some paperwork. A number of years later I ran into Ambrose again, this time at a convenience store, just down the street from where I live in the west end of Edmonton. He was at a 7/11 to get a “slurpy,” a popular ice-cold drink.
Ambrose, who had then changed his name, was shingling roofs in a new subdivision nearby. Many cons end up working at tough jobs such as roofing. The fellows who did my first roof, back in 1993, looked as though they were straight out of the Remand Centre.
Ambrose and I are from New Brunswick; we talked about that when we first met in the joint in the late 1980s.Ambrose never gave me a lot of details about the terrible crime he’d committed in the mid-70s. I was aware that he and his partner, James Hutchinson [whom Ambrose always referred to as his “co-accused”] had taken two Moncton police officers hostage — Constables Aurele Bourgeois and Michael O’Leary and executed them. Ambrose and Hutchinson shot both officers and buried their bodies in shallow graves.
According to a con at the Max who spoke with Ambrose, one victim tried desperately to claw his way out of the grave. The story goes that he was hit with a shovel until he died. And we wonder why some want to bring back the death penalty?
A monument at Victoria Park in Moncton commemorates the two slain officers.
Charlie Bourgeois, whose father was one of the murdered officers, went on to play for nine years in the National Hockey League. The 6’4″ defenceman played for the Calgary Flames, St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.
Ambrose later changed his name to Bergeron, although I continued to call him ‘Ambrose.’ He once said, “I’ve changed my name, Byron.” I said, “Why?” He never gave an answer. I figured it was because of his past.
I once told Ambrose — this would have been in the early 90s — that I was about to travel to Moncton to visit my brother and some old school buds. He wanted to know if I’d drop around to his old home and say hello to his family. Well, okay. When I got to Moncton, I asked my brother, Arnold, if he could give me directions to Ricky Ambrose’s house [his family lived out of town]. His response was, “Are you fucking nuts?” Such was the reputation of the Ambrose family.
Mention Ricky Ambrose’s name to people in Moncton and eyebrows are raised. People fear him a lot … and hate him even more.
They don’t have to fear Mr. Hutchinson anymore. The killer went to meet his Maker in June 2011. I’m not sure how the parole officers in Heaven [or Hell] deal with bozos like that.
I last saw Ambrose at the Edmonton Institution. I’m not sure of the year, but of course it was after his parole was yanked. The con was heading into a room, accompanied by a guard, and I was on my way out. All he said was, “Hi Byron, how are ‘ya doing?” Ambrose had aged so much that I barely recognized him.
I relate the story of Ricky Ambrose because this is the kind of offender that correctional officers, pastors, parole officers, reporters — perhaps even you — may deal with at some point. Hundreds of killers are running free. They’ve served their time and they’re very much part of society again — most with restrictions, mind you. But they’re there. Every day, we pass these people in shopping centres, they’re next to us in traffic … and they live nearby, perhaps next door. Who knows? They may have shingled your roof.
And, like the man who stood in line behind Ricky Ambrose at a 7-11, “we have no idea …”
Recognize the family name? No? Didn’t think so … I barely recognize it myself.
Gerry was a prisoner whose last name was different from when I knew him. We’re talking 1990s here. For the purpose of this story, I’ll use the name that appears on his birth certificate — Buckner.
The Edmonton Remand Centre was Gerry Buckner’s primary residence. But he was never there for a long stretch; he was usually out fairly quickly [sort of like the Toronto Maple Leafs during the Stanley Cup playoffs].
The con was behind bars for relatively minor, booze-related offences [such as the time he pinched the rear end of a female jogger in Edmonton’s River Valley — only to discover she was an off-duty Edmonton Police Officer.]
The media did a story on that. I recall it well because it was so funny. Okay, okay. Ironic then.
Gerry was a good contact. Make that a great contact. Want to reach someone at the Remand? Talk to Gerry.
Take a good look at the photo. [Ignore the old car and focus instead on Gerry’s smile.] The man is beaming! It’s because I’d just gotten him new shirts, jeans, socks, briefs, shoes — the whole shebang — within hours of him leaving the Remand.
Gerry couldn’t remember the last time he wore clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs.
And here we were, bombing around Edmonton in a 1937 Oldsmobile and dining at yuppy sports restaurants. Gerry Buckner was on top of the world.
But that wasn’t his world. Gerry had a small room on the second floor of a flop house in Edmonton’s inner city. Here’s where he drank and staggered the streets in a drunken stupor. Eventually, a police officer would collar him and write him up for breaching the terms of his release. Back in the slammer he went.
Most cops were good about it … although one policeman seemed to take a perverse pleasure in tasering him. That’s painful.
I first got to know Gerry over the phone. It started when he called 630-CHED one evening to comment on a sports story.
He shared that he was being held at the Remand. “Do you know anything about a prisoner who knocked out two cons in an elevator there?” I asked. “Sounds like he had a mean right hook …” Gerry was quick to correct. “That ain’t right,” he said, “… he took out three idiots, not two.”
“Really?” I said. “How do you know that?”
“Cause that was me.”
Gerry Buckner explained he was still a professional boxer and had been a Junior A hockey player. [His lawyer later confirmed.] Notice my use of past and present tense. It had been years since Gerry had been in a boxing match but he still spoke in terms of him being able to climb back in the ring tomorrow.
While Gerry could deck three losers in an elevator, he could taken to the mat by three bottles of beer.
Gerry not only knew sports and how to drink, he knew just about every prisoner at the Remand — and he found a way to get them to the phone.
If Gerry was on the ‘outside’ and I wanted to connect with a con inside the Remand, he’d call the detention centre and ask that his call be directed to a certain floor [a ‘unit’]. When a guard in the ‘bubble’ picked up the phone, Gerry gave him a fake name and a bullshit line he was a lawyer and that he wanted to speak with his client. At that point, he handed the phone over to me.
The years went by and Gerry eventually left the Edmonton Remand Centre … for good.
The man fell in love with a woman named Angelica. She was a hooker.
The couple became husband and wife and moved to Vancouver with dreams of starting a new life. But just the opposite happened. One life ended. Mrs. Buckner stepped out into traffic and was hit by a car driven by a diplomat from the US Embassy. According to Gerry, the diplomat returned to the States the next day although the word he used was ‘fled.’
Angelica died a week later after she was pulled off life support. She was 36.
A footnote to Angelica’s death is that her family in Northern Alberta — who hadn’t seen her since she was 13 — tried to cash in on a financial settlement. Gerry sent his grieving sister-in-law some money so she could attend the funeral. The woman hopped on a bus but never made it. She made her way to a liquor store instead.
I caught up with Gerry a few years ago … stayed with him for a couple of nights at his 10th floor apartment in downtown Vancouver — rather snazzy accommodation for a street person, courtesy of an inner city housing initiative.
The con was proud as punch [no pun intended] that he hadn’t been in trouble with the law for ten years! I told him, “Sounds like you live a boring life …”
Gerry wanted to show me around and so we went for walks. I noticed his preferred route was an alley. “Why are we going up and down grubby alleys instead of the main streets?” I asked. “Because,” he explained, “alleys are where we find empties [bottles and cans] …”
Gerry claimed he’d cut out booze, but I didn’t believe him. He brought me to a liquor store where I picked up a dozen beer [8-percent-alcohol, the good stuff], and before the night was out Gerry had 12 more empties.
He talked about his demons, and I talked about mine.
I was feeling no pain when I reminded Gerry of the time he’d pinched a cop’s ass. With a smirk on his face, he glanced my way and remarked, “Fuck off, Christopher.”
That was funny too.
THE LAST WORD …
Goes to John Schimmens. It was the mid-1990s and I was chasing a story about a murder where the body was found in a gravel pit near Wetaskiwin, Alberta [a town southeast of Edmonton]. I had a lead that a tall Native man, whom I’d seen at the Max at one point, was behind the killing. I’ll identify him as XX, but those aren’t his real initials.
My plan was to get out to Wetaskiwin and confront him.
I gave Schimmens the con’s name. He knew him only too well and immediately pleaded for me not to go. “NO, NO, NO!!” he shouted. Do NOT meet with him, Byron. He’s a fucking psychopath. He WILL kill you … he’s already murdered six people. If you go there,” Schimmens predicted, “you’ll end up in the gravel pit too.”
I checked with another prisoner, a man who seldom got too excited about things, even when he was in politics — and he had the same advice. Stay away from the guy! He also said that the suspect I wanted to interview had murdered at least half a dozen people. “And the reason he runs free,” the prisoner went on, “is that he’s a police informant …”
In the end, I chickened out and re-wrote a news release.
Schimmens also has the final picture. RIP Johnny. You weren’t all bad.
IS THERE A PRISON-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX?
You bet. When it comes to rehabilitation, while Canada is not as bad as the United States, neither is it as good as the Scandinavian countries.
It was prisoner James Dean Agecoutay who observed that crime has created a whole industry: the penitentiary system, the courts, police, media, psychologists, parole officers, and on and on. I hadn’t really thought about it that way until he brought it up.
Private detective Bruce Dunne of Calgary put it this way: Crime is Canada’s biggest industry. According to Dunne, when a serious crime is committed, 26 jobs are created or enriched.
FINALLY … SOME PRISON HUMOUR