Ten years ago, a white cargo van with Ontario plates quietly meandered through the streets of Campbellton, New Brunswick. Behind the wheel was ‘Troy Snyder,’ a bearded 48-year-old from Oklahoma.
In traffic, right behind him, were two RCMP constables …
Little did the policemen know but they were about to capture one of America’s Most Wanted — ‘the man who mailed himself out of jail’ — Richard Lee McNair.
McNair, a convicted killer, was tackled by the Mounties after a brief foot chase in a forest on the edge of town.
Eighteen months earlier, the convict had pulled off a spectacular escape from a high-security federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana when he shipped himself to freedom in a pallet of old mailbags.
Thanks to a combination of skill — and luck — McNair avoided bloodhounds, a massive police dragnet, and heat-seeking search helicopters. He eventually made his way to Canada where he traveled from one end of the country to the other.
While on the lam, the former U.S. Air Force Sergeant visited Northern New Brunswick three times. He liked the area and the people.
Here is a detailed account of Richard McNair’s final visit to Campbellton, a step-by-step of how the fugitive was finally captured … plus reflections of some Campbelltonians on the day [25th October 2007] their city suddenly became the epicentre of an international news story.
THE DAY PRIOR …
Wednesday, 24th of October 2007, was a day off for R.C.M.P. Constable Daniel Melanson. But not an off day. The young man’s observation skills that fall day will be talked about in coffee shops and police academies for years to come.
Melanson was in his pickup truck and traveling west on Highway 11. He was returning to Campbellton from a trip to Moncton.
The officer was near the village of Nash Creek when he found himself behind a white 2006 GMC cargo van.Melanson took one look at the vehicle and thought, something’s not right here. It wasn’t that the van was from Ontario — 600 miles away. Something else caught his eye: the plastic film covering the rear windows was bubbled and peeling.
A new vehicle but crappy tint job. Strange.
And why were those windows blacked out anyway? Hmmm. Melanson’s curiosity got the best of him and he jotted down the plate number: 512-3RZ.
The officer pulled up alongside the van and looked over at the driver, a bearded man in his late 40s. Richard Lee McNair — Troy Snyder, if you will — did not return the glance.
Traveling just under the speed limit, McNair stared straight ahead, eyes fixed on the road. He was focused.
So was the cop. Melanson spotted something else he thought was peculiar: a dark blue curtain behind the driver.
What was this guy up to? Ontario van. Peeling tint job. Dark curtain. Now the officer was really curious. Melanson’s instinct, or maybe just common sense, told him the driver was hiding something. The thought running through his mind was that the driver could be smuggling cigarettes or booze.
Turns out, the driver had plenty to hide, it just wasn’t what Melanson thought.
“Thinking back, it is a wonder I did not get pulled over sooner because of the vent on the side of my van. Many driving meth labs are on the highways.
“Next door [the regular penitentiary at Florence, Colorado], there was a guy who had someone drive his huge motorhome down the Interstate while he cooked meth. That kept the intense odor from drawing the attention of people.”
Constable Melanson called in the plate to his detachment in Campbellton, but no one was free to run a search. That would have to wait.
Melanson went home for the evening.
LAST FULL DAY OF FREEDOM
Richard McNair didn’t have a clue that police were finally onto him. When he arrived in Campbellton, he did what he usually did when he reached his destination: shopped, ate, snooped and relaxed. In that order.
The day had been cool and overcast; nothing out of the ordinary. At least the scenery was awesome. It’s hard to beat the spectacular fall colors of Northern New Brunswick.
“Had been amazed at all the beautiful fall colors. Really marveled at the brilliant maple trees.”
McNair went around to Tim Hortons on Roseberry Street, downtown, then walked a short distance to his favorite grocery store.
“Went to Sobeys to buy the large fruit tray with yogurt. It was like $9.99. That was my favorite treat.”
That evening, the break-in artist grabbed his binoculars and checked out his favorite spots.
“It had been rainy on the way in, but not so when I watched the car dealers. Didn’t see any that looked easy to enter, so I crashed.”
To bed down for the night, McNair drove to the parking lot of the Super 8 Motel, directly across from Sobeys. He pulled in under some tall elm trees, pointing his van west, toward George Street. And when it looked like no one was watching, he slipped behind that dark curtain.
“I always parked the van toward a hill or trees to block the view into the driver’s area. This way, in the morn, when passing through the crawl space, no prying eyes.
“Parking the van that way also gave me better reception for the Wi-Fi.”
The spot where McNair spent his final night as a free man was about a block from the offices of The Tribune, the weekly newspaper founded in 1905 that would soon carry front-page stories about him.
The Oklahoma native flicked on a propane heater, powered up his laptop and tried to piggyback some Wi-Fi from the motel.
McNair snuggled in and went back to reading Without Remorse, a 1993 novel by Tom Clancy, the international thriller author. According to Amazon.com, the book — set during the Vietnam War — is about a beached SEAL, who, with nothing but knives and some home-modified artillery takes on the North Vietnamese Army and the drug dealers of Baltimore. Like I say, a novel.
At the halfway mark of the book, the fugitive turned off the light and drifted off to sleep.
It would be another four years before McNair finished reading Without Remorse when the book showed up on the library list at his penitentiary.
Richard McNair’s plan was to leave Campbellton in the morning. His next destination was the Province of Québec, just beyond the Van Horne Bridge.
But before his Savana rolled over the bridge, McNair planned to swing by Campbellton’s Centennial Library to scan more topographical maps and log on to some news sites.
Who knows? Maybe there was an update on the search; perhaps he’d been spotted again. Positive sightings were a worry, but false sightings a blessing — especially when they were three time zones away.
“I also wanted to see if the library had CDs. Was always on the hunt for interesting music to ‘rip’ to the old hard drive.”
Why return to la belle province? Hadn’t some cashiers in Québec given him a rough time? Maybe so, but drawing him back was a car dealership in Rimouski, a city of 42,000 on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.
“They had a new Chevy van I was looking at. I had notes and pics of the dealership …
“A second-story entry.”
McNair wanted to get rid of his Savana, even though it was only a year old and didn’t have a lot of miles. There were problems: diesel fuel was no longer cheap and some things on the van weren’t working right.
“The windshield wipers didn’t work properly in high headwinds; the defrost was crap (had to install a 12-volt fan to defrost the glass), and the locks were housed in a plastic housing, thus easy to punch.”
The fugitive never planned to settle in New Brunswick. His goal was to return to Québec City where he could make plans for the winter … and work on his French.
“Didn’t know if I was going to cross back into the U.S. and go South for the winter or what …”
McNair would go South for the winter — but it would happen a lot sooner than he expected.
He just didn’t count on arriving in the States wearing prison jewelry: handcuffs and leg irons.
OCTOBER 25, 2007
For Richard Lee McNair, the 25th of October began like most of his days on the lam. He went looking for a washroom and a bite to eat.
At around 9:00 that morning, McNair drove his Savana to the nearly deserted parking lot of City Centre Mall on Water Street, a stone’s throw from the Restigouche River. He then opened a double set of doors and walked down a long hallway, passing a bank of pay phones on his left.
After a trip to the washroom, McNair made his way to Tim Hortons, still in the mall.
He returned to his van sipping hot coffee and munching on a bagel.
Next up was the library, just a few blocks south. But the library wouldn’t open for another half hour or so. McNair could either wait or do his scanning in another town.
He decided to leave town.
McNair was now heading north on Andrew Street, toward the Restigouche River and the Van Horne bridge.
The con was just a block or so from the bridge that would take him to Québec. But he was in the absolute wrong place at the absolute wrong time, for right behind him was a marked R.C.M.P. cruiser.
In the police car were two Mounties. The cops were in the right place at the right time.
Driving the cruiser was Constable Stéphane Gagnon, 26, a native of La Tuque, near Lac Ste. Jean, Québec. Gagnon had been a Mountie for only six weeks. So new was he on the job that he wasn’t allowed to drive the police car alone.
Sitting beside him was his field coach, Constable Nelson Lévesque.
The officers had a clear view of the mysterious Ontario van, the one Constable Dan Melanson took an interest in the day before.
Lévesque punched in the license plate number on his computer. Nothing going. The plate, traced to a rental company in Ontario, did not come up as stolen.
Melanson was not alone in thinking there was something peculiar about the cargo van. Gagnon was equally suspicious. “People who transport contraband cigarettes usually use that type of vehicle,” he says. “When we saw the black tinted windows, we decided to stop him.”
With the police right on his tail, McNair flicked his left turn signal and turned onto Water Street.
At that point, he hadn’t really paid much mind to the police cruiser. In his time on the lam, he had seen hundreds of cop cars.
While Gagnon and Lévesque waited for more information to come back from their database, they turned on their overhead lights. It was a signal for the driver to pull over.
McNair’s memory of the event is that he heard a ‘loud horn,’ then checked his side mirror …
“Imagine, instead of a big rig, I see overheads twirling. My thought was, okay, Ricky, this is what you have worked on for the past year or so — what to do in this very situation …
“I wasn’t sure why they would be pulling me over. I had not been speeding, had been using my turn signals and all my lights worked. Not a good situation.
“There were two in the cruiser, so my chances of running on foot were not good.
“I had just been in the mall. Maybe someone there recognized me.”
McNair made a sharp right turn beside Jean Coutu Pharmacy, then slowly made his way through the near-empty parking lot. He’d been in the same parking lot earlier that morning when he grabbed a bite to eat.
The officers figured the driver was looking for a place to pull over. Not so. McNair was looking for a place to pull away.
“My plan had been to put space between any pursuit and me and get to heavy trees. There was water to the north and trees to the south. I needed to head south.”
To reach the forest, McNair first had to get back on Andrew Street … and the most direct route was a wide pedestrian walkway, to his right.
There was a problem though: the exit was blocked by boulders bigger than beach balls.As it turned out, those rocks weren’t a major concern — at least not for a desperado. With a gentle nudge from the Savana’s front bumper, the boulders tumbled out of the way.
Gagnon and Lévesque looked at one another, shrugged and stayed right behind the van.
This was interesting.
The two vehicles were now heading south on Andrew.
McNair suddenly made a left turn on a side street and slowly pulled over to the edge of the road. The chase was over, or so it seemed.
With the Savana’s right turn signal pulsating, Lévesque stepped out and ran toward the van.
The officer hadn’t quite reached the passenger door when McNair floored it, the van’s rear tires spitting stones and dust.
Lévesque sprinted back to his cruiser. It was now obvious the driver of the van was trying to create a gap between himself and the police.
“I gunned the van after putting it in low; wanted to lay down a smoke screen. That van, when you gunned it, would spew out black smoke so thick.
“About a block later I put it back in ‘D’ and drove on. It’s one thing to lay down a smoke screen, it is another to leave a trail.”
The smoke may have been heavy, but traffic was light. Wait. In Campbellton, traffic is always light.
McNair made a sharp left at the historic Baptist Church. He was again back on Andrew and again headed straight south, toward the safety of the forest.
Smoke screen or not, it was no problem for the Mounties to keep up. The bad guy had a cargo van; the good guys a Ford Crown Victoria. No contest.
The policemen also had some backup, if they needed it.
And they did. When it became clear they were dealing with a chase and not a misunderstanding, Lévesque got on the blower and called for help.
Corporal Michel Forest [pronounced: fore-ray], who had been reviewing a file at the detachment, answered the call and ran to his cruiser.
At times, the chase slowed to a crawl … and it was all because of McNair. The man wasn’t about to get a speeding ticket.
Police figured he was busy checking his GPS, searching for a road out of town. The con wasn’t trying to get to a highway, however. He was trying to reach the forest where he could make a run for it.
“I was trying to get my bearings … aka the GPS on the dash, but also was not going to endanger the public.”
According to Officer Lévesque, the Savana ran two red lights (“in a safe manner”). It also made one ‘rolling stop’ at a stop sign.
Not only was it a slow-speed chase, but an uneventful one. Even so, Susan Harquail Mailloux — parked at the intersection of Arran Street and Andrew — wondered what was going on when she watched the police car, overheads flashing, pursuing a white van.
The safety of the forest was only a mile and a half away. Could McNair make it?
On Andrew, just south of Arran Street, the fugitive drove his van down a steep hill to a T-intersection, turned right onto Dover Street, drove a short ways, then made a left onto Gallant Drive.
McNair was still headed south. The forest was getting closer. The trees were now just half a mile away.
McNair was already sprinting in his mind.
When Gagnon and Lévesque reached a school zone — near the Campbellton Middle School — they stopped the chase, but only momentarily. As soon the officers spotted the white Savana turning south onto Gallant Drive, they headed that way too, overhead lights twirling and siren wailing.
The commotion got the attention of Sandra, a local in her 50s. She was more than a mile away, tending to her mother’s fresh grave at the Campbellton Rural Cemetery. The woman paused, wondering what the dickens was going on. She figured the cops were after a car thief, perhaps a break-in artist.
Indeed they were.
Corporal Forest tore out of the detachment parking lot and headed west for about half a mile to the intersection of Arran and Andrew. But by the time Forest got there, both the chasers and the chased had come and gone. The veteran cop could see them in the distance, heading south.
“They were on Gallant Drive headed toward the provincial hospital,” he recalls. “I thought I could stop him [McNair] by going toward the hospital.”
The white Savana and the two police cruisers went under a highway overpass, straight toward a sprawling provincial psychiatric facility at the south end of town.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The Mounties knew something that McNair didn’t know: he was trapped.
“As I made my way around the hospital complex, I realized it was a dead end.”
McNair’s plan was to ‘hide’ his van, grab his ‘go-fast’ bag and run like hell.
“There were no trucks or vans to park behind to block the view of my van. Figured I needed a minute to recover my computer bag and go-fast bag.
“Even at the slow speed, things were disheveled in the back.”
Gagnon and Lévesque’s cruiser now blocked the only road in and out of the hospital.
The fugitive was desperately looking for a way out.
The two officers watched as the Savana drove back and forth in an alley. “He had nowhere to go,” recalls Lévesque, “… he didn’t know what to do.”
Lévesque flung open his door and ran toward the van. The field coach was sure getting his sprints that morning.
At that point, things got really crazy. Richard McNair tore across the hospital lawn, straight toward a two-lane ring road.
A shallow ditch separated his van and the road. When McNair reached the ditch, he gunned it. The Savana vaulted up on the pavement, shattering the plastic splash shield under the front bumper. But so what. This was no time to worry about damage.
McNair left the ring road and turned sharply into a small parking lot — a spot where people park their cars when they walk the two-and-a-half mile Terry Fox Trail, nearby.
A steel cable prevented vehicles from traveling down a wide path through woods that led to the hiking trail.
“I went past the cable that ran across the little parking lot and trail once, turned around, planning to park the van among the cars.”
Richard McNair found himself in the same predicament, only worse. The small parking lot had fewer cars — and no big trucks to hide behind. If there was ever a time McNair needed to be driving a Mini, this was it.
Mr. Fugitive was becoming Mr. Frantic. His freedom clock was approaching midnight.
“I turned the van around, drove through the cable and tried in vain to drive the van into cover …”
The steel cable recoiled like a whip, twitching and coming to rest in a ditch.
With tree branches and bushes hitting the side of his van, McNair sped west down a path that led to the hiking trail, now about 150 feet away. If he could only reach the trail, he might have a chance.
But that wasn’t going to happen. The American suddenly found his path blocked by an orange-colored steel gate, five feet tall and anchored in concrete. McNair wouldn’t be nudging that out of the way, not unless he had a bulldozer.
Trapped and in panic mode, McNair cranked his wheels sharply to the left, plowing his van into brush and trees and banging into a large boulder. This rock didn’t budge.
“It was my desire to hide the van in the trees. I figured they wouldn’t drive down that trail right away.”
McNair cut the engine and yanked out the key. He wanted the key chain because of what was attached to it: a USB memory stick with all his photos.
The fugitive parked his van so close to a tree that the driver’s door couldn’t open, and so he scrambled to the passenger side.
Had he turned right instead of left, he would have gone down a gap in the woods, an opening big enough to accommodate a transport truck. The officers might not have spotted his van for 30 seconds, maybe more.
For both McNair and the police, every second was critical.
Meanwhile, Corporal Forest had stopped his cruiser on the ring road southwest of the hospital. The officer got some help from a trucker who parked his transport across the road. No way the Savana was getting out now.
McNair could not see Corporal Forest and his cruiser.
Forest could hear his partners on his radio — and they were saying the exact same thing a Louisiana policeman uttered 18-months earlier: “Where did he go?” Only this time it was in French.
From 100 feet away, the officers spotted the white van in trees. They watched as a bearded man scrambled out the passenger door and took off running.
“After finally exiting the van with only the clothes on my back, $500 or so and the memory stick attached to my key ring, I took off south along a trail, then cut into the trees.”
A CHASE IN THE WOODS
McNair was sprinting for his life down a boulder-strewn trail in woods near Sugarloaf Mountain. He was flying. And because the rocks were covered in moss, he had to watch every step. It was hopscotch at high speed.
The officers reached the van and looked inside.
“At that point,” Gagnon recalls, “we didn’t know how many were in the van. We didn’t know if he was alone or with someone.”
“We decided to split up to cover as much territory as we could,” adds Lévesque, “I went to the right, Stéphane to the left.”
Richard McNair continued to run through the woods at a good clip, scampering deeper into the forest. He cut left where there were more trees. Better cover.
McNair had reached his destination — the forest — but the two much younger Mounties, huffing and puffing as well, were closing in on him.
Gagnon tried to keep up with McNair but says the man was “running very fast.” For a short while, he lost sight of him. A break for the fugitive.
Gagnon stopped and listened. He could hear something: the crunching sound of someone scampering through the dry leaves. McNair wasn’t far off.
Lévesque suddenly heard his partner yell, “Il est devant moi. Je peux le voir” [‘he’s in front of me. I can see him’]. It was time for the rookie officer to dig deep and give it all he had.
And just like that, it was game over. Finito. An exhausted Richard McNair tumbled face down on the forest floor —with an equally exhausted Constable Gagnon on top of him.
“One of the officers speaking French came up behind me and did a reverse clothesline.
“We both went down, I on my hands and knees, he with me in a choke hold.”
After Gagnon pinned McNair to the ground, he fought to catch his breath. The two men crouched on the forest floor, panting, both too exhausted to move.
Richard Lee McNair was no longer free.
“I jumped him on the shoulder,” recalls Gagnon. “After I controlled him, I screamed, ‘Je l’ai, je l’ai, venez m’aider,’ [‘I got him, I got him, so come help me’]. Nelson and Michel arrived to help.”
“I did not struggle and said I did not speak French. He kept yelling in French. Some of it was for his partners.
“He cuffed me, then the others arrived.
“I said, ‘Hey, you guys got me. You won.’ Some French was spoken between them and I said, ‘Let me catch my breath. You guys take it easy. Ya’ll caught a big fish.’
“I was simply trying to keep from being adjusted anymore.”
Lévesque’s recollection is that when Gagnon tried to cuff McNair, the fugitive stiffened his arms around his waist. “At that point,” he says, “we didn’t know if he had any weapons. Obviously, this guy is fleeing from the police, and we have no idea why.”
“For the safety of everybody, we wanted to control him fast and place him in handcuffs.”
“A former Special Forces soldier taught me five moves that could get one out of just about any nasty situation. A couple would have worked in Campbellton.
“[But] I made a promise to myself I would never hurt anyone again. I lived up to that promise while on the run in 1992-1993 and again in 2006-2007.“The thought of assaulting members of the R.C.M.P. never entered my mind. Once the officer put his hands on me, it was over.”
“When the handcuffs were on him,” Gagnon recalls, “he just calmed down and started to laugh. “You got me, you got me,” he said. I don’t remember the exact quote because it was in English but he also said, ‘You just got a big fish.’”
Caught a big fish? Many American and European anglers, bobbing in canoes on the Restigouche River, have said the exact same thing after landing beautiful 20 and 30-pound Atlantic salmon.
“They had me, and all that kept running through my mind was that a couple of Mounties had been killed recently. What was these guys’ attitude?
“We were out in the middle of the trees. I just wanted to live through this.”
“According to Constable Lévesque, McNair told them, “The reason I didn’t fight is that I heard on the news that a couple of Mounties got shot up north — [“True,” the officer adds] — and I didn’t want you to panic while fighting and shoot me.”
Corporal Forest says their captive readily admitted he was Richard Lee McNair, “An escaped convict from a penitentiary in Louisiana, serving a life sentence for murder.”
He also told them about his promise not to hurt anyone again.
The official time of Richard Lee McNair’s arrest: 10:53 a.m. on the 25th of October 2007.
“I advised him of the charge against him: fleeing the police,” recalls Lévesque.
McNair then told his captors there were warrants against him. Lévesque looked his way and said, “If you have warrants, you’ll be arrested on the strength of those warrants as well.”
Officers Lévesque and Forest escorted their prisoner to Gagnon’s police cruiser, parked in a graveled area near a large, industrial shed.
“When they got me to the cruiser they continued to search me …”
McNair sat alone in the back seat of the police car, his hands cuffed behind his back.
“One asked if I had anything sharp or any weapons. I responded no, not thinking the lock picks in my pocket were sharp — they are not — and when he pulled them out, he became angry again.
“I was thinking, “If I make it through this, it will be a miracle.
“I apologized to him, saying, ‘I was thinking you meant knives, needles and such.’”
“Everything the fugitive had on him — keys, wallet, change, lock picks — were put in a clear plastic bag and placed on the hood of the cruiser.
“To calm them down again I stated, ‘You guys caught one of America’s Most Wanted.’ Corny I know, but I was trying to get their minds on something besides anger toward me.
“So what does he respond? ‘We don’t watch that here, we are the Mounties’ — something to that effect — you will have to ask them.”
McNair was referring to the U.S. Marshals’ Most Wanted list — not the TV show.
In April 2006, Richard McNair had tried to convince a policeman in Louisiana he was not a prison escapee. Eighteen months later, here he was trying to convince a policeman in New Brunswick that he was an escapee.
“Once in the back seat of the cruiser, he went through my wallet and said, ‘You are lying to me. You are TROY SNYDER!’ This, as he looked at the Alaska drivers’ license.
“I said, ‘No that is something I made. See, you can peel it apart.’ He said, ‘it says right here. Official document. I laughed and stated, ‘I promise you, that is fake. I am Richard Lee McNair.”
“We didn’t believe him,” says Gagnon, “because we had the Alaska driver’s license which showed Troy Snyder.”
Constable Lévesque got on the phone to R.C.M.P. Dispatch in Fredericton. He wanted the Alaska ‘driver’s license’ checked out.
Nothing came back on the license.
Now, if Gerry Dorion of the KIA dealership had jogged by and recognized the man in the back seat of the cruiser, he would have said to the officers, “What are you doing? This guy is a good Samaritan!”
[Note: Dorion dealt briefly with McNair during the fugitive’s second visit to Campbellton. The sales manager showed up at work late one night and prevented a break-in at the dealership by McNair.]
According to McNair, not since the day an officer stopped him on railroad tracks in Louisiana had anyone in law enforcement in the U.S. or Canada asked for his ID.
“It took several minutes for the officer to get confirmation over the radio. He said something like, ‘They don’t want you,’ meaning there were no warrants listed in my name. I am sure I said, ‘Okay, then I can go right?”
U.S. Border Control initially told the R.C.M.P. Dispatch Center in Fredericton there was no record of a wanted fugitive by the name of Richard Lee McNair.
The R.C.M.P. then contacted U.S. law enforcement. They soon got confirmation that a Richard Lee McNair had indeed escaped from a prison in Louisiana.
Corporal Forest smiles when he tecalls the rest of the story. “Then they phoned back in a panic! … ‘Are you all right? Is he well secured?’”
The Mounties also confirmed that Mr. McNair was wanted on a Canada-wide warrant for a 2006 car theft in British Columbia.
“After that, we joked and I said, ‘Well after all the cameras take your picture, you can get laid.’
“The officer laughed and asked, “How much is the reward?” I responded, “$25,000 U.S.” He grunted, “That’s not much.
“My response was, ‘Yeah, I guess all the money is tied up with the Bin Laden reward.’”
Back in Louisiana, U.S. Marshal Glenn Belgard was honing his skills at a firearms range when a call came in from New Brunswick. Constable Nelson Lévesque gave him the news: Richard Lee McNair had been captured.
“This was the same story, repeatedly,” sighs Belgard. “I asked that they send a photo of the subject and his fingerprints for confirmation. The officer explained they could not from the area they were in.”
Belgard recalls, “I heard him [McNair] speak in the background and I asked if it was the prisoner speaking. The officer said yes. I was so familiar with McNair’s voice from listening to hours of telephone conversations between him and his family while he was incarcerated, I knew his voice like one of my own family members.
“I knew McNair would recognize my name, so I told the officer that Glenn Belgard wanted to speak with him and the prisoner said, ‘I don’t want to speak to him.’”
With McNair sitting up in the back seat of the cruiser, a man and a woman — workers at the psychiatric hospital — showed up for their morning break. They plunked themselves down at a picnic table, checking things out and puffing cigarettes, hopefully not contraband ones.
They noticed the police cars and figured the cops had just rounded up a thief.
The female worker — who didn’t want her name used — said she figured something was up when she saw the broken cable lying in the ditch.
Ms. XX [not her real initials] also spotted a man sitting alone in the back seat of one of the police cars. Not until she caught the news that evening did she realize she’d just witnessed an historic event.
“I remember seeing the two workers taking a break on the picnic table in the gravel area. A man and woman I think …”
THE RCMP DETACHMENT
At 11:07 a.m., Officers Gagnon and Lévesque drove their prisoner to the R.C.M.P. detachment, about a mile and a half away. It had been a year since McNair had been a passenger, and that was in Toronto when he rode a commuter train.
The prisoner stared out the window of the police cruiser without saying a word. One of the U.S. Marshal’s Most Wanted was now on his way to be fingerprinted, photographed and peppered with more questions.
McNair recalls when he arrived at the R.C.M.P. detachment …
“The cruiser drove into a garage, the overhead door closed and they took me to the booking area. I was allowed to speak with an attorney by landline phone.”
Richard McNair stood against a painted cinderblock wall while an officer snapped his picture. The mugshot — soon to be released to police in the U.S. — showed a slightly bewildered looking man with a fresh cut on the bridge of his nose.Constable Lévesque booked his prisoner, then signed off the R.C.M.P. ‘Fingerprint Identification’ form as Nelson Lévesque – 52779. Richard Lee McNair jokingly signed the document as, well, Troy Snyder.
“If you speak with Constable Lévesque, tell him I said hello. I believe he is the officer who dealt with me most. He came across as a decent guy.”
Constable Gagnon says when Richard McNair realized he couldn’t escape anymore, he was cooperative and friendly. “He was like a good guy, not a guy who is tough and uncooperative. He was very polite in the cell block — a gentleman.”
Marshal Belgard recalls the moment when confirmation arrived that the man he’d been chasing for 18 months was finally in custody. “They sent me a photo of the prisoner and I immediately knew it was him. They still wanted to fingerprint him to confirm, but I told them I knew his face — and that was Richard Lee McNair!
“I also told them to make sure he is always restrained because he is an EXTREME escape risk.”
The following day, Corporal Martine St-Pierre of the R.C.M.P. Forensic Identification section in Bathurst fired off an ‘Emergency Priority’ fax to Tom Beaudry of the Canadian Police Services Information Centre in Ottawa. St-Pierre wanted confirmation of McNair’s date of birth.
St-Pierre’s note ended with the following: “Thanking you in advance for your precious collaboration.”
Just to be sure, the Mounties did checks on both Richard Lee McNair — and ‘Troy A. Snyder.’
Once the identity of their captive was confirmed, it wasn’t long before the Mounties in Campbellton logged onto their computers and did some Googling. They wanted to find out more about the man who ran like a rabbit and had way too many driving licenses.
The ‘net had plenty of stuff on McNair, including the YouTube video of him and Officer Bordelon chatting on railroad tracks in Louisiana.
Richard McNair was right: he was a big fish. A 210-pounder.
The head Mountie in Campbellton, Inspector Roland Wells, walked to the south end of his one-story detachment and into holding cell #3. He wanted to have a word with the star of America’s Most Wanted.Wells was in for a pleasant surprise. McNair had only good things to say about his men, especially how they’d conducted themselves. “Very competent and professional,” Wells was told.
“They were good men doing their jobs. Everybody was kind and respectful — after they got my attention.”
Officers kept a close eye on their prize catch by peering through a tiny window on the door of cell number three. They watched McNair do push-ups.
They also noticed he spent two hours in a lotus position, switching from the floor to the bed.
“I was doing meditation. Just keeping calm and trying to see how the pieces were falling, wondering if I would be taken to a place (airport, border crossing) and turned over to U.S. officials.
“Just didn’t have a clue … I remember wondering about my family and how they were reacting. I was sure they were relieved I was not hurt. Also wondered if Canadian officials would charge me. Didn’t think so. Couldn’t imagine them wanting me in their custody any longer than necessary.
“For the most part, I just meditated, stayed calm and ate the TV dinners they brought me.”
As for their prisoner being in a lotus position, Corporal Forest figures McNair was simply ‘coming down from a high’ after finally being caught.
“Tell Forest I was not meditating per se. Ric was trying to contact the Mother Ship to get beamed out of there!”
McNair says the Mounties did not offer him a telephone to call his family.
“I was in a shell. Withdrawn and resigned to fate. It had been a long 18 months and it ended without anyone getting hurt.”
A reflective McNair comments on the ‘assistance’ he got during his escape, his time on the lam and on the help he continues to get.
“There is no doubt I had an Angel looking out for me. I have a very dear girlfriend from junior high and high school who always looked after me. She was in love and I was the typical jerk. She passed away a year before I escaped.
“I like to think it is she who is still looking out for me.”
CONTENTS OF MCNAIR’S VAN
Mundle’s Towing Service got the call to get McNair’s van out of the woods. It was no easy job. To yank it out, tow-truck operator Scott Furlotte had to string a cable around a tree.
Furlotte had no idea that the driver of the white GMC Savana would soon be featured in news stories around the world — and that he had become a footnote to one of the biggest crime stories in New Brunswick history.
After McNair’s van was delivered to the police station, officers began taking things out. They found clothing, carpet, a propane camper-style furnace, propane tank, wok, a tea kettle, ice-chest and a couple of ‘go-fast’ bags.
For several years, McNair’s gear was kept in a large, locked garage behind the R.C.M.P. detachment in Campbellton. I took pictures of some of his stuff, including a large backpack. I mailed the photos to McNair, then a prisoner at ADX Florence, Colorado.
“On the backpack, the netting is where the tent went. The very light wool blanket came in a first-aid kit. Could not believe how lightweight it was, perfect for the pack.
“There was one green floppy military-style hat with the attached mosquito netting. The net, of course, could be used as designed, but also to cover the binoculars to cut down lens reflection.
“The nylon rope was for repelling, tent reinforcing — even a bear alarm, though I used fishing line. On the pack are clips so I could attach one of my other smaller packs.”
Police also recovered McNair’s Sony video camcorder, some MP3 players, headphones, boom boxes, a heavy-duty inverter, gooseneck LED lights, pens, pencils, rulers, printers, scanners, glossy photo paper, testers for electrical circuits, car fuses, a Garmin GPS unit, binoculars, tarps, flashlights, a rechargeable beard trimmer, books [novels and manuals on computer programs and lock-picking], food, water bottles, pots, pans, utensils, laptops,computer parts, a monitor and a stun-gun.
Whew. Let me catch my breath.
Some information about electrical stun guns: they’re described as an “effective self-defense product” and sell for as low as $14. According to http://www.beststungun.com, “Stun guns have replaced firearms in the minds of many of today’s citizens due to the likelihood of being sued, even when protecting hearth and home.”
McNair says he kept the stun gun for personal protection — “especially at truck stops.”
“I know the Marshal Service had a request in for my stuff off the computer.”
They sure did.
Corporal Forest describes McNair as “meticulous,” pointing out he kept his breakfast cereal in labeled bags.
“On the bag, I would write in permanent marker the contents and the date packaged. This allowed me to rotate the item after a few months.
“I packed a bit of cereal with powdered milk. There should be a pack of powdered milk in the upper corner. All I had to do was add water to the mix in the zip-lock bag and have a meal. I would double-bag a serving or two, along with the powdered milk and a plastic spoon.”
The cargo van also contained fishing equipment, locks, tools, [including pry bars], a three-drawer cabinet, CDs, DVD player, movies, digital cameras, extension cords, a cordless drill and bits, mountain bike, helmet, black elastic straps, satellite radio, dull hockey sport tape (“used to cover metal parts on my clothing so they didn’t reflect or rattle”), a tumbler (“given out in a Walmart parking lot in Alberta”), a padded zip-lock portfolio and a dozen stolen license plates from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
“Many the plates I got rid of. Those plates I kept to switch out with other plates. As for the tabs, a little heat allows them to be removed and switched out.
“I also carried bags of cat litter in the van. That was for traction.
Did you see the weather station I had amongst my stuff? A simple station I had hanging on the wall of the van. When I cooked, the humidity would go through the roof.”
Richard McNair also had a number of magazines, including RV Lifestyle, Flex — and two that had write-ups on him: Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker.
In 2011, McNair’s trusty mountain bike was donated to Social Services.
Police said the bike would be given to a needy child.
“Some kid is having fun on it. Someday when you are in Campbellton, a kid will ride by you having a blast.”
After all the excitement died down, it was time for McNair and his captors to share information. Because the fugitive had been upfront with the police, the officers shared how they got on to him.
“The Mountie who originally called me in was off-duty and in his private vehicle. My understanding is there were no on-duty officers around and they lost me. An alert went out and the next day is history.”
In May 2008, the eagle-eyed Mountie who had spotted McNair’s suspicious cargo van on Highway 11 was back in the news. Daniel Melanson rescued a drowning man in the freezing waters of the Bay of Chaleur, near Jacquet River. Melanson was again in the right place at the right time.
Melanson was later recognized by police chiefs in the United States with a plaque for his work in the McNair capture. He was later promoted to Corporal.
“Sounds as if the one Mountie who saved the distressed swimmer has his career made.”
In August 2010, the R.C.M.P. in New Brunswick arrested another U.S. fugitive — this time a notorious sex-offender with a rap sheet 32 pages long. The fugitive, Michael [‘Mike’] Beaulieu, a native of Anson, Maine, had been in and out of prison, though not like Richard McNair.
Beaulieu, wanted for a rape in Pennsylvania, snuck into New Brunswick by canoeing across the St. John River. When word got out he was hiding on the Canadian side, the Mounties went looking for him.
The last known American fugitive to visit New Brunswick had no firepower. But not Beaulieu. He was packing heat: a .45 handgun.
Police got a tip Beaulieu was at the Lac-Baker campground, northwest of Edmundston. Without any backup, a lone R.C.M.P. officer walked up to Beaulieu, told him he was under arrest and slapped the cuffs on him. That Mountie had just been transferred from Campbellton. His name: Constable Nelson Lévesque.
How many police officers in Canada can say they played key roles in the capture of two prominent U.S. fugitives?
Corporal Lévesque is now based in Montreal.
CORRESPONDENCE WITH MCNAIR
In the very first letter I received from Richard McNair, the prisoner answered a question that had nagged at me since I first learned of his arrest: Had someone turned him in?
“No. No one ratted me out. I just turned left instead of right and an observant officer got me. Just one of those days.”
McNair later offered this clarification:
“The ‘I just turned left’ remark had nothing to do with the ‘resting place’ of the van. It was just one of those quips. However, if I’d turned right instead of left, I’d be free.”
I later mailed prisoner Richard McNair Google satellite images of the area where he’d been caught. It was all forest.
“Should have been able to make my way west, then north toward the dealers. At night, check cars for an errant key left behind, even fish a set of keys out of the night drop box.
“I would have had the Ford dealer, KIA, then on to the Dodge. A good chance I could find a car. As far as a [license] plate, that would be the least of my problems. License plates are the easiest.
“There is no reason I shouldn’t have been able to evade. Am looking at all those trees where the van came to a stop and I have tears in my eyes. Very sad. I certainly had the advantage. My escape and evasion instructor would kick my butt.
“You have to give props to the Mounties. I had a head start, tons of cover and they still got me.”
BEHIND BARS … AGAIN
There would be no more fishing for keys in a night drop box, no more break-ins and thefts, no more hikes in the Rockies, visits to recreation centers and libraries, no more Wi-Fi or music on demand. And no more running from the law and being paranoid about face-recognition cameras.
Richard Lee McNair was again behind bars.
He was also back in court, at least digitally, when he appeared by video-link in Campbellton. The small courtroom was in the same building where McNair got his last cup of coffee as a free man.
The capture of one of America’s Most Wanted would soon be a top story across North America. Would a well-connected reporter first learn of the arrest of Richard McNair? Or would it come down to a group reporters being told the story at a police news conference?
It’s always good when local reporters are first out of the gate with local stories, and so it was with the capture of a big-name U.S. fugitive.
Trevor McNally of The Tribune was the first journalist to hear of Richard McNair’s capture. McNally came across a friend’s post on Facebook: ‘American killer nabbed by police.’
“The first thing I did,” he recalls, “was phone a contact at the R.C.M.P. who confirmed that Richard McNair was in cells.”
McNally then made a beeline to the police station, only to be told that a news conference would be held later that day.
About a dozen journalists showed up for the ‘newser.’ Most were from out of town, including one from Moncton’s Radio 91.9 [the ‘Be the first to know’ station].
The capture of Richard Lee McNair was a blockbuster story. One of the U.S. Marshal’s Most Wanted, a killer on the lam for a year-and-a-half and an escapee featured on America’s Most Wanted time and time again, had finally been apprehended. It was breaking news at its best.
The Town Talk newspaper in Alexandria, Louisiana, reported Richard McNair “was caught 100 miles north of Maine.” Close enough.Police held a second media conference the next day. It was now time for some show-and-tell. The overhead door rolled up and reporters got to see Richard McNair’s ‘camper’ — the white cargo van he had stolen in Ontario a year earlier. The Savana was parked behind yellow tape that read, POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. A broken plastic shield dangled just beneath the front bumper.
Richard McNair’s old Savana is now registered to a private company in Québec.
The three Mounties involved in the capture also showed reporters the spot where they snagged the fugitive. Tribune editor Tim Jaques recalls, “The officer [Gagnon] showed us exactly where he tackled McNair.”
Jaques described the area as thickly wooded; new and old growth of poplar, spruce, birch, cedar and fir trees with large rocks covered by moss.
It wasn’t long before the host of America’s Most Wanted got on a plane and flew to Campbellton to interview officers Gagnon and Lévesque. Michelle Sigona had been in Pollock, Louisiana, where McNair busted out, in British Columbia where he was nearly captured … and now in Northern New Brunswick where he was captured.
A television production company from Sydney, Australia, also sent a film crew to Campbellton. Southern Star produced a documentary on McNair’s capture that was shown in Britain, Australia, and North America.
Constables Stéphane Gagnon and Nelson Lévesque, wearing the famous Mountie ceremonial red tunics, were interviewed by a number of national and foreign TV networks.
“I don’t really like to be in the media,” Gagnon says. “We just did our jobs. I didn’t go out to stop a guy who was well-known. I was proud of what we did because it was teamwork. It wasn’t just me.”
THE TALK OF CAMPBELLTON
For a few days, the capture of the elusive fugitive not only put Richard McNair back in the news, it thrust a small Canadian community onto the world stage.
Local businessman John Woodworth noted, “The arrest put Campbellton on the map.” Woodworth nailed it. People around the world checked their atlases to find Campbellton, New Brunswick.
The capture of an escaped murderer was the buzz of Campbellton for months. Everyone was talking about it. Locals wondered if they’d been alongside Richard McNair in traffic, if they’d stood next to him in a lineup at the grocery store or if they held the door open for him at a coffee shop. Yes. Yes. Yes. All that happened. They just never knew.
Others, like the staff at Sobeys and Tim Hortons, had actually served McNair and thanked him for his business.
McNair’s arrest was also the buzz of his hometown of Duncan, Oklahoma. Willene McNair was at home when her phone rang with news of her son’s capture. On the line was Willene’s second youngest, Phillip. He’d just heard the news on the radio. Willene was happy to hear ‘Ric’ was okay.
‘THE RUNNING MAN’ SERIES
In spite of the many stories surrounding McNair’s arrest, questions remained. How long had he been in town? Did anyone hide him out? Was he working? Where was he off to after Campbellton? The silence only contributed to the speculation.
Only Richard McNair knew the answers, but his story went untold — until the summer of 2009, when The Tribune ran an exclusive six-part feature series on the man’s escapes, crimes and his arrest in Campbellton.
The award-winning series, titled The Running Man, was the impetus for this book.
Ron Reid lives in a beautifully restored old house in downtown Campbellton. The retired N.B. Power worker recalls that in the early morning hours of the 21st of August 2007, he glanced out his upstairs window and spotted a man sitting on railroad tracks.
Turns out, he was eating food scraps taken from a dumpster behind a fried chicken outlet called Dixie Lee.
Reid wondered if the hungry man on the tracks was the U.S. fugitive …
“Didn’t happen — NOTTA! I had a good supply of food in the van; soup, cereal, powdered milk, canned meals, tuna, etc. Plenty of food.
I do not eat out of dumpsters!”
Tribune Editor Timothy Jaques wondered why no one thought it odd that someone with a strong Southern accent would be driving a van with Ontario plates.
Only two people in the Campbellton-area, I’m aware, recognized Richard Lee McNair from his time here — and they were both involved in auto sales. Gerry Dorion was sales manager for a KIA dealership in Atholville … and Hermyle Doiron, for many years, sold cars. The irony is that while on the run, McNair broke into many car dealerships. That’s how he got his vehicles and cash.
The arrest of Richard McNair led to ‘high fives’ at police stations across North America — especially in North Dakota, Louisiana, British Columbia and New Brunswick. A runaway killer was finally back behind bars.
The capture of a high-profile fugitive gave the Mounties a salute from people across Canada and from around the world. Some wrote to the R.C.M.P. Detachment in Campbellton expressing their gratitude.
An Ontario man wanted business cards from the arresting officers.
Bernie Berube of Campbellton had nothing but praise for the Mounties. “Good police work,” he said, “It was sharp of Officer Melanson to spot him.”
Shortly after the much-publicized arrest, Constable Stéphane Gagnon was called out to break up a family fight. When one of the combatants spotted the officer’s name tag, he exclaimed, “Hey, you’re the guy who captured McNair!” The fighting stopped immediately.
There’s nothing like a celebrity to restore world peace.
When word got out that McNair hadn’t committed any violent crimes while on the lam, not everyone was happy he’d been captured. Senior citizen John Kierstead of Campbellton wanted him to get away. “The fella served his time,” he said. “He wasn’t hurting no one.”
Kierstead lives in the west-end of Campbellton, close to where the fugitive cleaned his van. He wished Richard McNair well. I passed on his comments to the prisoner.
“Byron, can you pass along to Johnny my thanks for his well wishes and my sentiment that I wish I could have outrun the youngster too!
“Sure wish I had been in line behind him at one of the places in New Brunswick and got to know him. Tell Johnny I would love to be sitting with him on the front porch, a tall glass of ice tea, sharing tales of a long and great life.
“What did Johnny do? Don’t tell me he used to be a locksmith.”
In 2010, when the Olympic torch made its way across Canada as a prelude to the Vancouver Winter Olympics, one of the proudest — and oldest — ‘torch bearers’ was former train engineer John Kierstead, then 91.
[Note: John Joseph Kierstead died on 6 February 2014 at the Campbellton Regional Hospital, close to where the Mounties tackled McNair. He was 96. His packed funeral service was on Valentine’s Day, appropriate for a true gentleman who brought much love and light into the world.]
ON THE MOVE AGAIN
Unarmed civilian guards normally keep an eye on prisoners held overnight at the R.C.M.P. detachment in Campbellton. Not so for the inveterate escaper. Two armed Mounties were posted outside cell #3. The officers peeked in now and then to make sure their man hadn’t chiseled his way to freedom.
Long before the sun came up, an R.C.M.P. tactical team arrived to take their prize catch away.
48-year-old Richard Lee McNair was put in the back seat of a police cruiser.
The prisoner’s initial destination was a penitentiary near Miramichi, New Brunswick, a two-hour drive. From Miramichi, he would be returned to the same Louisiana prison he escaped from 18 months earlier.
At a border crossing in Maine, Richard McNair finally got to meet U.S. Marshal Glenn Belgard, the officer who had tracked him non-stop for 18 months.
The meeting was respectful, with an act of kindness from the U.S. Marshal that caused his prisoner to tear up.
[Chapter 12 : ‘Left instead of right’ is from the eBook, ‘The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail.’]
Click here to find the book on Amazon.ca … https://www.amazon.ca/Man-Who-Mailed-Himself-Jail-ebook/dp/B00DIIQ44M