A Canadian Tragedy
(This column was first published in the March 1, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Unlike my other commentaries, which I have written to encourage you to read the book under consideration, this one must play a quite different role for this book is out of print. I had to borrow it on interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto.
But despite how difficult it is for anyone, including Canadians, to obtain a copy of Maggie Siddins' A Canadian Tragedy: JoAnn and Colin Thatcher: A Story of Love and Hate (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1985), its story is contemporary. Late last year it was, in fact, headline news in our neighboring country -- CROWN OUTLINES CASE AT THATCHER HEARING -- because the villain of the piece had applied for early parole from his 1984 murder conviction.
And what a story this is. If you believe the evidence Ms. Siddins presents here, Thatcher, son of an ex-premier of Canada and himself a Saskatchewan cabinet minister, brutally murdered his former wife, JoAnn.
"The light in the Wilsons' garage was dead and as JoAnn was getting out of her car, she could see only vague shapes. Suddenly, looming out of the dark came a man. With one hand he seized her by the collar of her new fur jacket. In the other he clutched a heavy, sharp weapon with which he began to hack feverishly at her head and face. Again, and again, and again. Screaming, she desperately raised her arms to stave off the blows but they continued to rain down on her head and hands until the baby finger on her right hand was almost severed. Although blood was flowing, bones were being crushed with each blow, and bits of skin were flying from her face, JoAnn put up a superhuman fight. Indeed, she was inching her way towards the open garage door when her attacker, sensing that his prey was on the verge of escape, took out a gun and shot her through the head. She died instantly."
And not only did he almost get away with that crime, but he was never apprehended for his attempt a few months earlier:
"It was late, therefore, when the Wilsons finished eating. JoAnn got Stephanie into bed and, while Tony was upstairs taking a shower to remove the paint, she cleaned up. She had loaded the dishwasher and was scrubbing the pots, her back to the patio door. Suddenly there was a loud crack. Tony heard JoAnn scream and he came racing down the stairs. He found her sitting propped up against the wall in the hall, blood pouring from her shoulder. 'The dishwasher exploded,' she cried. It was as likely an explanation as any but Wilson could smell cordite, and when he examined the patio door, which had disintegrated like a car windshield in a bad accident, he realized what had happened. He phoned the police and yelled, 'He's shot her!' Tony was certain that the assailant was either Colin Thatcher or a hit man he had hired.
"When the ambulance attendants arrived at about 10:15 p.m. they found JoAnn sobbing with pain while Tony cradled her in his arms. They rushed her to Regina General Hospital. Although she had lost blood and was in great pain, her life was not in danger. But it had been a very close call. Only months before Tony had consulted Gerry Weckman about installing a new patio door. 'Why don't you get a triple-glazed door with a wooden frame?' Gerry suggested. 'It'll be a real energy-saver.' Wilson had taken his advice, and now that extra layer of glass had saved JoAnn's life. Not only was the bullet deflected by the glass -- it was only a couple of inches away from striking her in the neck and killing her -- but it shattered. Pieces of bullet are still lodged in the kitchen cupboards and walls of the house. One fragment grazed JoAnn's lip, scarring it sufficiently that thereafter she had to apply her lipstick carefully so that her mouth would not look lopsided."
If you have not yet seen this as the Canadian version of the killing of O. J. Simpson's wife, you've missed something.
And the murder was only the final act of a man who intimidated and brutalized his wife, who manipulated the courts to upset the divorce settlement that went against him, reducing his indebtedness to his former wife and even gaining custody of his children, and who ran roughshod over anyone who opposed him. I found myself asking over and over, how does this guy get away with this. But we know, don't we.
Even the evidence gathering and final arrest show how intimidating Thatcher was:
"Five hours later, exactly as planned, Garry Anderson drove up in his half-ton truck.... Garry was a hefty, macho-looking man, and in recent years he had developed a paunch. This was somewhat exaggerated today; for this morning beneath his shirt Garry Anderson was wearing a bullet-proof vest.
"Under the vest was a body pack, a portable tape recorder placed there to preserve the conversation he hoped to have with his neighbour Colin Thatcher. The tape had already been running for some fifteen minutes, and it testified to the fact that Garry Anderson was a very nervous man. A Crown prosecutor would later say that the sharp intake of Anderson's breath was so exaggerated that he was close to hyperventilating....
"The five men tensed as they heard the sound of an approaching car. A small grey Mayfair (owned by Sandra Sparks, the secretary of the nearby Caron Rural Municipality and one of the future organizers of the Colin Thatcher Defence Fund) turned off the grid road and halted in the yard. Colin Thatcher got out.... As he and Anderson stood talking, all four SWAT members trained their rifles on Thatcher. The cops felt that if he discovered the stakeout, or Anderson's body pack, Colin Thatcher could turn ugly very fast. Constable McKee was listening to every word of the conversation on an FM receiver so that he could give a signal to the others the instant something went wrong.
"Thatcher asked Anderson if he wanted to go for a ride, but Garry prudently replied no, he preferred to stick around. 'Have to be awfully cautious. One never knows,' urged Thatcher. It was the first of many times during the conversation that he would warn Anderson about the danger of being overheard, revealing his terrible fear of police bugging. The two men chatted about everyday topics -- farming, their travels -- until Thatcher suddenly asked, 'Have you been hassled?' Anderson understood right away that he meant hassled by the police. 'Well, they came once and talked to me and just asked me about the Chev car, and that was about it. Other than that, nothing at all. How about you?'
"'Just the once, the day after ... there's been some attempts to put us together and we should not be seen together.'
"The two men continued to talk intensely, walking about the yard as they did so. They discussed...the whereabouts of two men with whom Anderson and Thatcher had carried on shady business dealings a couple of years ago; and Thatcher's desire to get even with certain individuals who had crossed him. They also discussed the interesting matter of a car that Anderson had disposed of for Thatcher. I had a bitch of a time getting the blood and stuff off,' Anderson complained.
"'Yeah. Is there no chance that it can ever surface? There is a chance it can surface?' asked Thatcher. 'No,' responded Anderson. 'The car was cleaned.'
"At one point Thatcher asked, 'Do you need some bread?' 'Yeah, I can use some,' Anderson replied. 'I can use some for that car.' Thatcher admitted he was strapped for cash at the moment, but he promised to round up some money. The two men agreed he would put it in a white envelope, which would be placed in a green garbage bag and then stuck under a weathered board near the abandoned farm's red Quonset hut. The date agreed upon for this drop-off was the following Friday, two days later.
"After twenty minutes the conversation wound down. 'Next time I see you, just give me that same sign,' said Thatcher. 'And there is no problem unless you do something stupid.' 'Okay,' replied Anderson, 'I'm glad you got her,' he called out. 'Okay,' said Thatcher. The two men then got into their vehicles and went their separate ways.
"As the sounds of the car and truck died away, Constable Jim McKee got up and walked over to the exact spot where Thatcher had been standing. He then turned and looked hack at his hiding-place; he could see the impression that his body had left on the ground. Colin had come within fifty feet of the policeman -- so close that McKee feared Thatcher might step on him. 'I was scared shitless,' he told his colleagues, as they stood around shaking the stiffness and tension out of their limbs....
"Later that evening, Sergeant Jim Street of the Regina police force went to the abandoned farm, where he found $550 in cash in a garbage bag behind the ancient four-by-six plank."
And the arrest:
"He drove his pick-up through the old Moose Jaw neighbourhood where he had grown up, and out to the main street, which would lead to the Trans-Canada Highway. As he neared the major intersection, he saw a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser, lights flashing, waving him down.... Almost immediately a second unmarked police car pulled up alongside the first. Sergeant Street of the Regina city police jumped out, strode quickly to Thatcher's truck, opened the door, and told him to get out. Meanwhile two of Regina's most experienced and wily policemen, Inspector Ed Swayze and Detective Wally Beaton, had arrived. As the two unflappable cops walked slowly towards him, Thatcher glanced around in a manner that seemed to Swayze like 'an animal trapped in a cage'. Out of nowhere police cars had materialized to block the three other streets at the intersection. Other police in the vicinity had cordoned off the area to keep motorists away There were even some Moose Jaw cops who had nothing whatsoever to do with the operation; they had come to watch history being made.
"'Wilbert Colin Thatcher, I have an information here charging you with the first-degree murder of JoAnn Kay Wilson,' barked Swayze. 'Do you wish to say anything in answer to the charge? You need not say anything. Anything you do say may be used against you as evidence. You are entitled to consult counsel without delay. You will be transported back to Regina in the company of Detective Beaton.'
"This was a man with a vivid, exaggerated reputation: a tough and wealthy rancher, a powerful, intimidating politician, a debonair man-about-town, and the cops arresting him were just a little awed by their prize catch. They were also extremely curious. For the last eighteen months they had listened to his telephone conversations, which had been legally wire-tapped, and they had talked to anybody who had the remotest connection to him, including many beautiful and fascinating past and present lovers. They knew that this was a man who played entirely by his own rules.
"The police had been informed that Thatcher had a loaded gun in his house and they were determined to avoid a shootout where he, a member of his family, or one of them might be killed. So they had put off his arrest for three days, waiting for the moment when he left his house alone and headed for his farm. They wanted to approach him at the edge of town, so that he would be out in the open but not in a place so secluded that he would prematurely catch sight of police officers approaching....
"Meanwhile, ten Regina police officers armed with a search warrant arrived in Moose Jaw at the Thatchers' Redland Avenue residence. Before everybody piled into the house, Sergeant Gene Stusek and Constable Sharon Fettes approached the children. The officers were amazed at the nonchalance of eighteen-year-old Gregory, fifteen-year-old Regan, and ten-year-old Stephanie after they heard the news of their father's arrest. One huge cop would later entertain his colleagues by coyly skipping around the house, humming away and smiling -- his imitation of Stephanie Thatcher collecting her belongings as if in preparation for a perfectly normal visit with her grandmother in Regina."
It was this strange power over his children that is the most difficult aspect of the story to accept. At his recent parole hearing, his three children all supported their father. Fortunately the final Canadian headline finished this part of the story -- THATCHER LOSES BID FOR EARLY RELEASE. He won't be eligible for parole until 2009.