CANADA

Life in a Roman limbo

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 26 1987
CANADA

Life in a Roman limbo

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 26 1987

Life in a Roman limbo

They are unlikely prisoners in an equally unusual prison. As they strolled by Rome’s fabled Trevi Fountain one morning last week, Micheline and Laurence Lévesque, two middle-aged sisters from Jonquière, Que., looked typical of the thousands of tourists who visit the city each day. But, said Micheline, a 53-year-old high school teacher, of their life over the past year: “It is a void—just emptiness and waiting.” Each day at 2 p.m., Micheline and Laurence, 56, a retired school-board administrator, must return to their temporary home, a church-owned apartment in Rome’s historic centre district. Under house arrest by Italian judicial authorities, they are confined there until Feb. 12. On that day they are scheduled to stand trial on charges of possession of and trafficking in five kilograms of heroin found in their suitcases one year ago.

The bizarre case of the Lévesque sisters—who insist the drugs were planted by a casual acquaintance without their knowledge—has gained wide attention in both Italy and Canada, and plans for a book and a movie about their story are already under way in Quebec. After their arrest at Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci Airport on Jan. 7, 1986, the sisters spent four months in prison. There, they said, they were temporarily placed in isola-

tion and forbidden to speak, read or write. Recalled Laurence: “The sounds were anguishing. Instead of rats there were cats howling and drug addicts screaming.” Last April Italian authorities transferred the Lévesques to the church-owned apartment and granted them four hours liberty each day. But if they are found guilty of drug trafficking next month, they face up to 15 years in prison. Said Micheline: “We are so afraid of a trial. We have heard so many horrible stories in prison about the justice system.”

To their acquaintances in Jonquière—a city of 60,000 in Quebec’s isolated Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region,

200 km north of Quebec City—the notion that the two sisters could be guilty is ludicrous. Both Micheline, a widow with two grown children, and Laurence, who is unmarried, are regarded as well-cultivated women, frequent travellers with wide interests. Neither has a criminal record. Said Yvon Perron, a family friend for more than two decades and principal of the high school where Mi-

cheline teaches: “It is unimaginable that they could be guilty. It’s got to be a setup.” The Lévesques say their ordeal would have been much worse without the support they have received from friends at home. Said Micheline: “So many people have helped us, allowed us to keep up hope.”

The sisters blame their plight on a mysterious man whom they met in Quebec City in 1985. The man described himself as a travel agent, sold them tickets to India and arranged to meet them in Delhi to act as their travel guide. In India, the sisters say, they allowed him to take charge of their luggage. He returned it shortly before they boarded a flight headed for Canada via Rome. The heroin, which Italian police estimated was worth more than $6 million, was discovered by customs agents at the Rome airport during a routine baggage check. The agents detected the smell of glue coming from the sisters’ two red suitcases and discovered the drug hidden behind false walls in the cases. The Lévesques said they have lost the unidentified man’s telephone number and address and have no

idea how to contact him.

After their arrest, the women were held in Rome’s Rebibbia prison until two Canadian-born priests attached to the city’s Jesus Nazarene International Centre helped persuade Italian officials to release the sisters into their custody. Now they are allowed to care for themselves. Their pleasant, rentfree apartment includes one bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom. The walls are adorned with pictures of Christ, and the bookshelf is lined with biblical tracts. In an adjacent sitting room belonging to the centre, the sisters receivé guests, write letters, work on their book, listen to music and sip aperitifs. During their free mornings, they sightsee or shop for groceries. But their year in Italy has not changed their taste in food. “One shopkeeper knows us as the potato eaters,” said Micheline. “We don’t eat any more pasta than we did at home.”

Although they would not say how much they have spent on legal and daily living expenses, the sisters conceded they had used up most of thei: life savings. “We live day-to-day,” Micheline told Maclean's. “We do not have a choice.” Laurence asked friends to close her apartment in Jonquière in order to save money on rent.

The sisters are dictating onto cassettes the first draft of a book recounting their experiences. The book was commissioned by Les Editions JCL Inc., a small Quebec publishing firm. JeanClaude Larouche, the firm’s president, said he plans initially to publish 5,000 copies in French and hopes to release an English translation later. Larouche has sold movie rights for $65,000 to film producer Gaston Cousineau, who plans to start filming this summer.

Both sisters are still learning to cope with their newfound notoriety. Although they initially gave frequent interviews, they now voice unhappiness with much of the media coverage they have received. At the same time, they are now aware from letters from home—and from their Quebec lawyer Claude Archambault —that their friends are becoming increasingly distressed over their situation. “At first they thought it was funny, [but] now they all ask when it is going to end,” said Micheline. Meanwhile, she remembers the last postcard she wrote to her son, Jean, from India before her arrest last January. The first line read, “We are having a dream vacation despite our bad sunburns.” For the sisters, the dream vacation has turned into a nightmare without end.

-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with RICHARD BURNETT in Montreal and BARBARA KATZ in

RICHARD BURNETT

BARBARA KATZ