The Nation’s Business

Castro's man defends the Cuban crackdown

Peter C. Newman March 29 1999
The Nation’s Business

Castro's man defends the Cuban crackdown

Peter C. Newman March 29 1999

A TASTE OF FREEDOM

Giving up hope of ever being exonerated, David Milgaard escaped from prison

THE MACLEAN’S EXCERPT

For 23 years, Joyce Milgaard battled the judicial system until finally, in April, 1992, she won. That is when the Supreme Court of Canada overturned her son David’s conviction for the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller and returned to him the freedom he had lost at the age of 16. It is one of Canada’s tragic tales of justice gone awry — and of a mother’s dogged devotion. In the newly published A Mother’s Story: The Fight to Free My Son David, Milgaard recounts her struggles to convince authorities that her son, a restless school dropout, was innocent of the crime. David was finally exonerated by DNA evidence that implicated another man, but not before giving up hope in the sometimesbrutal prison environment. In her book, Joyce Milgaard tells how, after 11 years behind bars, David escaped from custody, bleached his hair and enjoyed the big-city pleasures of Toronto for 2V-¿ months, until police shot him in the back and returned him to prison.

On Aug. 20, 1980, two days before David was to get out on a pass to attend a barbecue party for [his brother] Chris’s 27th birthday, he and I met with prison authorities. Once again, they told us that David could not be considered rehabilitated in their eyes until he showed remorse. In addition, the prison officials said they didn’t think David could function on the streets, since he had been in custody for so long. It was so ironic and so heartbreaking. They told us about a longrange plan for David to get into a halfway house, but it would mean that he wouldn’t get a taste of freedom until four years or so down the road. He had spent 11 birthdays as a prisoner, and the prospect of at least another four was too much to imagine. David left that parole meeting quietly planning to escape.

We had been planning the family barbecue for weeks. We were living then at Quail Ridge, a townhome property in St. James in the west end of Winnipeg that I managed, and it had a lovely country club and tennis courts. [David’s sister] Susan was playing racquetball with David’s guard when David and [his other sister] Maureen disappeared together. [David’s father] Lome and I were

Reprinted with permission from A Mother’s Story, copyright Joyce Milgaard with Toronto journalist Peter Edwards, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd., Toronto.

busy preparing the food and didn’t think much about it until the guard came back after finishing his game to ask us where David was. The search began in earnest, and we discovered Maureen’s car was gone. The guard and Susan drove around the area, thinking perhaps Maureen and David had gone off joyriding. It seemed an eternity, and finally the guard reported David missing. The phone rang, and it was Maureen, and she was sobbing. She told us that David had forced her out of the car, took whatever money she had, and left her.

It wouldn’t be until much later that we learned the truth: Maureen helped David escape, then guarded this secret to protect us. We then learned that after he and Maureen left Quail Ridge, she drove to a drugstore to get bleach for his hair and dyed it for him. As he left, David said to Maureen, “Just tell Mom and Dad I have to go. I can’t go back.”

Wednesday nights are my Christian Science church nights, which David knows. One Wednesday night shortly after this, I returned to my car after church and found a red rose on the seat. I knew it must be from David. The next Sunday, I left an envelope with money inside on the front seat when I went in to church. I could hardly wait for the service to end, and when it was finally over, I rushed to the car, and sure enough, the envelope was gone. Shortly afterwards, I got a letter from Toronto with no return address on the envelope:

Dear Mom,

Where to start and what to say... I am happy... I have a job starting Wednesday, it is part-time 4 hrs, 6 days a week but a start.

I have met a few people and somehow realize I must practice a better regimen of self-discipline in the sense that so far I’ve been doing or living in a very hedonistic sort of fashion. Freedom is beautiful and Toronto a place that has a strong pulse, if you like; compared to Winnipeg’s nite life.

I keep asking myself what is my direction, what do I want from life now and I only come up with to enjoy it. Maybe that will refine itself somehow, I hope so.

Tell father for me that I hope he understands my leaving and that I care for him and hope he knows that. . .

I wish I could come home. Eleven years wanting only that and then putting myself in a position where I can’t have what I want most.

I love every one and miss you all.

If I could understand why life has been as it has for me where I am to go in it, where I’ve come from, I would be content, but it all makes no sense . . . I shall continue to seek good in others and do good as I see it.

I love you, David.

A little while later, my brother phoned from Toronto and said, “The package that you sent has arrived.” Of course. I hadn’t sent him a package. His code was easy to follow. “Oh, that’s great. I’ll get back in touch with you,” I replied. I called back from a phone booth and talked with David. He had hitchhiked to Toronto. There he changed his name to Ward McAdam, got a job in telephone sales, and was soon making $200 a week selling Grolier encyclopedias. He had fallen in love with a girl named Rhonda whom he met on Yonge Street. He wanted to see me, but on one condition—I couldn’t talk to him about turning himself in. I decided to go.

I flew to Toronto under my maiden name, Baxter. I was terrified that I’d meet someone I knew. I was also scared because I knew I was doing something wrong, that I should be turning David in. But I couldn’t erase the memory of his voice when he told me on the phone, “If you come here, don’t come with the intention of talking me out of it.” When I saw David in Toronto, there was a vibrancy about him that I hadn’t seen for years. That look had almost died when he was in prison. There was no way I could shut that door on him.

Despite the publicity, David wasn’t looking over his shoulder, and would stroll down busy Yonge Street, soaking up the sounds and smells and rhythms of the city’s main street. He was determined to savour every moment of freedom. David and I thought that if he could stay out for a while and show that he could function, he would prove the prison authorities wrong. He would show them he could survive outside prison as a productive, peaceful person. It was crazy, but that thought offered us some comfort.

We had a wonderful time in Toronto. We took long walks together. We attended church and had a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant. I went shopping for clothes for him. We found him a furnished apartment in a house, and I bought him a comforter for his bed, and some clothes, including a parka. They were all the mothering things we had both missed so badly.

I David later wrote to me, “My success and I sense of self-pride was diminished only by the I fact that I could not share it [freedom] truly with I those that I love, my family.” Meanwhile, in S Toronto, a new man at David’s work needed a “ place to stay, and David took him in after telling him, “No drugs. I can’t stand any heat.” The man caught on that David must be hiding something from the police. When the young man left and quickly got into trouble with the police, he told them he knew someone they wanted.

The man David helped told him that he wanted to meet him to thank him for all of his help, and they arranged a get-together near the corner of Queen Street and Roncesvalles Avenue, in the Parkdale district. When David arrived, he saw two big men who looked like police. As he walked by them, one of them said, “David?” “Excuse me,” David replied, breaking into a run. Unknown to him, he was running directly into a buildup of police in a parking lot. They yelled for him to stop, and he did, raising his hands above his head. There was a single blast from a double-barrelled shotgun anyway, and David was down on the pavement, bleeding. The pellets had lodged in his spine, and David feared he had lost the use of his legs forever, as well as his taste of freedom, which had now ended after 77 days.

Few questions were asked about the shooting, since David was believed to be a wanton killer and had no public sympathy. Besides our family and a few close friends, who really cared? Police said they thought David was armed when they shot him. Witnesses interviewed by the press said police could have easily reached out and tripped him, but the officer shot him instead. Other bystanders said they never heard the police identify themselves as police officers, and no one said anything about David actually having a weapon.

I flew back to Toronto to comfort him. There was a police officer outside his room at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and David was handcuffed to the bed. I sat on his bed, rubbed his feet, and told David that I loved him. He looked so frail, so helpless, so pale. He later explained that he had to escape, despite the risks. “I was dying a little bit... something inside me, every day. I stole my freedom.”

That was a turning point for me. I stopped placing hope in appeals or parole or politicians or any part of the system that had already failed us so badly. □