My Friend Guay, the Murderer
In the most diabolical crime of our time a twisted little back-street show-off murdered twenty-three people to get rid of an unwanted wife. Quebec’s best-known novelist knew Albert Guay as a man who wanted the moon but got a hangman’s noose. Here he tells for the first time the sombre, shocking story of his next-door neiqhbor
ON THE afternoon of Sept. 9, 1949, a Canadian Pacific Airlines DC-3 left Quebec City with twenty-three people aboard, heading for Baie Comeau, a lumber town 220 miles to the northeast. Above Sault-au-Cochon, forty-one miles out of Quebec City, the plane exploded like an electric light bulb. All the passengers were killed.
Ten days later a Quebec woman, Marguerite Pitre, who was recovering in hospital after having tried to commit suicide, told police she had put a package aboard the plane on behalf of a young Quebec jeweler, Joseph Albert Guay, whose wife Rita Morel was among the victims. Guay was arrested for the most horrible mass murder in the history of crime in North America.
Since then the details of the murder and the trials have filled the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Albert Guay has been hanged. Marguerite Pitre, who delivered the time-bomb which destroyed the plane, and her crippled brother Généreux Ruest, who manufactured it, have been condemned to die for complicity in the murder. Both have appealed the death sentence.
One question has been asked time and again since the incredible news first became known: How could a man, no different from any that you might meet on the streets of any f ;wn at any time, conceive and carry out such a rder—as useless
as it was diabolical?
Of all the journalists who had dealings with him I am the only one who knew Joseph Albert Guay well before the catastrophe. I believe that I can lift one corner of the veil which hides this mystery by revealing certain aspects of his character which did set him apart from his fellows.
About five o’clock on the afternoon of Sept. 9, I turned on the radio in my car and heard the first news of the crash. When the announcer read the name of Rita Morel, wife of Joseph Albert Guay, jeweler, among the victims of the accident, I experienced such a shock that I had to pull my car into the curb. The plane, according to the broadcast, had simply disintegrated in mid-air, as though it had been blown up by dynamite.
The first thought that came to my mind was: “Why, that’s Albert’s wife!” And, incredible as it may seem looking back, my second reaction was: “Albert had something to do with that explosion.”
The fact that I had instantly and almost instinctively suspected Albert scared me. I started my car but instead of turning in the direction of the Sillery, where I have lived since my marriage, I drove to Lower Town and the St. Sauveur district, where I had lived for the great part of my life and where Albert Guay had lived for eight years.
During these years Guay and his wife had been
neighbors of mine on the opposite side of the street. We had dealt with the s^ime grocer, Pat Allen, patronized the same printer, Victor Tardif, and Guay was a member of the little club where I played poker. I was curious to know what the grocer, the printer and the poker players thought of the accident.
I went into Pat Allen’s store. Pat came running toward me. His manner was distracted; he pulled me behind some sacks of potatoes and whispered to me, “I think Albert might have blown up that plane.” Some of the poker players came in and joined us at the back of the store. The same idea had occurred to all of them—that Albert was responsible for the crash.
How was it that these people could without hesitation believe Guay guilty of so fiendish a murder? These were sensible people; they knew Guay well, knew his charming character, his generosity, his good manners, his childish boasting. Ignorant as they were of even the slightest knowledge of psychology, they were well enough acquainted with this highly strung jeweler, who on the surface appeared not a bad fellow, *to believe him quite capable of anything at all. Here then is what all of us, and I in particular, knew of him.
Joseph Albert Guay was the youngest of a family of five. His father died when the boy was still very young. His mother’s favorite, he was a thoroughly spoiled child. If he wanted a bicycle he got one. Heaven help the teacher who dared scold him. Madame Guay would rush to the school and hurl abuse at the unfortunate instructor. Candies and toys seemed to have been invented especially for Albert. He was raised with the idea that nothing could ever be refused him. /The most important thing in the world was that his every caprice should be •fished. Even as a young child he would quite willingly have murdered
While he plotted his wife’s murder Albert bought her flowers« He wept at her funeral and said nobody was monstrous enough to blow up a plane
Xy one of his little friends if he had wanted the moon and someone had ^ntjhtd it to him on that condition.
By the time he was sixteen Albert was spoiled beyond redemption. He began to hang out in pool halls and to lead the life of the gay young manabout-town. To keep himself supplied with cash he sold watches and other jewelry on commission. When the war broke out he was taken on at the Canadian Arsenals Limited at St. Malo, where his job consisted of watching a grinding machine. Here he earned forty dollars a week.
In spite of his youthful extravagances, Albert was always neatly dressed, had good manners, and his thin face was that of the successful adolescent. His self-important manner, his air of assurance and the Mercury sedan he drove to work made him popular with the girls who worked in the arsenal and with whom he went out on gay parties in the evenings.
Of all these girls Rita Morel was by far the prettiest. With her great dark eyes of Andalusian beauty, a sensual mouth, fine teeth and magnificent black hair, she was far and away the most attractive girl in the factory, though she was slightly plump and rather short. Passionately in love with her, Albert decided she was for no one but him. In Quebec that means marriage. As irresponsible then as he was to show himself all his life, Albert married Rita.
I shall always remember that spring morning when the happy couple, followed by a crowd of singing, laughing wedding guests, appeared suddenly in the Rue Colomb where I then lived to inspect their apartment opposite my house. Joseph Albert was wearing evening dress complete with top hat, a garb rarely seen at a working-class wedding. I was struck by that fact. “There’s a bluffer,” I thought. On the day of his marriage he resembled nothing quite so much as a boy playing at weddings.
My acquaintance with Guay and his wife dated from that day. One other thing that impressed me from the beginning was the great show of affection he put on. Each noon Rita would come down to the sidewalk with Albert where, in full view of all the neighborhood gossips, he would embrace her passionately and at great length in seeming emulation of a Hollywood
actor. He would kiss her and call her pet names. His way of embracing his wife before the eyes of the whole parish astonished and shocked the neighbors, who believed that kisses and demonstrations of affection were better indulged in private.
At the same time that he was demonstrating every symptom of a passionate attachment for his wife, he continued to go out on occasion with girls from the arsenal. Spoiled child as he was and would remain, he could not accept the idea that the possession of one woman robbed him of his right to have affairs with others. Yet Albert was jealous of Rita, who nevertheless was faithful to him. She had a way of looking at men that was at once exciting and inviting. She seemed always on the point of indulging in a flirtation. Some of my friends of that period tried flirting with her, without success.
One evening about five o’clock, when I was driving from work, I met Rita Morel in the Rue St. Joseph and, since we were bound in the same direction, offered to drive her home. In front of her door I stopped to let her out. Albert, in shirt sleeves, was leaning against the house, watching us in a sombre manner. He came up to me. His eyes were cast down; he always looked at the ground and his hands, never still, rattled the coins in his pockets. Guay said, “Roger, I’ll give you a word of friendly advice. No more of that. That sort of thing can only end in tragedy.”
He was given to such grandiloquence and would often engage in solemn conversations on morality and morals. Old women and priests loved to talk to him.
A Role for Charlie Chaplin
Here is the picture that I have of him at that period. He was a thin young man, nervous, with the features of a tormented youth, often seeming preoccupied when talking as though he had on his mind a problem that it was most important he should solve. From time to time he would emerge suddenly from his abstraction and assume a solemn and authoritative manner. With his toes turned in and his hands in his pockets, he would play the part of Joe Know-It-All among the friends who gathered at the corner grocery or with whom he played poker. He would often take from his pocket a great roll of dollar bills and announce to everyone within earshot that he had a marvelous scheme that would make him very rich, very soon.
He liked to appear more prosperous than his neighbors, and I have often watched him on a Sunday with his wife, both in slacks, leaving our street for a gay outing in the country with a few friends; this in a parish where slacks are not worn and where few of the inhabitants own cars.
He made a great impression on the neighbors.
Another thing that struck me about him was the fact he always wore black shoes, very narrow and always highly polished. He paid a youngster twenty-five cents a week to shine his shoes every evening.
Guay was always in a hurry. He drove his car through the narrow streets of Lower Town the way a movie cowboy rides his horse. He always leaped out of his car to the sidewalk almost before it had come to a full stop.
He was interested in everything, talked of everything, yet knew nothing. He waved his thin hands as he talked to illustrate his conversation. He was completely irresponsible, imaginative yet devoid of any practical sense.
He was the kind of man who, if he heard that the Chateau Frontenac was for sale and that a businessman was interested in buying it, would believe it was quite possible for him to act as an agent and so earn a fat commission without spending a single cent.
Albert Guay, in short, might have sat for the portrait of Monsieur Verdoux as played by Charlie Chaplin. Two men dwelt side by side within his frail body: the ambitious megalomaniac, devoid of any practical gifts to help him achieve his ends, and the sickly passionate lover.
I remember one Saturday afternoon when he decided to check and repair the engine of his car, though he must have known he was completely devoid of any mechanical ability. But the very action of borrowing a few tools and putting on mechanic’s overalls seemed to convince him that he was quite capable of tearing down the motor and assembling it again. He poked around all afternoon among the valves and pistons, remaining serious under the jeering sallies of his wife. In the end he abandoned the job to a garage mechanic and went upstairs to supper, announcing that the carburetor needed cleaning.
Guay was afraid of blood. I recall an occasion on which he refused to watch a butcher chopping off a hen’s head under the pretense that he “couldn’t bear to watch an animal suffer.” His great passion was for the dramas of human relationships. Frequently he would intervene in the domestic disputes of his neighbors in an effort to bring about a reconciliation.. He was generous, loaned money freely to friends, and did not dun them for the return of loans. His
pose always was that some day he would be so rich that small losses of that sort would be unimportant. It was easy for him to do good turns. He often got out of bed in the middle of the night to drive seriously ill neighbors who were too poor to pay for a taxi to the hospital.
A man who is living beyond his means in this manner, who owns a car and is given to generous gestures, obviously cannot live on forty dollars a week. A few months after his marriage every householder in the parish received a business card signed “Joseph Albert Guay, Jeweler.” That was the first time any of us had ever heard that he was a jeweler.
The Man Who Made Gadgets
He appeared as sure of his ability to repair watches as he had once appeared certain of his skill as a mechanic. Naturally he kept his job in the war factory and he repaired the watches in the evenings at home. At least that is what he said. Actually, he was not at all interested in repairing watches and would send them out to jewelers to be fixed, marking the price up to his advantage. He liked to have his customers believe that a watch in trouble was a mysterious and important thing and that the price could be determined only after the watch had been thoroughly examined and repairs had been completed.
It was in this way that he was later to engage the services of Généreux Ruest. I knew Ruest too.
I remember one night, a few months before the crash, when I went to the St. Sauveur district of Lower Town to play poker with some old friends. During the game I noticed my wrist watch was broken and later I crossed the street to where Albert Guay had opened a small jewelry store in 1945 and asked him to look at it for me.
“Let’s take it and show it to Généreux,” he said and took me into the back shop where he introduced me to the hawk-faced cripple. It was a familiar face to me and I said, “Do you remember me, Généreux?” Ruest nodded and his lips parted in a thin smile.
Fifteen years before, when I was recovering from pleurisy in a public ward in hospital, there was a patient in the bed next to me whom I shall never forget. In the first place he had an odd name—Généreux Ruest. Then, not only did he repair the watches of the other patients with remarkable skill, but he displayed an extraordinary aptitude for anything mechanical. He spent the long days constructing various small and ingenious machines of his own invention. For example, wires connected his alarm clock to his radio in such a way that the alarm clock, instead“" of ringing, turned on the radio at exactly eight o’clock.
Finally, Généreux Ruest suffered from an incurable malady. He had tuberculosis in both hips, and he would never walk again.
Guay’s specialty was the sale of watches on credit to his fellow workers in the arsenal and his neighbors in the parish. In 1943 I left with him a Roamer watch with the spring broken. Two months later he had not returned it to me. I asked him about it and he told me laughingly, “Your watch had such a complicated movement that I had to send it to New York.” Finally he told me the New York experts had telephoned him to say that the watch was useless. In telling me this he had such a serious manner that I could not get annoyed with him. But from that moment on I realized that he was not honest. Later he gave me ten dollars for the lost watch.
One Saturday evening in July 1944, about midnight, Guay returned home with his wife. A few moments later he came rushing downstairs, waving his arms in the air and yelling, “I’ve been robbed. Somebody has stolen a thousand dollars’ worth of watches from me.” The lock of his door had been forced. The thief was never discovered and the insurance company had to pay up. Guay had great faith in insurance companies. In the next two years he was robbed four or five times. People began to look on him with suspicion but Albert continued to hold his head high. On Sunday mornings, arm in arm with his wife, a great prayer book ur.der his left arm, he would make his pious way to high mass. He neither drank nor swore and was on good terms with the parish priest. Moreover, he often spoke sadly to us of the thefts of which he had been a victim. “I was born under an unlucky star,” he would say. “Fortunately I was insured.”
He Couldn’t Stand Failure
In 1945 the arsenal closed. Albert Guay opened his jewelry store just opposite the parish church. His business went well enough in 1946 and 1947. It should be noted that on two occasions his store was damaged by fire. Again the insurance companies paid up. Then quarrels broke out between Guay and his wife. Rita had learned of her husband’s little adventures and to make him jealous had engaged in a few mild flirtations. Neighbors have told me that in their quarrels the Guays would throw bottles and yell insults at one another. The day after an argument of this kind Albert frequently bought his wife a present.
About this time I used to see Albert in Pat Allen’s grocery store. He seemed more pensive than ever. All his features seemed pinched in, as though concentrating on a single fixed idea.
Life was not bestowing its rich gifts on the spoiled child. He had not become rich; on the contrary, he was running into debt. Yet for eight years he had been telling everybody that one of these days he was going to be a rich man. What would people think of him? Certainly he had done everything in his power to achieve his end. He had become a third-degree Knight of Columbus and was taking steps to obtain the coveted fourth degree. Several priests were recommending him for that honor. He had a current account with the bank, a lawyer to collect his bad debts, and he even sponsored a short radio program to advertise his jewelry business. He had several agents who journeyed through the villages of Quebec selling his watches on the installment plan. It was Guay who had planned all of this not inconsiderable business. But since he was without practical qualities he could not prevent his agents from pocketing the money paid by their customers; and he was too timid to demand his money from them.
When he believed that he was to be invested with the honors of a fourthdegree Knight of Columbus he had a magnificent suit of clothes made. When the time of the initiation was approaching he was informed that he had been rejected on account of his debts. It was one of the greatest disappointments of his life. That evening, soon after Albert returned home, Rita went
to the grocery. She told Pat Allen, “Poor Albert! He’s crying like a child. They’ve turned him down. He wanted to become rich too quickly.”
It was at this time that he met Marie-Ange Robitaille.
I have said that there dwelt two men in Albert Guay: the ambitious man and the sensualist. Now his ambitions were bankrupt. He threw himself passionately into a love affair to forget. As his sentimental life too was to founder, these two failures, coming in contact with one another, closed the fatal circuit.
He met Marie-Ange in the restaurant Chez Gerard, where she was a waitress. She was still almost a child, only seventeen years of age, and looked like a timid girl fresh from a convent. Under an assumed name he began to call on her three nights a week like a young suitor with serious intentions. Marie-Ange’s parents saw a good match for their daughter in this distinguished young man who occupied the big armchair in their living room and paid conventional suit to their daughter.
When he visited Marie-Ange at her home he took the name of Roger Angers. He hated the name Albert and once told me I had a nice Christian name.
Abandoned by Iiis Mistress
Guay possessed to a high degree the gift of creating for himself a world of illusion and of believing firmly in the world of his own creation. Calling on Marie-Ange gave him the illusion that he was once more a boy with a successful future. He was no longer the thirtyyear-old man who had failed to become rich; he was the ambitious youngster. The little game lasted several months. He even bought -an engagement ring for Marie-Ange. Then one night Rita Morel burst into the Robitaille living room and the game was up.
Rita Morel had signed her own death warrant.
The spoiled child wanted the moon and he would spare no effort to get it. Marguerite Pitre, the sister of Généreux Ruest, who repaired watches, began to feature in the affairs of the couple. It was she who gave shelter to MarieAnge when she left her home at Guay’s urging. Some part of this story is well known. Albert Guay had an extraordinary mastery over the minds of people of little importance. He dominated Marie-Ange and Généreux Ruest, the first by the intensity of his passion, the other by the scope and brilliance of his plans for the future.
Guay took Marie-Ange to Sept-Ues, where they lived together for some time as husband and wife. She left him, then returned to him. Finally MarieAnge realized there was no future in this affair and that she was wasting her time. She left Albert, telling him that since he was married there was little object in continuing the liaison. In despair the spoiled child took stock of his situation. His home life was destroyed, his ambitions ruined; and now his mistress was abandoning him. That couldn’t happen to him, not to Albert Guay who expected everything from life and to whom life owed everything.
Without being conscious of it, Guay had probably been giving thought to the problem of getting rid of his wife ever since she had made her sensational entrance into the Robitaille living room. For was she not the great obstacle between him and Marie-Ange, between him and the moon? But how was it to be done, he must have asked himself. He was afraid of blood. He might shoot her, of course, but he lacked the courage for that. Besides, he could not look at a dead person. It would be best, he apparently decided, if his wife were to disappear in some sort of an accident. That was it—an accident!
By the time the plan had fully formed in his mind it is quite plausible to believe that Guay had ceased to think of himself as a murderer at all.
It is possible that the idea of a bomb dwelt in his subconscious as a result of his experience in the arsenal. It probably swam into his conscious thoughts during an air journey from Sept-Iles to Quebec. The mechanics of the murder took shape in his mind and began to haunt him. The idea of a plane crash attracted him for several reasons. First, there was the pleasure of designing and constructing the bomb, with the aid of Généreux Ruest. This appealed to his taste for ingenious mechanical devices which he had loved ever since his boyhood. Further, since the bomb was to have a time device, the plane would fall apart over water. There would be only bits of unrecognizable bodies if, indeed, anything was recovered; so there would be no corpse to identify. He would erase the presence of Rita as he might rub out a drawing from a book. Finally, everyone would be so convinced the explosion was an accident that he himself would come to believe it.
Honeymoon Before Death
Perhaps, too, the great explosion would succeed in shattering the ill fortune that had dogged his steps and he could begin life all over again with Marie-Ange, a life full of hope and love. This time he would not fail. He would become rich, for with the insurance money he would receive on his wife’s death he would pay off his debts. Guay had $5,000 on his wife’s life, to which he added another $10,000 at the airport before she took off on the fatal flight. Above everything else he hated owing money.
And what of the other passengers in the plane? His mind refused to dwell on that problem. How could he, Albert Guay, prevent accidents from happening? Consider now this aspect of his character. He was capable of conceiving this grandiose scheme of murder down to the last detail; and yet with a curious lack of caution he shared his secret with Ruest, who made the bomb for him.
By the time of the crash Guay had succeeded completely, it seems, in convincing himself that it was all an accident. On receipt of the news he burst into tears of unfeigned grief. Astonishing as it may seem, there were signs that Guay loved his wife dearly.
Two months before the tragedy he and Rita, with a couple of friends, had made a tour of the Gaspé. These friends have since told me that Rita and Albert, riding in the back seat, acted like a young honeymoon couple. There was a succession of kisses and caresses, and he kept using sentences like, “There, little darling, there isn’t
anyone like you, not anyone in the whole world.” Two weeks before the crash he bought his wife flowers, as he had so often done since their marriage. Before they hanged him for his crime he requested that he should be buried beside her.
For the funeral of his dead wife he ordered a magnificently bedecked mortuary chamber. He had a floAl cross made, five feet high, bearing the inscription, “From Your Beloved Albert.” He thought of everything. He had mourning cards printed by his friend Victor Tardif, urging him to take special pains to see that Rita’s photograph came out well on the cards. In spite of his grief, his drawn features and his weariness, he remained at the funeral parlor from morning till night.
All those who had suspected him regretted their shocking first thought. It was inconceivable that one of our group could have killed twenty-three people. I believe that I was the only person to persist in my doubts. I wanted to keep close to him and, as a reporter, to interview him. But frankly, after having seen that mortuary chamber, I had not the courage to do so, and I began to think tha*t I was a little crazy to be imagining such things.
“Put Your Trust in God”
Dressed in black, thin and pale, he shook hands with those who called to pay their respects. When I offered him my condolences he said, “You know how much I loved her. But the important thing is that she didn’t suffer. You don’t think she suffered, do you?” Then he stifled a sob which was not feigned. Notice his complete lack of realization of the nature of what he had done. His one feeling of remorse was: Did Rita suffer?
While I was at the funeral parlor a priest entered. Guay asked him to recite the rosary. Everyone kneeled. As other priests came in he would ask each to recite the rosary. After one such occasion I heard a man sobbing in the room above us. It was the husband of Madame Romeo Chapados who, with her three children, had died in the crash. He was weeping beside the two coffins. Guay made his excuses, quickly went upstairs and began to console Chapados. He said, “Be brave, M. Chapados. Do as I do: put your trust in God. I have lost my young wife.” Several times he went upstairs to console him.
The Grocer Feared Revenge
He came back to me and I told him that some of the newspapers were talking of an explosion of dynamite as the cause of the crash. He shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “In my opinion it was a faulty feed line. There’s nobody monstrous enough to blow up a plane.” Then, with his hands in his pockets, he looked down at his feet, with his toes slightly turned in, as if hypnotized by the gleam of his highly polished shoes.
He believed in the accident now, as he had believed in thieves when he himself was organizing the robberies of his jewelry store to collect the insurance. At the funeral he was proud of the great crowd which followed the hearse and he said to Victor Tardif, “See how well known I am and how much everyone loved Rita.” At the cemetery, as the coffin was lowered into the grave, he said to his little daughter, “Look, dear! Mama is leaving us forever.” Then he burst into real sobs. He cried so hard and he was so weak that he had to be helped into the taxi.
Two days later I met him again. Under his eyes were dark shadows and his face was white. He said to me, “Do you realize that Pat Allen didn’t come to the funeral? I shall never forget that.” He appeared deeply injured. Pat Allen, who had communicated his suspicions about Guay to several people immediately after the crash, now went in fear of Albert, believing that if he really was a criminal Guay might murder him in revenge. But it wasn’t at all that way. Guay was hurt that Pat, who had been his grocer for eight years, had not come to the funeral.
A Rope for a Lover
After his arrest, indeed up to the time that Marie-Ange Robitaille began her evidence, Guay conducted himself with all the offhandedness of a man who has been arrested by mistake. In prison he hummed little French songs. He played endless games of rummy with his guards, whom he consistently beat to his great satisfaction. Shortly before his trial he said to one of the guards, “I’ve been held here three months now. Think of all the money this nonsense is making me lose. When I get out of here I’m going to sue the government.”
1 covered the trial and I saw Guay remain impassive as witness after witness gave evidence. Then MarieAnge was called, the woman for whom he had killed his wife and twenty-two other people. I shall never forget the brief glance between them. It cannot be described.
The eighteen-year-old girl was welldressed and her auburn hair hung down to her shoulders. She spoke in a weak but clear voice, her eyes full of tears, of her liaison with Albe-1 Guay. She wove a rope for her lover’s neck without once looking at him and, when she concluded with the words “I don’t love him any .more,” Guay’s face turned ashen grey, his lips took on a bluish tinge. He looked like a man whose body was beginning to decay while he still lived. Then he closed his eyes. He made no motion, said nothing.
The sentence of death he received almost absent-mindedly, his eyes on his polished shoes. He was asked if he wanted to enter an appeal. “Why? For whom?” he said to his lawyer. “I’ve no more interest in living ”
End of a Spoiled Child
In the condemned man’s cell another interesting aspect of his personality revealed itself. He wanted to sell the story of his life to a magazine to earn a little money for his daughter, to obtain the widest possible publicity and to teach a moral lesson to his readers. To the Crown attorneys he made a confession that filled a hundred pages. It ended with words something like this: “And now I hope that this story will serve as a terrible lesson to those who, like me, have been blinded by passion and ambition.”
The newspapers reported that he faced his death with arrogance, saying, “I die famous.” That is not true. For a week before his execution he was unable to eat. During all the last day he kept asking the prison doctor, “Will it hurt? Will I still be conscious when my neck breaks? You do die instantaneously, don’t you?” He was a pitiful remnant of a human being as he walked to the scaffold. Two guards had to support him.
Joseph Albert Guay died true to himself. He was the spoiled child who had killed twenty-three people in his effort to get the moon. it