How I found the man who kille y son
The police laughed at my fear, but my mother’s heart told me my soil had come to harm. So, with only my family to help me, I turned detective and rail his murderer to earth
“It happened to me” This Is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time In Maclean's . . . storles told by Its readers about some dramatic event In their lives.
On March 30, 1958, thawing snow in a roadside ditch five miles from Montebello, Que., uncovered a human torso. At the first report, police appeared to face a long and tortuous investigation. There were grave problems of identification; head and hands had been removed from the corpse, and it had been in the ditch for at least two months.
Yet within twenty-four hours the identity of the victim was established, a suspect was in custody, and detectives had most of the evidence by which he was later convicted of the murder and sentenced to hang. The police had acted on information supplied by the victim’s family. It had been gained at the insistence of his mother, and largely by her own ingenuity and daring, during a nine-week ordeal of courage and torment that can have few parallels in the history of crime.
She speaks no English and reads and writes little French. This is her story as she told it to the Quebec editor of Maclean’s.
My son was gone, without word, without trace. I was afraid, and I pleaded for help.
Across the counter at the Montreal Sûreté the sergeant leaned on his elbows and waited to hear me out. Then he took me up on the elevator to the fourth floor, to a half-lit corridor where there were two wooden benches. He told me to wait until Lieut. George Cookson, the head of the missing-persons bureau, could see me. I sat on the bench for three hours, alone with my fear. Constables in uniform passed and passed again but none spoke and few even looked at me. It was late afternoon when Lieut. Cookson called me in, and I told him everything 1 knew about the strange disappearance of my son Jean-Claude.
More than two weeks before, Jean-Claude had left our house in east Montreal to drive his car to New York. It was a little after seven when 1 saw him last, on the night of Jan. 23, 1958—a date impossible for me to forget. My son was going to meet his new boss, a M'sicur Dennis, and was to follow Dennis’ car to New York City. The very next morning Jean-Claude was to report at the Empire State Building to start an important job. confidential and highly paid. Dennis had hired him after their first interview, which took place in Jean-Claude’s car. He had rushed home to tell us he was to be a courier for the United States government, responsible for delivering secret contracts to oil refineries and uranium mines.
But even though he was the one chosen for such a job from among all the men who had answered the ad M’sieur Dennis ran in Montreal La Presse, Jean-Claude was really little more than a boy. I explained all this to the lieutenant, and told him that again and again before he left Jean-Claude had promised to telephone me that same night when he was through driving, even if the call cost ten dollars. In fact he had promised to call me every night the first week he was away, and to write every week after that.
It was important for the lieutenant to understand that Jean-Claude was no boy to break a promise to me. Ever since my elder son Roger was married and went to live in his own home. Jean-Claude had béen the breadwinner in my house in place of his dead father. Besides, Jean-Claude had never been away from me before for more than a weekend. I knew he would b^omesick for all of us.
“So you see,” l said, “you’ve got to help me. I’ve waited beside the telephone until I'm sick with worry and fright, and there is nothing. Silence. Something has happened to Jean-Claude, and you must help me find him.”
“How old is the youngster?” Lieut. Cookson asked me. “Is he twenty-one?”
Jean-Claude’s twenty-first birthday had been in June, I said. The lieutenant shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do,” he told me. “Your son has a good job, he's of age. There’s nothing the police can do to make a man who leaves home write regularly to his mother.” He paused. “Unless a crime has been committed—but there's no crime here. I’m sorry we can’t help.”
“1 know my son,” 1 said, and maybe I shouted. “Unless there’s something wrong, he’d send me word. It’s your job to help. You must!” The lieutenant ran his hand through his thin hair. Then he Stood up and showed me out.
I saw nothing from the windows of the bus as 1 made my way home.
That weck I wasn’t myself. Maybe my mind was a little unhinged with worry. I don’t know; it was the third week of empty waiting, of endless questions without answers drumming in my head. Night by night we three women sat by the television screen where we had laughed so often with Jean-Claude. Micheline, my younger daughter, was just sixteen then and my fear frightened her, too. It was almost as hard for our roomer. Claire Roy. One day, perhaps. Claire and Jean-Claude might have been married; they had already said the first tentative words.
Every night my other children called to ask if we had word. First Roger, my older son. Then Pauline, my older daughter, and her husband, Marcel Lessard. And every night 1 said no. there was no word. By Saturday I could wait helplessly no longer. I asked Claire to come back to the big police station on Gosford Street with me,
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and this time we took along the advertisement Jean-Claude had clipped from the Jan. 8, 1958, issue of La Presse.
“Here is how you can help me,” I told the police. “The man who put this ad in the paper hired my son. He must know where Jean-Claude is.”
The police looked politely at the clipping. It was a short ad, asking for a bachelor with a recent-model car who was free for long trips. The pay was six hundred dollars a month and bonus, and there was a box number Jean-Claude had written to. The police read it and handed it back. There was still nothing they could do, they said. Running an ad in a newspaper was no crime; but I could go to La Presse and ask them who put the ad in their paper.
We went to the newspaper. Again no. The men there said they couldn’t hand out the names of their advertisers to everybody who came along. If I brought the police, they said, and the police told them it was official business, then maybe they could help.
The police, the newspaper, everywhere we went the answer was the same. There were regulations, forms; it mattered little that I knew in my heart something wrong had happened to my son. So long as there was no evidence and no crime, there was nothing anybody could do. We went home, to wait again for the telephone call that never came.
The next week isn't clear to me now. I think I prayed much of the time. By Friday, 1 felt I had to do something again. What? God help me, I didn't know.
That Friday was Feb. 21, almost a month to the day since Jean-Claude had driven away. That Friday was the day Claire saw the car.
She telephoned me in the middle of the afternoon. “I’ve seen it! I’ve seen Jean-Claude’s car!” I heard her say, and it was a moment or two before I heard more. Claire had recognized the blue Pontiac passing the taxi she was riding in, she said, and asked her driver to follow it. She counted off on the license plate—60-444—there was no doubt. It was Jean-Claude’s car.
“So 1 followed in my taxi until the car stopped and the man driving went into a store and I called a cop and told him the man was driving my friend's car and the police held the man but he pushed me and tried to get away and the policeman fired his gun in the air,” Claire said. She was too excited to stop for breath. “More police came and they’re taking him to the Sûreté and I’m going too. I'll tell you the rest when I come home.” She rang off before I could ask anything.
In the same second I phoned Roger and then my son-in-law Marcel but of course they were both away at work. I walked the floor until Claire came; when she rang the bell she had two police officers with her. Lieut. Cookson had asked them to come, they said, to tell me he had interviewed the man who had Jean-Claude’s car. There was nothing w'rong. The papers were perfectly legal, and they showed Jean-Claude had sold his car to the man for a thousand dollars and four oil paintings.
‘ Mon dieu! What is the name of this man who has my son’s car when my son has vanished, and still you say everything is legal?” This time I did shout.
It was a M’sieur Hector Poirier, they told me, and they gave me his address from the car registration papers. Maybe they were afraid I’d fly at them if they didn’t.
Supper was hardly over before everybody was at the house: Roger, Pauline and Pauline's husband Marcel. Micheline and Claire and I. For me this impossible story could mean only one thing; if the car was the only sign we had of Jean-Claude, we must go to the car. And according to the address the police had given me, the car was in Ville St. Jacques. That was the suburb where Jean-Claude had gone to rendezvous at the shopping centre with M’sieur Dennis, before they drove to New York. It was little, but it was better than the anguished emptiness of the last weeks.
We all piled into Marcel’s Monarch and he drove to Ville Jacques Cartier. Marcel parked a few houses down from the number we were looking for, 1207 St. Thomas Street, and turned off his lights. If this man had done something wrong he might try to run away. So I would go to the door; who would run from a woman barely five feet tall who never weighed more than a hundred .. pounds in her life? Roger slipped around
to the laneway behind the shabby square building and Marcel stood in shadow not far from the door. The rest stayed in the car while I walked up and rang.
Perhaps I should have been frightened. I wasn’t. I could only think that now I might learn something about my son. But when the door swung back there were only two young girls there, the older about fourteen; behind them a huddle of smaller children, too many to count. Later I learned there were nine altogether.
The older girl saved me the trouble of making up a story about why I was there. “If you've come to rent the house you can’t see it now. My father’s not home,” she said, and started to close the door.
“But when will he be back?” I asked quickly. “I have to see the house.”
“1 don't know. But when he comes we’ll tell him you were here. What is your name, so he’ll know who it was?’’ My name! If this man knew JeanClaude’s mother was looking for him. what might he do? I searched my mind: “Madame Paquette,” I said. Did I think cf the famous hockey player I like to watch on television, the Pocket Rocket, whose name sounds the same? Maybe.
I went hack to the car. Roger and Marcel followed, and we bent our heads together in the darkness. “Exactly what did this M’sieur Poirier tell you about
Jean-Claude again, Claire, while the police were holding him?”
“He said that M’sieur Dennis made Jean-Claude sell his car because he needed a bigger one for his job. He said the last time he saw them, JeanClaude and M’sieur Dennis, they were on their way to Granby to do secret work. Nothing else.”
Then we must go to Granby, even at night on the snowy roads. There, in the little town, we drove up and down the main street and criss-crossed the sidestreets, looking for a sign. Once we
saw a white Lincoln parked at the curb. We took down the number and drove to the police station. No, the sergeant told us, the white Lincoln didn’t belong to anybody named Dennis. He was sorry, but he couldn’t help us; nobody like M’sieur Dennis and Jean-Claude had been in the town as far as he knew.
Back we went to the streets; up and down; back and forth; but there was nothing. We returned to the one place where something of Jean-Claude remained. the house of this man Poirier in Ville Jacques Cartier.
It was long past midnight when we turned into the dark little street, but still the blue Pontiac was missing. While we watched, a car turned in at the house next to Poirier’s. A couple with two children began to unload their bags from a trip. I jumped out and crossed the street.
This time I had my story ready. We had sold a car to Poirier, I told the woman, hut hadn't yet been paid for it. She could do us a great favor by giving me her phone number; then, if he showed any signs of skipping out, she could tell me. She was glad to help. She gave me her number and we drove home.
That night I slept, and early the next morning 1 phoned Poirier’s neighbor. “They’re packing right now,” she told me. “You were right. They must be skipping out without paying you for the car.”
Now 1 needed help. Roger and Marcel? They were both away at work. The police? I phoned the missing-persons bureau, but by now I almost expected the answer: “Madame, we can’t arrest a man for putting bundles in his car. Compose yourself.” My sister, then. Her son Norman was just Jean-Claude’s age; they lived across the road from our house on Drolet Street, and within minutes Norman was at the door with their family car.
At St. Thomas Street I told Norman to go a block past Poirier’s house and approach by a cross-street. We parked just around the corner from the grey house, where we could watch without being seen. Poirier and his wife—not his wife, I found out later; Mrs. Eddie Laroche, the woman who lived with him —were loading Jean-Claude’s car with boxes and suitcases. After almost an hour the couple and a boy of about thirteen got into the car and drove off: the other kids stayed behind.
At first we followed easily. Poirier drove to a grocery store not far away and parked. The woman and hoy stayed in the car while he shopped. Soon after he started off again he began driving like a crazy man. “He knows he’s being followed,” Norman said. “He’s trying to lose us.”
Can I ever forget that chase? For all of three hours we ran after Jean-Claude’s blue Pontiac through the Saturday traffic. The streets were sloppy with snow and the car ahead skidded and spun, raced through intersections, lurched down one way streets going the wrong way. twisted and turned. Once we lost sight of the blue back, and though we circled desperately we couldn’t find it. But turning for home we met the Pontiac almost
“I don’t care about the car. Keep it!” I cried. “All I want is my son. You’ve got to help me”
head-on at the next intersection. The chase lurched on; the driver ahead finally decided to stop running near the corner of Hurteau and Allard. We stopped a little way behind, and he walked back to Norman's car. I rolled down the window of the back seat.
"Who are you?” he called as he came up. "Why are you following me?”
"I'm Madame Paquette,” I told him. This was the man who had my son's car: small, about five and a half feet, with hair grey on the sides and a thin face. Quick with the hands and the words, a man to talk and make you believe. If you met him you'd say, “My friend, that's a big-shot, maybe a lawyer.”
He knew the name I gave. “You’re the woman who came to rent my house last night. Yes. my son saw you out of the back window of my car and told me. But that doesn’t mean you have to follow me. What are you trying to do?” He was cross-examining me! “Get into the car,” I said. “I want to be frank with you.” He sat beside me. “I am Jean-Claude Perreault’s mother.”
For a moment. I swear, his face changed color. He took off his glasses and spun them in his fingers. "I want to know how come you’ve got my son’s car. I want to know the truth!”
Who is Dennis?
M'sieur Poirier said he would be honest with me. He too, he said, had answered the advertisement in La Presse, and he had been interviewed by Dennis even before Jean-Claude. But he had no car; he was turned down. A few days later Dennis phoned him and asked him to come to the Ville Jacques Cartier shopping centre at night. Jean-Claude was there with Dennis, who said the youngster needed a heavier car than the one he had. If Poirier wanted to buy Jean-Claude’s car he could have it for a thousand dollars. “I had a chance to buy a good car cheap, so I took it.’ Poirier told me. Jean-Claude had gone off to buy a new Lincoln with M’sieur Dennis. Now that he had a car, he. Poirier, had been promised a chance at the next job that came open in M’sieur Dennis’ organization. He was waiting to hear from him.
I felt my hope of finding Jean-Claude slipping away from me again. “You must tell me about M’sieur Dennis. Who is he? What does he look like? How can I find him?”
Dennis, he said, was a big businessman. Big in the body, too—about two hundred and twenty pounds and at least six feet, with shiny black hair. But his work was secret; who knew how to find him?
It was too much. “1 don’t care about the car. Keep it!” I cried. “All 1 want is my son. You've got to help me find him. You’re the only one who knows Dennis.” My pleas seemed to move him. He took down my telephone number, and said he’d do what he could and phone me if he found anything. But then I remembered there was something guilty about this man.
“If you’re telling me the truth,” I asked, “why are you leaving your house?” “What? Have I no right to move? You go too far.”
“Well, then, prove to me that you're being honest. Tell me where your new house is so I can find you.”
“I’ll do better than that,” he said, and stuck his hand out the open window. “Tizo!” he called, and the boy in
Jean-Claude’s car waved. “Bring me the lease.” He showed it to me: “Now do you doubt me?”
There was no doubt, I said, that he was being honest with me. But I studied the numbers of his new address and said them over again in my mind. "Well then, m’sieur, you will help me find my son?” He promised, and said he’d phone me the next day. When he was
gone I told Norman to write down his new address: 17 Petite-Assomption,
Noon came and went the next day with no call from Poirier. I had no patience for waiting. It was Sunday, and an old friend of mine whose family has a car was free for the day. She drove me to Repentigny. and we passed the house a couple of times before she
stopped. This was a bigger house than the other one but just as dingy; two stories, with a glassed-in veranda. I crossed myself and went up the steps.
It was the woman I'd seen the day before in Jean-Claude’s car who opened the door. Dark and surly, she stood back to let me inside the storm door onto the veranda. When she pulled the door shut behind me she slammed it so hard
against my back that I was thrown up against the ice box on the opposite wall. Through the inside door I heard her call upstairs for Poirier, and before he came down I saw a circle of men sitting in shirtsleeves in the front room.
They looked at me with strange flat eyes. Then Poirier was there, and I asked him for news.
"My God, woman,” he said. “Can’t you leave me alone for a day? I’m moving. I’m too dirty to be seen in the street.” He showed me his hands. It was true, they were grimy. “As soon as I know something I'll phone you. I promise.” He turned and went back upstairs. There was nothing I could do but go back the way I came.
Now I lived for the telephone. There was still the hope that Jean-Claude might call: I wouldn't let it die, that thin despairing hope. And there was the call coming from this M'sieur Poirier. But no call came. The next Sunday Marcel, as usual, drove Pauline and their little girl to Repentigny to visit his mother, who lived not many blocks from Poirier’s house. I went along, and that afternoon I walked through the fresh snow to the peeling grey house. The driveway was empty, and the children told me their parents were away in the car.
That night I went back with my son Roger. Again a houseful of kids but no M’sieur Poirier. On Wednesday my sister picked me up in her family’s car and wc drove to Repentigny. When the boy Tizo answered my knock and saw me he shouted, “My father’s not home!” and slammed the door in my face.
“Enough,” Roger said when I told him this. The information operator gave us the number for Poirier at his new address, and late that night Roger called and told me he'd spoken to Poirier at
last. We’d have to wait; Poirier said he’d been too busy to look for Dennis, but now he had time. He’d call us back.
For two days I hung over the phone. We heard nothing. On Friday 1 told Roger we must do something to make this man Poirier help us; he told us only lies. We decided that Roger would go to Nouvelles et Potins, a weekly newspaper that has a section set aside for news about crime and criminals, and ask them to print the whole story.
Now, at last, someone listened to our fears for Jean-Claude. On Monday the paper printed everything we knew about the mystery, including Poirier’s part in it. This time we didn’t have to run after Poirier. He called Roger, a couple of days after the story was in the paper, and asked him to come to a roadhouse in Repentigny for a talk. “He wants me to come alone,” Roger said when he phoned me afterward. “And he asked me to drive across the little wooden bridge at Terrebonne instead of the big Sherbrooke Charlemagne bridge. A trap, I think.
Maybe now we’re going to learn something.”
In some ways this was the worst wait of all, this wait for Roger to call back. The phone rang just before midnight: “There was nobody at the roadhouse where he was supposed to meet me,” I heard Roger say, and I thanked God. This son was safe. Roger had taken three of his biggest workmen with him, and when nobody showed up at the roadhouse they’d gone to Poirier's house. “He told me to send my men away, and I laughed," Roger said. Then Poirier told him he’d gone himself to the police, to Lieut. Cookson, to offer help in the search for Jean-Claude. And already he had made a start. Within days, he promised, we’d have a call or a letter from Jean-Claude.
And so I waited again. This time, though, the wait wasn’t empty. After Roger’s visit we'd all met at my house and agreed that Poirier must be watched. From that night Roger and Marcel and some of their workmen kept watch on the house in Repentigny. They watched through the chill nights for a week and a day, always at least two men in a car and three cars shuttling back and forth so that there could be some sleep for all. On the ninth night the blue Pontiac was gone, and a couple of days later Poirier’s promise came true.
Guy Lefèbvre, the reporter for Nouvelles et Potins who had written our story the week before, phoned Roger to tell him he had a letter Roger should know about. It had been mailed the day before, March 24, in Baltimore, and it was in English, written in shaky printed letters. It said Jean-Claude was fine. “Nobody's making him stay here,” the letter said, “and he’s happy and well paid for what he’s doing. If Dennis made him
sell his car so he could get a newer one, that's none of your business, get it? We can get cars by the dozen . . . Perreault knew what he was doing when he came here. As long as he does what he's told he’ll be just fine.” The letter also spoke of Poirier: “We know he’s been to see the cops. Tell him we’re watching every move he makes . . . You better tell him to take it easy and mind his own business, or he’s going to take a tumble.” It was signed, “The boys at this end.”
Impossible to believe a w'ord. And yet . . . the letter said Jean-Claude was satisfied. If only this could be true! But if Jean-Claude was well nothing could stop him from telling me so himself. Now it seemed another frightening wait must begin, with this new anguish of unknown men writing about my son.
But there was no wait to fear now. The next day, Thursday, the car was back outside Poirier’s house. Late that afternoon Roger got Poirier on the phone. Poirier said the letter from Baltimore scared him. If these men decided to go after him he might be hurt; they had a powerful organization. But even so. he said, he’d still do anything he could to help us find Jean-Claude.
“You wrote the letter yourself when you were away,” Roger accused. Poirier denied everything. “Good,” Roger said. “Then you'll come with us to Granby tonight.” Poirier made excuses, but finally agreed to go to Granby with Roger and Marcel.
This time I didn't hope. When Marcel stopped at my house late that night and told me they’d been to the town police and the RCMP in Granby but discovered nothing, I only shook my head.
It was Marcel who found the last proof of the thing we all feared. Secretly I'd known the truth for many days now,
I suppose, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it. Marcel found Dennis.
It was at the car-wash where Marcel goes every Friday. To pass the time while he waited for his car he talked with a man he'd seen there before, a man named Yves Bacon. He told Bacon about the disappearance of his brother-in-law, and went over the whole story backwards. When he came to the beginning Bacon jerked with surprise. He had answered that same advertisement in La Presse himself, but the job had sounded too good to be true. He'd told Dennis he'd talk to his lawyer about it, and never heard from Dennis again.
“You know Dennis, then?” Marcel asked. “A great big six-footer with black hair?”
“Are you crazy?” Bacon said. “Dennis is a little guy, no more than five-foot-five, with hair going grey around the sides.”
It was a stroke of Providence, this meeting. But w'hen I heard, there was no relief for me in the words. “Poirier is Dennis,” Marcel said, and I was terribly afraid. Because this really meant there was no M’sieur Dennis, no secret job at the Empire State Building, nothing. It left only one question of all the answerless questions that had wracked me for two months. What had Poirier done with my son?
Through the window—proof
The next day I knew. But that same night Roger and Marcel convinced Bacon he should come with them to the police. And even now there was no help at the Sûreté. From the police files Bacon identified a picture of Poirier. He was a lifelong criminal, Roger told me later, who had been in jail more than thirty of his fifty-one years. He was also, beyond doubt, Dennis. The police wrote this down and said that if Poirier should prove to have committed a crime, the information would be very useful. For the moment, there was nothing they could do.
There was one more thing we could do. From the Sûreté Roger and Marcel drove Bacon to Repentigny. While Bacon sat in the dark car and Marcel stood ready below the steps in the shadow, Roger went into the house. He was careful to stand by the uncurtained window, and Poirier stood beside him. Poirier repeated his old promises; in the car, later. Bacon said it was the same man— Dennis.
It was very late when Roger phoned to tell me what had happened that night. I listened carefully, of course, but it made little difference to me now. 1 lay awake through the rest of the night. My mind wasn’t on the man who was Dennis. It was with my son.
The next day was Sunday. In the early afternoon there was a special announcement on the radio. The body of a young man had been found. The body was described. Police, the announcer said, thought it might be that of an ex-prizefighter who had been missing for many months. I knew it was not.
Roger did the rest. He didn’t tell me— none of them told me—to spare me. Late that afternoon Roger drove to Repentigny. Pauline, my older daughter, and three of his workmen were with him. He and Pauline stood in the glassed-in veranda where 1 had been thrown against the ice box, and Roger told Poirier that he had dreamed the night before. In his dream, he said, Poirier killed JeanClaude, brutally. “You are mad!” Poirier said, and his skin was like ashes.
On Monday morning Roger identified the body. Dear God, there could be no mistake. Then, for the last time, Roger
told the police the story of our search for Jean-Claude.
Hector Poirier was arrested an hour before dawn on Tues., April 1, 1958, on the Sherbrooke Charlemagne bridge. This is the same bridge Roger Perreault had crossed to reach the Repentigny house, instead of the deserted Terrebonne bridge Poirier had told him to use. The arresting officers found a loaded pistol taped to the floorboards of the blue Pontiac. Later, at Poirier’s house, they took four more men into custody. All four had criminal
records, and w’ere spoken of during Poirier's trial as his “gang.” They were the men Mme. Perreault saw on her first trip to Repentigny.
In his first statement Poirier insisted that he had last seen Jean-Claude Perreault in the company of Dennis. Faced with the evidence provided by the Perreault family and Yves Bacon, he made a second statement.
The entire Dennis fiction, he said, was a scheme to get his hands on a car. At the Jacques Cartier shopping centre he persuaded Jean-Claude to sign a work-
contract, necessary, he told young Perreault, for the secret assignments the boy was to undertake. This signature was the basis for the transfer of the car’s ownership to Poirier. Two hours later, when the car was halted at a deserted crossing, he hit Jean-Claude on the head with an iron bar. The blow killed him. Poirier drove the car through the night, including a trip to Ottawa and back, with the body in the trunk In the morning, he dismembered the body and abandoned it.
Hector Poirier was tried in Montreal and sentenced to hang on Feb. 27, 1959 if