Canadian News

Playing to the galleries with sex and violence

Suzanne Fournier March 5 1979
Canadian News

Playing to the galleries with sex and violence

Suzanne Fournier March 5 1979

Playing to the galleries with sex and violence

Canadian News

Vancouver

Hostage-takings, the B.C. penitentiary at New Westminster and charismatic convict Andy Bruce go hand-in-hand to most watchers of Canada’s strife-riddled prison system. So the seven-day uprising in January, 1978—which included a snatch of 13 hostages by five inmates—seemed like business as usual at the decaying federal fortress on the Fraser River outside Vancouver. Ordinarily, the aborted escape attempt would barely have raised a ripple outside the 350-prisoner institution which, in recent years, has seen routine suicides and stabbings, social worker Mary Steinhäuser fatally shot in 1975 by guards and a cellblock reduced to rubble by rioting inmates in 1976. But scooped up in the inmates’ net a year ago Jan. 28 were two longtime

activists high on prison authorities’ most-wanted list for their strident and persistent agitation for prisoners’ rights and an end to solitary confinement. B.C. pen officials were out to get Betsy Wood, 49, and Gay Hoon, 33: before the pair were beyond the bars, detectives were wheedling prisoners with promises of new identities and relocation in exchange for testifying for the prosecution. And the Crown promptly charged not only the five inmates who had tried to escape but—alone among the hostages—the two women activists with “breaking a prison.”

In Vancouver this week the circuslike B.C. Supreme Court trial of the pair stretched into a full month in the old Georgia Street courthouse, guarded by

a legion of edgy sheriffs and boasting a passing parade of Vancouver’s thriving left, including ardent feminists, a blackbereted regular sporting both an A-for-

anarchist badge and a spectacular criminal record, and a young man decked out in a dress and trailing braids.

The defendants are an unlikely pair of incendiaries. Portly white-haired Betsy Wood (who once accosted a disdainful Pierre Trudeau at a garden party, “You don’t know how to love and that’s why Andy Bruce is still in solitary”) is laboriously acting as her own lawyer, coached by a patient judge, to the sighs of reporters and sotto voce groans from a seemingly bewildered and demoralized prosecutor. Sidekick and activist Gay Hoon, widely portrayed as a nice girl sucked in by the intensity of prison politics, sits in silence at the counsel table and runs in tears from the TV cameras. Her lawyer,

James Vilvang, who doubles as a wrestler Saturday mornings and bounces Satan’s Angels at night from local punk rock nightclubs, confesses himself sidetracked by a dozen-member “defence committee” determined to direct the show.

Crown Attorney Charles Norris has gamely forged ahead with attempts to link the two women—frequent prison visitors—to blundered escape plans, pointing out that Wood parked a rented Plymouth Volaré directly outside the prison door, the keys in the ignition and containing a crucial orange Agnew-Surpass shopping bag. Contents: three baggies each with pen, notepaper, money and a set of keys to a city apartment where police found a suitcase inscribed with Hoon’s name. Climaxing last week was the appearance of reigning prison superstar, contract-killer Andy Bruce, 29, as usual the kingpin in uprisings, called by Wood as a character witness. His powerful body cuffed and chained like a circus bear, Bruce talked with occasional flashes of anger in a low slurred growl. It was standing room

only as Bruce’s followers, massed outside the courthouse despite his recent lambasting of “National Enquirer” media for salacious phrases such as “guru, cult leader and fascinating sex appeal.” Snarled Bruce: “Just stick to the well-worn adjectives of vicious, violent, dangerous: at least there’s some truth to them.” Miriam Azrael, 31, who set off a fracas with panicky sheriffs when she flung flowers at Bruce in the courtroom, explains she’s no groupie but “a man-hater for the last two years until I saw Andy Bruce: they can brutalize his body but they can’t crush his spirit.”

No argument on that score from Bruce, who testified he paid a drugusing guard $1,200 and an ounce of co-

caine to secret a .38-calibre “piece” wrapped in toilet paper in the prisoners’ washroom off the visiting area, stash a parcel outside for one of the escapees and, for a $250 bonus, stand sentry to make sure a crucial door stayed unlocked. The guard, formerly in the super-maximum unit that houses Bruce, was Konstantin Pondelicek— Konnie to intimates such as Bruce. Pondelicek predictably denied all in court. Back in the witness room, he chainsmoked with shaky hands and declared: “Bruce is telling a pack of lies.”

With the date set and prisoners prepared, everything proceeded according to plan: guard Roy Yasuda’s jugular was severed and the keys to Bruce’s cuffs snatched from the bleeding man, the gun seized, glass partition in the visitors’ room smashed and the leap made to apparent freedom. But fleeing guards locked a heavy-barred door, and the five cons never got a chance to test their feckless getaway plans. The would-be breakout turned into a grueling seven-day seige, with demands reduced to requests for shots of Demerol (a painkiller) and food, before finally ending with meekly arranged surrenders. One year later, the scheme seems even more aborted: the cons drew additional time and will be shipped east away from their families while the taxpayers pick up the tab for a marathon trial. The two women activists, temporarily stymied in their relentless pursuit of human rights for prisoners, say they will either carry on visiting cons or accelerate the struggle from inside Oakalla women’s prison. The galleries have loved it. Suzanne Fournier