Was his kidnapping staged? Or is he dead?

Barbara Amiel August 25 1980


Was his kidnapping staged? Or is he dead?

Barbara Amiel August 25 1980


Was his kidnapping staged? Or is he dead?


Barbara Amiel

The scream pierced the summer night of Aug. 28, 1979, with inappropriate harshness. Ray Wolfe, out walking his dog along Old Forest Hill Road heard it: the cold sound of human fear when it comes from somewhere deep down in the belly. At 93 Old Forest Hill Road, the Toronto home of Lisa and Fred Johnsen, a woman ran across the wide front lawns. It was Lisa Johnsen, face distorted with fear, her careful mask of makeup cracking visibly. Her statement to the police would be simple. She would state that an “ugly, fat, short man” wearing a wig had come to the front door and asked her husband to sign some legal papers. As she turned to call Fred from the kitchen, where he was sitting with his in-laws Evy and Yousef Debabi, the man shut the door behind him. When Fred Johnsen, 44, appeared, the intruder pulled out a gun that he had concealed either under the manilla folder he was carrying or the bulky black jacket he wore.

Fred backed away from the front door shouting “Fm not Fred Johnsen,” pursued by the potbellied man with a drooping mouth and stumbling gait. Then it was over. Fred Johnsen and the man were gone. And so would begin a story that has not yet ended—the kidnapping of Fred Johnsen.

It is a story that has captured the public imagination. The day after the kidnapping the city of Toronto seemed in shock. A respectable businessman had been pulled from his home at gunpoint. It could happen to anyone if it could happen right in the heart of Forest Hill where the kidnap victim lived a life surrounded by the trappings of wealth. As the story unfolded, a cast of characters began to emerge illustrating conflicting elements of Canadian society: businessmen, small-time criminals and the big-time world of loan sharks— all were drawn to the Fred Johnsen kidnap case like animals sensing a kill. The questions remain unanswered: Who is Fred Johnsen? Where is he today?

The police arrived at the scene quickly. Fred Johnsen’s lawyers moved in just as quickly, requesting the press to restrict accounts of any links Johnsen might have with underworld

figures. Such details, it was claimed, might jeopardize any ransom negotiations. The public was told only that Fred Johnsen, entrepreneur, was a Canadian success story—of sorts. He had come to Toronto from New Brunswick in 1958, fresh from the potato farm of his adoptive Scandinavian parents.

What was not revealed was his prison record.

In 1959, a breaking-and-entering conviction in Toronto had sent Johnsen to the city’s Mimico Correctional Centre for three months. In 1960, two charges of theft over $50 earned him 18 months at Burwash Correctional Centre. But by 1962 he was starting up his own business, a small furniture and appliance store, selling used air-conditioners and reconditioned television sets. He was married in 1962 as well, to an attractive

Danish immigrant, Lisa, who had a yen for upward mobility.

There seemed to be nothing that could stop the two. Maybe a moment of difficulty when Johnsen got a minor credit charge in 1968, but the courts let it go when he made restitution. There was a $1,000 fine in 1970 for customs violations, but smuggling purchases in

Johnsen (left); artist’s sketch of the kidnapping showing Johnsen and wife, Lisa: potbellied man with a stumbling gait

from Europe was almost a respectable white-collar crime. And Fred Johnsen was headed for white-tie and tuxedo living. His eye was drawn to the shimmer world of Las Vegas: Caesars Palace, Aladdin’s pit bosses calling him “Mr. Johnsen” with deference in their voices and Toronto-arranged gambling junkets with minimum $10,000 stakes.

By 1979 he had 50 pairs of shoes. He favored two diamond-and-gold rings and a thin 18-karat gold watch. He loathed bathing and loved playing the country boy. He enjoyed putting his moccasin-clad feet up on the polished boardroom tables of Toronto’s lofty law firm Fraser & Beattie, while he picked his teeth with a matchbook cover and secretaries brought in tea on silver trays. He had a half-million-dollar home, and outside it, that sultry Aug. 28th night, were all the warm and pleasant accoutrements of Forest Hill life: Lisa Johnsen’s Rolls-Royce, Fred’s turbocharged Porsche and a visiting Jaguar sedan. The right cars for the right district. The right look for Fred Johnsen with his handsome face slightly scarred from an accident, his

high cheekbones, his easy charm, the casual sensuality that made the ladies in Las Vegas follow him.

He was on his way up, or so it seemed. Bankers and businessmen understand temporary cash-flow problems or a little overextension, and Johnsen seemed to have some pretty hefty assets to tide him over the occasional rough spot. There was his partnership in British United Automobiles, a company selling Leyland cars and owning some coveted pieces of real estate; the fine-car franchise for Porsche and Audi he held; his interests in nursing homes—very popular with the investment crowd since 1972 when the Ontario government extended Ontario Hospital Insurance Plan (OHIP) coverage to the homes. Then there was a part ownership of Konar Corporation, a company manu-

facturing circuit boards—which in 2xk years earned for Johnsen a million dollars. A business empire, really, all built up in a dozen or so years out of nothing by the boy from New Brunswick.

Within 24 hours of his disappearance a hotline had been set up by business associates of Johnsen’s in preparation for ransom demands. High-profile criminal lawyer David Humphrey had been retained to negotiate with any callers by associates including Ted Horton, Johnsen’s lawyer from Fraser & Beatty, Jack Witte, one of Johnsen’s partners in British United Automobiles, and Andre Rivera, a New Jersey businessman who flew into Toronto immediately after the kidnapping and set

up shop at Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel.

Speculation over the reasons for Johnsen’s kidnapping began to surface. Rumors begot rumors. He “owed money on the street” for gambling debts. The Mob was involved. Johnsen had reneged on business deals made with the wrong people. Inside the Johnsen home, in the middle of the renovations said to be costing $125,000—a sauna in the basement, gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms—sitting upstairs in the only room where there was air conditioning and some furniture, was a Metropolitan Toronto policeman. He would stay there, guarding a trembling Lisa Johnsen and her 11-year-old daughter for 11 weeks.

The first charge was laid 10 days after the kidnapping. Howard “Mugsy” Dean, a criminal with a 26-year record

including theft, forgery, breaking and entering was arrested on Sept. 8,1979, and convicted five months later of extorting $1,000 from Johnsen’s business associate, Rivera, and lawyer, Horton, after Dean offered to return Johnsen to them for payment of $53,000. The extortion attempt was bizarre, a series of clumsy meetings—Horton, with offices in the Carrara marble edifice of Toronto’s First Canadian Place, sitting across the Formica table of a slightly seedy hotel with Andre Rivera, negotiating with street-talking, street-wise Mugsy Dean, more at home in the pool halls and fast-food joints of Toronto’s underworld. The deal fell apart, but only after Mugsy disappeared with

$1,000 of Rivera’s money “for expenses.” Dean would surface again at the second trial in the Johnsen case, a trial in which a Toronto small-timer was accused of being the ugly little kidnapper of Fred Johnsen. There, Mugsy would state in court what was becoming a matter of some speculation in both police and business circles: Fred

Johnsen had not been kidnapped.

“He’s skipped. He’s laying in the sun with some nice young chick spending the money that he conned people out of. If he would have been kidnapped for money,” explained Mugsy, “he would have been grabbed on the street, probably going up Forest Hill or something. I’m talking about criminal thinking. The person involved in it wouldn’t have been stupid enough to go into a house and let a bunch of other people see him.”

A staged kidnapping. Just a theory, of course, and one the police could scarcely act on. The community wanted a kidnapper caught fast and, besides, the police had to respond to the evidence of Mrs. Johnsen who had seen the gunman. By Sept. 28,1979, they had one charged from the fetid world of small-time criminals. He was a posturing, self-important con man named Allan Bazkur.

The Johnsens (above); Bazkur in a favorite haunt (left); his favorite photo of Cohen (right); with Cohen in happier times: gold-plated bathroom fixtures

Of Polish-Irish descent, Bazkur, 38, quickly became the focus of the case.

In street jargon he was a “rounder.” He wore $500 suits and $150 shoes and never talked about moving a finger for less than a “grand.” But if his pockets were emptied, all that would fall out was a subway token. Like most rounders, he lived in a rooming house or with relatives, never had a fixed telephone number and used restaurants, grills or billiard halls as his answering

services. In Bazkur’s case it was Times Square Billiards he favored most, right in downtown Toronto on Edward Street—the kind of hall where the grimy windows and neon lights turn every hour into early morning staleness.

Bazkur rarely held a job. Most of the time he drew welfare—about $200 a month—from the City of Toronto, which seemed to act as his own personal Canada Council grant financing his creative abilities with cheques, credit cards, anything to make a buck. His record was minor, except for a conviction in 1977 as part of an organized stolen-cheque ring.

He came to the attention of the police in part through the attentions of his girl-friend and his own need to figure an angle in everything. Sandra Cohen, 42, one-time beauty contestant, had been Bazkur’s girl on and off for seven years. One night in August, 1979, Cohen drove through Mississauga with a taillight out on her car. When a policeman stopped her a choice emerged—at the instigation of one or the other—between going to the police station or fol-

lowing the policeman. Cohen was on probation for dangerous driving at the time and she chose to “follow the policeman.” Police officer and client performed as promised. She performed oral sex, and there was no trip to the station.

Cohen told Bazkur of the deal. Bazkur immediately saw an angle and telephoned Attorney-General Roy McMurtry’s office. It wasn’t that he was appalled, he simply saw a lawsuit and

money in it. “I told her there was maybe a hundred thousand there,” he says.

The Peel Regional Police carried out an investigation and the police officer resigned. When Bazkur continued to pressure a reluctant Cohen to take legal action, she complained to the police. As a solution to Cohen’s problems, Metro police suggested she could inform on any illegal activities of Bazkur’s and help put him out of action for a while. For a time she did. But soon the 10round fights, the fist-and-butcher-knife sessions between Bazkur and Cohen had run their course. Cohen split.

Bazkur remained in the police’s consciousness. And when the description came of a short, fat, ugly man with a

potbelly, Bazkur, the five foot, seven inch, 200-pound ex-boxer with the smashed-in nose and the curious set of porcelain-flat front teeth, came to mind. Evy Debabi, Lisa Johnsen’s half sister, picked him out of a set of police photos—along with two other suspects. Lisa Johnsen nearly fainted at a police lineup that included Bazkur, saying, “This is the man. I’m sure this is the man. . . .” The lineup was scarcely one the Metro police could be proud of— only Bazkur seemed to remotely fit the description. Lisa Johnsen’s identification was, nonetheless, direct eyewitness evidence. Bazkur’s alibi, too, turned out to be suspect. First he said he was at the pool hall, then later on he remembered otherwise. He had been at Toronto’s Hampton Court Hotel when the kidnapping took place.

And he could prove it, too, because fortunately he had happened to pass a phony credit card that very evening and the bartender who worked there was an old friend who recognized him and put the card through anyway. Bazkur’s ace was the testimony of Keeble McFarlane, a CBC employee, who had never met Bazkur before but could remember

drinking all evening with him. The only flaw in all of this was that McFarlane couldn’t swear that it was the night of Aug. 28th—the kidnapping night. It might have been, it might not. Keeble McFarlane frequented the Hampton Court bar several nights a week.

Though the evidence against Bazkur was slim, Sandra Cohen managed to keep the headline attention on him. Having decided that she didn’t want to testify, she shut herself up in her apartment and using a pellet gun held a local bouncer hostage in an attempt to avoid being served a subpoena. When finally forced to go to court, she kicked one police officer so badly that he required stitches in his leg. From that point on her testimony was given while she wore leg shackles. The most damning evidence the police had was an attempt by Bazkur to sell a thin gold Universal Geneve watch to the owner of a mens-

Sketch of the extortion attempt with Rivera (left), Horton (centre), and Dean; Dean after 1974 acquittal for murder (right); Rivera: like animals sensing a kill

wear store less than a week after the kidnapping of Johnsen. The police were convinced it was Johnsen’s watch, but a later search for it failed. Much to the frustration of the Crown attorney prosecuting Bazkur, on the first day of the preliminary hearing the defence produced the watch that, they claimed, had been hidden in a duffel bag in Bazkur’s friend’s room. It was a 14-karat gold watch; Fred Johnsen’s was 18 karat. The case against Bazkur was falling apart. What gave it its final push was the effectiveness of Bazkur’s lawyer, William Parker.

Parker, a tough, hard-drinking Irishman, had grown up in the same rundown industrial area of Toronto as Bazkur, along King Street and Stafford Street, between the Massey-Ferguson factory and the old casket manufacturing company. Bazkur was orphaned by the time he was 11. But while Parker turned his worm’s-eye view of life-asseen-from-selling-newspapers-at-Bathurst-and-Queen-Streets-at-midnight into the kind of savvy that would take him into the attorney-general’s office and then the work of a defence lawyer, Bazkur would take the same childhood and explain that he disliked working and needed welfare “because of my deprived background.” When it came to Bazkur’s trial, Parker knew how to fashion his jury address. And in plain language, stripped of distracting nuances, he appealed to the basic emotions of the jury. “You may not like this man,” he told them referring to Bazkur. “I’m sure you don’t approve of the way he lives. But the important thing to remember is that this evidence doesn’t help you decide whether he kidnapped Fred Johnsen—if indeed he was kidnapped.”

Bazkur was acquitted. Now he had a new angle—he was a celebrity victim. Some of the more gullible journalists would never see the man whose face turned to stone when his lifestyle was not constantly praised and admired; who would reach for a steak knife at dinner to demonstrate the way he could “slit your f—in’ throat if the goddam f—in’ questions don’t stop, now”; a man who one week after his acquittal was back applying for welfare while flashing a new gold-and-diamond ring. It seemed part of the successful con of the Mugsy Dean-Allan Bazkur world that the more vulgar they were, the more some elements of the middle class would flock to pay tribute to them.

As a celebrity victim he had one legitimate angle. He could point to the nine months he had been held without bail pending trial which, as his lawyer repeatedly pointed out, was not justified either by the evidence against him or Bazkur’s past reliability while on bail. Still, as Bazkur himself said: “It was beautiful inside. They all loved me. I was Sir Allan, the king himself while all

the press came to see me and interview me. Did you know Stephen Lewis has taken an interest in seeking some compensation for my incarceration? Oh yes, I’m going to make a lot of money out of this.”

The whole kidnap was staged. It was the theme defence lawyer William Parker had used with much effectiveness in Bazkur’s defence. But what were the elements in Johnsen’s life that made it so plausible a theme? “Even we never realized how muddled Johnsen’s financial affairs were until the trial,” says Sergeant Mel Dufty of the Metro police, and the man who headed up the Investigative Support Services on the case. The difficulties in compounding Johnsen’s worth came from the numer-

ous “handshake” agreements he made such as the partnerships with Dominican-born New Jersey resident Andre Rivera in nursing homes in Florida, Texas, California and Ontario: a 50-percent interest to each and nothing on the record. In court testimony, Johnsen’s Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce manager, Sandy Main, seemed confused by the numerous accounts and shifting values of Johnsen’s assets vs. liabilities.

By the time of his disappearance

Johnsen had personal loans of $145,000. He had been successfully sued for nonpayment of a real estate commission of $21,000 that he didn’t seem to have the cash to cover. According to Main, the bank had guaranteed Johnsen operating lines of credit, loans and various float plans that added up to commitments of about $7 million. But Johnsen’s Home Juice Corp. was in receivership, and a Dallas car dealership which had been receiving cars and credit through British United Automobiles had been a losing proposition from the time Johnsen had bought into it. His debts were compounded by the early summer-of-1979 purchase of the Old Forest Hill Road home for $446,000 (with only $59,000 cash down).

Johnsen seemed able to arrange all this extensive credit on a house-ofcards policy. One company was put up £ as collateral against another. Each in2 dividual company might have had ex-

0 tensive holdings to secure the loans, but ? whether the value of those holdings as § stated in the unaudited accounts sub-

1 mitted by Johnsen to the bank for credit purposes was accurate seems dubious.

What Johnsen seemed to illustrate best in his life was his effectiveness as a smooth-talking, quick-thinking entrepreneur. By 1979 when, as Lisa Johnsen remembers, the lifestyle of the Johnsens began to escalate, Fred understood the self-perpetuating chain of big-name lawyers, accountants and banks all believing in one another. He cut back on using his small-town lawyer and moved into the expensive world of Fraser and Beatty. That, thought Fred Johnsen, was a firm that spoke the same language as the big money institutions.

“He never had a penny, never,” says Walter Chomski, one of Johnsen’s closest friends. Chomski came to public attention on Dec. 12, 1974, when he went out to his 1974 blue Lincoln Continental parked in the garage of his Mississauga home. As Chomski sat down in the car, his weight activated a switch connected to two sticks of dynamite. The car exploded. All that saved Chomski from being blown to bits was the solid steel construction of the Lincoln—a thoughtful

Parker in childhood neighborhood (top left); Downtown Fine Cars (top right); Witte: the prestige of big-car showrooms

Parker in childhood neighborhood (top left); Downtown Fine Cars (top right); Witte: the prestige of big-car showrooms

feature that may be why the car is so favored by foreign potentates and members of certain professions. Still, even that was not enough to prevent Chomski’s right leg from being blown to bits. The reasons for this unfriendly gesture to Chomski were never clearly explained. Chomski was in the kind of business—bookmaking and moneylending—where fellow competitors’ feelings are very tender. Chomski recovered, and while in hospital his most regular visitor was Fred Johnsen.

Much has been claimed about Johnsen’s respectability after his early prison record. Though guilt by association is an iniquitous practice, associations do tell something about the basic values and interests of a man. In fact,

Johnsen’s closest friends remained people like John Krakannan—an old business associate, currently under indictment for bank fraud—and convicted bookmaker Walter Chomski. It was Chomski with whom Fred Johnsen holidayed and spent his after-hours drinking sessions. Chomski had spotted Johnsen early on. “I thought the guy would be a high-roller,” he says. “Besides, I loved him. He was an amoral charming con man.”

Chomski advanced Johnsen some of the money that first helped Fred set up his own business. The friendship be-

came firm. Says Chomski: “If Fred had stayed in the nursing home business he would have been the multimillionaire he thought he was. But he didn’t want to be just a nursing home proprietor. He wanted a higher profile. He had this Howard Hughes idea that he’d be a tycoon with all sorts of business interests. He wanted the prestige of the big-car showrooms, the windows with the Corniches in them. Prestige! It all got out of hand for him. He’s probably in Mexico or Brazil now.” Says another business associate: “In Aruba.” Says a third: “And he could never, but never, turn down the ladies.”

Cherchez la femme. His exploits in Las Vegas were legendary. His treatment of his wife perfidious—although she seemed content to remain in an arrangement that gave her a fine home, expensive cars and the clunky jewelry which was of considerable importance to her. But not without moments of pique.

“We were out drinking till 11 p.m. one

night,” claims Chomski, “and it was really raining bad. When we got back to Freddie’s house in Mississauga, Lisa had put all his suits out on the front lawn. She hated him staying out.” Sometimes she never knew just how far out he had stayed. One night, after telling Lisa he was simply going to buy a newspaper, Johnsen joined Chomski in a motel. The next day they flew to Vegas. After some heavy gambling, Johnsen flew down to California to telephone Lisa and explain he was there to make business deals. It was the stuff of Harold Robbins scenarios.

The gambling in Vegas went up and down. Johnsen could make $60,000 and

lose it on a superstitious whim. “Lisa hated it,” claims Chomski. “I was with them when Freddie was up $10,000. She demanded her $5,000 cut. He gave it to her. Then he lost $10,000. She demanded her $5,000 cut of the losses, too.”

If there was any endearing quality to the Johnsen’s, it was in their extraordinary inappropriateness for the social settings in which they suddenly found themselves. Fred Johnsen himself seemed indifferent to middle-class mores. He would buy a $1,000 white silk suit and wear it to load car parts on to a truck. Everyone, friend and enemy, agreed that material objects in themselves had no importance for Johnsen. It was the game—getting them, wielding them, throwing them around—that gave him the kick. For Lisa Johnsen, life was a different matter. The home in Forest Hill was the culmination of a climb up the slippery slope of social acceptance. But once installed in her mansion she seemed oddly out of place.

Explained one neighbor: “She was an immaculate housekeeper. But she employed no household help. She vacuumed the eight-bedroom house herself every day. And washed the windows.”

At social gatherings she seemed like a lacquered apparition from the ’60s. Still wearing bouffant wigs and heavy makeup, she was known to change her dress four times at the same party. When she appeared for the first time at the Home and School Association for Forest Hill Collegiate, which her daughter was attending at the time, the meeting was filled with smart mothers in understated little denim skirts and Turnbull & Asser shirts. Lisa came in tight trousers, high heels, pastel fox jacket and heavy makeup—in October.

But what was the appropriate place for the Johnsens? “Why are you going after Fred?” asked one of his business acquaintances. “Even if he did arrange his own kidnapping, he’s never really hurt anyone. Not anyone that couldn’t afford the loss.” In a limited sense, except for Johnsen’s wife and daughter, he was right. The $400,000 that brother-inlaw Youcef Debabi entrusted to Fred Johnsen’s business ventures and never heard about again—except to learn that it had been spent—does not appear to have permanently dented the lives of the Debabis, who still holiday in Eu-

The Johnsen Forest Hill home with (inset) Lisa’s new condominium (left); Chomski’s house after 1974 blast (right); sketch of the police lineup: rumors begot rumors

rope. Besides, Debabi has already launched a suit against the estate of Fred Johnsen and hopes to recover some of the money. The life insurance that Fred Johnsen had thoughtfully taken out over the last couple of years—about $3 million in all—will be absorbed by the huge Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, whenever they decide or are forced to pay it (though in court they maintained that they were actively continuing the search for Fred Johnsen). And the losses of the banks are being covered, slowly, by the sale of some of Johnsen’s holdings, and will perhaps be helped by the counter-suit against Youcef Debabi launched by Lisa Johnsen, in which she claims Debabi had signed guarantees for debts for one of Fred’s companies. All in all, the lawyers are making their fees, the courts are being kept busy, the media is providing rapt audiences with daily entertainment as new bodies are fished up and examined for evidence of a decomposed Fred Johnsen.

“He’ll be back the moment he’s declared legally dead and the insurance money has been paid out to Lisa and reinvested,” said one close friend of Johnsen’s. “And what could anyone do to him. He’ll claim amnesia or show you drug needle marks in his arm and there won’t even be a case of public mischief to be made.”

Lisa Johnsen has moved from the luxury of Forest Hill. She has found her place for the time being, a rented condominium in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale. There are double-locks on her doors, a peephole and signs of her scrupulous housekeeping in the neatly tied plastic bags of dead leaves on the lawn.

At Metro police headquarters on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, the police continue to work. The files can’t be closed. Fred Johnsen is still a kidnap victim and if they can’t continue the 10-man squad, well there’s still a part-time force checking up on it. And the more thorough and lengthy the unsuccessful investigation, the more credence will be given to legal attempts to have Fred Johnsen declared legally dead—earlier than the usual seven-year waiting period. And as for the amused, benign attitude of the friends and associates who believe Fred Johnsen “skipped,” the government itself seems to promote the idea that individual wealth exists only to be redistributed. Who can blame those who shrug at Johnsen’s little games with the comforting thought that he was only robbing the rich? And then, of course, there is always the possibility that the catastrophic did happen. That Fred Johnsen was kidnapped by a gunman and taken to his death. So long as our system of justice exists, in the absence of solid evidence to the contrary, the taxpayers are bound to go on investigating the kidnapping of every Fred Johnsen. ^