COVER

Backing the vigilantes

MARCUS GEE December 1 1986
COVER

Backing the vigilantes

MARCUS GEE December 1 1986

Backing the vigilantes

At about 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 18 a young man walked into Dépanneur Benjamin, a convenience store on Logan Street in a residential district of east-end Montreal. According to an account later given to police by shopkeeper Guy Guilbeault, the man strolled around the store while a woman customer made a purchase, then approached the counter and paid for a bag of potato chips and some juice with a $10 bill. As Guilbeault opened the cash drawer, the man suddenly drew a gun from his pocket, lunged around the counter and grabbed about $300. Instinctively, Guilbeault reached for the .357 magnum revolver he kept under the counter and shouted “Grouille pas!” (Don’t move!) As the man backed away, the shopkeeper fired a single shot. The thief ran out the doorway, but collapsed six or seven metres away. Within minutes he was dead.

At week’s end, Montreal police were still weighing whether to charge Guilbeault in the death of the robber, identified as Jean-Marc Proulx, 29, who they said was a criminal with a lengthy record. But the killing renewed a heated debate about violent crime and the right to self-defence—a debate that had begun 10 days earlier after a similar incident in Calgary. There, after being robbed at gunpoint in his drugstore, Steven Kesler chased 27year-old Timothy Smith into 21st Street S.E. and allegedly killed him with a blast from a shotgun. When police charged Kesler with second-degree murder, fellow store owners and hundreds of other Calgarians raised more than $23,000 to pay his legal expenses.

Montrealers reacted in a similar fashion, flooding radio shows with calls in support of Guilbeault’s action. At times the public response seemed to echo the wave of sympathy for Bernhard Goetz, the white New York City resident who shot four black youths when they accosted him on a subway train in December, 1984. In the House of Commons, Conservative MP Elliott Hardey asked: “Is anyone listening? Is anyone hearing the cry going across our nation? Victims of crime are fighting back—and the average person sympathizes.”

In Montreal, radio station CFCF reported that calls to its morning openline show were running 3 to 1 in favor of Guilbeault, 32. Said host John Oakley: “He’s seen as a hero.” Other con-

venience store owners also expressed support. Tina Pappas, 56, who was robbed once at her store and three times at a previous location, called the shooting “a marvellous thing.” Others disagreed. Said Guy Parent, 19, manager of a corner store: “Is it really worth it for 300 bucks? Any life has to be worth more than that.”

In Calgary, feelings were just as intense. The Calgary Sun published more than two pages of letters, almost all backing Kesler, and one supporter nominated him as the city’s citizen of the year. Musician Scott Barnes even wrote a song praising the 40-year-old Yugoslavian immigrant. “People are fighting mad,” said Jon Lord, owner of a videotape rental outlet and chairman of the defence fund. “We don’t want to see him ruined because two punks tried to rob him.”

Lord said that if the defence group raises enough money, it will use some of it to lobby the government “for laws to keep criminals off the streets.” Other Kesler supporters noted that an accomplice to the drugstore robbery, Steven Fleming, 32, was free on bail when he took part in the crime—awaiting trial on charges of robbing Kesler’s drugstore last April. Smith himself was on parole from a federal penitentiary in Edmonton. Still, Calgary police were alarmed at the public reaction to the slaying. “The police are here so the individual citizen doesn’t have to get involved in gunfights,” said Supt. Frank Mitchell. “Innocent bystanders can die.” Meanwhile, Montreal police cited important differences between the Kesler and Guilbeault cases. While Kesler pursued Smith, Guilbeault fired while the thief was still inside his store.

At week’s end, the slightly built, dark-haired Kesler was out shovelling snow in front of his store after being released on $5,000 bail. Appearing in court on Friday, his lawyer said he would seek a jury trial when the case comes up, probably sometime next spring. Said Kesler: “It’s tremendous to know so many people are 100-percent behind me.” In Montreal, Guilbeault spent a day back in his store before leaving town. He declined to comment on the shooting. “I didn’t have time to think about it,” he said. “It all happened in about 10 seconds.” But his friend Jean-Pierre Arnau said: “Guilbeault was very upset; he didn’t even look at the body.” The shopkeeper, Arnau added, found one fact particularly troubling. Although Guilbeault could not have known it at the time, police say Proulx was armed only with a pellet gun.

MARCUS GEE with LISA VAN DÜSEN in Montreal and JOHN HOWSE in Calgary