CANADA

The court of last resort

Colin Thatcher makes a new claim for freedom

JOHN HOWSE November 30 1992
CANADA

The court of last resort

Colin Thatcher makes a new claim for freedom

JOHN HOWSE November 30 1992

The court of last resort

Colin Thatcher makes a new claim for freedom

Dressed casually in a T-shirt, jeans and running shoes, Colin Thatcher sits quietly in the cramped chaplin’s office at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. The 54-year-old Thatcher, a former Saskatchewan cabinet minister and the son of former Saskatchewan premier Ross Thatcher, appears tan and fit, the result of daily workouts at the prison gym and jogging sessions on an outdoor track. At 165 pounds, the six-foot-tall Thatcher is 41 pounds lighter than when he was given a life sentence in 1984 for the brutal murder of his exwife, JoAnn Wilson. “Being fit is the only positive thing about being here,” says Thatcher, who has consistently maintained his innocence. “I can do things today I couldn’t do at 20. I run two to five miles daily around the track.

But I would love to be able to run it all in a straight line.” For Thatcher, any immediate hope of a life beyond prison walls now rests with federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell.

Thatcher’s Saskatoon-based lawyer, Gerald Allbright, has already failed in two appeals of Thatcher’s first-degree murder conviction in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, he is asking Campbell to intervene in the case under Section 690 of the Criminal Code, which allows the justice minister to review, reopen or order a new trial in light of new evidence. An application under that section led to a Supreme Court of Canada hearing into the case of David Milgaard, who served 23 years for a murder that he had always maintained he did not commit. Milgaard was released earlier this year. Last week, justice department lawyers said that they are assessing Allbright’s application in an effort to determine whether Thatcher’s case merits similar action.

Thatcher’s appeal to Campbell is based largely on information gathered by a private investigator hired in 1989. Allbright says that the investigator, Bruce Dunne, a former Calgary police detective, has uncovered evidence that contradicts key information presented by the Crown at Thatcher’s 1984 murder trial. The new evidence claimed by Allbright includes signed statements from witnesses contradicting testimony given at Thatcher’s trial, as well as new information surrounding a

receipt found near the murder scene.

Thatcher, an ambitious and often abrasive millionaire rancher who served briefly as energy minister under former Conservative Saskatchewan premier Grant Devine in the early 1980s, had been married to Wilson for 17 years. After their divorce they waged a bitter and highly publicized custody battle over their three children.

On Jan. 21,1983, in the garage of her fashionable Regina home, an assailant bludgeoned the

43-year-old Wilson 20 times, then fired a bullet through her head. Fifteen months later, Regina police charged Thatcher with her murder. The subsequent trial, which led to three books and a popular CBC TV movie, yielded plenty of lurid testimony, including the claim by a former mistress of Thatcher that he had confided to her following Wilson’s murder that, “I have to admit it is a strange feeling to blow away your wife.” Still, most of the case against Thatcher was circumstantial. One of the key pieces of evidence was the onionskin copy of a credit card receipt that police found in the snow near the murder scene on the night of the killing. Signed

“Thatch,” the receipt was for $29 of gas purchased from the J & M Shell service station near Moose Jaw, Sask., on Jan. 18, three days earlier. At the trial, Allbright suggested that the credit slip had been planted by someone in an attempt to frame his client. He now adds that investigator Dunne could find no reference to a $29 gas purchase in the service station’s own daily sales records for Jan. 18.

According to Dunne, the station’s copy of the receipt only surfaced on Feb. 14, after a still-unsolved break in at the service station. “It was lying on an in-tray right after the break in,” says Dunne. “It stinks.”

Dunne claims to have uncovered inconsistencies about the purported gasoline purchase. For one thing, the $29 receipt indicated a purchase of 57.3 litres of gasoline, implying a price of 50.6 cents per litre. But at the time, the station sold gasoline for 38.4 cents per litre. Dunne also questioned gas station attendant Jack Janzen, who had testified at Thatcher’s trial that he sold fuel to Thatcher on Jan. 18. The investigator says that he has a taped statement from Janzen, in which he repudiates his testimony and says that he was not even working at the gas station that day—something Janzen’s father, George, who owned the station, confirms.

Dunne also says he has signed statements from two men, Danny Doyle and Terry Chubb, that he says contradict evidence presented at the trial by the Crown’s star witness, Gary Anderson. A Moose Jaw bill collector and exbouncer, Anderson testified that he had helped to obtain gun silencers and a getaway vehicle for Thatcher. Both Dunne and Allbright say that Regina police interviewed the two men— Chubb is Anderson’s brother-in-law and Doyle was one of Anderson’s friends—before Thatcher’s arrest. But neither man was called as a witness and Allbright says that he was not told of their statements at the time of the trial. The prosecutor in the case, Serge Kujawa, who also helped to prosecute Milgaard and who is now a Saskatchewan NDP MLA, did not return telephone calls from Maclean’s last week.

In Ottawa, justice department officials say that Campbell is waiting for her staff to complete their investigation into Allbright’s application before personally reviewing Thatcher’s conviction. “It is not the type of thing that you hurry,” said Eugene Williams, one of two federal lawyers conducting the investigation. In the meantime, Thatcher says that he is relying on support and frequent visits from his three children—Greg, 27, Regan, 23, and Stephanie, 18. He speaks daily by telephone with Greg, who now runs the family’s cattle ranch near Moose Jaw. Once a high-flyer with a fondness for yellow Corvettes and Palm Springs, Calif., vacations, Thatcher says that he now dreams of simple pleasures like getting on a horse and riding through the family herd. “Jail is a great place to lower your horizons,” he says. “My plan would be to go home and work for my son.” But even those aspirations must be put on hold until Campbell makes her ruling.

JOHN HOWSE

GLEN ALLEN