A Winninpeg drama revisits a killing—and the racism that helped to fuel it
Murder most foul
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
A full decade has passed since Helmuth Buxbaum delivered his wife, Hanna, to a hired assassin waiting on the roadside near London, Ont The case, already the subject of three books, appeared to be closed: convicted of arranging his wife’s killing, Buxbaum lost an appeal in 1989 and is currently serving a 25-year sentence
with no parole. But in an extraordinary new book, The Prodigal Husband, veteran investigative journalist Michael Harris has reopened the Buxbaum file. His exhaustive research has led him to conclude that a major miscarriage of justice may have been committed.
THE PRODIGAL HUSBAND: THE TRAGEDY OF HELMUTH AND HANNA BUXBAUM
By Michael Hams
(McClelland & Stewart, 444 pages, 29.99)
that he is both innocent and sane: Harris concludes that his 55-year-old subject is overwhelmingly guilty and most likely insane.
The alleged injustice involves evidence of insanity that the Ontario Court of Appeal refused to examine because of a procedural rule that has since been changed. Harris’s book amounts to a persuasive argument that Buxbaum’s rights have been violated, at least in legal terms. By the final pages, however, the author’s intimate portrait of his patron has revealed a character so unsympathetic that it is hard to summon up any empathy for him.
Still, while The Prodigal Husband is not
Harris comes with impressive credentials. He exposed the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall in Justice Denied (1986) and detailed the child abuse scandal at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Unholy Orders. But his new book is not such a clear case of crusading detective work. To begin with, it was commissioned by Buxbaum from his jail cell, for several hundred thousand dollars. (Harris will not disclose the precise figure.) That would, on face value, make the book seem hopelessly tainted. But Harris claims that he had complete editorial control. And, in fact, The Prodigal Husband contradicts Buxbaum’s emphatic contention
A writer finds a convicted killer guilty—and insane
about to inspire a “Free Helmuth” campaign, it is a fascinating tale of one man’s moral decline, with a cast of characters worthy of pulp fiction. Harris charts Buxbaum’s descent into sex, drugs and murder with a wry detachment and a fastidious eye for detail. And, despite its heft, it reads with the brisk economy of a good thriller.
The Buxbaum saga begins with an immigrant dream of prosperity and romance. Both ethnic Germans, the Polish-born Hanna and
the Austrian-born Helmuth moved to KitchenerWaterloo with their parents after the Second World War. She was a devout Mennonite; he was a born-again Baptist. She worked on a sausage assembly line; he worked his way up from a uranium mine in Elliot Lake. They married in 1961. Helmuth worked hard and invested wisely: by the end of the decade he was controlling an empire of nursing homes from London, Ont.
His philandering began six years after their marriage. Hanna, writes Harris, had “an aversion to sexual pleasure” and “drew the line between conjugal duty and moral impropriety at fellatio.” In 1969, Helmuth admitted fathering a child with a 17-year-old kitchen helper at his Komoka Nursing Home. Attempting to compete with his younger women, Hanna took desperate measures—even undergoing reconstructive surgery to heighten his sexual pleasure. Helmuth, meanwhile, seemed unfazed by such concessions. The churchgoing millionaire and father of six children was hiring prostitutes, exploring group sex and cultivating a taste for cocaine.
Then, in 1982, Buxbaum suffered a severe stroke. And, in Harris’s view, this is the event that tipped the balance of his sanity. At first, Buxbaum interpreted the stroke as a warning from God to mend his ways. While his devoted wife nursed him back to health, he vowed to reform himself. But soon, Buxbaum was behaving with an astonishing lack of inhibition. He bought sex with renewed vigor. He consorted openly with criminals in sleazy bars. He neglected his business. His craving for coke grew into a $2,000-a-week habit. His arms were tracked with needle marks. Meanwhile, his marriage crumbled, but divorce was an option that Hanna considered out of the question. And so, with the apparent intention of removing the last impediment to his sexual freedom, Buxbaum made plans to have her killed.
Those arrangements turned into a black comedy of errors, involving a string of petty criminals and con artists taking advantage of each other’s stupidity like characters in an Elmore Leonard novel. Buxbaum paid his drug dealer, Robert Barrett (aka “the Squirrel”), to find a hit man. Barrett siphoned off $7,000 of his client’s money before even lifting a finger. In Florida, he himself was scammed by an escaped convict from Quebec and his teenage moll, who promised to kill Hanna but ran off with the cash. Finally, Barrett hired a Londonarea criminal, Pat Allen, who subcontracted the hit to two drunks in a tavern, Gary Foshay and Terry Armes.
Stoned on booze and speed, they posed as occupants of a broken-down car at a prearranged spot on the highway. After the arrival of a police cruiser forced them to abort the first
attempt, they arranged a second rendezvous for later that day. It was Foshay who shot her in the head. The next day, Buxbaum blithely cashed in a gold bar and paid off his thugs without the slightest subterfuge. The entire coke-addled crew left such a glaring trail of evidence that police had little trouble cracking the case.
In jail, Buxbaum continued his impulsive pattern of trying to buy his way to freedom—he spent some $30,000 subsidizing a variety of fanciful escape attempts, which did nothing to support his claims of innocence. In court, he refused to consider an insanity defence. He paid the flamboyant lawyer Eddie Greenspan $1.3 million to represent him, and promised a $250,000 bonus for a clean acquittal. After the conviction, legal crusader Clayton Ruby handled the appeal. Overriding his client’s contention that he was sane, Ruby (who insisted on total leeway in the case) asked to introduce physical evidence—including CAT scans—that Buxbaum’s stroke had caused significant brain damage. Experts who had examined Buxbaum said he could be suffering from organic personality syndrome, allowing him to act without any sense of morality. But the court would not grant a new trial.
At least one more legal step remains. Helmuth’s nephew, Roy Buxbaum, 24, who witnessed the murder from the back seat of his uncle’s car at age 14, is suing for psychological damages. Helmuth’s lawyer is mounting an insanity defence, and if the jury agrees with him, it may cast doubt on the murder conviction.
In the book, Harris lets the facts speak for themselves. He does not editorialize. He never slips into the first person, and never describes his own impressions of spending time with Buxbaum during some 15 visits to Kingston Penitentiary. But in an interview, the author admitted that he “felt a tremendous pity for him. Buxbaum is a very bizarre creature caught in the lights. You can’t find the criminal in him. You can’t find the malevolent face that stares out of his booking picture. In his presence, I felt I was seeing the shipwreck of someone who’s lost an awful lot the author of his own misfortune.” Talking to Buxbaum, adds Harris, “was like interviewing someone with multiple personalities. Sometimes, it was like talking to a retired professor, rather than one of the most notorious killers of our time. His recollection of things was like a confabulation.”
As children in wartime Europe, Helmuth and Hanna both lived through gruelling ordeals in resettlement camps. “They survived the camps,” says Harris, “but they didn’t survive the immigrant dream.” Harris says he does not expect his book to win much sympathy for Helmuth. But he questions the attitude that says, “because he doesn’t deserve public sympathy, he doesn’t deserve due process.”
Harris’s book shows Helmuth Buxbaum throwing heaps of money at dealers, prostitutes, hit men, escape scams and lawyers—often without getting what he is looking for. As both patron and subject of The Prodigal Husband, he threw money at an author. Once again, it appears that Buxbaum did not get what he wanted. But perhaps he got what he deserved.
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