Justice

A LONG STRANGE TRIP

An abduction charge, estranged family and a man of mystery— Myriam Bédard’s fall from grace

JONATHON GATEHOUSE, January 22 2007
Justice

A LONG STRANGE TRIP

An abduction charge, estranged family and a man of mystery— Myriam Bédard’s fall from grace

JONATHON GATEHOUSE, January 22 2007

AS THE SMALL PLANE dropped down through the twilight towards the runway at Quebec City’s Jean Lesage airport, it must have been somewhere in the back of Myriam Bédard’s mind. That other winter afternoon—almost 13 years ago—when a sponsor’s private jet whisked her to a very different homecoming. In 1994, it was a large, cheering crowd that greeted the double gold medallist, Canada’s Queen of the Lillehammer Games. A stretch limo brought her to a grand civic reception in her hometown, the nearby suburb of Loretteville, through streets festooned with banners and homemade signs of congratulations.

Last week, the aircraft belonged to the RCMP, and it was detectives from the Service de police de Québec who waited for her on the apron, their grey sedan destined for the local detention centre. But not before an obliging, slow-motion exit through an airfield gate guarded by dozens of members of the media. A flashbulb-lit “perp walk” that provided a very different picture of the three-time Olympic medallist in the biathlon—pale and visibly fatigued after 14 days in a U.S. jail, brought home to face charges of kidnapping her 12-year-old daughter.

But Bédard’s arrest on Dec. 22—the birthday she shares with Maude, her only child— at a roadside motel in the sprawling commuter badlands between Washington and Baltimore was just the latest dip in her long, strange descent from the top of the podium. Divorced, estranged from her friends, at odds with her former sponsors and employers, the one-time golden girl seems lost. She hasn’t spoken to her family in nearly four years. (At Quebec’s Palais de Justice, the morning after her repatriation, Benoit Bédard, her brother, tried to confront her as she was released on bail, then jumped into his car for a high-speed pursuit of her fleeing SUV.) There have been failed businesses, multiple court battles with creditors, and her bizarre testimony before a parliamentary committee probing the sponsorship scandal. She and her new husband, the artist Nima Mazhari, allege that they are victims of “bureaucratic terrorism” with shadowy forces plotting their downfall—even their deaths—in reprisal for her whistleblowing. And both are facing charges—he of theft in connection with the alleged disappearance of $100,000 worth of another painter’s work, she of abduction in violation of a custody order— that could land them substantial jail terms if convicted. Once Quebec’s sweetheart, Myriam Bédard is now the province’s No. 1 curiosity-proof that when champions stumble, they have a lot further to fall.

MYRIAM BÉDARD WON the race of her life on a pair of mismatched skis. In the confusion before the start of the 7-5 km biathlon in Lillehammer, she grabbed one from her sprint set, and another from the pair that had carried her to her first gold a week earlier in the 15 km race. The wax jobs were different—the left ski didn’t seem to grip as much, she said later—but it didn’t matter. Bédard was simply too bloody-minded to lose. Her come-from-behind victory stands as one of Canada’s greatest-ever Olympic performances.

It was her otherworldly focus that always set her apart. At five-foot-three, and just 110 lb., Bédard wasn’t physically imposing— “Tell the kids, I’m not some giant Amazon,” she instructed reporters after her golds— but her mental toughness was unquestioned. “I think she had the ultimate self-discipline,” says Ray Kokkonen, a long-time Biathlon Canada executive, and now the chairman of its board. He recalls a Canadian championship held in Whitehorse, where the weather dipped to -40° C. Everyone else huddled indoors, says Kokkonen, but there was Bédard, wearing a mask to protect herself from frostbite, outside running in the snow.

In Norway, Bédard took her solitary ways to a new extreme, virtually sequestering herself for the duration of the Games. She spent her downtime in her room, ate her meals by herself, and, deathly afraid that all her hard work would be undermined by a cold or the flu, refused to shake hands with other athletes.

Two years before, in Albertville, France, Bédard had become the first Canadian to ever medal in the sport, grabbing a bronze in the 15 km race. Coming off a 1993 World Cup season where she finished second overall, she was one of the favourites in Norway. A self-described “perfectionist surrounded by people who aren’t,” she felt she had little support from the Canadian sports establishment. She had fought bitterly with Biathlon Canada. Even in her unexpected success in Albertville, she had told reporters of her suspicions that team technicians had tried to “sabotage” her. (Bédard, who always had an Italian friend wax her skis, discovered two Canadian techs working on her gear the day before the race. They said the snow temperature necessitated a change, but she tried out the skies and claimed they were “the slowest on the team.”) When she won twice in Lillehammer, the conventional wisdom was that she succeeded in spite of the Canadian Olympic “family,” not because of it.

And through it all, her real parents and sibling were by her side. In Lillehammer, Pierre, Francine, and brother Benoit, were at the finish line, wearing T-shirts bearing her likeness. (Although Myriam forbade them to cheer when she passed by, worrying that she’d become distracted.) In Albertville, the Bédards had been even more the heartwarming picture of togetherness. “I told my mother three years ago to start saving something from her babysitting money to go to the Olympics,” Myriam said at the time. “So every week she put $10 or $20 aside.” It cost them $3,000 they could ill afford, but everyone agreed it was worth it. Afterwards, the freshly minted bronze medal winner treated her parents to an extra week’s holiday. “Myriam always has surprises for us,” Pierre said.

In the months following her Lillehammer victories, Myriam Bédard became one of Canada’s most celebrated figures. She appeared on the covers of Chatelaine, Paris-Match, and at the head of Maclean’s Honour Roll. Sponsors flocked to tie themselves to her winning persona. She even had her own Wheaties box. In Quebec, the newspapers and supermarket tabloids were filled with glowing reports of her dream marriage that April to long-time boyfriend and fellow biathlete Jean Paquet. That the pair wed in secret, dressed in Hawaiian clothes on the beach in Maui, away from all their family and friends, only added to the romance. A couple of months later, it was more happy news—a baby was on the way. Maude was born in a Quebec City hospital that Dec. 22, her mother’s 25th birthday.

But the sweet champagne of victory started to develop a bitter aftertaste. In June 1994, when Bédard’s sponsorship agreement with MetLife came up for renewal, she was dropped in a very public and humiliating fashion. The company that only a year before had been talking about the biathlete having “a job for life” now suggested that her Olympic wins had made her greedy. The insurance firm claimed Bédard and her new agent, Jean-Marc St. Pierre—MetLife’s former marketing director—turned down $200,000 a year, demanding half a million instead, close to five times her pre-Lillehammer deal. St. Pierre said it was all a misunderstanding— that was the price for an exclusive arrangement, but MetLife could still buy in for as little as $50,000—but the bridge was burned. Little matter, since other sponsors, including Via Rail, rushed to fill the gap.

Bédard also developed serious health problems after Maude’s birth—hyperthyroidism, chronic fatigue, food allergies— which hampered her return to competition. Fifteenth place in a World Cup race was now considered cause for optimism. She fired her coach and and took charge of her own training. There was little improvement. By the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, Bédard was no longer a medal threat. She finished 50th in the 15 km, and 33rd in the 7-5 km sprint.

Bédard raced her final biathlon in 1999, on the hometown course where she got her start, finishing well back in the pack. But as with many high-performance athletes, the idea of retirement didn’t sit well. She harboured dreams of future Olympics and tried to reinvent herself, first taking up rowing, and then speed skating. Bédard would later say that she was looking for something to help her get through the trauma of her unravelling marriage to Paquet, but she never found it. The other sports were too cliquey, said the consummate loner. To this day, Bédard harbours a grudge against Catriona Lé May Doan, accusing her fellow double Olympic champion of refusing to sell her a pair of skates.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT Nima Mazhari that suggests hidden depths. He speaks quietly, forcing you to edge closer, and keeps his black eyes locked on yours. The smile is slow, the manner gentle. And despite his appearance, slim and balding with a Bozo the Clown fringe, and Yasser Arafat’s shaving habits, there is ample proof that women find the entire package quite charming.

Starting in 1999, Mazhari, an unknown artist, convinced 101 prominent Quebec women, including journalist Chantal Hébert, Supreme Court justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, and France Chrétien-Desmarais, daughter of the former prime minister and wife of Power Corp. president André Desmarais, to let him take their photographs for a book project. The result, Les Ambassadrices: portraits de femmes accomplies au Québec, published in 2001 by Stanké, a division of Québécor, isn’t remarkable for its artistry, or insights, but it did change the course of Myriam Bédard’s life. The former Olympic champion is the 87th portrait, pictured leaning against a stair railing, smiling over her shoulder, wearing a T-shirt and blond, tousled pigtails. Her hands are filled with children’s books. At the bottom of the page she had scribbled a note, her i’s dotted with girlish bubble circles: “L’esprit sain dans le corp sain!!! ” (A healthy spirit in a healthy body!!!) A couple of dozen pages away there is a picture of Ghitta Caiserman, the late Quebec painter with whom Mazhari used to share a studio, and 19 of whose works he is now charged with stealing.

Mazhari, who came to Canada as a refugee from Iran in 1985, is also a man of mystery. The preface to Les Ambassadrices provides the official biographical sketch. Mazhari was an artist and staunch democrat during his youth in Tehran, it says, and a fierce opponent of the Shah’s dictatorship. Starting at 16, the young artist was imprisoned and tortured multiple times by the state, and finally fled Iran when he was threatened with execution by the new regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. He arrived in Montreal with no passport or visa; his only knowledge of Canada gleaned from a biography of Dr. Norman Bethune. Mazhari won’t say much more than that in interviews, and the federal government refuses to provide any details about his refugee claim.

Bédard’s estranged family, however, have described him as someone often given to grandiose boasting. Mazhari claims to have made a fortune in Iran, through a factory he owns that manufactures counterfeit Mercedes car parts, says Pierre Bédard. He also says he became a confidant of Pablo Picasso after fleeing Tehran for Paris. And most fabulously, Myriam has reportedly told friends that Nima “knew” about the Sept. 11 attacks, “months in advance,” but that the FBI and RCMP would not heed his warnings.

Whatever his background, Mazhari quickly found a new role as Myriam Bédard’s companion. They moved in together, and started a marketing company, In Marché, within months of hooking up. To say that Bédard’s family was unhappy with the arrangement would be an understatement. They quickly grew to detest her new spouse, most especially her mother, and two sisters.

The breaking point came in late 2002.

Myriam and Nima moved to Lévis, an unfashionable community across the river from Quebec, buying a half dozen properties and deciding to start their own restaurant. The idea, Bédard told the Gazette’s Dave Stubbs in 2004, was to provide work for her father and sister. “I have a family I thought was strong, united and serious,” she said. “But the first time I wanted to do something with my family, there was no one there... I saw myself for the first time as an orphan. I’ve always been one, but I was never conscious of it.”

Café Piaf, named after the tragic French songbird, lasted only six months, but it caused a seemingly irreparable family rift. They fought bitterly during renovations. The Lévis police were called on one occasion. Myriam took the side of her new companion. The family turned against him, publicly portraying him as some sort of “guru.” “He has control over her—her actions, her behaviour, her words,” Chantal, Myriam’s sister, told reporters. “She’s in his thrall. We can’t do anything for her.” Part of Mazhari’s “brainwashing” strategy is forcing her sister to eat tabouleh, she charged.

The failed restaurant venture also left behind a lot of unhappy employees and creditors. One Quebec paper estimated the business had as many as 70 staff over the months, linking the high turnover to disputes over money. A local heating oil company sued Bédard and Mazhari for a $2,500 unpaid bill, eventually obtaining a court order to seize the amount from their bank accounts. (Mazhari attempted to call Jean Chrétien as a character witness during the trail, but the former prime minister didn’t show.) Another Lévis resident sued the pair for a real estate and home renovations deal that went sour, eventually winning $8,438. (The legal woes have continued since the pair returned to Montreal. Next fall, a dispute over a broken lease for a 2002 Mercedes ML320 SUV will go to court. The dealer claims that the couple still owes $25,634.66 in payments, penalties and interest. Mazhari and Bédard contend that problems with the car’s sound system and other technical difficulties, that were never adequately repaired, caused them “a lot severe health and financial problems.”) 

Years later, the Olympic champion and her café are still the talk of the neighbourhood. “It wasn’t high-class. The walls were a funny colour and all the chairs were mismatched. They didn’t seem to put much of an effort into it,” says Michel Andrews, who co-owns a nearby art gallery. Louise Forest, his wife, says everyone was abuzz with rumours about the pair’s lavish lifestyle and parsimonious dealings with staff and suppliers. She talked to Mazhari about renting the still empty space when the cafe closed. He gave her an autographed copy of his book. “She was really friendly, but he was kind of weird. When I saw the two of them together, it never made any sense.”

FOR MOST CANADIANS, Myriam Bédard’s transformation from hero to zero was sealed late on the afternoon of March 24, 2004. That’s when the former Olympic sharpshooter appeared before a parliamentary committee probing the sponsorship scandal and blew off both her feet. She began her testimony by introducing Mazhari to the committee, crediting him with influencing Jean Chrétien’s decision to keep Canada out of Iraq. “Ladies and gentlemen, Canada didn’t get involved in the war because Nima Mazhari gave the Prime Minister a little advice.”

Although the members of the committee seemed too infatuated with their celebrity “whistle-blower” to see it (Diane Ablonczy called Bédard “a world-class straight shooter,”), things just got weirder. Bédard, who worked in Via Rail’s Montreal marketing department for a little more than a year, claimed that she was personally fired from her job in early 2002 by chairman Jean Pelletier, for asking too many questions about wasteful contracts routed through Groupaction, one of the the central players in the scandal. Then, with her testimony protected by parliamentary privilege, she dropped a couple of hearsay bombshells. Jacques Villeneuve was paid US$12 million to wear the word “Canada” on his racing suit, she said, attributing the information to St. Pierre, her by-then former agent. And Groupaction, Via president Marc LeFrançois allegedly told her, was involved in drug trafficking. Of course, by the time Bédard testified, both Pelletier and LeFrançois had been fired, in large part because they had the temerity to publicly question the Olympian’s sanity when she went to the press with details of her sponsorship struggles.

None of Bédard’s allegations were proven and no evidence surfaced to suggest any truth to them. Villeneuve’s business partner Craig Pollock called the report “absolutely the biggest load of bullshit.” Federal documents showed that the extent of the racer’s involvement with the sponsorship program was one $4,500 payment in 1997. Jean Brault, the disgraced head of Groupaction, denied any involvement in the drug trade. “The outrageous accusations violate all limits,” he said.

In fact, in April 2004, an independent arbitrator concluded that rather than being fired from Via, she quit, and that Pelletier had no hand in her departure. Bédard, he said, had secretly assigned $20,000 in work from Via to In Marché, the company she owned with Mazhari. After her departure, the railway received an invoice for $20,000 for a website project. After negotiations, the bill was reduced to $10,000, and the material was used on the French language website. But the English version never made it to cyberspace because it “used virtually incomprehensible language.” And his report also painted an unflattering portrait of the exOlympian. LeFrançois said that relations between Bédard and her co-workers were so strained that “he had to move her into a relatively isolated office at one extremity of the floor.” In one instance, the report said LeFrançois described how “she demanded to have a particular chair for her desk, which he said would have cost some $8,000.” (LeFrançois said she eventually bought a $2,000 chair. Bédard said it was closer to $500.)

All in all, Bédard received little praise from her bosses. Her supervisor, Keith Moulton, told the investigator that “there were only two people of any importance in her mind, herself and president and CEO Marc LeFrançois.” Bédard was “terrible in group dynamics” and “had blinders on,” he said. The report concluded that there was ample evidence that Bédard was not happy with her job and openly told co-workers that she planned to start her own company.

OPEN LETTERS addressed to Kofi Annan, Prince Albert of Monaco, and “all the inhabitants of earth” don’t usually hold much appeal for news editors, but then again, they aren’t normally signed by an Olympic champion. This past October, Bédard and Mazhari announced their intention to quit Canada, seemingly for good, in two public missives. The first, sent Sept. 19, and addressed to Stephen Harper and Jean Charest, pleaded for government intervention because, “terrorists are running Canada and the RCMP is sleeping.” “Since 2004, the machinery of political terrorism has been used to terrorize and demolish our lives through various government methods, sometimes the rotten imbeciles of the Sûreté du Québec, or in pulling the strings of certain judges.. .to the advantage of their servants in the terrorist niche of the huge media apparatus of Radio Canada,” it said in part. The second, sent Oct. 2, and addressed to American ambassador David Wilkins, Annan et al., announced the couple’s intention to seek political refuge in the States. It even provided details of the route the couple, and Maude, a Grade 6 student, would be taking from their suburban Brossard home to the U.S. border. The car would be packed with boxes of crucial documents, the letter promised, hinting that forces might not want them to make good on their escape.

The “bureaucratic terrorism” that Bédard and Mazhari refer to appears to be primarily the theft charges laid against him in June 2004. They say the accusations are trumped up, and made in retribution for her whistle-blowing. And the police investigation caused further strife within her family. Pierre Bédard told police that he stored 20 or so paintings in his house in 2001, around the time the Caiserman works are alleged to have disappeared, at the request of his daughter. Mazhari’s response was scathing: “He can’t even remember what he had for dinner last night.”

Bédard has become an increasingly isolated figure since her husband’s legal troubles began. St. Pierre, her long-time agent, broke off all contact, accusing her of winning the gold medal in “shabbiness” with her treatment of him and her family. “Madame Bédard, from now on my door is closed to you, forever,” he wrote in a press release. “I know all that I have done for you, I know how honest I have always been in my work for you. And I know that somewhere in the bottom of your heart—if it still exists—you know it too.” And in February 2006, Bédard lost what should have been a gig for life—commenting on the Olympic biathlon for French television. Radio Canada had taken away the Turin analyst’s position—a job she had performed in Salt Lake in 2002—as punishment for her sponsorship testimony, she alleged. The network said she simply no longer fit into their broadcast plans.

No one took Bédard’s threats to seek asylum in the States very seriously at first. Not even her family. But by mid-October, her ex-husband had started to become concerned at the lack of contact with Maude. He went to the Quebec police and asked them to open a file. Paquet continues to decline requests for interviews, but Bédard’s family says that his few phone conversations with his daughter over the fall months lasted little more than a minute at a time, and provided only the vaguest of details about her location and travel plans. He reportedly grew to fear that the pair might ultimately take his daughter to Iran. On Dec. 8, authorities swore out a Canada-wide warrant for Bédard’s arrest. Her family went public a couple of days later, pleading for her to return.

Mazhari blames the whole fiasco on his inlaws. “For three or four years we’re having all kinds of problems... right and left, every day in our lives,” he told reporters. “Behind all these problems, it’s always a family story.”

But the pair have also found it easy to slot events into their conspiracy-fuelled vision of the world. When they found out that Myriam was a wanted woman, Dec. 14, they went to the FBI to try and surrender. They were turned away. The arrest, during their Dec. 22 birthday celebrations, came the day before they supposedly intended to return to Canada, Mazhari’s mission to inform American politicians about the sponsorship scandal seemingly complete. (He says he met with a U.S. senator, identified as John Warner by one of Bédard’s lawyers. But a spokesman for the Virginia Republican said there are no “records or recollections” of anyone meeting with Mazhari or Bédard.) A minor traffic accident on the way to court in Maryland was portrayed as a clear attempt on Nima’s life, perhaps by the Canadian government. The evidence is again questionable. Outside the courthouse in Quebec City, their blue BMW bore the scars of the encounter—a light scuff on the left rear bumper.

John T. Pepper Jr., Bédard’s Canadian lawyer, says she will plead not guilty to the charge. Myriam and her ex have had “communication problems” for years. And it was often Paquet who failed to live up to his end of the custody arrangement. “The father exercises only 15 to 20 per cent of his access rights each year,” Pepper charges. “We have a 2003 letter from Madame Bédard’s lawyer explaining that the situation was getting difficult because Mr. Paquet travels so much, and that they were attempting to find a better way to communicate with him so as not to be at the mercy of his desire, or non-desires. I’m talking about Myriam waiting at the house on a Friday night to see if he was coming or not. It was causing problems.” Pepper says his client always intended to return to Canada. Maude was to begin a school ski trip Jan. 8. And the ultimate proof, says the lawyer, is that Bédard’s Olympic medals remain in a Montreal-area safe deposit box.

Despite their estrangement, Pierre Bédard showed up for the bail hearing. A tiny man, he has the same sharp nose and watery, blue eyes as his daughter. He spoke sadly of the events of the past few years. “It’s been four years since I’ve spoken to her. I’d love to talk to her, but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what’s going on in her head.” He said he was angry about her decision to leave for the States with Maude, but that he will always be there to support her. And he was frank in his assessment that his daughter needs help. “It’s not very reassuring when people leave in a fit of madness like that. People who are no longer capable of handling what’s happening here. It’s not normal.” 

Later that night, Maclean’s spoke with Pierre Bédard on the phone. His voice cracking with emotion, he spent a good 15 minutes explaining why he couldn’t face another interview about Myriam. The events of the past months have been spinning out of control. “It’s so complex what has happened to our family. People don’t understand.” The emotions were raw. Bédard’s phone had been ringing since 4:30 a.m.  And it was always the media. He had thought about not answering, but he always did. Just in case it was her. M 

with files from Martin Patriquin