A Canadian Tragedy

Anne Bayin

 Larry Fisher, Guilty of Murder. Thank Joyce, I say. Thank Joyce. 

Finally, Joyce Milgaard's got her man. It is she who deserves to take the bow here. Not the Mounties, not the Saskatchewan justice system, certainly not the Saskatoon police, whose bungled investigation into one of the most brutal murders in the city's history put her 16-year-old hippie son in jail for the best years of his life. It is Joyce Milgaard, mother of David -who, like many teenagers, was no angel, but, according to his mom, no killer either - that deserves the credit for this final verdict. If not for her unswerving belief in David's innocence, her relentless pursuit of the truth, the painstaking detective work done by her and her legal team, I very much doubt Larry Fisher would have been brought to trial, let alone convicted of the 1969 murder of nursing assistant, Gail Miller. 

Justice has been embarrassingly slow in this case, but it has been done. It only took 30 years. Replayed television news clips of the Miller crime scene flicker in black and white. That long ago. If only those who were not guilty could breathe a huge collective sigh of relief and finally be free to get on with their lives. If only it were that simple. 

This story has resonated with me for years. For one thing, it occurred too close to home for comfort. I grew up on the Prairies, in North Battleford, the town where Larry Fisher's mother lives, where my mother lives today, where Fisher's last known victim lives. It was in my hometown that he viciously raped and nearly killed a 56-year-old woman in 1980, while out on parole visiting his mother. 

Saskatoon, where the Miller murder was committed, lies an hour and a half away, sometimes less, depending on the traffic. To us kids growing up, it was "the city", a place with more sophisticated shops and cafes and people. It was a beautiful, benign university town. Murder was the last thing on its mind.

Back in 1969, I had friends who were young nurses, and a sister who had recently attended classes at the University of Saskatoon. I myself had walked in the back alleys of the city, alone and with friends, laneways identical to the one where Miller's body was discovered face-down in a snowbank, stabbed and slashed more than two dozen times. On the morning of January 31st, she had been on her way to the bus and her dream job in the pediatric ward of City Hospital. 

Six degrees of separation. In 1992, I spent time with the Milgaards when I was assigned to write a story on Joyce for a national magazine. Then again, this year, David and Joyce Milgaard were guests on a show I produced on wrongful conviction, for the television program Pamela Wallin. It was one of the riskiest, most intense and ultimately rewarding shows of our season. David's bad days outweighed the good. We wondered if he, his wife, Marnie, and his psychiatrist, who had agreed to come along, would even arrive on that plane from Vancouver (they did); we wondered whether David would be in "good enough shape" emotionally to go on the air (he was, barely); we felt the most important thing was that David, if he were at all able, be allowed to speak for himself. For too many years Milgaard had been spoken about, his wishes interpreted by third parties. It was time to hear from the man. 

The story resonates for other reasons. It contains our worst fears: being falsely accused and convicted of a crime we didn't commit, and being the victim of a random act of violence. I don't know with whom I identified more, the girl or the boy. I have often thought of the outrage, the betrayal and the utter helplessness David Milgaard must have felt during his time in jail. The physical and sexual assaults he suffered. No one to listen. His rage had nowhere to turn but inward, resulting in several suicide attempts and an escape that ended badly: the Toronto police shot him in the back. The fact that David Milgaard is alive today is astonishing. 

I'm riveted by the statistics: 42 below. That's how cold it was the morning Gail Miller set off to work. I think of the sheer bitterness of the weather, the kind that numbs you instantly, frosts up your scarf, and stings your forehead. Who commits such a savage crime in the early morning, in bone-chilling winter and in the snow? Gail Miller didn't stand a chance. Women who walk alone instinctively raise their antenna at night, and on warm summer evenings.

One in 950,000,000,000,000. According to an RCMP biologist, that's the probability the human sperm cells found on Gail Miller's clothing did not belong to Larry Fisher. And what, I wonder, were the probabilities at play that day in 1969, when David Milgaard and his sorry band of friends dropped over to Albert (Shorty) Cadrain's house for a visit? The same precise house where the trail of belongings from Miller's body would lead: a knife handle, a boot, a wallet. The same house where Larry Fisher lived, with his wife, in the basement? Fisher, who later confessed to three other brutal rapes, conducted in his signature style - side grab attack, hand clamped over the mouth, knife at the throat- around the time of the Miller murder. Were the chances of Milgaard being in the wrong place at the wrong time that day as high as that DNA statistic for Fisher? 

$10,000,000. That's the amount of the settlement the Milgaards were awarded, along with a long-awaited apology from the government of Saskatchewan. It may be the highest cash settlement of its kind in our country's history, but it hasn't made David Milgaard a free man. He still has nightmares. 

23 years. The number of years David Milgaard spent in jail; the number of years to which the rest of the Milgaard family, Lorne, Susan, Maureen and Chris were sentenced to sacrifice any semblance of normal family life. The kids grew up with a brother who was a convicted sex murderer. Their mother was gathering her forces to embark on her heroic, single-minded and sometimes irritating crusade, not only to free their brother, but also to reform the whole prison system. 

30 years. The number of years Gail Miller's family has had to wait for closure. They are the least talked about victims here. When I met David Milgaard again last year, I was struck by how young he appeared, how handsome he was in person, although he seemed unaware of his looks. With his new haircut, wearing glasses, when he wasn't looking scared, there was a striking resemblance to Warren Beatty. More recently, I watched him, alongside his mother, she in a gown, he in a tuxedo, on stage at the Gemini Awards. They were celebrating "Milgaard" the made-for-TV movie based on his life. The film took six prizes, including the coveted Best TV Movie and Best Direction awards. Joyce looked radiant; David looked uncomfortable, and fidgety, as if he didn't quite know where he fit in. How could he? It will probably take the rest of his life to answer that question. This is a man, after all, who had to learn how to bank in his mid-forties. Who hardly saw a sunset for twenty years. Who went from being Prisoner #289699 to being famous. 

So, for David Milgaard, what is real, and what is absurd? Is he someone who enjoys a Mediterranean cruise, like the one he took recently? Is he happiest when he's building a garage, planting a garden, or hanging out with friends? He has self-published a chapbook called "The Rabbit's Paw (for Bandit's Blues)." Does writing poetry give him satisfaction? Will he ever, really, feel free? David Milgaard is a man who needs to escape to the woods just to breathe sometimes. 

Shortly after David was first sent to prison, in September 1970, Larry Fisher was caught while fleeing from an attack on a woman in Fort Garry, a Winnipeg suburb. Under interrogation, he confessed to a string of brutal sex attacks in Saskatoon, some of which had occurred in Miller's neighbourhood and during the same time frame as her murder. You'd expect a light switch would have gone on somewhere in the province, but it didn't. For inexplicable reasons, Fisher's case was handled quietly in Regina, not Saskatoon, away from the scene of most of his crimes. You'd think the capture of a serial rapist would make major headlines, in order that the public be informed and better able to sleep at night. But the Saskatoon media were never alerted and investigators familiar with both cases failed to make the link. It wasn't until 1990 that the indomitable Joyce Milgaard made the critical connection. 

I remember her telling me a story on the way to visit David in prison, one wintry afternoon in 1992. It is a 29-kilometre drive from Winnipeg, north, along Highway 7. We came over a rise and saw Stony Mountain penitentiary in the distance. It's a fortress, sitting out there on the prairie. Joyce told me that David's sister Maureen used to look at it and think she was going to castles. "She saw beyond the gun turrets to beauty," said Joyce, smiling.

 47. The age David is now.
50. The age Larry Fisher is now.
51. The age Gail Miller would be now, had she lived.

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