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Whitey MacDonald
Whitey MacDonald

Obituary

High-living Winnipegger evaded the law for more than 30 years Add to ...

Former Winnipeg fugitive Ian MacDonald, with his daughter, Lisa, in the 1970s. After 30 years on the run, he was recaptured and convicted of drug trafficking. He died April 16, 2014. Lisa Alexander

Sitting by a rural road in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, the 19th Hole, a decrepit appliance store with an unpaved front lot, was owned a few years ago by a friendly fellow called Jack Hunter.

He said he was born nearby in Pennsylvania. However, when he had too much to drink, “this strange Canadian accent would come out,” a former employee told a local paper.

That was because “Jack Hunter” was in fact a Canadian fugitive.

He was Ian Jackson MacDonald, a high-living character who once rubbed elbows with businessmen in Winnipeg and drug dealers and federal agents in Florida.

One of Manitoba’s most colourful crime figures, Mr. MacDonald died of cancer in a nursing home on April 16, a month after turning 75.

Arrested as the central figure in a marijuana smuggling case in 1980, he escaped by pretending to have a heart attack.

Download the court document (PDF)

A business partner, the Manitoba MLA Bob Wilson, was indicted as an accomplice and went to jail protesting that he was being framed because Mr. MacDonald was out of the authorities’ reach.

For more than 30 years, no one heard from Mr. MacDonald. His children thought he was dead.

Then, in 2010, the U.S. marshals recaptured him.

The husky, bejewelled bon vivant of the 1970s was now a frail white-haired man who wintered in a trailer home.

There were tearful reunions with his children, who now lived in California. But he never got to see his grandchildren because he was deported to Winnipeg.

“Just say it, you screwed up,” his eldest child, Lisa Alexander, tearfully admonished him during one visit to Winnipeg.

“OK, OK, I screwed up,” he admitted.

“But he never said he was sorry,” Ms. Alexander recalled.

A Charming Rogue

He was born on March 16, 1939, in Winnipeg.

The young Mr. MacDonald had a rebellious streak. He told Ms. Alexander that he got in trouble for stealing a motorcycle. He also ran away with the circus, working as a mechanic for E.J. Casey’s travelling carnival.

He married at 19 and had his first child at 21. Then, after three kids, he divorced and recast himself as a playboy entrepreneur.

He wore diamond rings and gold necklaces and liked to flash fat rolls of cash. He was variously known as Jack, Whitey or Big Mac.

He had a way about him. When he walked into a room, he commanded a lot of attention
Lisa Alexander

His enterprises started modestly, with a television store. However, Mr. Wilson said, Mr. MacDonald used his charm and yacht-club membership to get close to Winnipeg’s grandees.

“He had a way about him. When he walked into a room, he commanded a lot of attention,” Ms. Alexander said.

Another relative, Don Macdonald, remembered him as “a charming rogue” who liked to cruise on a boat called the Playboy 2, with “a bevy of bikinied girlfriends.” He once appeared on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press, skiing down a mountain, clad in only a diaper, playing the New Year's baby.

By the mid 1970s, he relocated to Fort Lauderdale, in a house on a palm tree-lined street, a few steps from the ocean.

He married an American woman. Angela MacDonald was also tall and blond and they made a striking couple, said Ms. Alexander, who sometimes visited.

He had a Lincoln Town Car, a power boat, a Bell helicopter, a Cessna plane, all with “Big Mac” painted on the sides. That nickname was also painted at the bottom of his swimming pool.

A combination photograph shows Ian Jackson MacDonald pictured in 1980 (L) and in 2011 (R) in these U.S. Marshals photographs. Reuters

He operated a brokerage that sold yachts. A Winnipeg acquaintance later claimed that Mr. MacDonald sold boats to people running drugs.

“I never thought Jack was involved with dope … [but] I knew that Jack was involved with people who were involved with dope,” Bill Harris testified at a pre-trial hearing. “I knew that because Jack had to brag about everything he did.”

At the same time, he also co-operated with the law. His attorney told an extradition hearing that Mr. MacDonald was an informant for the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In 2012, Ms. Alexander obtained her father's immigration file and found a letter from a U.S. Customs officer, Michael Wewers, confirming that Mr. MacDonald provided information in drug cases.

In that shady underworld, Whitey was all grey zones. “You need criminal informants because they have knowledge of criminal activities,” Mr. Wewers said in an interview. “Informants aren't always angels but this doesn’t always make them a bad person either.”

Operation Enterprise

Shuttling between Florida and Winnipeg, Mr. MacDonald often caroused with Mr. Wilson, sleeping at the politician’s house and boating together.

A Conservative member of the legislature, Mr. Wilson kept commercial sidelines. He had a bailiff business, sold trousers and purchased boats from Mr. Macdonald in Florida.

Unbeknownst to them, in early 1979, the RCMP launched Operation Enterprise an investigation into the smuggling of marijuana from Florida to Manitoba.

After months of surveillance and wiretaps, the Mounties named 14 people in an indictment. They arrested Mr. Wilson in September.

In Florida, Mr. MacDonald was arrested in February. While awaiting extradition, he pretended to have a heart attack. Once in hospital, he convinced his guard to unshackle his legs so he could shower, then escaped.

Later that year, Mr. Wilson went to trial.

The jury heard that Mr. MacDonald had conspired to smuggle cannabis from the Bahamas and South America, at one point tossing bales of marijuana into the back seat of his Lincoln.

Former Winnipeg fugitive Ian MacDonald, with the personal plane emblazoned with his nickname, Big Mac, which he flew when he lived in Florida in the late 1970s. He died April 16, 2014. Robert Wilson

The Crown produced wiretap transcripts in which Mr. Wilson spoke about transactions with Mr. MacDonald. The defence argued those conversations stemmed from Mr. Wilson’s purchase of boats.

But the prosecution also produced Bill Wright, a co-conspirator who received immunity in return for his testimony. He told the court that he delivered to Mr. Wilson’s house a six-pound bag packed with $63,000 in small bills to pay for a drug shipment.

Mr. Wilson was stunned when the jury found him guilty of conspiring to import and traffic in marijuana. “RCMP dirty tricks,” he shouted as he was taken to jail.

As for his missing friend, within a year the U.S. marshals in Florida gave up on searching for Mr. MacDonald, citing a backlog of 1,000 other warrants.

Years, then decades went by with no news from him.

Some speculated that he had drowned at sea or that a drug trafficker had murdered him.

In 2011, Ms. Alexander had come to believe that her father was indeed dead.

One evening, she was sitting at a bar telling a friend that she needed to accept that she would never see him again.

Her phone rang. “Are you sitting down?” her mother said. “Your father’s alive. He’s been arrested.”

Jack and Angela Hunter

Mr. MacDonald’s wife had switched back to her maiden name, which he also adopted. They became Jack and Angela Hunter.

He later told Ms. Alexander that he, Ms. Hunter and her daughter from her first marriage first went in hiding in a small Colorado town, where they operated a gas station and a towing business.

Sometimes he worked for the local police station and would rest in an unlocked holding cell while waiting for a towing call.

I have been looking over my shoulder all these years. I wondered when this day would come.
Whitey MacDonald

They later bought a farm near Avella, a small Pennsylvania town near Pittsburgh.

He stabled horses, sold farming equipment and ran the 19th Hole, the used-appliance store.

Mr. MacDonald also took care of the Heinz Hitch, a team of parade horses promoted by the H.J. Heinz food company.

He travelled three times to Canada under his fake name to show the horses at the Calgary Stampede.

In 2009, Mr. MacDonald and his wife purchased a mobile home where they could winter, in Homosassa, a small town in Central Florida.

The Return

The following year, the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami decided to review its cold-case backlog.

Buried inside Mr. MacDonald’s file, they found a page with details about his wife and decided to track her down. They discovered that she was now using her maiden name, Hunter, and lived with a Jack Hunter. The marshals then found that the photo on his Pennsylvania driver’s licence looked like Mr. MacDonald. Marshals in Pittsburgh were dispatched to the farmhouse, but a neighbour told them the couple were in Florida. A property search revealed that the Hunters had bought land in Homosassa.

The marshals set up a surveillance operation there and when Mr. MacDonald walked outside his trailer on the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2011, they identified him.

The marshals then went to his door.

“We know who you are,” they told Mr. MacDonald.

“I have been looking over my shoulder all these years,” he said. “I wondered when this day would come.”

‎By now, he was 71 and suffering from prostate cancer and diabetes.

On returning to Canada, Mr. MacDonald told CTV and CBC that Mr. Wilson had nothing to do with drug smuggling. Mr. Wilson could barely contain his emotions when informed of his former pal’s remarks.

However, Mr. MacDonald eventually plea-bargained with the Crown in September, 2011. He signed a statement in which Mr. Wilson was again portrayed as an accomplice.

Former Winnipeg fugitive Ian MacDonald, at a Winnipeg nursing home in 2013. After 30 years on the run, he was recaptured and convicted of drug trafficking. He died April 16, 2014. Lisa Alexander

“My father insisted to the day he died that Bob Wilson was innocent,” Ms. Alexander said.

She said her father agreed to the plea bargain so he could get a conditional sentence – meaning house arrest.

Having lost a chance to clear his name, Mr. Wilson still does not bear a grudge against his one-time friend. “I am a Christian faith-based person,” he said. “I forgave him.”

Mr. MacDonald was supposed ‎to serve his sentence of two years minus a day at a friend's house but his poor health forced him to relocate to a Winnipeg nursing home, the Fred Douglas Lodge.

With his cancer spreading to his bones, his children launched a campaign in 2012, pleading with officials to allow him to be with his family in the U.S. Their request was rejected and even after his sentence ended, he remained at the nursing home, where he died with his daughters by his side.

Even in death, Whitey continued to have a double life.

In Pennsylvania, a death notice appeared in a local paper, placed by Angela Hunter. It invited people to a memorial service for “Jack Hunter.”

His ashes meanwhile are now with Ms. Alexander in California, at last close to his children and grandchildren.

Mr. MacDonald is survived by his wife, Ms. Hunter; his children, Ms. Alexander and her siblings Kelly and Basey, who did not want their last names published; and several grandchildren.

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