In a week of dramatic surprises, Conrad Black outdid himself once more by appearing outside his Toronto home Friday afternoon with his wife Barbara Amiel, only a few near-improbable hours after authorities said he would be released from a Florida prison.
Having eluded the media for every step of the day's odyssey, the former media baron and Federal Correctional Institution inmate, lingered outside for several minutes with his wife, watching their Hungarian Kuvaszok dogs play in the grass and pausing for a public embrace.
Lord Black's home was quiet on his first full day of freedom Saturday. There was little visible activity at the stately brick mansion, screened by trees and girdled by a black metal fence on a quiet side street of Toronto's wealthy Bridle Path neighbourhood.
Only one visitor dropped by, late in the afternoon, and a bouquet of flowers arrived.
Canada's Ministry of Immigration surprised many by offering Lord Black, who served 42 months for fraud and obstruction of justice, a temporary resident permit even though he had once renounced his Canadian citizenship to join the House of Lords. Very few, if any, prisoners could successfully petition the Canadian government for residency, but documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that officials believed Lord Black poses no risk to Canadians, in part because his high profile will draw scrutiny.
“I'm very happy. It's not been easy,” Ms. Amiel told reporters. “You don't celebrate after something like this, we're just going to stay home.”
The details of Lord Black's under-the-radar return are still unclear, and the media mogul declined to speak to reporters on Friday. But, by most accounts, his route back home was a remarkably privileged one, eased by multiple exceptions from normal protocol.
In March, Canada granted him a one-year temporary resident permit while he was still in prison, a decision so rare that one Toronto lawyer said, in similar cases, he wouldn't even bother applying for it.
Lord Black's trip home from Florida was similarly unimpeded, allowing him to avoid the throngs of reporters who were eager to catch a glimpse of him and to slip into Canada less than six hours after he is believed to have left prison.
Normally, inmates are released no earlier than 10 a.m. from the Federal Correctional Institution near Miami, Warden Rob Wilson told The Globe and Mail earlier this week. Lord Black, however, was reportedly freed around 8:30 a.m. Friday, picked up by immigration enforcement officials travelling in three vehicles – a van, a black SUV and a patrol vehicle. He was whisked away in one them, his face shielded behind tinted glass.
Convicts released into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are usually taken to a detention centre for booking and processing, which can take days or weeks to complete. But Lord Black's name did not appear in a public U.S. government database that tracks immigration detainees – a sign he may have skipped the detention centre entirely or that he may have left earlier.
Not long after his putative release time, an unidentified worker at the nearby Krome Detention Center told reporters Lord Black had been taken directly to the airport.
Immigration officials have stayed tight-lipped about Lord Black's departure, citing privacy laws and security policies, and it's unclear whether he took a charter or commercial flight back to Toronto.
Back home, neighbours in his exclusive Bridle Path neighbourhood were generally amused by the fuss, a few cracking jokes about “Conrad” and “the felon.” Another disparaged the assembled reporters as “vultures” and warned them to stay away from his property.
Navin Chandaria, who lives nearby, said Lord Black had “paid his price” and should be allowed to resume Canadian citizenship and live in peace, adding that he was looking forward to welcoming him back to the area.
“Absolutely, he's my neighbour,” said Mr. Chandaria, who described meeting him “several” times at parties. “He didn't murder anybody. It's only a business thing.”
Other neighbours echoed the sentiment.
“I think he's a very distinguished author and I think he's an important Canadian,” said Nigel Aplin, who described a gracious encounter years ago while the two were cycling. “I'm happy to see him back in the country,”
Others have been less generous. Earlier this week, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair used Question Period to call him “British criminal Conrad Black,” questioning why he was granted temporary status in Canada while other deserving applicants were turned down.
Lord Black has been repeatedly criticized for renouncing his citizenship more than a decade ago so he could obtain a British peerage. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who forced Lord Black to choose between Canada and the knighthood, declined to comment on Lord Black's return on Friday.
The Montreal-born businessman was convicted in Chicago in 2007 for misappropriating money at newspaper giant Hollinger International Inc. He had been housed at the prison near Miami since September, but served the first part of his sentence in another, more remote, Florida prison.
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