Who Killed Ty Conn By Linden MacIntyre and Theresa Burke Viking, 337 pages, $33 REVIEWED BY
I know who killed Ty Conn. I had been called for legal assistance in Toronto on the night of May 20, 1999, just before Conn pulled the trigger on a shotgun pressed to his chest, alone in a filthy basement, surrounded by large numbers of armed policemen. There was no hostage. Common sense suggests the police should calm the situation, keep talking, let time pass and persuade the depressed, suicidal fugitive inside to surrender peacefully. In short, to create no crisis.
No crisis? At one point, police shot a stun grenade, with its blinding flash and explosion, into the basement after Conn had asked them for permission to go to the kitchen for a drink of juice. The stun grenade was followed by two rubber bullets. Still later, while he was talking on a police cellphone to fifth estate associate producer Theresa Burke, the shotgun exploded. Conn was dead at the other end of the line.
The answer of Burke and veteran CBC reporter Linden MacIntyre ( the fifth estate)in this kind and magnificent book is deeper: "His death was a logical consequence of his life."
Ty Conn was born Ernest Bruce Hayes in Toronto in 1967. His 16-year-old mother, Marion, was soon abandoned by her older husband, and found herself unable to cope with an infant. She handed him to his father and ran away. His father, in turn, sent him off to her parents. Unable to cope in turn, they put him up for adoption at the age of three. The family chosen was a highly dysfunctional one, dominated by a mother who sexually assaulted one of the older children and constantly abused Conn.
He began to steal, incessantly, mostly food at first. Eventually, they returned him to Children's Aid, like a piece of damaged goods. From group home to group home, he was first taken in and then expelled or rejected. He could shrug off punishment, but the rejection dogged him forever.
Finally, locked up in Brookside Training School at 14, he found acceptance among other boys for whom getting in "big trouble" earned only respect.
When he died, at 32, he had been legally at large for a total of 69 days as an adult. He had "stolen another 147 days of liberty from youth detention centres, Collins Bay Penitentiary, and Kingston Penitentiary. His chances of experiencing another day of freedom, legally or otherwise, in the second millennium were, at best, remote."
These numbers do not sum up a life. MacIntyre and Burke pieced together, from their friendship with him and from interviews and governments records, the failure of all our institutions to deliver any real goods to Conn. He needed special attention while growing up -- but he got none.
When free, he robbed banks. He would enter in a disguise, point a shotgun at the tellers and customers, and escape with the money. In between banks, he stole automobiles, clothes and whatever he needed to in order to survive on the run. In all his armed robberies, no one was ever physically hurt. Still, he was neither a good bank robber nor a good escape artist. A good bank robber stops because he knows that sooner or later, the odds will catch up with him and he will be arrested. A good escape artist can think past the tremendous obstacles of getting out of the cell, out of the common areas that are closely watched, and over the wall. Conn could never think past the wall.
His escapes were daring. Getting out of the cell was easy. They let you out every day. The trick was not to go back in -- and for the guards not to notice. Getting out of the common areas inside Kingston Penitentiary was more difficult. He began sleeping clothed, with his leg crooked over the side of the bed so the guards would notice a characteristic position when they checked his bunk. He showed up at work in the canvas shop late, after the foreman had counted the men, so that when he didn't enter the line to return to his cell, the number would still tally.
He hid in the deserted canvas shop. He bolted shelving brackets to a small step ladder, extending it to a length of 27 feet. He bound the top with tape to prevent any telltale sounds when the metal touched the stone wall. The metal brackets from mail bags served as rungs. He carried a home-made grappling hook to assist him in getting over the edge, and lowered himself down a long strip of home-made canvas rope on the other side. He liberally sprinkled cayenne pepper on the ground to neutralize any tracking dogs. He started to run. "And he felt like he could run forever. He would run forever, if running felt this good. With the lights glaring around him and the endorphins pumping pure ecstasy and his mind exulting having just accomplished the impossible, he was higher than he had ever been on any drug. He ran seven miles to Highway 401." He became the first man to escape from Kingston Penitentiary in 40 years.
Even when he was an adult, the system was unresponsive to Conn. Because he continually escaped, and committed crimes in order to live while an escapee, the judicial system imposed very heavy terms upon him. In the end, despite the absence of any physical violence in his record, he was serving a single compound term of 47 years. All around him were others whose lives were devoted to violence, and many who had killed, serving terms a tiny fraction of his.
He would write Burke: "I can't seem to get a break or a chance from these people. It seems I'm doomed to pay for past mistakes forever with these people and they can't be convinced that I just want to get out of jail legally."
We nourished Conn on thin gruel, indeed. "But from the time he was very young, life had largely been an exercise in avoiding punishment. Punishment for being bad. Punishment for being worse. All he knew, when he got right down to it, was how to be bad and how to avoid or cope with punishment. He gradually began to realize that he was boxed in, not by the law, but by his own limitations."
It costs $62,000 each year to imprison a Ty Conn. And the secondary costs of a life of crime dwarf this number. We are simply stupid.
Renowned Family Court Judge Lynn King says things have gotten worse, not better: "Our safety net is so thin that children slip right through it. Many land in my court. Every year I see fewer and fewer services: social housing for adolescents and the poor, drug treatment, mental health professionals, and just plain old-fashioned youth workers. Yet I must sentence these young people."
She quotes W. H. Auden:
I and the public know
what all school children learn
those to whom evil is done
do evil in return.
Instead, we waste money punishing graffiti artists, squeegee kids and the easy-to-catch users of marijuana. Crime is down; policing is up. Private jails are our proudest modern achievement. Clayton Ruby is a Toronto lawyer who specializes in constitutional and criminal law.