David Milgaard - a personal look

David Milgaard


The following page was written to coincide with the broadcast of the movie, Milgaard, on Sunday, April 11th, 1999, here in Toronto. Most Canadians are already aware of his story, I thought you might like to hear my side of it. I watched the movie as I enjoy Ian Tracey's (The Walk) work but I also watched as I have a personal interest in Milgaard, we met briefly during a very pivotal time in his life. First some background ...




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David and Joyce Milgaard

The following is reprinted with no permission whatsoever from "A Mother's Story", written by Joyce Milgaard (David's mother) and Toronto journalist Peter Edwards. It's available to buy online via McNally Robinson Booksellers.



For 23 years, Joyce Milgaard battled the judicial system until finally, in April, 1992, she won. That is when the Supreme Court of Canada overturned her son David's conviction for the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nursing assistant Gail Miller and returned to him the freedom he had lost at the age of 16. It is one of Canada's tragic tales of justice gone awry -- and of a mother's dogged devotion. In the newly published A Mother's Story: The Fight to Free My Son David, Milgaard recounts her struggles to convince authorities that her son, a restless school dropout, was innocent of the crime. David was finally exonerated by DNA evidence that implicated another man, but not before giving up hope in the sometimes-brutal prison environment. In her book, Joyce Milgaard tells how, after 11 years behind bars, David escaped from custody, bleached his hair and enjoyed the big-city pleasures of Toronto for 2 1/2 months, until police shot him in the back and returned him to prison.



On Aug. 20, 1980, two days before David was to get out on a pass to attend a barbecue party for [his brother] Chris's 27th birthday, he and I met with prison authorities. Once again, they told us that David could not be considered rehabilitated in their eyes until he showed remorse. In addition, the prison officials said they didn't think David could function on the streets, since he had been in custody for so long. It was so ironic and so heartbreaking. They told us about a long-range plan for David to get into a halfway house, but it would mean that he wouldn't get a taste of freedom until four years or so down the road. He had spent 11 birthdays as a prisoner, and the prospect of at least another four was too much to imagine. David left that parole meeting quietly planning to escape.



We had been planning the family barbecue for weeks. We were living then at Quail Ridge, a townhome property in St. James in the west end of Winnipeg that I managed, and it had a lovely country club and tennis courts. [David's sister] Susan was playing racquetball with David's guard when David and [his other sister] Maureen disappeared together. [David's father] Lorne and I were busy preparing the food and didn't think much about it until the guard came back after finishing his game to ask us where David was. The search began in earnest, and we discovered Maureen's car was gone. The guard and Susan drove around the area, thinking perhaps Maureen and David had gone off joyriding. It seemed an eternity, and finally the guard reported David missing. The phone rang, and it was Maureen, and she was sobbing. She told us that David had forced her out of the car, took whatever money she had, and left her.



It wouldn't be until much later that we learned the truth: Maureen helped David escape, then guarded this secret to protect us. We then learned that after he and Maureen left Quail Ridge, she drove to a drugstore to get bleach for his hair and dyed it for him. As he left, David said to Maureen, "Just tell Mom and Dad I have to go. I can't go back."



Wednesday nights are my Christian Science church nights, which David knows. One Wednesday night shortly after this, I returned to my car after church and found a red rose on the seat. I knew it must be from David. The next Sunday, I left an envelope with money inside on the front seat when I went in to church. I could hardly wait for the service to end, and when it was finally over, I rushed to the car, and sure enough, the envelope was gone. Shortly afterwards, I got a letter from Toronto with no return address on the envelope:



Dear Mom,

Where to start and what to say . . . I am happy . . . I have a job starting Wednesday, it is part-time 4 hrs, 6 days a week but a start.

I have met a few people and somehow realize I must practice a better regimen of self-discipline in the sense that so far I've been doing or living in a very hedonistic sort of fashion. Freedom is beautiful and Toronto a place that has a strong pulse, if you like; compared to Winnipeg's nite life.

I keep asking myself what is my direction, what do I want from life now and I only come up with to enjoy it. Maybe that will refine itself somehow, I hope so.

Tell father for me that I hope he understands my leaving and that I care for him and hope he knows that . . .

I wish I could come home. Eleven years wanting only that and then putting myself in a position where I can't have what I want most.

I love every one and miss you all.

If I could understand why life has been as it has for me where I am to go in it, where I've come from, I would be content, but it all makes no sense . . . I shall continue to seek good in others and do good as I see it.

I love you,

David.



A little while later, my brother phoned from Toronto and said, "The package that you sent has arrived." Of course, I hadn't sent him a package. His code was easy to follow. "Oh, that's great. I'll get back in touch with you," I replied. I called back from a phone booth and talked with David. He had hitchhiked to Toronto. There he changed his name to Ward McAdam, got a job in telephone sales, and was soon making $200 a week selling Grolier encyclopedias. He had fallen in love with a girl named Rhonda whom he met on Yonge Street. He wanted to see me, but on one condition -- I couldn't talk to him about turning himself in. I decided to go.



I flew to Toronto under my maiden name, Baxter. I was terrified that I'd meet someone I knew. I was also scared because I knew I was doing something wrong, that I should be turning David in. But I couldn't erase the memory of his voice when he told me on the phone, "If you come here, don't come with the intention of talking me out of it." When I saw David in Toronto, there was a vibrancy about him that I hadn't seen for years. That look had almost died when he was in prison. There was no way I could shut that door on him.



Despite the publicity, David wasn't looking over his shoulder, and would stroll down busy Yonge Street, soaking up the sounds and smells and rhythms of the city's main street. He was determined to savour every moment of freedom. David and I thought that if he could stay out for a while and show that he could function, he would prove the prison authorities wrong. He would show them he could survive outside prison as a productive, peaceful person. It was crazy, but that thought offered us some comfort.



We had a wonderful time in Toronto. We took long walks together. We attended church and had a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant. I went shopping for clothes for him. We found him a furnished apartment in a house, and I bought him a comforter for his bed, and some clothes, including a parka. They were all the mothering things we had both missed so badly.



David later wrote to me, "My success and sense of self-pride was diminished only by the fact that I could not share it [freedom] truly with those that I love, my family." Meanwhile, in Toronto, a new man at David's work needed a place to stay, and David took him in after telling him, "No drugs. I can't stand any heat." The man caught on that David must be hiding something from the police. When the young man left and quickly got into trouble with the police, he told them he knew someone they wanted.



The man David helped told him that he wanted to meet him to thank him for all of his help, and they arranged a get-together near the corner of Queen Street and Roncesvalles Avenue, in the Parkdale district. When David arrived, he saw two big men who looked like police. As he walked by them, one of them said, "David?"



"Excuse me," David replied, breaking into a run. Unknown to him, he was running directly into a buildup of police in a parking lot. They yelled for him to stop, and he did, raising his hands above his head. There was a single blast from a double-barrelled shotgun anyway, and David was down on the pavement, bleeding. The pellets had lodged in his spine, and David feared he had lost the use of his legs forever, as well as his taste of freedom, which had now ended after 77 days.



Few questions were asked about the shooting, since David was believed to be a wanton killer and had no public sympathy. Besides our family and a few close friends, who really cared? Police said they thought David was armed when they shot him. Witnesses interviewed by the press said police could have easily reached out and tripped him, but the officer shot him instead. Other bystanders said they never heard the police identify themselves as police officers, and no one said anything about David actually having a weapon.



I flew back to Toronto to comfort him. There was a police officer outside his room at St. Joseph's Hospital, and David was handcuffed to the bed. I sat on his bed, rubbed his feet, and told David that I loved him. He looked so frail, so helpless, so pale. He later explained that he had to escape, despite the risks. "I was dying a little bit . . . something inside me, every day. I stole my freedom."



That was a turning point for me. I stopped placing hope in appeals or parole or politicians or any part of the system that had already failed us so badly.




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Did any particular name jump out at you? That's right, I'm the Rhonda he fell in love with during his time in Toronto. Here's my story.



Late summer 1980, I was still in high school, merely 16 years old and, frankly, a babe. I was bopping around downtown Toronto wandering aimlessly through the record stores (you know, black circular objects your parents played music on back in the old days), looking fab in my skin-tight blue pants. As I was crossing the street, a young man stopped me to ask directions to a local hotel. He appeared quite attractive and clean and we continued some mindless chit chat about the hotel he wanted when he said, "Actually, I have to admit, I'm not interested in the hotel. I just saw you walk by and thought I'd try to ask you to have a cup of coffee with me, would you?"



Now, as a hardened old woman of 35, I'd never do now what I did then. I went to a shopping mall nearby and sat and had coffee with the guy! He told me his name was Dave McAdam and he just got into town from Winnipeg (capital of a western province, Manitoba), which as it turned out, was true, he just forgot to mention the ran-away-from-jail part.



The coffee date ended with my handing him my phone number and him saying he'd call, yeah right, sure, fine, whatever. Nice guy, but I'll never see him again. Wrong. He called the next day and we ended up spending every single day of the next month together. Our days were spent walking up and down Yonge Street, the biggest and busiest street in town, with him and I pretending to be a couple down on our luck as we panhandled for money. He did all the talking, I just smiled or frowned in the appropriate places and we managed to get about 50 bucks a day from people. One guy even gave us a 20 dollar bill, amazing. Then we'd promptly find the closest bar and get bombed. This guy was in no way hiding, that's for sure.



Our nights were spent in his one-room apartment and I'm sorry, that's all the details you'll get here ;-) His mother's looking down on me, for pete's sake! Suffice it to say I never felt any danger from this man.



About a week after we met, we were walking around and he said he'd like to sit me down and tell me something. We sat on the steps of an apartment building as he looked me square in the eye and told me his story. He hadn't told me the whole truth, he was on the run and serving a life sentence for a murder he didn't commit. Back in 1965 a nurse was raped and murdered in Winnipeg the same day as he and his friends were out tooling around in his car. They stopped at a friend's house to score some pot and found themselves in the middle of the investigation. The nurse's body was found in the alley near where they were. No physical evidence was ever found to implicate him, one person testified against him, a friend with a record a mile long who got a bunch of charges dropped in exchange for his testimony. He would understand if I wanted out of this relationship, he was leaving it up to me. He also knew it was merely a matter of time before the cops found him, he was simply having a good time and would like me to share it with him, what did I want to do?



I may not be a college graduate, but I do know people. I've had "feelings" about others I'd met that turned out to be right, and my gut told me he was telling the truth, so I stayed. I still have some very warm memories of that month, he really was a great guy, loving, funny, sweet and kind. I know now that he was reliving the youth he had stolen from him. He was 16 when he went to jail and 31 when we got together. Other than a week he spent with his sister on a day pass about 6 years before this, he'd been in jail the whole time.



The rest of the month passed quickly, with a routine of panhandling, drinking and ... ahem ... other things every day. No arguments, no violence, nothing out of the ordinary. At the end of the month, a couple of days had gone by without a call, which concerned me, but I didn't think twice. Until I turned on the radio that fateful morning to hear that David Milgaard, alius Dave McAdam, one of Canada's most wanted, had been gunned down and taken into custody. I remember sitting on the edge of the tub (I was in the bathroom) and shaking uncontrollably. My God, he was telling me the truth! I'd been with a possible murderer!



He wrote me a few letters, telling me not to worry about the shooting, they'd gotten him in the butt of all places and he was fine. I still have a Valentine's card and a postcard, but the letters were probably thrown out by my Mum. She didn't know any of this until years later, but she did know he was older as she answered the phone a few times when he called.



Which brings us to the sort of feel-good postscript. About 7 years ago, with the help of DNA testing not available at the time, he was finally exonerated and released, all charges dropped. The province admitted they'd made some mistakes, another guy was strongly assumed and later charged with committing the murder (Larry Fisher, who was found guilty on November 22, 1999 ... YES!) and he was free to go, sorry about that fella, no hard feelings? He received a considerate sum of money from the government, but it doesn't really make much difference now, the guy's life is pretty well shot. The case was front page news for months, everyone knows who he is and he'll never be the same. Over 20 years in jail, how do you go on with a life? We spoke on the phone just before he was released, but he'd changed and it was all a bit sad. He takes anti-depressants and lives with his wife out west. His mother is the real hero of this tale, she's quite the woman. His case would have never been reviewed without all the work she did, especially the way she continued to pester our Prime Minister 'till he caved in.



I wrote a letter to the Supreme Court here while his case was being reviewed, outlining what I've written here, although cleaned up a bit, and some guys writing a book about him got my letter through the Information Access law, and lo and behold, I'm in the book. It's called "When Justice Fails : The David Milgaard Story" by Carl Karp and Cecil Rosner. Flip to page 142 for my 3 page write-up. The book itself is a good read and goes into his story much deeper than I have room for, so read it anyway if you do find it.


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Ian Tracey as David Milgaard


Ian Tracey blew me away with his portrayal of David. He had his mannerisms down to a tee. Little things I had completely forgotten came flooding back as I watched the movie along with chills as I saw David on-screen, not Ian. And in one particular scene, I watched with my jaw open as David bought a watch for a young woman as she stopped by his street vending table here in Toronto. The young woman was never named but, in the strangest coincidence, *I* ran a street vending table a few years after meeting David. As far as I know, he never did, but I often saw him buy some sweet young thing an item from someone's table when it was obvious she couldn't afford it. So, I'm guessing the young woman in the movie represented me. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it :-) The movie won 6 Gemini Awards (Canada's Emmys), out of 11 nominations, including one for best TV movie or dramatic mini-series and one for Ian Tracey as best actor. You can see Ian on the current excellent CBC series, Da Vinci's Inquest, this year's winner of a Gemini for Best Drama Series.



I hope this backstory helps you appreciate the movie and David's story a little bit more. I leave you with the following song written for him:


Wheat Kings

by The Tragically Hip


Sundown in the Paris of the prairies
Wheat kings have all their treasures buried
And all you hear are the rusty breezes
Pushing around the weather vane Jesus

In his Zippo lighter, he sees the killer's face
Maybe it's someone standing in a killer's place
Twenty years for nothing, well that's nothing new
besides no one's interested in something you didn't do
Wheat kings and pretty things
let's just see what the morning brings

There's a dream he dreams where the high school is dead and stark
It's a museum and we're all locked up in it after dark
The walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister
Hung with pictures of our parents' prime ministers
Wheat Kings and pretty things
wait and see what tomorrow brings

Late-breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, "we always knew that he'd go free"
They add, "you can't be fond of living in the past
'cause if you are then there's no way that you're gonna last"
Wheat Kings and pretty things
let's just see what tomorrow brings
Wheat kings and pretty things
that's what tomorrow brings



I hope all your tomorrows bring you peace and happiness, David.

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