The quick chance encounters that usually happen between a journalist and the subject of a story don’t often leave enough of an impression on either person to start a long-term friendship, says Linden MacIntyre.
“Reporters learn to resist the stirrings of personal feelings when they meet people who are involved in their stories,” the award-winning journalist writes in his latest book.
When MacIntyre met 27-year-old Tyrone (Ty) Conn in the Special Handling Unit of the Corrections Canada Institution in Prince Albert, Sask., in 1994, Conn became the first exception to that rule.
MacIntyre was working on an investigative piece about the effects of child abuse for CBC’s “The Fifth Estate” when he met Conn, who was serving a sentence of more than 47 years in prison, mostly for bank robbery.
Born in Ontario to a 15-year-old mother and a Newfoundlander father, Conn — originally named Ernie Hayes — was given up and made a ward of the Crown as a toddler.
Adopted not long afterwards, he spent eight abusive years as the son of a psychiatrist and his mentally unstable wife before he was returned to the Children’s Aid Society.
Conn didn’t remember at what age he had started stealing food from his adoptive parents, but recalled his pajamas still had feet in them.
Over the next few years, Conn bounced between foster homes — many of them abusive — and juvenile delinquent centres, his compulsive thieving escalating from food and toys to money and eventually cars.
Dealing with a life of rejection and never having experienced a stable home or the chance to develop any level of self-esteem, Conn landed in adult prisons of the roughest kind — even more rough after he managed to escape from several lower-security institutions.
MacIntyre had given Conn his business card, and the pair started exchanging letters. Conn also struck up a friendship with MacIntyre’s producer, Theresa Burke.
The young convict was brilliant, MacIntyre told The Telegram this week in a telephone interview, with a gift for language and writing, a fascinating memory and deep insight. MacIntyre knew there was a book in Conn, and urged Conn to be the one to write it.
“He was kind of shy about the idea, but the more we talked about it, the more interested he got,” MacIntyre said. “I went up to see him at Millhaven Institution one day, and late in the visit he handed me this envelope. He had written tightly-packed, probably 500 words to a page or more, pages about the first 12 or 14 years of his life. It was a treasure trove of small memories, and in a fit of energy he wrote them down in minute details. I was going to take that and give him some suggestions about how to shape it and give him some more time to do the same for the next 18 or so years of his life.”
MacIntyre noticed Conn became incredibly vague and reticent when he pressed him for details about his life after age 14. Although he’d talk about his criminal escapades, he wouldn’t write them down, and MacIntyre eventually understood why.
“It was too difficult to tell the story of his crime phase without getting other people in trouble,” he explained. “Plus, there were a number of crimes, mostly robberies, for which he was never caught.
“His conscience was absurd. I kept telling him, ‘You don’t have to be afraid to write this stuff down.’ People gauge the seriousness of a crime by the damage it does to other people, and I’d tell him, ‘You’ve scared people, traumatized them, but you’ve never shot at anybody or beat anybody.’ He said, ‘Well I hurt somebody once.’ He said he had ran out of a bank once after robbing it, and there was a woman getting into her car, and he hauled her away and jumped in behind the wheel and took off. When he was driving away he ran over her foot and felt terrible about that.”
In 1998, Conn was transferred from Millhaven to Kingston Penitentiary as protection for acting as an informant — he had told security staff that other inmates were planning an escape. About a year later, Conn used a ladder and a homemade grappling hook to scale a wall of the jail and escaped, using cayenne pepper to prevent dogs from following his scent.
He was on the run for a couple weeks, staying in a friend’s basement apartment in Toronto. On May 20, 1999, armed police surrounded the home, ready to take him down. Conn, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, tried to phone MacIntyre, but couldn’t reach him.
“I was in Nova Scotia on a trip and there was nobody home at my place,” McIntyre said. “Later at night, I got a phone call from my wife, who had been away. She came home and the answering machine was practically full of messages from the police that Ty wanted to talk to me.”
Conn eventually got hold of Burke instead, and spoke to her while the police were attempting to negotiate with him. At one point, he told Burke to hold on a second, he was going to sit down, and she heard the gun go off.
“She phoned me on my cellphone and said, ‘I think something bad has happened to Ty. I was just talking to him on the phone and I heard an odd sound, and then I heard the sound of police and somebody saying, Get the handcuffs. I’m going over there right now,’” McIntyre said.
He later heard from his wife that Conn had shot himself in the chest and died. He was 32.
While police say Conn killed himself, MacIntyre and Burke are convinced it was an accident. Although he was capable of committing suicide — and had attempted it when he was younger — he would not have done it while he was on the phone with Burke, MacIntyre said.
“He was very old-fashioned about women. He always thought she was delicate because she was a girl,” he explained. “She went into the place a day or so later and saw exactly where it happened. It was dark, there was a lot of clutter and stuff around, and the chair he was trying to sit on had a pile of clothes on it. He was sick and trying to balance a shotgun in one hand and a phone in the other, and he just kind of lost his balance and the gun went off.”
MacIntyre and his wife took over responsibility for Conn’s funeral arrangements, and were later asked by his birth mother to scatter his ashes in the ocean off the east coast. Although Conn had never visited Newfoundland, he had told MacIntyre, who was born in St. Lawrence, he felt a connection to the province and hoped one day to visit and explore his family roots.
The next year, MacIntyre and Burke did what they had been coaxing Conn to do himself — they set out to write a book about his life. With Conn’s own detailed account of his life and having been granted access by him to his personal records and permission to speak to the Children’s Aid Society and the corrections system, the pair put together “Who Killed Ty Conn” exploring how life and various systems had failed the young man. Originally published by Penguin in 2001, the book didn’t have the effect MacIntyre was hoping for.
“Everything about his life and death provided important insights into the way we deal with children of a dysfunctional situation, how the adoption process works, how the Children’s Aid Society works, and how stupid and incompetent we are about dealing with juvenile bad behaviour,” he said. “I thought that this would be an instructional book, and I had hoped that it would be grabbed up by universities and law schools and social agencies. I’m not sure what happened.”
Creative Books of St. John’s agreed to republish the book, and has recently released it to bookstores, complete with a foreward written by Elliott Leyton, professor emeritus of forensic anthropology at Memorial University.
MacIntyre has the same hope for this edition that he did for the last one, and feels if he’s to be remembered for anything, he wants it to be this book.
“That’s the kind of people I want to read this book and take it into their heart,” he said of Leyton. “The people who work with these children and troubled adults, or people who teach frontline workers who’ll deal with these troubled adolescents and adults. I want this book to get into the educational stream, so that it will get into the consciousness of people who work with children who might turn into somebody like Ty Conn, or worse.
“The only thing that’s going to mitigate the troubles that arise from dysfunctional child care and youth corrections is education and awareness and people caring about the Ty Conns of the world.”