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Feature - The Jailbreak That Time Forgot

I spent my early childhood and preteen years in Calvin Park, a Kingston neighbourhood that emerged in the early 1960s but wouldn’t become fully populated for another decade or so. One of my best friends, who lived two doors down, delivered the Whig-Standard to much of Van Order Drive and several adjoining streets. Other than a quick wave or hello, he rarely stopped to chat while making his rounds. However, Tuesday, July 11, 1972, stands out in my memory as the one time he ever rang the doorbell and handed the paper directly to me, adding gravely, “You gotta see this.” I stepped out onto the porch and we gazed in quiet awe at 14 mug shots that glared back at us from the front page.
Within a few minutes my mom had joined us; minutes after that, my grandmother. Before long, my friend the paper boy was gone — duty called — but four or five other neighbours had drifted over and were now huddled around the Whig with us, muttering in consternation and apparently unaware that the same newspaper was now probably waiting on their own doorsteps.
Normally, a jailbreak barely raised the local collective eyebrow. But 14 convicts? Fourteen from Millhaven, that brand new facility just outside of town that was custom-built to house the worst of the worst? This was different. This was significant.
At twilight the previous evening, the 14 had escaped through a hole in the perimeter fence after a softball game while the visiting team was exiting the grounds by bus. The incident made news nationally, but in Kingston, Napanee and all points between, it became the number one preoccupation among civilians and law enforcement alike, for perfectly understandable reasons.
None of these convicts were big-name criminals but press releases declared that all were considered dangerous, and some extremely so. Two were caught within hours, as were another five over the next few days, but the remaining seven became temporary local boogeymen. For the remainder of that summer, every burglary, theft or bump in the night was attributed to the escapees; every remotely creepy-looking stranger was immediately assumed to be “One Of Them.”
Local police and OPP resources were stretched thin enough that the military was called in to assist in the search several days after the breakout, and extra tracking dogs and their handlers were recruited from police departments as far away as Buffalo. Local residents — especially in the rural area surrounding the prison, near the village of Bath — openly spoke of standing guard with loaded rifles. Mention of the episode these days is most likely to bring to mind the Tragically Hip song “Thirty-Eight Years Old,” although specific events and characters described in the lyrics are fictional.
The incident remains Canada’s largest prison break to date. It may not have resulted in any fatalities or serious injuries among local citizens or law enforcement but it terrified a large region of southeastern Ontario for the better part of several months. Forty years later, I began work on this article simply as a retrospective, and wound up questioning why there is so little in the way of any public record beyond a popular song. And I didn’t wind up with many answers to that, either.

Photo courtesy Correctional Service of Canada Museum collection

IN THE SPRING OF 1971, MILLHAVEN HAD BEEN forced to open early to accommodate an overflow of inmates who needed to be housed immediately after Kingston Penitentiary suffered heavy damages in a riot. From the beginning, concerns about the unfinished new facility’s security ran high, and justifiably so. In early December that year, inmate Thomas William McCauley, who was serving a 27-year sentence for attempted murder, armed robbery and burglary, had cut through the fencing to become Millhaven’s first escapee, although he was caught shortly afterward. McCauley and 13 other inmates would break out via the same route again in July of 1972. Poor lighting was blamed, an inefficient system later termed an “experiment” involving incandescent bulbs and soon after replaced by the older, institutional-standard sodium lamps.
Don Clarke, who was warden of Millhaven during its earliest years, doesn’t mince words today about his deep dissatisfaction with much of the prison’s design, including the lighting. “The big problem,” he says, “was the total political and architectural ineptitude in the planning of the place. For the politicians and the bureaucrats to think that they could take dangerous people from the security of a walled institution [KP] to the lack of security of a place with wire fence and the most inadequate and inept lighting ever heard of in maximum security parlance anywhere in the world — well, the politicians didn’t see it that way, because they would have had to look at themselves in the looking-glass. That’s the kindest way I can put it.” The design flaws, he says, acted in tandem with the rushed opening to seriously undermine security at what was supposed to be the nation’s first “supermax” facility. Breakouts, whether small or large-scale, seemed inevitable. (When asked how long, in his opinion, Millhaven took to finally become fully functional, he candidly states, “A decade and a half. Perhaps even two decades.”)
McCauley is believed to have masterminded the mass escape with the aid of Donald Oag, at 22 the youngest of the group and generally considered the most dangerous; the other inmates were invited to join them as a means of maximizing the diversion. Oag is the only one of the escapees to have had any lasting legacy in the public eye, finally being given Dangerous Offender status and locked up indefinitely two years ago — at age 60 — after amassing a record of dozens of violent offences dating back to the late 1960s. Both Oag and his older brother James had been in KP during the riot, and both had been charged with manslaughter in the aftermath, although James was not among the Millhaven escapees.
Andy, a former federal inmate who serv-ed multiple prison terms between the early 1970s and late 1990s (speaking on the condition that his last name not be mentioned), knew Donald Oag from other institutions as well as from the streets of London, Ontario, where they both grew up. No stranger to violent crime himself, Andy still recalls Oag as exceptionally reprehensible, flatly declaring, “Donnie was deadly. He would kill you in a second. If you were doing time with Donnie, you made sure that you didn’t offend him. I knew his brothers too; his brothers were bad, but not like him.”
All the escapees were relatively young, ranging in age from 22 to 38, and most were serving long sentences, from 10 years to life. Strangely, at least by current standards, none were serving time on drug charges, and none were known to have any significant ties to major organized crime such as the mafia or Montreal’s powerful Irish mob, although some had operated on its periphery. Ten of the 14 escapees were convicted of armed robbery, far and away the most common offence among the group. None were sex offenders. None were local, and hence few had any friends or family in the area to offer them aid.
That particular factor proved to be the undoing of a number of the men who remained at large after the first few days. Exhaustion and hunger took their toll as escapees became increasingly discouraged about making it out of the immediate area. “Everyone and his dog were beating the bushes,” recalls Dennis Curtis, best known these days for treading the boards in Kingston theatre productions, but who for many years was a communications manager for Corrections Canada. “Millhaven is fairly well isolated, and once you get off the property it’s basically open countryside. These people were probably getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.”
Theresa Miller, a resident of Hay Bay near Napanee, talked bank robber Richard Smith into giving himself up while she served him sandwiches and pie after he emerged exhausted from a nearby barn. In a subsequent interview with the Whig-Standard, she described him as “timid.” Thomas Smith (no relation) was apprehended by police in Napanee as he tried to buy cigarettes. William Yardley surrendered in the Bath area without incident less than a day later; shortly thereafter, so did the dreaded Oag. The sole object in his possession: a little green apple.
Not that the entire period passed without incident, although in most cases there was little conclusive evidence to tie in particular escapees. An Odessa resident, 31-year-old hospital orderly Donald Parkinson, was abducted at knifepoint by a lone man and forced to drive his pickup truck to Montreal, where he was released unharmed. A mail truck driver was similarly coerced by two men to drive them to Dorion, Quebec. Both cases remain unsolved. Several vehicles were reported stolen locally, including one with McCauley’s fingerprints on the body. More break-ins than usual were reported in the area, frequently involving the theft of food, alcohol or cigarettes. Only two men are known for certain to have made it any appreciable distance away. Rudolph Nuss, estimated by Clarke himself to have been one of the most violent of the group, offered no resistance when cornered by police at his family’s home in St. Catharines. On August 18, RCMP officers in Vancouver apprehended McCauley after a brief chase in a stolen car. Gerald Laroque and Charles Boomer remained at large the longest; Clarke says he’s sure they were eventually returned to prison, although the circumstances remain uncertain in available public record.

Between law enforcement, prison officials and politicians,
finger-pointing would continue for years and the remaining
questions would never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

The infamous 1971 Kingston Penitentiary riot’s ties to the Millhaven breakout were significant; in fact, the latter was in many ways a product of the former. The riot had been the result of multiple long- and short-term problems: many of the nation’s most violent criminals, housed in an overcrowded, antiquated prison where recreational and educational programs were scarce, were barely being kept in line by a shorthanded staff.
Another aggravating factor — a particularly ironic one, in retrospect — had been ratcheting the tension in KP even higher. It was announced that after almost a decade of delays, construction of Millhaven was nearing completion, allowing for a number of convicts to be transferred there beginning in less than a year. Rather than welcoming a chance to leave the hated facility they were currently in, inmates shuddered at the prospect as Millhaven was rumoured to be a repressive, Orwellian hell in which every move would be scrutinized by security cameras; even the toilets, it was whispered, would be subject to surveillance.
In April that year, KP exploded in a violent prisoner uprising that left two inmates dead, many more inmates and staff injured, and one entire cellblock of the prison so badly damaged that by the time order was restored, not a single prisoner could be housed there. Millhaven, it was announced, was being forced to open early to accommodate them. To complicate matters, many KP guards, hungry for vengeance after the riot, would be transferred there as well. Tales of beatings and sundry reprisals suffered by the inmates continue to circulate to this day; criminal charges were brought against a handful of the guards, but ultimately resulted in no convictions.
The riot has been well documented in various media down to (literally) the goriest detail. The best-known account remains Bingo!, career criminal-turned-bestselling author Roger Caron’s follow-up to his award-winning prison memoir Go Boy!, although its veracity has long been hotly disputed by both penitentiary staff and inmates of the era. Regardless, the Millhaven breakout — which took place just 15 months later — was an unprecedented event culminating in a manhunt involving multiple police agencies and, for a limited time, the military. Between law enforcement, prison officials and politicians, finger-pointing would continue for years afterward and the reamining questions would never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

ONE MIGHT REASONABLY THINK THE WHOLE episode would have garnered almost as much print, documentary footage and re-sonance in the national consciousness over the years as the KP riot had. That’s what I thought when I first pitched this story idea to Kingston Life this past spring, an idea that took on added significance after the controversial decision to close Kingston Penitentiary was announced as I began my research. Well, think again.
Naturally, I knew the piece would involve some digging beyond a few phone calls and emails, but imagine my shock upon learning that aside from the Tragically Hip song mentioned above, I found virtually no public record of the Millhaven breakout. Some old clippings from the Whig-Standard in a file cabinet at the Kingston Public Library Main Branch helped in establishing a basic chronology of events, but the Whig’s archives department had nothing further for me, and only small, inconclusive tidbits could be found in the online archives of the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen. Some video of newscasts has been saved by the CBC in Toronto, but it’s pretty cursory. David St. Onge at the Penitentiary Museum in Kingston did straighten me out regarding one crucial fact: the breakout did in fact take place in 1972, not the following year as the Hip song would have us believe. The date was changed, he said, because “73” rhymes with “maximum security.” Apart from that, he told me, the museum had nothing of particular relevance on the subject.
Granted, anyone who worked in the prison system in 1972 would be long retired, and former inmates of the era would be even harder to find (Andy, the sole exception, was a chance meeting through a friend of mine), but for an event that seemed momentous even briefly 40 years ago to be all but forgotten today seems very strange. My three interview sources added some much-needed perspective and managed to clear up some details, and yet it’s odd that even the most basic facts were so hard to come by in any public archives. At one point I had envisioned some type of “where are they now?” coda to conclude this piece, but apart from Donald Oag, the escapees have escaped the collective consciousness.
One thing we can be fairly certain of is that there has been no effort on the part of Correctional Service Canada to suppress awareness of the incident. No jobs were lost and no radical changes in the prison system resulted from the breakout or its aftermath. It doesn’t even begin to rank among the most scandalous episodes in our prison system’s history, and even if it were, Curtis says, efforts at suppression would be futile. “It’s virtually impossible to cover up anything that goes on in any of our prisons,” he says, “because inmates have got access to telephones, and you have three of four hundred staff who go home and talk to their wives. It’s a myth that stuff that goes on in there doesn’t become known on the outside. I learned that very quickly when I was doing my job. Every day I would see what had happened the night before and I’d make a point of calling the media. They’re going to find out anyway, so what’s the point of trying to keep it a secret?”
Curtis’ old friend and former co-worker Clarke agrees. As adamant as he may remain about the role bungling bureaucrats played in the security breach, he readily concedes that the breakout was ultimately the result of a perfect storm: “People like myself had the misfortune to take on the administrative role. Is this adequate? Is that not? And what can we do in the short term to correct it? In the meantime, the riot came along and everything got thrown out the window. I can blame the shortcomings at the development and construction stages, but no one could have accurately foreseen the circumstances that led to it opening the way it did. You can’t blame that on politicians or planners. That was more in the realm of an act of God.”