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The Thomas Case

Almost seven years after Willy Blake and Stuart Stonechild had cut their way through the perimeter fences to short-lived freedom, there was another escape from Kent Institution. Although it also resulted in only short-lived freedom for the escapees, its execution was the most dramatic of any twentieth-century escape from a Canadian prison.

Just before 9:00 a.m. on June 18, 1990, a helicopter approached Kent and hovered over the industrial area inside the perimeter fence. The craft attempted to land but was forced to remain airborne by the approach of an institutional motor patrol vehicle. Gunshots were fired from the helicopter at the patrol vehicle, and one struck a correctional officer, seriously wounding him. Gunfire was returned by officers in the patrol vehicle, and during this exchange the helicopter descended low enough for two prisoners, Robert Ford and David Thomas, to jump aboard. The helicopter then gained elevation and left Kent for an unknown destination.

After the helicopter landed, the freed prisoners made their way by boat to a small island in Harrison Lake, about 5 km from Kent. Two days later, the men surrendered themselves to an RCMP search team shortly after a shot was fired by police near Echo Island, putting nine holes in David Thomasí sweatshirt although miraculously not wounding him. Following their arrest, the two were placed in administrative segregation. They were later charged with prison break, contrary to s. 144(a) of the Criminal Code.

Because of the spectacular -- and, in Canada, unprecedented -- nature of the escape, there was a media scrum outside the Chilliwack, B.C., courthouse where Robert Ford and David Thomas made their first appearance. As Mr. Thomas was being transported out of the courthouse, a reporter asked him, "What was it like?" Thomas responded, "It was a blast, Iíd do it again." That comment found its way onto the national TV news.

The impulsive response of David Thomas to the reporterís question fairly reflected his involvement in the helicopter escape. The escape had been engineered by Mr. Ford, who had just begun serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, requiring him to serve 25 years before being eligible for parole. The original plan had called for Mr. Ford and another prisoner to board the helicopter. At the last moment, when the other prisoner was unable to climb the interior fence separating the prisoners from the helicopter, Mr. Ford invited along any other prisoner who could make it over the fence. Mr. Thomas took up that invitation and boarded the aircraft.

At the time of his escape, Mr. Thomas was twenty-four years old and was serving a 9-year sentence for robbery. He had already passed his full parole eligibility date and was just two and a half years away from his mandatory supervision date. After his return to Kent on June 27, he and Mr. Ford were placed in administrative segregation. Mr. Thomas received notification of the reasons for his segregation on that day in the following terms:

You have been identified as participating in a violent escape from Kent Institution by helicopter with the assistance of person(s) unknown in the community on 1990-06-18 in which an officer was shot. You have made statements indicating your willingness to repeat this incident at any opportunity. Therefore, you are considered to be an extreme risk to the safety and security and good order of this institution and will remain in administrative segregation until transferred to a more secure facility such as a High Maximum-security Unit. (Review of Inmateís Segregated Status, June 27, 1996).

On July 19, Mr. Thomasí lawyer, John Conroy, wrote to the Crown confirming that Mr. Thomas was prepared to plead guilty to a charge of escape from lawful custody and advising that the information provided by the Crown did not support any other charges against Mr. Thomas, particularly the more serious charge of prison break by violence. There was no evidence that Mr. Thomas had been involved in the planning of the escape or that he had done anything to aid and abet the use of violence in the course of its execution.

After a series of pre-trial negotiations on January 10, 1991, Mr. Thomas was advised that the Crown was willing to accept his plea of guilty to a charge of escape. On January 23, he appeared before Judge Sutherland in the Provincial Court of British Columbia and pleaded guilty to a charge of escape from lawful custody. The Crown prosecutor advised the Court that the escape had been planned by Robert Ford and others; that two persons who were supposed to go were unable to in the end; that, consequently, Mr. Ford had turned to a group of prisoners in the exercise yard and asked if anybody else wanted to come; that Mr. Thomas had impulsively said that he would go; that Mr. Thomas had then run with Mr. Ford through a gate and climbed over a wire fence. The Crown further advised the Court that Mr. Thomas had not been involved in the planning and did not know that the others involved would be carrying weapons and would be shooting those weapons; that there was no evidence Mr. Thomas had been involved in any other offences connected with the escape; and that Mr. Thomas had turned himself in after a single shot fired by the RCMP. The Crown accepted that Mr. Thomasí role was spontaneous, without premeditation. Mr. Thomasí counsel pointed out that Mr. Thomas was not associated to any significant degree with the co-accused prior to the escape and had no record of escapes. Counsel also pointed out that Mr. Thomas had been kept in solitary confinement along with Mr. Ford ever since his arrest -- some eight months -- and was being threatened with a transfer to the Special Handling Unit.

The Court accepted counselís position that Mr. Thomasí involvement was impulsive, and Mr. Thomas was sentenced to 4 monthsí imprisonment consecutive to the time he was presently serving.

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