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
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
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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