‘Not irredeemable yet’
Billy Cummer is a violent career criminal who has spent much of his life in prison. After his latest conviction for armed robbery, he asked to spend the rest of his life behind bars. The judge’s response was a “life-changer.”
On Dec. 5, Billy Cummer stood in front of Justice Toni Skarica in a Hamilton courtroom and made an unusual request.
AT THE TIME, Cummer was 46. With the exception of a couple of months of freedom scattered here and there — sometimes earned, occasionally because he was on the lam — he had spent most of the past 30 years in prison. There’s no mistaking Billy Cummer, that’s for sure. His appearance is breathtaking, even by the standards of the sketchy-looking criminal flotsam that drifts through the John Sopinka Courthouse daily.
His shaved skull is covered with tattoos, including the words “Steel City” inked above his forehead. It’s his homage to Hamilton, his home since about the age of 14.
Tattooed gun barrels that mimic thick sideburns run down each side of his face. His throat and neck are covered in ink, as are both arms.
More disturbing tattoos are hidden: a few swastikas; “White Power” across his belly; “White Pride” in big letters across his back; and “Insane” across his lower back. He insists he’s not a racist or a white supremacist and that those tattoos were youthful mistakes he now regrets.
Cummer has lived a life of near-constant, almost unimaginable violence since childhood. On top of that, he became a heroin addict in jail.
So one day, Cummer says, he hit the teacher with a crowbar during class
THAT HE’S SURVIVED this long is a minor miracle. His body is a real-life version of a kids’ game called Operation.
He has two bullet wounds — one in his leg, one in his bicep — from a failed hit on him. He has numerous stab wounds across his torso, a healed-over hole in his rib cage where a tube was inserted to drain his lungs, and he was once put in a coma.
He has a heart murmur, liver damage, nerve damage to his legs, and holes in his esophagus from acid reflux that went unrepaired for a long time.
“I’m like the cat who has nine lives,” Billy laughs during a recent interview at Millhaven’s penitentiary, his current home.
“I’ve been piped, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been shot, I’ve been poisoned, I’ve been jumped and I’ve poured so much dirty dope in me, it’s ridiculous.”
As he stood before Skarica, Cummer had just pleaded guilty to armed robbery, assault and a few other charges. He knew the Crown was seeking a sentence of 15 to 20 years, which would have been the longest single stretch he’s ever faced inside. Cummer decided he wanted no part of that. “I’m so institutionalized, it ain’t funny,” Cummer said. “I know how to survive in here and I know the society in here.
“I’m not coming out when I’m 65 or 70 years old, trying to figure life out. I can’t figure it out now.”
So Cummer begged the judge to send him to prison for the rest of his life. Skarica’s response was just as extraordinary. He said no. “I have seen people who are absolutely evil,” Skarica told the court, and Cummer wasn’t one of them.
The judge gave him 12 years, told him he could be out in six and to use the next few years to figure out how to be a productive citizen when he’s eventually released. “You’re not irredeemable yet,” Skarica told him. The words struck Cummer like a thunderclap. “A life-changer,” he now says.
“It was the kindest words anybody’s ever used on me, especially in a courtroom,” Cummer said.
As he stood there absorbing Skarica’s words, Cummer kept whispering softly to himself, over and over.
“I’m not irredeemable. I’m not irredeemable. I’m not irredeemable.”
He almost seemed amazed, said his lawyer, Larissa Fedak.
“The fact that someone who is an authority, like a judge, told him he’s not irredeemable is going to sit with him, to try to at least make a plan,” said Fedak, who has been Cummer’s lawyer for over two decades. “I still think he is redeemable,” she added. “I think he’s really tired of doing the same thing over and over again.”
She calls him one of her favourite clients, a smart, articulate, funny man with a lot of potential, despite what his appearance and violent history might suggest.
“He’s a survivor,” she said. “Every part of his DNA is a survivor.
“If we were in a war and there was no food and no homes, no weapons, you would want Billy,” she added. “You’d put him in charge of the fort because he would figure it out.
“And if you were part of his side, he would protect you.”
For the first time, Cummer now believes he has a chance at redemption. Skarica’s words, he says, have given him hope.
“I just felt there’s no hope for me,” he said, “and I’m not going to be able to figure out how to change it. Now? I believe I can.”
The odds aren’t great, admittedly, but this may prove to be a tale of redemption like few others. One day, Cummer dreams of visiting high school kids or kids in trouble so he can tell them his story as a cautionary tale.
Then again, this may prove to be just another wasted chance, one of many that have littered Cummer’s life. Some of the past victims of his violence might argue he’s either undeserving of redemption or even incapable of it.
You don’t have to go far to find at least one skeptic. Cummer’s oldest daughter, Ashley, scoffs at any talk of redemption, saying her father is just a manipulator.
“Honestly, I’m saying this from my heart — he’s not going to change,” said the 25-year-old who lives in Hamilton. She hopes she’s wrong. “I love this guy so much,” she said, “but at the end of the day, I just know he’s going to die in jail.”
It pains her to say it, but Ashley thinks it would be best for everyone if her dad had got his wish and stayed in jail for the rest of his life.
“Do you know how many people in this city want to kill him?” she said. “He’s safe in there, society’s safe with him in there.
“At least he has food, he has a bed. He’s good where he is.”
“YOU’VE STILL GOT TIME. YOU STILL HAVE A SHOT. YOU’RE NOT AN EVIL PERSON.” TONI SKARICA HAMILTON JUDGE “I WAS ALWAYS SEEN AS NO GOOD AND I WAS NEVER GOING TO AMOUNT TO ANYTHING.” BILLY CUMMER
BILLY CUMMER is a broken person. Much of the damage is self-inflicted, but not all of it.
Cummer grew up in subsidized housing near Lawrence Avenue East and Kingston Road in Scarborough.
“Me and my dad, we never ever saw eye to eye,” Cummer said. “I was always seen as no good and I was never going to amount to anything.”
He says he suffered from ADHD and was enrolled in classes for children with special needs.
Around Grades 7 and 8, Cummer alleges he was molested repeatedly by a teacher who was later charged with a number of offences against other students.
“That’s when a lot of my trouble started,” he said. When he tried to tell his parents about the abuse, he alleges they swept it under the carpet.
“My family didn’t really respond to it like they should have,” he said.
Cummer’s parents could not be reached for comment.
Things didn’t go much better when he reached high school.
He was having an ongoing dispute with one of his teachers. He told his father, and his dad told him that if he didn’t like what was happening, he should do something about it.
So one day, Cummer says, he hit the teacher with a crowbar during class. That got him kicked out of school.
By that point, around age 14 or 15, “my relationship with my dad was really deteriorating to the point where I really feared him,” Cummer said. “He was a big man, like 6 feet 5 inches, always ranging from 350 to 400 pounds. I was pretty intimidated by him.”
Cummer took off to Hamilton to live with an acquaintance of his mother. The man supposedly worked on oil rigs, Cummer thought at the time, but he later learned he was a major player in a notorious Hamilton street gang.
“He kept that at arm’s length,” Cummer said. “He was in that world but he would keep drugs and stuff like that at a distance from me.”
Cummer decided he was done with school, so he found a few odd jobs, started living with some friends around James Street North and then drifted into criminal activity, stealing cars.
On the second night Cummer ever spent in jail, he says he watched a tough guy in another cell tie up a cellmate, stuff his clothes full of newspaper and light him on fire.
“I remember sitting there, staring, watching the fire and I heard the kid screaming,” Cummer said. He admits he was scared at the time.
“I’m thinking ‘Wow, where am I? I don’t want that to happen to me.’”
When he arrived at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton shortly afterward, all the inmates in his block jammed his cell, beat him and stabbed him with pencils, testing him to see if he would break down or ask to be moved.
At the time, Cummer had a black girlfriend and he put pictures of her up on his cell wall. “That caused me some problems,” he said.
Some of the black guys on his range didn’t like that and told him to take the pictures down. Cummer refused.
One guy in particular took offence — “built like a bodybuilder, hit like a truck” — and he began dishing out regular beatings for more than a year that Cummer says he just absorbed without retaliating.
Finally, a tough inmate from Ottawa took Cummer under his wing, told him he’d have to start fighting back and began teaching him how to lift weights and fight.
On New Year’s Eve — Cummer’s not sure of the year, somewhere in the late 1980s — he was allowed to go home for a few days to visit his parents.
As he was heading out the door, some of the other inmates handed him $800 and told him to bring back some drugs. And if he didn’t, he was going to get beaten.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m not even gonna be able to get out of the house with my dad. How am I doing this?’”
Someone he knew helped him get a bunch of vials of hash oil and 100 hits of acid. His next question was how to get them back into jail.
“He said ‘You’ve gotta stick that in your bum.’ I said, ‘I am not sticking that in my bum,’ and he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stick it up there, you’ve gotta figure it out.’”
Cummer decided to make packages of the drugs and swallowed them, waited for them to pass through his system and then he fished them out of his feces.
He was given a couple of the vials and 20 hits of acid as his reward. He had them on his bed and the big guy who had been tormenting him came to his cell to take the drugs. Cummer refused again. The guy socked him hard in the head.
The inmate who had been training Cummer saw him with a towel wrapped around his swollen head, found out what happened and, frustrated, told him “‘If you don’t go deal with that, I’m beating you.’
“I’m thinking in my head, ‘Man, does this nightmare ever stop? Please, just leave me alone and let me do my thing.’”
Cummer found his bully taking a shower. He walked in and belted him, and the bully began screaming and yelling for help.
“And I was like, ‘What? I’ve been taking beatings from you for, like, a year and a half and you’re a coward?’”
With that, a rage was unleashed in Cummer. He began beating his tormentor senseless until other people had to come in and pull him off.
For good measure, he then went to the cell of the bully’s best friend and beat him senseless as well.
“Now I feel like a champ,” he said. “Now I’m the big cool kid. ‘You don’t want to mess with Cummer. He’s the tough guy.’”
Billy Cummer had started his ascent up the primal pecking order of the prison world.
BY THE TIME Cummer was in his early 20s, life settled into a familiar pattern — jail, a short time back on the streets of Hamilton, a crime spree, then back to jail.
“It seems like my luck always runs out quick,” he says with a laugh.
During the short times he was out, Cummer fathered three children in quick succession.
Inside prison, the fights and the violence escalated, and Cummer’s reputation as a fearsome fighter grew. He was making a name for himself. His workout regime gave him a chiselled, imposing physique to match.
“You’re always preparing yourself for violence,” he said, “and I always seemed to have put myself in the position of being at the centre of it.
“I’m just always stupid,” he said. “I’m like a magnet.”
The fights are an incredible adrenalin rush while they’re happening, Cummer said, but they’re also frightening, especially if you’re on the losing end.
“You wonder how far that person is going to take
it on you,” Cummer said. “Because you don’t know if that person is going to want to take it to the point of killing you.
“There are just some people who don’t give a s--t,” he said. “When I did my first bit in the pen, I got to a point where I didn’t even care. “If we had a beef, I was going in for the kill.” Around 1993, Cummer discovered that someone he cared about had become addicted to drugs. Something inside him snapped.
He says he decided from that point forward he’d stop committing crimes against businesses and random people, and instead he’d exact vengeance against drug dealers in Hamilton.
He says he started with one dealer who was supplying crack to the person close to him. Cummer found him, tied him up and beat him with a baseball bat. He says he then targeted other dealers, basically daring them to go to police and report the assaults. Finally, one did, and Cummer was sent to Kingston Penitentiary for two years, his first stint in a federal maximum-security prison.
Cummer didn’t last long at KP the first time. When a sex offender was brought onto his range, Cummer welcomed him by bursting into his cell and beating him.
Cummer was transferred to nearby Collins Bay Institution, and he was going to be put in 1 Block. He was ecstatic.
“At the time, it was considered gladiator school,” he said. “That’s where the who’s-who were, and if you want to make a name for yourself, this is where you come.
“Yeah, I’m going to 1 Block,” he recalls thinking. “They’re going to know who the f--k I am.
“And sure enough, they knew who the f--k I was. Like a big fool, I played right into the games and got caught in all the crap.”
While he was in Collins Bay, Cummer alleges, he learned that his three children, all under the age of five at the time, had been found by a cab driver one night at 3 a.m. in the parking lot of Centre Mall.
They had been left in the care of a 12-year-old babysitter for an extended period of time, Cummer alleges, and the babysitter became overwhelmed. “I wanted to kill the world,” Cummer says. The mother of the three children did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Cummer says that period of his life was a crucial test for him, and he failed miserably.
“I was too much of an idiot,” he said. “I was too selfish and ignorant to get my s--t together to man up and be a father.
“That’s when I should have said, ‘You know what? Time to grow up and put your big boy pants on and be the father you’re supposed to be and that you say you want to be and do whatever it takes to be that father.’ But I didn’t.
“I was, like, ‘OK, I’ll go and commit crimes and fend for my kids.’ I always put it in my head that you’re not going to get caught, you’ll get the big one and move on and retire,” he said. “But that never ever happens.
“I was just a not-too-bright kid that was sexually abused at a young age and then ran the streets to try to figure life out. Then I just continued that throughout my life.
“All I did was keep digging my hole deeper and deeper and giving me a violent record — making me uncontrollable and undesirable in the law’s eyes and all the eyes around me,” he said.
Over 35 convictions
MILLHAVEN, KP, Collins Bay, Guelph Correctional Centre, the Lindsay superjail — Cummer cycled from one prison to the next.
“What do we all want? A nice family, a job, a car, a house,” said Larissa Fedak, his longtime lawyer. “I saw over time that whole idea slipping away from him.
“He just barely believed it when I first met him — and that was over 20 years ago — but he lost it over time. “He just closed the door on it slowly,” she said. She sees the exaggerated inking of his body as a mask he uses to hide his vulnerability.
“He’s created this outside facade that no one can see inside and hurt him,” Fedak said.
“The way he presents himself to the outside world is there’s very little expectation of anything good in him.
“He’d rather just have everyone give up on him so he can finally give up completely on himself,” she added.
When Cummer was released from yet another prison stint in 2003, he returned to Hamilton but by then he was addicted to heroin and cocaine.
“I’ve got a very bad addictive personality,” he says. “I’m very weak when it comes to drugs.
“Eventually, I became the person I hated most,” he adds.
A lot happened during this short stretch of freedom. For one thing, Cummer alleges he was being slowly poisoned by someone who was mixing cyanide into his drugs, a claim that certainly sounds far-fetched.
He ended up in Hamilton General Hospital and he alleges the doctor told him that, luckily, whoever was feeding him the cyanide wasn’t giving it to him in large enough doses. “‘You’ve kind of grown immune to it,’” the doctor allegedly told Cummer.
On another occasion, he got a call from someone at 2 a.m., asking Cummer to come over.
He had a bad feeling, “but I just wrote it off,” he said. When he walked in, the guy had a gun pointed at Cummer. Shaking, the guy said, “This ain’t personal.” Then he shot Cummer in the leg.
“I grabbed the railing of the stairwell and kind of wobbled and then boom, he shot me again, caught me in the bicep,” Cummer said.
On the third attempt, the gun jammed. Then it jammed again and the guy dropped the gun.
Bleeding from two bullet wounds, Cummer claims he picked the gun up and started beating the guy with his own weapon. That’s when the guy told Cummer he was supposed to be carrying out a hit on behalf of a Hamilton criminal organization.
During this time, Cummer also continued his alleged one-man war on drug dealers.
It’s also possible, by the way, that Cummer’s selfdescribed vengeance against drug dealers may have been nothing more than vicious attempts by him to obtain drugs for his own use.
He says he tied up one victim at a crack house on Kenilworth Avenue and beat him with a roofing hammer for hours on end.
“I messed him up pretty good,” he said. “I broke bones and stuff like that.”
When Cummer finally left, he says the victim got in his car and tried to drive away but he was weaving down the street. Police stopped him and were horrified by what they saw.
The officers asked the guy if Billy Cummer had done this to him and, according to Cummer, the victim said, “I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t want to be on the other end of his angry stick again.”
But one of the other people in the crack house identified Cummer to police, and he ended up at a maximum-security prison in New Brunswick. By this point, his criminal record was up to 35 convictions.
As his sentence was winding down, Cummer escaped from a halfway house and fled to Saint John for a time. That put his very recognizable face on the news in Atlantic Canada as a fugitive until he was picked up and shipped back to prison.
His sentence ended on Oct. 29, 2015, and he returned to Hamilton. And once again, it didn’t take him long to find trouble.
By now, the story starts to sound monotonous. Cummer went back to a gutter life of hard drugs and crack houses, then he decided to go after another guy he deemed to be an undesirable.
Cummer and two accomplices staged a home invasion at a place near Emerald and Barton streets. They tied the guy up while Cummer brandished a replica handgun.
What Cummer didn’t know was that his victim had a security camera running that night that caught the whole thing on video.
The police showed up. Cummer ran and was apprehended near Barton Street and St. Matthew’s Avenue. Still, Cummer nearly beat this one. He’d had the foresight to use a special type of makeup designed to conceal tattoos. He had covered himself in it, so the man caught in the video footage bore a resemblance to Cummer but without his distinctive tattoos.
It almost worked, until the Crown hired a video technician. He enhanced the video enough that the outlines of Cummer’s tattoos could be seen in the images.
The jig was up. A plea deal was pulled off the table. The Crown was now looking for 15 to 20 years.
That’s when Cummer decided he didn’t want to ever come out again.
He told his lawyer to either get him a life sentence or get him five years to run consecutively for each of the seven charges he was facing.
He figured the 35 years in total would be the same as a life sentence, given his age and health issues. He didn’t want to be walking out of prison, he says, “trying to figure life out and be stuck with nothing or nobody.”
And then Justice Skarica gave him a small glimmer of hope.
“You’ve still got time,” Skarica told him. “You still have a shot. “You’re not an evil person.” Cummer thanked the judge several times before he was led away.
THE BILLY CUMMER who shuffles into the Millhaven interview room looks far different than the heavily-muscled man seen in earlier photos.
Cummer has lost a significant amount of weight because of his various health ailments in recent years. He’s also weary from the toll his poor choices have taken on his body and mind.
“Who have I become in life? Nobody,” he answers. “All I’m known for is being a drug addict, and a jack boy who jacks drug dealers.
“I’ve put my life and the lives of people around me at risk because of the lifestyle I’ve lived for the last 30 friggin’ years.”
And yet for a person who looks as menacing as he does with the violent history he has, the words love, caring and understanding come up a lot more than expected when Cummer talks.
In 2012, when he was in prison in New Brunswick, he received a letter from his oldest daughter, Ashley, completely out of the blue. “My heart kind of stopped,” he said.
He wrote back, they started talking by phone and then she came to visit him at the halfway house out east, the first time he had seen her since she was a baby.
“There were tears — really emotional and really good,” he says now. “It felt so good to have my daughter in my arms and to feel the love.”
The connection didn’t last, though, and they’ve drifted apart again.
They both give different reasons for the estrangement. They both sound hurt and angry about it.
“I love my dad, I do, but I don’t love the decisions he has made in life,” Ashley says.
Cummer’s relationship with his own parents is just as complicated. He says it’s been more than a decade since he’s had contact with them.
“I love them, they’re my parents,” he says. “But it’s not deep. “If they died, I guess it would bother me.” During his last bit of freedom in Hamilton, Cummer met a woman named Kori Adams when her family offered to take him in and give him a place to stay.
Adams acknowledges she’s had her own challenges. She says she’s had some drug issues in the past but says she’s been in a methadone program for the past two years.
They’re engaged now, and Cummer says she’s a big reason why he’s determined to follow the judge’s advice.
“If I’m still in this relationship with Kori and her family is still behind me, that’s going to be a big factor,” he said.
“I love this woman like I’ve never loved anyone in my life.
“I’m a very lucky, fortunate man to have that,” he added. “A lot of people in prison don’t have that.”
So far, Adams has stuck by him and says she will continue to do so until he’s released.
“I see someone who isn’t what everyone says he is,” says Adams, 39. “I just see a guy who wants to be loved and be accepted. “He deserves to have someone love him.” It’s just a few months into his latest prison stint but Cummer insists he’s already changed.
For one thing, he says he’s off street drugs and he’s adhering to a methadone program to help him kick his heroin addiction.
He’s getting counselling — “I’m being sincere about it,” he added — and he’s trying to upgrade his education.
“I want to get out of this dark, deep, demented world I’ve created for myself,” he said. “Nobody else has created it for me but me.
“I should have changed my ways years ago, so that I didn’t waste all these years behind these bars … trying to be someone in prison.
“In the end, you’re nobody but a f--king loser surrounded by losers,” he said. “I’m tired of being that loser.”
Will this time be different? Who knows. It’s been 30 years with no sign yet that Cummer’s figured things out.
Then again, his lawyer says, he’s made it this far against the odds.
She’s searching for a good analogy and finally settles on the example of one of nature’s hardiest creatures imaginable, as unflattering as the comparison might seem.
“You know how you can step on a cockroach and they never die?” Fedak said. “Billy’s tough like that.
“I’ve got a few of them and you just can’t kill ’em.”
Shaking, the guy said, “This ain’t personal.” Then shot Cummer in the leg
Billy Cummer photographed by Hamilton Spectator reporter Steve Buist in March at Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security prison in Bath, Ont.
Tattoos cover Billy Cummer.
Above: The words n “White Power” and two pistols adorn his belly.
Left: Cummer n shows off the massive “White Pride” tattoo on his back. There’s also an eagle and a swastika, plus the word “Insane.”
BY THIS POINT, HIS CRIMINAL RECORD WAS UP TO 35 CONVICTIONS
ALL THE INMATES IN HIS BLOCK JAMMED HIS CELL, BEAT HIM AND STABBED HIM WITH PENCILS, TESTING HIM.