A chaotic life of write and wrong


Times Colonist - - Front Page - JACK KNOX

Stephen Reid was a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure in Vic­to­ria.

Some will re­mem­ber him as a com­plex and com­pelling fig­ure, one who twice over­came a crim­i­nal past — in­clud­ing mem­ber­ship in the in­fa­mous Stop­watch Gang of the 1970s — to emerge as a best­selling and prizewin­ning au­thor.

Oth­ers will never get past the day in 1999 when Reid, ad­dicted to co­caine and heroin, robbed a Cook Street Vil­lage bank at gun­point, then shot at a po­lice of­fi­cer and a by­stander while rac­ing through Bea­con Hill Park and James Bay in a get­away car. He then broke into an el­derly cou­ple’s home and held them against their will be­fore be­ing ar­rested.

Reid died Tues­day in Haida Gwaii, where he lived with his wife of 31 years, well-known writer Su­san Mus­grave.

He was 68.

Stephen Reid once said that in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, “you’re frozen at the worst mo­ment of your life.” The worst mo­ment of Reid’s life was, ar­guably, June 9, 1999, the day he held up the Cook Street Vil­lage Royal Bank with a shot­gun and then, while hang­ing out the pas­sen­ger win­dow of a get­away car rac­ing through Bea­con Hill Park and James Bay, fired at Vic­to­ria po­lice Cpl. Bill Trudeau and a by­stander, just miss­ing both. He then broke into a James Bay home and held an el­derly cou­ple against their will be­fore be­ing ar­rested that night.

Reid was al­ready fa­mous by then, the cen­tral fig­ure in a story of re­demp­tion that had seen him go from ca­reer crim­i­nal to cel­e­brated au­thor. So when his on-again, off-again bat­tle with ad­dic­tion got the bet­ter of him that day in 1999, he didn’t just fall from grace, he plunged — and then spent years try­ing to claw his way back up.

Reid, 68, died in hospi­tal Tues­day in Haida Gwaii, where he shared a home with his wife Su­san Mus­grave, also a well-known writer and some­time res­i­dent of the Saanich Penin­sula.

He had been se­ri­ously ill with a heart ail­ment.

Reid was a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure. Some saw only a crim­i­nal, oth­ers a man far more com­plex than his head­lines.

He emerged from a trou­bled youth to be­come a mem­ber of the no­to­ri­ous Stop­watch Gang, which in the 1970s pulled off more than 100 slickly or­ches­trated bank rob­beries in Canada and the U.S. The trio, whose nick­name came from the time­piece that one of them wore around his neck dur­ing heists, used the $15 mil­lion they raked in, in­clud­ing $785,000 worth of gold bul­lion from the Ot­tawa air­port in 1974, to fi­nance a high­fly­ing lifestyle.

That streak ended with Reid’s ar­rest in 1980. It was in prison that he turned to writ­ing. He met Mus­grave, then writer-in-res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of Water­loo, af­ter send­ing her a man­u­script. They were mar­ried in Kent In­sti­tu­tion in Agas­siz in 1986.

That’s the year he pub­lished Jackrab­bit Pa­role, a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel whose ac­claim shot him into an­other or­bit. Af­ter he was paroled in 1987, Reid and Mus­grave moved to Vic­to­ria, where they had two daugh­ters. He wrote fic­tion and po­etry and taught writ­ing. He was charm­ing, and the literati loved him. Reid had his own en­try in the Cana­dian En­cy­clo­pe­dia. A CBC doc­u­men­tary, The Poet and the Ban­dit, aired in Jan­uary 1999.

Un­der­neath this seem­ingly happy life was Reid’s strug­gle with ad­dic­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Mus­grave’s web­site, Reid had been two years clean when he re­lapsed, right around the time the doc­u­men­tary came out.

By the time of the Cook Street Vil­lage spree that June, he was ad­dicted to co­caine and heroin. His was “a life of chaos, like liv­ing inside a pin­ball ma­chine,” Reid told the Times Colonist’s Katie DeRosa in 2015. “It’s hard to re­con­struct how in­sane was that deep ad­dic­tion … [while] sit­ting here in a healthy place. It’s hard to fig­ure out that I was that per­son.”

Reid was sen­tenced to 18 years for the 1999 crimes. That drew a “poor Stephen” re­ac­tion from some, par­tic­u­larly those in lit­er­ary cir­cles, that in­fu­ri­ated oth­ers. To the lat­ter, it looked as though Reid’s sup­port­ers thought his tal­ent and back story ex­cused, or at least tran­scended, his trans­gres­sions and made his life more wor­thy than those of his vic­tims or of all the lesser-known — but no less hu­man — off-the-rails ad­dicts whose crimes land them in prison.

There was a flurry of an­gry let­ters to the ed­i­tor af­ter Reid’s book A Crow­bar in the Bud­dhist Gar­den earned him the City of Vic­to­ria But­ler Book Prize in 2013. An­other let­ter writer bri­dled af­ter the TC ran an in­ter­view with Reid in 2014: “Per­haps the pa­per could do an ar­ti­cle ev­ery month on some­one who is suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der be­cause of peo­ple like Reid.”

Reid him­self said he wasn’t keen on the at­ten­tion, telling the TC’s San­dra McCul­loch in that 2014 in­ter­view that he just wanted to qui­etly serve out his day pa­role at a down­town Vic­to­ria half­way house. He seemed to cringe at the mem­ory of what he had done in 1999.

“A woman was go­ing to paint a house and this bul­let trav­elled through her van and hit her paint can,” Reid said. “I was hang­ing out the win­dow [of the get­away car] in those lit­tle nar­row streets. I had the gun and I looked at her. There was some­thing about her face — she was right there.”

He told McCul­loch he had grown since then. “I’ve been in prison for 15 years so I’m not look­ing for any­one’s forgiveness. My con­tri­tion isn’t in say­ing I’m sorry, it’s in do­ing I’m sorry,” Reid said.

“I spent a lot of years think­ing about the woman [with the paint can] and the other peo­ple I ter­ror­ized that day, and my own fam­ily, who I de­serted. My chil­dren were dev­as­tated. My birth fam­ily was very an­gry.

“I caused dam­age, and I tore a hole in the fab­ric of this com­mu­nity.”

That clashes with im­age oth­ers have. Paul Will­cocks, who in the 1990s took a Camo­sun Col­lege writ­ing course led by Reid, said Wed­nes­day that he found him a great men­tor.

“Ev­ery­one who met Stephen left feel­ing bet­ter about them­selves. He was kind, car­ing and gen­tle. And a pow­er­ful writer.

“When I heard about the bank rob­bery, I thought ‘Stephen?’ But the bank rob­ber, the ad­dic­tion, is part of who he was.”

In Mas­set, Mayor An­drew Mer­ilees found Reid “a very per­son­able, charm­ing man.” At the same time, it was hard to for­get what he had done.

Wed­nes­day, Mus­grave is­sued a state­ment say­ing her hus­band had died of pul­monary edema and a heart block­age. He had been in hospi­tal since Fri­day.

By the time it was de­cided to send him to Van­cou­ver and an air am­bu­lance could be brought in, it was too late.

“The day he was ad­mit­ted to the hospi­tal, seven killer whales came in to the in­let,” Mus­grave said.

“The Haida First Na­tions be­lief is that when a killer whale is seen in the in­let, it means that some­one is go­ing to die.”

Reid is sur­vived by Mus­grave, his daugh­ters Char­lotte Mus­grave and So­phie Reid Jenk­ins, and grand­daugh­ters Beatrice Mus­grave and Lucca Mus­grave.


Stephen Reid on Gov­ern­ment Street in Fe­bru­ary 2014, when he was on pa­role for bank rob­bery and at­tempted murder.


Top: Stephen Reid inside Mat­squi prison in 1987, read­ing a book by John Hawkes. Above: Reid at a Vic­to­ria cof­fee shop in 2014.

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