A chaotic life of write and wrong
OBITUARY: STEPHEN REID, FROM BANK ROBBER TO AUTHOR AND BACK
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.