Colin Thatcher: How I was framed

After serving 22 years for the murder of his ex-wife, the former cabinet minister breaks his silence

Byron Christopher

Colin Thatcher on how he thinks he was wrongfully convicted of his ex-wife’s murder, and on his children, his faith and his new bookOn the evening of Jan. 21, 1983, JoAnn Wilson was murdered, bludgeoned and shot in the garage of her Regina home. It had been three years since she and husband Colin Thatcher—the son of a former Saskatchewan premier and an ex-provincial cabinet minister himself—had filed for divorce, years marked by Wilson’s remarriage, an acrimonious custody battle over the three Thatcher children and a previous violent attack on her. Twenty months before her death Wilson had been shot through her kitchen window and wounded in the shoulder. No one was ever charged for it. On May 7, 1984, after a lengthy police investigation, Colin Thatcher was arrested for her murder. The sensational and controversial trial unfolded over the fall of 1984. Although Thatcher has never ceased to proclaim his innocence, he was found guilty, and spent 22 years in prison. Released on parole in 2006, Thatcher has spent his time working on his ranch near Moose Jaw, Sask., and writing his account, Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame (ECW Press).

In the book, Thatcher gives his version of events since his arrest, avoiding any direct recapitulation of the crime itself, and concentrating on three areas. Primary is what he sees as the Saskatchewan Department of Justice’s single-minded pursuit of a conviction. It was a determination, Thatcher says, that led Crown prosecutors—against their own official policy on disclosure of evidence, but not then against the law—to keep from his lawyer evidence that tended to exculpate Thatcher. The department’s actions, he writes, added up to a campaign of “unconscionable deceit and litany of lies of omission, much of which would not be known for years, the full extent probably never.” Among the information eventually possessed by the Crown but not passed on to Thatcher and his lawyer for years was a package mailed to the Regina Leader-Post newspaper that included an anonymous confession to Wilson’s murder and even the hatchet the letter writer claimed was the bludgeoning weapon.

Thatcher is not alone in being outraged by what he calls the “double jeopardy” aspect of his trial. The jury was instructed it could find him guilty for either murdering Wilson himself or for hiring an accomplice to do so. It is an open question whether either charge, presented alone, would have succeeded. As some legal observers have asked, does this truly prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? As for the evidence itself, especially the key exhibit at the trial—a credit card receipt dated Jan. 18, three days before the murder, apparently bearing Thatcher’s signature, and found near the murder scene—Final Appeal offers a wealth of detail and a full-bore assault on the Crown’s case, including a claim that the receipt had a different number from Thatcher’s actual card.

Shortly before the book’s scheduled release on Sept. 1, a week after his 71st birthday, Thatcher spoke with Edmonton crime-reporter Byron Christopher.

Q: I guess the obvious question is: why the book? A matter of setting the record straight?

A: There have been several books written about my case. I think it’s fair to call them cheerleading efforts on behalf of the Crown. I decided that I wanted to lay out exactly what happened. But mostly I wanted to document what the Crown did—the evidence they withheld. I really believe that had we had the evidence that is presented in this book that this case would not have survived the preliminary hearing stage. But we didn’t, and I was convicted and it wasn’t until after all the appeals process that slowly things started to come out. I wanted to leave a record behind of what actually happened, because it’s a lesson. It should never happen to anyone again. I can’t believe that it is still happening to me. After all these years I have been trying to get disclosure from my case, the routine disclosure that everybody gets now. To this day I cannot get it. You tell me why. I don’t know why, other than the obvious. They’re afraid of what’s there. They’re afraid to release that. That’s why I wrote the book.

Q: Did you write the book for money too?

A: The profit motive never even occurred to me. Really, one of the things that fuelled me is that on occasion in Regina I have encountered some of those who were involved in my case from the Crown’s perspective. Really, the smirks on their faces, they were a lightning rod to me to finish what I started in the Edmonton Max, because a good portion of this book I wrote some years ago.

Q: Since word got out you were writing a book, there’s been an issue that you shouldn’t profit from it. Do you have any thoughts on part of the profits going somewhere else other than you?

A: I am a believer in free speech. My attitude is: they stole 20 years from me; if they really think that they have to steal my book, well then, go ahead.

Q: Has writing this book been a catharsis?

A: I found it very difficult. There were so many times I almost said, I just don’t want to do this because there are certain junctures in this book when I would be turned down for something. I’ve had just a horrible time. I had a terrible time editing it, reading it and continuing to write because it was not a fun or a pleasant experience. It was just something I felt I had to do. As I say, I wanted to leave behind a record of what actually happened, if for nothing else, for my grandchildren and their children as they come along.

Q: An Edmonton defence lawyer, David Willson, has said that you were dealing with double jeopardy. He felt that the multiple choice aspect was highly prejudicial against you, saying it “lowered the standard of ‘guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ”

A: I agree with him 100 per cent. They took two cases that in isolation would never have survived and they rolled them into one and they gave the jury the choice. Did I do the murder myself, or did I hire someone to do it? The first one, at least there were some specifics, things they were alleging I did at a specific time on a certain date, there was something specific to meet in your defence. The other one was having to face the intangibleness of a “feeling.” There were no specifics to deal with. In other words, if the jury didn’t think I did it myself, there was really no evidence that I had hired anyone, but the jury had been given the option of: “Well, if we just have a bad feeling about this we can convict.” When you have to fight a feeling, it’s very difficult to mount a defence.

Q: Do you think that having a high profile in Saskatchewan helped you or hurt you?

A: Any active politician who goes before the courts, he goes in there with two strikes against him. I think any of them will tell you that it is very, very difficult because there’s already a certain bias built in against you.

Q: What is life like for you now?

A: I live a very laid-back life on the ranch. I do all the jobs a normal rancher does. I spend a lot of time with cattle and I enjoy tinkering with my horses. I’m working like I always did. I’m enjoying life immensely. Ranch life is a great life. I don’t know why I ever turned my back on it for politics.

Q: The public knows you as a politician in a family line of politicians. Did you ever miss politics?

A: Not at all. At the time I was arrested I was probably finishing out my last term anyway. I never did enjoy politics all that much. In fact, I enjoyed being a cowboy more than I ever enjoyed being a politician. You know even when I was in politics, I was only a part-time politician. I still went home every night and I lived on the ranch. But I don’t miss it at all. I enjoy doing what I’m doing right now and wouldn’t change a thing.

Q: You turned to God through Ray Matheson, who you met at the Regina Correctional Centre. Can you talk about that?

A: That was early on. It certainly changed my life and my attitude. I’m a born-again Christian and have been for 20-some years. I don’t trumpet it off the Mount but I certainly will answer the question. I believe in the inherent teachings that are in Scripture.

Q: If you didn’t have that meeting, what would have happened?

A: Well, I guess I would have been an unsaved heathen.

Q: Would you be alive?

A: Probably. That’s a difficult question to answer, but it’s very conceivable that’s one of the reasons I’m alive.

Q: You mention you’ve held the faith for almost a quarter of a century. Do you just say that or do you “walk the talk?”

A: I think I walk the talk. You know, I’m not loud about it. Like every other Christian, I fail every day, but I do my best and some days I do better than others.

Q: Moving into the time you spent in prison, is it fair to say that some of the officials you dealt with were doing their job and some were trying to do you in?

A: It’s certainly fair later on, when I became eligible for parole when I was in minimum security at Ferndale [in British Columbia]. I had been back to the Prairies and I had successfully gone through a section 745 application. I was eligible for parole, but I returned to Ferndale where I had been for a good number of years and had earned a fair amount of trust for exemplary conduct. I thought I would be going back to the parole board and actually out the door relatively quickly. Unfortunately, what had happened is the personnel had changed. And their attitude was altogether different. And yes, I think I was definitely thwarted by some people out there. I was held for two needless, pointless years—to the point I had to leave Ferndale. The only way I was ever going to be successful with the parole board was to get out of B.C. and go back to the Prairies. And had I not come back to the Prairies there’s no question in my mind I would still be in Ferndale today, probably trying to get my first unescorted absence.

Q: What was the reason you were delayed a couple of years?

A: I think one of the answers to that is that I was put on the caseload of a certain, what they call an IPO, that’s an institutional parole officer. In all the years in all the parole officers I ever had, I always got along with every single one of them. This one, we had a problem from square one.

Q: What has been the reaction of your children to you writing the book?

A: I think my daughter’s reaction sort of summed it up. Her concern, when I finally told her, was, “They framed you once and they can do something to you again.” In other words, I could be set up, or they could do something if I were to write the book. Some of the material that’s in there is going to upset the Department of Justice. The boys said, “Dad, you know what’s involved. You’ve been through it. You do what you want to do.” I won’t say anybody was ecstatic about it.

Q: In the beginning of your book, you write: “The unflinching support of my three children was my anchor and linchpin throughout the dark years. No parent could ask for more.”

A: My children, they know the truth about this whole case. My sons were with me on that fateful evening at home and they’ve always been there for me in court. They always visited as often as circumstances allowed. And I’ve always been very, very grateful to them. My oldest son in particular. He was in university when all this started. He had to leave university and take over the ranch and he had a younger brother and sister at home. He was 18 years old. I’d been convicted. The banks are wondering if the ranch can continue. He stepped in and he stabilized things and not only that, but he became a parent at the age of 18. Never did I have to go through the experience of, “Gee, one of your kids has had a brush with the law,” nothing like that ever. And some of that was thanks to the community because they were always there. While Greg wasn’t able to finish university, my other son Regan is a lawyer, my daughter Stephanie now works for a multinational corporation in the United States. They’ve conducted themselves in a way that has made me extremely proud.

Q: You also acknowledge the people of Moose Jaw. I wasn’t aware you had a number of people giving donations. You say 400.

A: That happened after my conviction and, unsolicited, a group of people who thought that a wrong had happened started having meetings. They got some donations and put out a very low-key fundraising drive for a defence fund.

Q: You salute your lawyer, Gerry Allbright.

A: He did a marvellous job and he did it with one hand tied behind his back. The only disclosure I ever received from the Crown was a very skeletal letter from the prosecutor. Had Gerry Allbright had the material I deal with in the book—some of the police statements, the ballistic reports, things that surfaced later throughout the 690 application [the application for ministerial review of a case]—I do not believe that this matter would have gotten past the preliminary hearing stage.

Q: Do you think your chances would have been better in a trial by judge alone?

A: We never really considered going anything but jury.

Q: You hired Bruce Dunne, a former Calgary homicide detective, after your conviction.

A: Dunne did a marvellous job for me. At the trial neither Gerry Allbright or myself questioned the credit card slip. We assumed it was authentic. We had always assumed that somebody had picked it up out of one of my vehicles because I handle them haphazardly. It was Bruce Dunne who said, “Something is wrong with this credit card.” He found that credit card slip found at the scene was not made from the government credit card issued to me. It has a different number on it. And he found that on an obscure police statement.

Q: According to your book, that credit card slip was a fake.

A: There are sure an awful lot of questions about it, and not only that, when Dunne started unearthing material that we were sending to Ottawa, all of a sudden the police had addendums to some of the original evidence. There was certainly a question about the authenticity of the signature.

Q: Even at your lowest points in prison, did you ever thinking about taking your life?

A: Never. Now, I won’t deny there were times when I prayed for God to strike me dead, but never beyond that.

Q: I was shocked to read that when you were first arrested that you were shoved head-first into a cell in Regina. Did that really happen?

A: Of course it happened. And I suspect that it’s not that uncommon. At that particular time I was shaken at being arrested and, of course, it was a form of intimidation because they were trying to scare the blazes out of me and they were doing a great job. I was trying not to show it. I’m sure they had hopes that in a frightened state I was going to blurt something out. They didn’t get it. I recall that as soon as I asked to see my lawyer they lost interest in me.

Q: You mention that you toyed with the idea of using the media, but chose not to.

A: That was a huge mistake. When you get that many reporters, they’re there for a story—if they don’t get it from the defence, they’ll go somewhere else. The Crown was only too happy to fill the void we left for them.

Q: The Regina Leader-Post came into evidence that your side felt could further your cause, but you say the paper shut you down.

A: Well, they received a package from Winnipeg. It had a bizarre letter in it. It had a hatchet the letter claimed was the murder weapon. It supposedly had some very risqué photos of my ex-wife. [This was around the time of] my first appeal in Regina. The paper simply turned it over to the Regina police. Bruce Dunne learned about it years later. So we started trying to find out if this really happened. Even though we never did get anything from the newspaper we did approach the Department of Justice about it, and they acknowledged, “Yes, it did happen.” Well, it took some time. My recollection is that the director of public prosecutions did forward the letter to Gerry Allbright. And then he added, as Allbright described it to me, “We have lost the hatchet.”

Q: How do you lose a hatchet?

A: You tell me.

Q: It’s been said in the David Milgaard case that police had some evidence, then got “tunnel vision.” Do you think that happened in your case?

A: No whatsoever. They selected me and they gathered this body of evidence, then they just picked out what was useful to them. What was not useful to them they just put it back in their files and they left it there. You know, they call that lack of disclosure, which isn’t supposed to happen. It allowed them to advance a weapon theory that they knew at the time—from the evidence which they withheld—was fraudulent, and yet they continued to present it in court as fact. [The murder weapon—which investigators determined was a .357 Ruger revolver—was never found. Thatcher admits to buying a .357 Ruger in California; a key Crown witness testified that Thatcher intended to smuggle it to Regina. The Crown did not inform the defence that the witness’s statement to the police claimed the gun was a black automatic; Thatcher’s weapon was silver-barreled.] But the Supreme Court dismissed my appeal, citing this weapon theory as the reason. There was the material about the credit card that they withheld. And a statement from a witness from California that very clearly placed me elsewhere. They held that, and that particular police statement, had Gerry Allbright had that, I truly believed the trial would have ended at that point. They kept them hidden. It wasn’t until 10 years later that finally we had access to them.

Q: Was anyone charged with perjury?

A: No. [Laughs.] Are you kidding? It’s fair to say that my wish list would be to have another trial where all the evidence is there. I’d love another trial on that. Now, I’m under no illusions that this book is going to cause anything like that to happen.

Q: Would it be your wish that the Attorney-General’s department in Ottawa order a review of your case because of your book?

A: I am not a fan of these closed-door hearings. I’ve been through that with section 690, and all of this material, which is in the book, it was evaluated by federal bureaucrats. It took them five years from beginning to end to review it. And we had no idea what was going on. It was like sending material into the Black Hole of Calcutta. And then ultimately, at their own leisurely pace, they decide to render a decision and you have no idea really who wrote it. We do not have a proper mechanism in this country for the review of possible wrongful convictions. The Americans are further along with this than we are. This behind-the-door stuff is nonsense in my opinion.

Q: In your book you’re quite critical of the Department of Justice in Ottawa. It seems your view is that they do a better job protecting—in your words—“incompetent or dishonest police” than they do protecting the public.

A: Well, that’s their job. Their job is to get rid of these applications. They’re not just skeptical, they’re openly hostile. And that’s their job, to get rid of you with as little fuss as possible. And they did a pretty good job in my case.

Q: Are you hoping that the people of Saskatchewan take note of this?

A: Mine is an old case. Nothing is going to come out of this other than that the book might sell a few copies, then start gathering dust.

Q: Toward the end of the book you write that you’ve gotten your revenge, you’re back at your ranch and you’re happy. Could you expound on that?

A: There are a lot of people, mostly in justice circles, that I think would take great pleasure had they totally broken me—and they certainly came close—but they didn’t. And so, I guess my revenge is hey, you didn’t break me, I’m still living sort of a productive life right now, I’m minding my own business and I’m paying taxes like I used to. And the best of it all, I think this is my ultimate revenge: I’m happy. And I don’t think that was part of the scenario they had in mind for me.

Q: Your three children still support you?

A: Heavens, yes. You know, they have their own families, their own enterprises now. They visit as often as they can. I have four grandchildren and I see as much of them as possible.

Q: You were always in jail. How do your grandchildren see you?

A: They pretty well know everything that happened and I think their parents have sort of kept them up to date because sometimes they will ask me a question about it. I’ve never taken any of them aside. Who knows? That’s the one thing that I probably really don’t have any real idea of, what my children and my grandchildren may have gone through at school, because I’m sure they had to go through the indignity of other kids calling their dad a murdering SOB, etc. I’m sure they’ve had to suffer that, and they’ve never mentioned that to me. On the other hand, the community where they were raised has always been very supportive of them. I’m sure they’ve all had some experiences that I don’t know about and can only speculate on.

Q: Speaking of grandparents, JoAnn’s parents, the Geigers, what was their relationship with your children?

A: From early in my arrest, to the best of my knowledge, they have never had any contact or attempted any contact with my children. They’re their grandchildren, but it was certainly their choice not to contact them, not at Christmas, not on birthdays, not on any of them. And really the Geigers sort of disappeared out of my children’s life until I was eligible for a 15-year review. And then the Crown brought JoAnn’s two sisters and her brother up here, and all of a sudden they began expressing all this yearning for their niece and nephews who they never attempted to contact until this time. Whatever. Look, I understand their feelings because if I believed what they believe and, of course, the only thing they’ve heard was from the Crown’s perspective, I wouldn’t feel one bit differently towards me. And so I can certainly empathize with them, given their beliefs. But some of the things and the allegations they made to the parole board after all these years based on nothing more than a desire to keep me in prison—I have a problem with that. I do not think that was right. But their feelings toward me are very understandable.

Q: Did people see you as a bully? I know you had support here, but there were people against you then and will be until you die.

A: Most of my life I have been fighting the NDP, usually losing more often than winning. But when it came to fighting them I played the game rough. And they played the game just as rough back. That’s the way politics was conducted then. There were some pretty tough cookies on both sides of the house.

Q: Has following the Saskatchewan Roughriders been an important part of your life?

A: Yes, even in prison. I’ve been a Rider fan since I was old enough to go to the games, and I’ve been going to the games since the ’50s. One of my big thrills when I got back was to finally go to a game live. I’ll never forget my grandson leading me, thinking I couldn’t find our seats again, leading me by the hand to our seats in Taylor Field. Like a lot of people in Saskatchewan, the Riders have always been very important to me.

Q: What’s the reaction of fans?

A: Totally neutral, I’m just another fan. They couldn’t care less that I’m there. It’s been that way from the moment I returned.

Q: And what is it like here in Moose Jaw?

A: My coming back has been very, very smooth. I’ve had no incidents. In fact, it’s fair to say I’ve had a very warm reception. But under the surface there are no two ways about it. People are 50/50 on my case. I recall once I was in a Wal-Mart and someone from my old constituency approached me, saying how good it was to see me back, that the last time he’d seen me I was campaigning in his kitchen. I looked back and there were a couple of people watching us very intently. They didn’t have anything to say, but their expressions [indicated] that they weren’t really thrilled that I was standing there. But nobody has ever stepped up and said “you shouldn’t be back here”—at least not to my face anyway. But I have no complaints about the reception. I go where I want. I behave the way you’re expected to behave and people reciprocate.

Q: If you didn’t kill your ex-wife, who did?

A: I’ve always had some suspicions, and that’s all they are—suspicions—and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not my job to solve the case.