An unlikely story

Mike Danton’s version of events convinced a parole board. But why?

An unlikely storyAn explanation would not be forthcoming. That much was clear within moments of the national parole board’s decision last week to free Mike Danton—the latest twist in hockey’s most unseemly saga. As the former NHL player let out his breath, a reporter seated at the back of the room opened his mouth as if to seek clarification from the two parole board members at the front. Before the scribe could utter a sound, though, one of the members held up a hand. “I’m sorry,” said Michael Crowley, smiling sympathetically. “We don’t answer questions.”

Pity, because Danton’s account of his crime during a hearing last week at a minimum security prison near Kingston, Ont., has raised a whole lot of them. Far from demonstrating that he “understands his offence,” as parole guidelines require, the 28-year-old from Brampton, Ont., offered up an entirely novel version of events, claiming he intended to kill his father, not his then-agent Dave Frost, when he tried to hire a hit man back in April 2004. “I just wanted to get rid of the thing causing me paranoia,” said the shaven-headed Danton. “I obviously wasn’t thinking clearly.” He went on to allege that his father, Steve Jefferson, had physically abused him when he was a child, and that—in a sleepless frenzy fuelled by prescription stimulants—he’d become convinced on that night five years ago that his dad was coming to Missouri to kill him.

It was Danton’s first public accounting of the murder-for-hire plot he hatched while playing with the St. Louis Blues and, to say the least, it diverged from the version U.S. prosecutors used to secure his conviction. Danton was charged with conspiracy to commit murder after sending a contract killer to murder a man in his apartment in Brentwood, Mo., where Frost, Danton’s agent and mentor, happened to be staying. The hired gun, however, turned out to be a police dispatcher who went straight to the police, leaving Danton to plead guilty and accept a 7½-year prison term. He was transferred to Canada last spring to serve the rest of his sentence.

To Norm Smith, chief lawyer in the criminal section of the U.S. attorney’s office in the southern district of Illinois, Danton’s claim that Jefferson was the intended victim sounds “flat-out goofy.” “I can tell you this makes no sense, and we’re not concerned by it,” he said in an interview. Smith points to testimony in the trial of Katie Wolfmeyer, a 19-year-old friend of Danton’s charged with assisting him with the plot, in which Frost was identified as the target. He also notes wiretapped phone conversations in which Frost asked Danton outright why he tried to have him killed; Danton, according to sworn statements by FBI investigators, broke down sobbing during the exchange, saying he had felt “backed into a corner” and unhinged by his fear that Frost was “going to leave him.”

The new account does, however, bear a striking resemblance to a version of events Frost gave after the fact. The former agent has long maintained he was not the target of Danton’s clumsily conceived plan, and once testified in a separate court proceeding that the intended victim was Jefferson. Few gave the story credence, but after hearing it from Danton, the parole board appeared to swallow it whole. “You’ve provided an explanation for what happened that night the board finds reasonable,” Crowley told Danton in his verbal decision, “given all of the circumstances of that time.” Even the conditions they attached to Danton’s release suggested they saw Jefferson—not Frost—as the most likely target. While he’s allowed to speak to Frost by phone, and even meet him if a parole officer approves it, Danton is to have no contact whatsoever with his father.

No surprise, then, that Danton’s new version of events has fuelled the perception that he remains under the spell of the raspy-voiced man from Brampton, Ont., who coached him as a junior and went on to become his agent. Jefferson, for one, described Danton’s account of the murder plot as “straight out of Frost’s mouth.” “I never abused Michael,” said Jefferson, who blames Frost for driving a wedge between him and his son more than a decade ago. “This is all Frost. He’s so badly brainwashed by Dave Frost it’s unbelievable. I can’t believe the justice system in this country. It’s sick.”

Frost did not respond to requests for an interview. But the near-mystical influence he wields over his current and former players is legendary in hockey circles, a loyalty that has survived everything from incidents of Frost punching his players in the face to allegations that he sexually exploited them. Last fall, Frost went to trial in Napanee, Ont., after two women alleged that he oversaw—and participated in—mini-orgies at a motel in Deseronto, Ont., the town where his charges played during the mid-1990s. The players were supposed to be the victims in the Crown’s case. But they wound up testifying on Frost’s behalf, saying their coach played no part in the episodes. Frost, not surprisingly, was acquitted.

Even in this history, however, Danton’s attachment to his former coach stands out. Shortly after his arrest, the young player spent more than 1,000 minutes on the phone with Frost, prompting a judge to order an end to the conversations. Today, their friendship lives on. At last week’s hearing, Danton’s lawyer, Michael Mandelcorn, said his client “relies on Mr. Frost as you might on a family member.” He conceded that Danton may have had an “overreliance” on Frost at the time he was convicted. Nowadays, he said, the relationship is “much healthier.”

Has the parole board been taken for a ride? Spokesperson Carol Sparling declined to discuss the decision directly. But she said the board considers numerous factors when assessing an offender’s risk: a prisoner’s refusal to acknowledge the crime he was convicted of doesn’t necessarily disqualify him; nor does the company he plans to keep when he gets out.

Anyway, it’s not as if the board could keep Frost and Danton apart for very long, even if it wanted to. On Jan. 21, 2011, Danton’s sentence officially expires. At that point, parole conditions no longer apply, and the young man whose NHL dream went horribly awry will be free to spend as much time as he likes with the man most credible witnesses believe he tried to have murdered. Some things, it seems, defy explanation.