Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Freed from an Ecuador jail

$40,000 US later, city couple overjoyed son out of hell-hole and headed home

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HOPE is what's kept Susan Stone going for the last six months.

Hope that somehow she could raise enough money to basically buy her 23-year-old son's freedom from a potential 25-year "death" sentence in a hell-hole of a South American prison.

It took more than $40,000 US -- much of that raised through garage sales, socials and an outpouring of support from Free Press readers. But yesterday, Joe Stone Lamontagne -- alleged drug mule -- was released from prison in the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast city of Guayaquil.

Now he's just a one-way flight away from home.

It was 4:30 p.m. yesterday when Susan Stone heard officially that her son, who apparently had been acquitted of smuggling, was actually out of prison. Susan and husband Rick Lamontagne had followed the last day's "play-by-play" of his release by phone.

The last she had heard around noon, Interpol was doing a check to make sure Joe wasn't wanted for anything else.

Four hours later, family friend Myles Rothman was on the phone promising Susan that "the call" was coming. Then she heard a call-waiting beep. John Megson, a former Winnipegger and the family's go-between in Ecuador, was calling from the Canadian Consulate in Guayaquil.

"Susan," he began, "I have someone who wants to say something to you."

Susan was choking back tears when she heard Joe's voice for the first time since she said goodbye to him five months ago in the Guayaquil prison.

"Mummy?" Joe said.

"Joseph," she replied. "How are you?''

"I'm hungry," he said.

Susan was in tears as she told her oldest child that his aunt would make him his favourite meatballs and be at the airport whenever he could arrange a flight home.

Joe laughed. But his mother was serious.

He told her he already knows what he wants to do first when he gets home, but evidently after half a year in prison, he's become accustomed to asking permission.

"Can I just go home and go to sleep in a bed?"

And the next day he wants to be at the beach.

The young St. James-raised man had been in prison since Feb. 26, when he was arrested at the Guayaquil airport trying to board a plane back to North America with a half a kilo of cocaine concealed in a briefcase.

The whole twisting, turning, gut-wrencher of a story is the stuff that movies are made of. Movies such as the 1978 classic Midnight Express, the true story of a young American caught smuggling drugs and thrown into a barbaric Turkish prison.

Joe's story started last winter with a friend arranging a job.

The way he told it to his mother, it was supposed to be in an oilpatch somewhere in Texas or Oklahoma.

But somehow he ended up on a flight to New Jersey.

And from there to Ecuador.

Later, Joe would tell his mother that he landed in Ecuador because when he got to the oilpatch, there was no job. So his "boss" asked if he would like to go to Ecuador for a few days until the job opened up.

As the story went, when Joe got there, his boss called and asked if he would bring his briefcase back.

According to what Joe told Susan, he was reluctant to do that, so his "boss" told him to search the briefcase thoroughly.

Apparently Joe didn't find anything.

But a drug-sniffing dog at the Guayaquil airport did -- the stash of cocaine concealed in the briefcase handle.

When Joe finally got to a hearing nearly six months and $37,000 US later, a judge decided that half a kilo of cocaine was a small amount. According to what the family was told, it isn't illegal in Ecuador for people to have small amounts of drugs for personal use.

So the young Canadian accused could be freed from prison. That was two weeks ago.

But last week, after Rothman booked and paid for flights home, Joe wasn't released.

Then this week -- after already paying thousands of dollars into a black hole of presumed bribery -- there was a "complication," as Rothman put it.

Justice authorities wanted yet another payment.

Rothman was told that something called the council of judges was reviewing the case.

The payment would go there.

Rothman was despondent.

"We told them there was no more money," he said Tuesday.

At that point, he hadn't told Susan about the latest demand for payment.

How could he?

The family has never been told where all the money they've raised was going and they always wondered whether it would really free Joe.

Or whether the thousands of dollars in payments, which felt more and more like ransom demands, would ever end.

"Are we doing the right thing?" Rothman wondered as late as Tuesday.

But on Wednesday, Megson, the family's go-between in Ecuador, dug into his own pocket and used the money that was supposed to cover Joe's legal bill and paid the $4,000 US.

Yesterday, Susan and Rick replaced that $4,000 with money they borrowed again in the hope that this time the Ecuadorian "justice" system was finally finished with its Canadian cash cow.

Not quite.

Yesterday, there was one last demand for cash, a few hundred dollars to destroy the cocaine.

Now, in the end, the Stone Lamontagne family is left with a $25,000 Cdn debt from the desperate attempt to free Joe.

But he's out.

Yesterday, Susan thanked all the people who helped raise the money to free her son.

She credits them. And something else.

"You can't give up hope," she said.

She never did, and look what happened.

PHOTO KEN GIGLIOTTI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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