Last night, wearing a blue "Winnipeg, Canada" baseball cap and carrying a miniature Canadian flag, Joseph Stone Lamontagne was greeted at Winnipeg International Airport by his mother and father and about two dozen friends and family, including an aunt with a birthday cake.
The young Winnipegger turned 23 in an Ecuadorian prison a week after he was arrested in late February at the airport in the city of Guayaquil with a half-kilogram of cocaine concealed in his luggage.
It was only Friday that Stone Lamontagne was released -- after almost six months in a hell-hole of a South American prison and after his parents and an untold number of Manitobans, including Free Press readers, raised more than $40,000 US to free him.
Myles Rothman, a Stone Lamontagne family friend who has been acting as a go-between with Ecuadorian officials, was the first to hear Joe was safely on his way back.
He received a telephone message from Lisa Almond, the Canadian consul in Quito, Ecuador's capital, yesterday morning.
"Myles, the plane is in the air," Almond told him excitedly.
Then she paused.
"And Joey's on it."
Rothman relayed the message to Stone Lamontagne's mother, Susan Stone.
But the young man's departure from Ecuador, like most of what happened to him during the past six months, did not go smoothly.
Because flying out of the airport where he was arrested was deemed too dangerous -- even after official release -- it was decided Joe would be driven by car to Quito to catch a plane to Miami, then to Chicago and then home.
The trip to Quito turned out to be an 11-hour drive through the jungle and into the mountains. In the middle of the night, two hours from Quito, the car overheated and broke down.
"I thought that was it, I would never get out," Stone Lamontagne said yesterday in an exclusive interview as he sat in Chicago's O'Hare airport sipping a beer and wolfing down a cheeseburger and fries.
Stone Lamontagne, the driver he hired, and Sylvie Sabourin, a missionary from St. Jean Baptiste, who was escorting him, were stranded in 6 C weather and cold winds on a relatively deserted road.
But the driver, seeing a light in the distance, bravely stood in the middle of the road and flagged down an approaching semi-trailer truck.
"He told the driver I was a missionary, and not a prisoner," Stone Lamontagne said.
They would need rides from four vehicles in total before they arrived at the Canadian Embassy in Quito at 5 a.m. yesterday.
Three-and-a-half hours later, his American Airlines flight lifted off on the first leg of his journey home.
Stone Lamontagne was freed not only because of the money that he claims was used to bribe the prosecutor and the judge, but because the amount of cocaine found in his luggage ended up being under the limit allowed for personal use in Ecuador, he said.
While the scene at Winnipeg International Airport last night was reminiscent of a hero's welcome, Stone Lamontagne knows he is not a hero.
"I feel dirty," he said as he waited for his plane in Chicago yesterday.
He explained why.
"Basically, my whole life I've worked for everything I had and then someone offered me $8,000 Cdn and a vacation. That's what they called it."
Then for the first time he told someone other than his mother the truth about how he ended up in an Ecuadorian prison.
He said that last winter, after he lost his job and was two months behind in his rent, a friend offered him a chance to make $6,000 US.
"I knew it was drugs," he said, "but I needed the money."
The first leg of the trip looked like fun. They (whoever "they" were -- he did not get any names) sent him on a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Madrid, he said.
From there, they flew him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, and then he took a bus to Quito. It was there he met his contact, who gave him an attache case two days before he was to head back to Guayaquil for a flight back to Madrid.
He arrived at the airport on Feb. 26 and was arrested within the hour. Stone Lamontagne believes the officer who checked his attache case knew exactly where the drugs were.
"He looked at my Canadian passport and then stabbed my attache case in the exact location where the drugs were. And he said, 'You have drugs,' even though he hadn't found them.
"The dog couldn't even sniff it."
Stone Lamontagne maintains he was a pawn used to distract authorities from a much larger shipment of cocaine.
That doesn't mean he doesn't take responsibility for his actions.
"I'm the one who said he was going to do it."
He believes he would still be in Ecuador if it wasn't for three women: his lawyer, Sabourin, who visited him every week in prison and kept him sane by allowing him to vent, and Almond, who went through customs with him and used her charm and diplomatic clout to get him through.
"If it wasn't for her, I would still be in Ecuador talking to the police."
They are heroes to Stone Lamontagne. "They saved my life. What else can you call them?"
But his biggest hero is his mom. It's his mother -- and his family -- who Free Press readers, benefit golfers, garage-sale buyers and socials attendees identified with most. And it was Susan Stone's drive and unrelenting faith that got him out.
Early in Stone Lamontagne's imprisonment, after his mother went public with his arrest, she received phone calls from two other mothers. One was in Transcona, the other in Starbuck. Both had sons imprisoned in foreign jails for trying to smuggle drugs.
They were drug mules who had taken the cash carrot like Stone Lamontagne.
Neither of those mothers had contacted the media or tried to mount a public campaign to free her son.
"One was too embarrassed for her son," Stone recalled. "She said, 'Just give up; it's hopeless.' "
Yesterday, at O'Hare in Chicago, Stone Lamontagne recalled hearing that from his mother, but he also recalled what he said to her when she visited him in prison not long after his arrest.
"I told her the same thing: 'It's hopeless. Just give up. You can't win.' "
And then Stone Lamontagne smiled. "I was wrong."
"You can't give up," Susan Stone said yesterday. "It's your child. You never give up."
I asked Stone Lamontagne yesterday over his beer in Chicago if he learned anything from his hellish six months in an Ecuadorian prison.
"There's no such thing as easy money," he responded. "But there is hard time."
"If anyone thinks that doing six months in an Ecuadorian prison isn't enough, go on the Internet and look up worst prisons. Guess what you'll find? Guayaquil is in the top three."
He described seeing a prisoner with a .38-calibre handgun blow another con's head off just two days ago.
"I've seen people raped. I've seen people knifed. I've seen people thrown off rooftops. I've seen 3,600 people take control of a prison with 18 guards. They brought in the army with Uzis, machine-guns and tear gas at 2 a.m.
"If you don't buy your own food, you don't eat. If you don't pay the guards, they beat you up. I've got the scar to prove it."
All Stone Lamontagne wanted when he got home was a shower and to go to bed.
Next on the agenda, the family will travel to St. Malo to their favourite beach.
It was at St. Malo that his mother prayed for a miracle at the grotto by St. Bernadette's church. And it's there at the grotto that the family will give thanks.