Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A year on the outside after 23 on the inside

Out of prison, Frank Ostrowski makes his own way

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He's been out of prison on bail a year to the day, but don't call Frank Ostrowski a free man.

The 61-year-old grandfather still lives under the dark suspicion that he ordered the 1986 execution of a man to protect his own drug empire.

He's also fighting to get his custom belt-making business off the ground, a business that started as a hobby when he was an inmate at Stony Mountain Institution,

"It's a struggle," Ostrowski said Friday. "I'm trying to make money to survive. If it wasn't for people helping me, I'd be in the gutter."

The former hairstylist can't stand for long periods cutting hair because of arthritis in his legs, but that's only part of his employment problem.

"Because of the black cloud hanging over my head, people are reluctant to hire me to be in their shop because they think I might scare away clientele or bring in clientele that is unsavory."

Ostrowski was released on bail last Dec. 18 after Ottawa's Criminal Conviction Review Group opened an inquiry into whether he was wrongfully convicted of ordering a 1986 drug slaying. The review is being done by Nova Scotia lawyer John Briggs. Briggs is to start interviewing some of the people in Ostrowski's case in the new year. There has already been some evidence in the past few years that Ostrowski did not get a fair trial.

Ostrowski has consistently said he played no part in the killing, but he was convicted of it and served 23 years behind bars.

His belt shop is on the second floor of the John Howard Society of Manitoba building on Ellice Avenue near Sherbrook Street.

He started the business soon after his release from prison, deciding against going on welfare.

He supplies his custom belts to retailers in Winnipeg and the United States, and wants to expand so he can sell them on the Internet and perhaps at fairs and farmers' markets next summer. A friend will help him create a website, as Ostrowski doesn't own or know how to use a computer.

"To train a person who's 61 years old to do something else is difficult, and I have my business here that I'm trying to get off the ground," Ostrowski said. "If it wasn't for the John Howard Society helping me, I'd be outside panhandling."

For the past year, he has lived with his daughter and obeyed his nightly 10 p.m. curfew.

He's back in court Monday to ask that his bail restrictions be altered so he can move to another residence to give his daughter her privacy and maybe stay out later than 10 p.m.

"It's crazy. People say I should be living my life to the fullest, but how can I?" he said.

Ostrowski can't associate with former convicts, men he met in prison during the past two decades. He understands that bail condition, but also says because of it, he can't sell them a belt or cut their hair when they call.

"The government is restricting me in making a living," he said. "I have to set up a whole new network, which is difficult. It just means it takes me longer to do what I have to do to make a dollar."

He said there was one low point not long ago when he told his family and friends it might be better for him to go back to prison because he was almost broke and didn't want to be a drain on them.

"I told my daughter I might as well go back to jail because I can't make it," he said.

That's when a friend offered him a suite to live in, but the change of address requires a change in his bail conditions.

"I'm not involved in anything that I'm not supposed to," he said during a tour of his shop.

Since his release, he's shed 50 pounds and hopes to lose more weight in the coming months by staying busy.

"People have been really nice to me," Ostrowski said. "They've been giving me clothes, they've been giving me meals, helping me at the bank so I can do what I want to do. Even the van I have was given to me."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2010 A8

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