Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Victory in sight after long fight

Ex-MLA hopes a Florida arrest will clear him

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It was a potboiler of a drug case that saw a provincial MLA impeached and kicked out of office -- the first and only time that's happened in Manitoba.

The case included testimony that police tapped phones at the legislative building to build their case against politician Robert Wilson for his role in a 1980 scheme to import 500 pounds of marijuana (supposedly hidden in boats) from Florida to sell in Winnipeg.

Wilson was convicted by a jury and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the now-76-year-old former MLA maintains to this day he had nothing do do with the crime.

Now, 32 years after he was accused, Wilson might finally clear his name.

The breakthrough is due to the arrest Tuesday in Florida of a 71-year-old man most had thought drowned decades ago somewhere in the Caribbean, either in a boating accident or by someone tying a big rock to his feet.

Ian Jackson MacDonald, or "Whitey" to everyone who knew him back in the day, was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service in the central Florida town of Homosassa, senior Insp. Barry Golden said Wednesday. MacDonald and his wife, Angela, bought a house in Florida in June 2009. Before that, they lived in rural Pennsylvania as Jack and Angela Hunter, her maiden name.

MacDonald is among the most colourful and, until now, most elusive characters in the history of Winnipeg crime. More than 30 years ago, the Kenora native and former appliance seller was believed to be the kingpin who masterminded the drug-smuggling operation that ended Wilson's political career.

A Free Press profile in 1980 described the towering MacDonald as possibly the flashiest member of the Winnipeg Yacht Club. He dressed entirely in white, earning him his "Whitey" nickname, though he seemed to prefer the nickname "Big Mac," which he emblazoned on his private plane and on his stretch Lincoln.

Wilson said Wednesday he learned of MacDonald's arrest through an Internet report while writing his memoir, Public Service To Prison.

"I couldn't believe it," Wilson said from Vancouver. "I'm absolutely delighted. Everyone's been telling me he's dead."

Wilson said MacDonald can tell authorities the ex-MLA had nothing to do with a conspiracy to smuggle marijuana to Winnipeg, wanting only to make money selling boats, not dope, and that all Wilson is guilty of is picking bad friends.

"I'm praying that they'll bring Jack back," Wilson said. "I was the perfect patsy."

For years, Wilson has sent reams of faxes and emails to reporters saying he was wrongfully convicted. When he was charged, Wilson was also expelled from the Progressive Conservative party.

"I'll never give up. It's been more than 30 years already. I'll be free at last. I hope my name is cleared. It's a happy day."

Golden said MacDonald was arrested after the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami formed a cold-case squad to investigate fugitive cases more than 10 years old.

He said officers learned about the Florida house purchase and put it under surveillance. After MacDonald waved them inside, officers told him they believed he was Ian Jackson MacDonald.

"Mr. MacDonald let out a big sigh, like his chest sunk in, and he said, 'Yeah, you got me. I've been looking over my shoulders all these years. I wondered when this day would come,'" Golden said.

The man who prosecuted Wilson said the province now has no choice but to bring MacDonald back to face the music.

Bruce MacFarlane, who now works for the United Nations as a war-crimes prosecutor, said as far as he's concerned, the indictment against MacDonald is as valid as the day it was signed. MacDonald, Wilson and more than a dozen others had all been implicated in the same dope-smuggling scheme.

"MacDonald was seen as the head honcho," MacFarlane said of the allegation. "Wilson, according to the findings of the court was someone who assisted."

MacDonald wasn't arrested on the outstanding charge in Manitoba, but for escaping custody in Florida under mysterious circumstances when he was first arrested by U.S. authorities in 1980 on the same drug-smuggling charges as Wilson. He has to face that charge before being returned to Canada.

Initially, the story was MacDonald, then 41, was taken from the Dade County Jail to a local hospital after complaining of heart problems. He supposedly fled while the guard was preoccupied.

But others say he might have been a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency informant and was allowed to "escape" when he was supposed to be taking a shower.

"No one was ever able, one way or the other, to establish if that was correct or not," MacFarlane said. "I was told he asked to go to a washroom and he never came out."

At the time, police speculated MacDonald had fled to a small island or small city. His wife sold the couple's Florida home and a bank seized the couple's $70,000 yacht.

The escape fit his persona. Described in the 1980s as tall, husky and blond, with a skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his forearm and prone to wearing heavy gold jewelry, he boasted about hobnobbing with the owner of the Winnipeg Jets and other bigwigs.

In the early 1970s, MacDonald was even deputized to serve as a police officer in St. Clements, but got the boot after two weeks when the police chief discovered he had a criminal record for forgery.

He lived in Winnipeg until about 1974, when he moved to Fort Lauderdale to open a yacht brokerage firm.

 

-- With files from Mary Agnes Welch

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 13, 2011 A3

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