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Sharing a cell with a killer
Brian Hutchinson, National Post · Friday, Dec. 3, 2010
Brian Hutchinson, National Post · Friday, Dec. 3, 2010
VANCOUVER — One of Canada’s most heinous and prolific serial killers, Michael Wayne McGray warned he could murder again, even while in prison.
“Just because I’m locked up in segregation doesn’t mean I can’t kill somebody,” he told the National Post’s Graeme Hamilton a decade ago, while sitting inside a federal penitentiary in Renous, N.B. “I have a chance every day.”
Killing, he went on, is “almost a hunger. It’s something I need. I have to have that physical release. When I kill, it’s a big high for me.” The years passed. Convicted of six murders, McGray was moved from prison to prison. Last year he wound up in B.C. He was most recently moved to a medium-security institution, of all places.
And one morning last week, McGray’s new cellmate was found dead.
The RCMP have confirmed that Jeremy Phillips, 33, was murdered. His body was discovered inside the medium-security cell he shared with McGray in Agassiz, B.C. The same cell in which the pair had been locked up the previous night.
The Mounties cannot say if McGray is a suspect in their murder investigation; charges have still not been laid. But the police have concluded their work, says Dale Carr, media spokesman for the RCMP’s Integrated Homicide Team, and they expect an “information package” will be forwarded early next week to the Criminal Justice Branch of B.C.’s Ministry of Attorney General. The Crown will then decide whether to lay a murder charge. One seems likely.
The Phillips murder has shocked prison authorities, and it has appalled even inmates. Recently, McGray was transferred from maximum-security segregation at Kent Institution in Agassiz, to the less-restrictive confines of Mountain Institution, a medium-security pen next door.
Mountain is described by Correctional Services Canada as “a program-focused institution, where inmates must have steady jobs and take part in constructive leisure activities.”
According to one inmate serving time at Kent, McGray, 45, is a feared convict whose reputation preceded his arrival. He was moved to Kent last year after stints in eastern Canadian prisons. He made an immediate impression on residents of Kent’s M-Unit, a segregated block with single-person cells inhabited mainly by other convicted killers.
“Everyone walked on egg shells around him,” the inmate said in a phone interview Thursday. “I had heard about the guy and the six murders, but I didn’t know he was stone-cold. How he got moved over to Mountain is beyond me. I’ve been trying to get a transfer there for years and I didn’t kill six people.”
Perhaps the only downside to such a transfer might be the living arrangement; most Mountain inmates share a cell. None do in Kent. It’s preferred to have a private cell. Prior to his transfer, the inmate said, McGray made a fuss. He made it clear he did not want a roommate.
Prison authorities had to have heard McGray’s alleged threats, the inmate insisted. Yet he was moved from Kent to the more lax Mountain prison, where three-quarters of its cells have two bunks.
It’s believed that McGray landed in a cell originally meant for one inmate; however, a second bunk was installed due to a space crunch. It was there that McCray met Jeremy Phillips.
According to Corrections Canada and court documents, Phillips was a career criminal serving a six-year, nine-month sentence for aggravated assault and conspiring to commit an indictable offence. After a soured drug deal in March, 2006, he attacked a man with a baseball bat and fractured his skull.
The assault occurred in Moncton, N.B., and by strange coincidence just a few blocks from the address where, eight years earlier, McGray stabbed to death Joan Hicks-Sparks, 48, and murdered her daughter Nina, 11.
The double slaying was front-page news all over New Brunswick. McGray was apprehended by police and charged. In August, 1998, he was flown in custody to Ottawa for a 60-day psychiatric evaluation. A number of assessment reports were submitted to a New Brunswick court prior to McGray’s scheduled trial. One suggested he suffered a serious strain of Tourette syndrome that produced in him an “irresistible urge to kill.” But he was found fit to stand trial.
In October, 1999, while still awaiting trial, McGray was charged in connection with the 1991 deaths of two Montreal men, Robert Assaly and Gaetan Ethier. According to a Montreal police detective, McGray attracted the attention of investigators while inside the Renous, N.B. prison. He was “acting weird and talking to certain people,” said the detective.
McGray had indeed killed the two men; it would be disclosed later that he’d been on a weekend pass from a Montreal prison and was bent on murdering homosexual men. He stabbed to death both victims.
Police investigating other cold murder cases in Canada began looking at McGray as a possible suspect.
In January, 2000, McGray was charged with a fourth slaying, the second-degree murder of Mark Gibbons. The victim had acted as McGray’s accomplice while robbing a Saint John, N.B., taxi driver in 1987; hours after the robbery, McGray stabbed Gibbons to death in a parking lot.
McGray went to trial on the Hicks murders in March 2000. In a sudden turn, he pleaded guilty to killing Joan Hicks-Sparks. In his confession, he said he had experienced an urge to kill, had entered the victim’s home, and had slashed the woman’s throat with a serrated kitchen knife. The attack was entirely unprovoked. His first-degree murder conviction earned him a life sentence in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
McGray denied killing his victim’s daughter, Nina Hicks; that murder charge was temporarily stayed. McGray then went on a media interview spree, talking to reporters from newspapers and radio outlets and boasting that he had killed as many as 16 people.
A year later, McGray reversed course and entered a guilty plea in the first-degree murder of Nina Hicks. And by then, he had also confessed to the murders of Messrs. Gibbons, Assaly, and Ethier.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Days after confessing in court to the Nina Hicks murder, McGray pleaded guilty to the murder of a 17-year-old hitchhiker, Elizabeth Gale Tucker, whose decomposed body was found in a Digby County, N.S., field in 1985. McGray was handed his sixth life sentence; all are being served concurrently.
Citing restrictions placed on them by the federal Privacy Act, Corrections Canada officials will say little about their inmate McGray, nor will they discuss why he was moved from prison to prison and then into a medium security institution, where he shared a cell, briefly, with Jeremy Phillips, now deceased.
They will only point to written Corrections Canada policy, a Commissioner’s Directive that outlines “inmate placement criteria” in the event it becomes “necessary to accommodate two inmate in a cell.” Criteria to be assessed include the inmates’ psychological information, their criminal profiles, their predatory behaviours and their compatibility.
According to the directive, decisions to place one offender with another must be recorded, “along with the results of the assessment.” Even if such a record was made in this case, prison officials would still not release it. The public won’t know on what basis McGray was deemed compatible with Phillips.
He seemed compatible with no one, recalled the inmate who walked the same block with the killer at Kent.
“[McGray] showed no patience for anyone at all and people stayed away from him,” he said Thursday. “Someone screwed the pooch bad on this one.”