The school gymnasium was filled with squirming high school adolescents – a collective audience of hormones – a challenge for any speaker even at the best of times. And this was the most challenging time of all – right after lunch.
They wiggled, they talked, and they threw things at each other – until he walked on to the stage.
He placed his hands on the podium, and immediately a hush fell over the gym. There was something about him.
He embodied the indescribable power of someone who is exceptionally confident, composed, and ready to take on anything the world wants to throw at him. We all felt it – we all knew it.
“I am René Durocher,” he said in a thick French-Canadian accent.
He scanned the audience.
“When I was a young boy, a priest came to our house. He told my mother that I had great potential. He said that I would become a great person someday. He just wasn’t sure whether it would be a great prime minister – or a great criminal.”
He paused. No one was talking, throwing things, or punching anyone anymore. You could have heard a pin drop in that full gymnasium.
“I chose to become a great criminal.”
He paused to let his words sink in. Then he added quietly, “And I became one of the best.”
No one moved after that – he had the students in the palm of his hand as he began to tell his story.
“I had been released from prison only three months prior, and I was already planning my next bank robbery. This time it was a bank in Rosemont – the biggest. There were four of us involved – three of us to rob the bank and one to drive the getaway car.
“We parked on the street in front of the bank. We pulled nylon stockings over our faces as masks and ran in.
“I was the last one to leave the car, following my partners with the machine gun in my hands, covering them so that they would be safe.
“Once inside the bank, I started barking orders, ‘Everybody on the ground. Don’t move, or I will kill you.’
“I fired a round of bullets into the ceiling with my M1 rifle they used in Vietnam. I also had a spare gun, a Mark III Commando with a double clip strapped to my waist. I walked the floor yelling and swearing at the people to lie down and not move, threatening that if they didn’t, they were all going to die. And I meant it – and they knew it.”
He paused. He was pacing the stage – we felt it. He didn’t have a gun – but the way he walked….
His voice was low. “We had to control the scene. It was the only way we could get the money. We treated it like a job.”
He stood very still. “Because I was the one with the machine gun, I was the boss.”
None of us doubted it.
Then his voice changed, dropping low, speaking to us as confidantes – almost whispering. “As the boss, I am the one who is looking around – covering the other two as they went about their business. We have only seconds to do our work. I’m the one who keeps my eye on the time. When I say it’s time, they have to stop, so I’m the one who is tasked with keeping my eye on the time. When I say go, we go.
“My two partners were jumping over the counters and scooping up the money from the tills. In no time, their bags were full. Money was spilling….
“They were fast.
“When they had emptied as many tills as I thought reasonable, I called to them that their time was up! They stopped everything, and we raced out of the building, leaving the people still screaming and lying on the floor.
“Our driver was ready for us. The doors were already open, and all the windows were open.”
“Because I was covering my partners with the gun, I was the last one to reach the car.
“Even though the back door was ajar, it was not open enough for me to get in, so I fumbled with it. Our driver was anxious and was already gunning the motor. I had to do a running jump into that moving car – just barely making it.”
It felt as if we were with him – in an action movie. Our hearts were racing.
“There hadn’t been a moment to spare. We had done it in the allotted time – two minutes – and we had to get out of there – fast.
“Already we felt that relief of a job well done. We were already millionaires. We were about to celebrate when a huge, bulletproof City of Montreal truck pulled up in front of us – blocking us.
“Using a bullhorn, the cops were ordering us, ‘Surrender! We have you surrounded!’
“I yelled at our driver, ‘Fuck them. We are not surrendering.’
“I pulled out my pistol and put it to his head, ‘If you don’t go, I am going to kill you.’
“He drove like a maniac and managed to get around the truck.
“The bullets were beginning to fly, so I started shooting back. I started acting like a wild man. I still don’t know what came over me. I was shooting at anything and everything.
“My partner, who was sitting right in front of me, got hit – a bullet right in his head. In slow motion, I saw him just slump down in his seat.
“My other partner, who was sitting with me in the back of the car, was also shooting from his side of the car and got hit by two bullets that came from the trunk and hit him in the back.
“But nothing was going to stop me. I kept yelling at the driver, ‘You have to keep going, or I’ll kill you.’ But eventually, the car came to a stop. The cops had used a shotgun – and he had been shot through the windshield into his face. He was slumped over the wheel.
“I picked up my automatic M1 because my Mark III was empty, jumped out of the car and started to run, and run, and shoot. I didn’t care that there were people on the street – screaming. I would have killed anyone in my way. I didn’t care. I was a maniac. I just wanted to get away. They were right after me.
“Those cops were motivated. We had robbed a few banks before, and they knew by our style that this was a repeat job. They were frustrated that they hadn’t been able to capture us, so they wanted us stopped even if it meant killing us on the job.
“Because I knew the cops wanted to kill us, I thought, ‘If I’m going to die, they are going to die before I do.’ I hated anyone in authority.
“The cops surrounded me by a school wall. I turned my machine gun on myself, and I tried to kill myself, right there on the spot. But the gun jammed.
“They jumped on me and took me down.
“They put the handcuffs on me and took me to the Parthenais Jail. It was a brand-new jail at the time. All I could think of was my partners.
“As it turned out, the driver, who got the shotgun pellets in his face, was OK. My other partner was killed.
“I didn’t understand it. ‘How the hell was it not me? How the hell was I not hit?’ All the bullets came right through the vehicle. ‘Why?’
“I blamed the cops. You always blame the shooter. Later, when they counted the holes in the car, there were seventy-two. I don’t know how many bullets passed straight through – we’ll never know – but they counted seventy-two bullet holes in the car.”
He then described his time in prison, and then at the very end, he said that he had changed.
“My wife, the mother of my two children, told me that if I didn’t change my ways, I would never see my children again. I was serving time in Prince Albert, and I knew that she would do as she said. And that’s when I woke up. I loved my children….”
Then, just as he had convinced us that he was the worst criminal in his time, he did a complete turnaround and proceeded to convince us – just as persuasively – that the choice to be a criminal was the worst choice he had made. He had wasted his life.
He talked about the cost, the regrets, and his remorse.
By the time he walked off the stage, the students looked stunned and dazed. They had slid down in their chairs, limp as dish rags.
Everyone saw a man. I saw a warrior cloud thundering….
Avoiding everyone, I slipped out of the building, found my car, and drove slowly back to my office.
No sooner had I settled behind my desk when a colleague from down the hall stuck her head into my office. “I heard that you were at a restorative justice conference with Durocher – that is so amazing. The organizers told me that both of you were riveting. They were so thrilled to have you both at their restorative justice school conference. Imagine having the most well-known victim in the city – together with a notorious criminal – telling their story on the same day. Amazing.”
Then before I could answer – she was gone.
Her words rang in my ears…. “Most well-known victim in the city – together with a notorious criminal?”
I kept hearing the word “notorious” over and over again.
Was I being billed in the same sentence together with a notorious criminal – who had once been the most wanted man in Canada?
I couldn’t get her words out of my mind.
How had I gotten here?