It’s been 26 years since the murder of JoAnn Wilson, shot and bludgeoned in the garage of her Regina home, and the case has never really gone away. Her death was followed by a 15-month police investigation, the arrest of her ex-husband Colin Thatcher (son of a former Saskatchewan premier and an ex-provincial cabinet minister himself), a sensational trial and conviction, books and a CBC TV movie, and seemingly endless appeals and requests for early release. But even Thatcher’s parole in late 2006 didn’t bring an end to one of the highest-profile murder cases in Canadian history—as Jack David, publisher of ECW Press, learned last year when he received a letter.
Now 70 and living on his ranch near Moose Jaw, Sask., Thatcher has never ceased proclaiming his innocence, and he’s not about to stop now. He offered ECW a look at Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame, a title that says it all. David, “curious to start, and skeptical,” took that look and read a manuscript he describes as “well supported and pretty well written. I was intrigued by it, and tried to weigh its merits.” In the end, David—who has published controversial books before, notably Benoit, about the Canadian wrestler who killed himself, his wife and their young son—opted to publish, and will release the book in September.
Reaction to the news was as hostile as could be expected in a case where, as David acknowledges, “everyone I know in or from Saskatchewan has zero doubt he did it.” From her Iowa home, Wilson’s younger sister, Nancy Geiger, sounded almost resigned, describing her former brother-in-law as motivated by “ego.” “He’s gone from being a really big person in Canadian politics to someone that is sometimes the punchline.” Others provided their own punchlines: “I like to read true stories all right, but I like them to be true,” said retired Regina deputy police chief Ed Swayze, who was closely involved in the investigation. And the news sparked anger among victims’ rights advocates disappointed that Saskatchewan, unlike neighbouring Alberta and Manitoba, has no law to stop convicted felons from making money from accounts of their crimes. Shelley Marshall, whose son was murdered in Winnipeg in 2001, renewed her demand for a Canada-wide ban. Thatcher, she said, “should not get a dime.”
Even David wasn’t immediately convinced he should publish. “I went out to meet him in June last year, in the bar of the Hotel Saskatchewan. He’s in good physical condition, looking like a farmer in jeans and cowboy boots. I wasn’t sure yet I wanted to do the book and neither was he—he was getting push-back from his daughter, who didn’t want it all to blow up again. I had already talked on the phone with him, acting like a reporter: ‘Why did you write this?’ ‘If it wasn’t you, who was it?’ That kind of question. He was very direct, very responsive, not evasive. He says in the book he doesn’t know who did it, and he doesn’t offer any conjecture.”
Thatcher’s straightforward attitude cemented the impression David had already gained from the book, and some outside checks he’d made. “I spoke to a reporter who covered the trial in 1984 who told me he had a lot of respect for Thatcher’s lawyer—not much for Thatcher, admittedly—but for his lawyer, Gerald Albright, who’s now a Saskatchewan judge. And Albright stuck with Thatcher for years.” In particular, David says, Thatcher’s book persuasively establishes him as being elsewhere at the time of the murder, clearing him of half the double-barrelled allegation levelled at trial, that he killed or caused to have killed Wilson. “I’m convinced of Thatcher’s physical innocence. He didn’t do it himself. He may well have hired someone, but if he had been tried solely on the charge of committing murder himself, I don’t think he would have been convicted.”
Beyond the alibi question, David says, Final Appeal tackles the question of the famous credit card slip. Dated four days before the murder, and bearing Thatcher’s name and signature, it was found near the crime scene and became a key piece of evidence at trial. The book has a lot of detail on that slip, David says, “on whether it was Thatcher’s and how it might have come to be found there, a lot of interesting detail.” The sort, David says, that finally swayed ECW. “We had a lot of debate in-house over whether we should publish. Eventually it came down to this: he’s a guy who’s served his time, who wants to present his side. When you read it you might well think he should have been acquitted. He deserves a platform.”