Sunday, March 07, 2010

Peter Woodcock, March 5, 1939-March 5, 2010

Yes, Peter Woodcock died on his own birthday.
Who was he?
In my childhood, he was the bogeyman. My parents actually warned me, when I was little, that there were bad people like him around. I remember, as a three or four-year-old, riding past the CNE grounds and my father pointing and saying "that's where the guy killed the little kid."
And Woodcock killed another boy at Cherry Beach. A few months later, he murdered a little girl under the Bloor Viaduct. He was caught a few days later and sent to the old hospital for the criminally insane at Penetang. Woodcock was 16 years old.
I was born the week he was sentenced, and he spent every day of my life in custody. That institutionalization was relaxed in the early 1990s. Staff of the Brockville hospital where Woodcock was held took him to the Smiths Falls railway museum to indulge his train fetish. They took him to see Silence of the Lambs.
Then they decided he was ready for escorted day passes with friends. His first escort was Bruce Hamill, a murderer who had been released from Penetang. On their first day out, they butchered Dennis Kerr, a Brockville psychiatric patient. Woodcock had convinced Hamill that an alien brotherhood would solve all his problems in return for Kerr's sacrifice.
Woodcock had a persuasiveness that would make a real estate agent frantic. He seemed like a nice guy, and he could be made to behave like one, if he was carefully supervised. He never really wanted to be free. His biggest real concern was the quality of his food, which abruptly deteriorated twenty years ago when the provincial government contracted out Penetang's kitchen. Anything else complicated his life, and he didn't do well when things changed.
I got to know him well over a 15-year period beginning just after Kerr's murder. I still don't understand why he was a psychopathic serial killer. It may have been baby trauma, when his mother abandoned him and he bounced from one foster home to another. It might have been some kind of brain malfunction, perhaps from birth.
I do understand he was morally flawed. He knew it, too. In fact, he understood that much better than the medical staff at Penetang, who, for years, tried to pretend he had a simple wiring problem that "treatment" or time could fix.
There are what-ifs: if the psychiatrists hired by his wealthy adoptive family had realized the danger, he might have been stopped; if some of the dozens of kids molested by Woodcock had talked before he killed, he might have been caught much earlier; if he had been kept in simple comfort but under real supervision, he might not have killed a fourth person.
He was incarcerated for 53 years. He was told when he was 16 that he would never be free. He was put through LSD therapy, forced to live in a jammed room for 40 days to learn empathy, placed for days in an artificial womb.
He was interviewed, studied, probed, written about. He got his eyes fixed, made a few bucks from a lawsuit against the union representing his guards, was on TV a few times.
I wrote a book, By Reason of Insanity, about him. The title cast a wide net. It was the first verdict against him. It was also an indictment of a system that sought to medicalize a person and a condition, psychopathy, that probably can't be medicalized because it involves a great arrogance, a belief that one's desires trump all the rights of another person.
And it mocked a system that wedded ideas of psychiatric patient activists -- including Scientologists -- with government cost-cutting to rush people out of institutions. Many former inmates had already screwed up and some of them had killed again before Woodcock was released. His case was just so outrageous and so ludicrous that it could be used as a blunt instrument against the system.
But it didn't change much. Jeffery Arenberg, who gunned down Ottawa sportscaster Brian Smith in cold blood, was held at Penetang for just three years before being declared cured. Released from all supervision -- Arenburg does not even have a criminal record -- he was back in custody within months, this time for hitting a US border guard. After serving a couple of years for that, he''s out on the streets again. And he's still crazy as hell.


JA Goneaux said...

Nice article, but I think you might want to edit a bit: that bit about Krueger just kinda pops in there. I believe he changed his name to this, obviously in some homage to Freddy of "Nightmare on Elm Stree". Nice.

I don't think I can trust a system that allows a guy like to to see a movie like "Silence of the Lambs". Ok, not as bad as letting another killer be his escort, but it certainly shows a pattern of psychological arrogance. Maybe the "knuckle dragger" belief about making the shrinks who say these guys are "cured" care for them in their own homes, with their own families should be given some thought. Can't be worse than what we have now, sometimes.

Anonymous said...


Terrific post. I purchased a copy of By Reason for Insanity last year for the son of a friend of ours who is taking Criminology at the University of Toronto. It is a great book, and I'd like to see it reprinted.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious if Mr. Woodcock attended Upper Canada College at all, after he was adopted by his wealthy Toronto parents.

Upper Canada College, an elite school for the children of wealthy Canadians, happens to be the same place where Colonel Russell Williams (an alleged serial killer) went to school, and was the subject of at least one lawsuit by former students alleging sexual abuse by teachers.

Anonymous said...

Upper Canada College has some dark rumours surrounding it, as does Toronto's Crescent School.

Ottawa Watch said...

Nope. He went to a private school near Kingston

Khakjaan Wessington said...

No Emotion [Today's News Poem, March 5, 2010]

““They said he walked up very cool, like there was no distress,” Chief Keevill said Thursday night, quoting the officers. “He had no real emotion in his face.””
--Thom Shanker and Ian Urbina, New York Times, March 5, 2010

“The men showed no emotion in court today as they were convicted of conspiracy to murder and of belonging to a terrorist group.”
--Lauren Frayer, AOL News, March 4, 2010

“John Albert Gardner III stood in court in shackles with his eyes cast downward, showing no emotion, as an attorney waived arraignment and a reading of the complaint and entered pleas of not guilty in the potential death penalty case.”
--Elliot Spagat, The Associated Press, March 3, 2010

Emotion's not a partial state
Of consciousness. Propensity's
Informed by itch. A scratch will sate
One spot, but not immensities

Of rash. Curtailer of most joy,
It smothers other body pleas;
The itch and scrape's another ploy
Of flesh to trick the self to ease.

The rapist's cock will torture him.
A theist's God will whisper 'smite'
Responding to their worship-hymn.
To paranoids, it's ever night;

In every shadow lurks a slight.
They seek to see the darkness right:
To spare their eyes the strain, they light
The world ablaze

And note the comforting of might.
They flee their pain and scorn delight.

Anonymous said...

I've read your book "by the reason of insanity" ... it's a great book, and it pictured on how the serial murderer who's being 'detained' in Penetang got their treatments, also life of David Krueger. We have some serial killers cases too here, in my country, and the punishment is usually the death penalty.
Your "what if" questioned actually also be my "what if" questions, regarding those serial murders case. But damage is done, he already found his peace, wherever that is.

concerned2 said...

His damage went on and on. I knew Ray Voyce, (Father of Carol Ann Voyce, one of his murder victims). Ray had a nervous break-down after her death. His wife died within 2 years of Cancer and her stress was a contributing factor. Their son, Steve, had to live with relatives until Ray could re-gain control of his life again. Steve was in his "formative years" and lost the bond with his Dad, never completely regaining that. I knew Ray in his senior years and he would often call me at night, unable to sleep for night-mares of hearing his daughter scream out for him. He told me to please be sure "that monster never leaves Penetang" as he knew Woodcock would likely out-live him and I was younger. Three days before Ray died, I had a dream of a little girl in 50's clothing, standing in front of me for about 5 minutes, silently. I knew who it was and why she was there but spent the next day looking thru T.O. archives and I was right, when I saw her picture. It was Carol Ann and she was waiting on her Dad. Two months after Ray's death, his son committed suicide. I'm glad Woodcock is dead and he should have faced the death penalty before he had a chance to kill his fellow inmate.