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.