Who Killed Ty Conn

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Who Killed Ty Conn is both biography and true crime narrative. As part of their research for a documentary on child abuse, Linden MacIntyre and Theresa Burke, producers with CBC’s The Fifth Estate, met Tyrone (Ty) Conn while he was serving a sentence of 47 years for a string of armed robberies. In fact, since he was thirteen, Ty had only been “legally at large for 69 days.” He was subsequently transferred to the notorious Kingston Penitentiary—home to serial killer Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo—after acting as an informant, telling security staff of a violent escape plan hatched by fellow inmates. Ty eventually escaped from Kingston—the first successful attempt in four decades. He later died in a squat basement apartment in Toronto from an apparent self-inflicted shotgun wound to the chest.

The author’s relationship with Ty had spanned several years resulting in countless interviews and letters. After his death, the authors decided to take the material and write a book on the “failures by individuals and institutions which contributed to the downward spiral of his life.” It was written in the belief that Ty’s grim experience “might offer some enlightenment for people in the social sciences and the bureaucracies that grapple with the challenge of crime and punishment.” The result is a deeply human portrayal of a wasted life.

It’s clear to see how MacIntyre, who went on to pen the Giller Prize-winning The Bishop’s Man, could translate his talents into fiction. Ty’s escape from Kingston Penitentiary is particularly striking:

“The night air was fresh and the sky clear and it was like he was the only human being alive. He had not been outside a prison in more than eight years, except on melancholy trips to court or between jails… With the lights glaring around him and the endorphins pumping pure ecstasy and his mind exulting at having just accomplished the impossible he was higher than he’d ever been on any drug.”

MacIntyre often employs techniques usually reserved for novels by entering into what he describes as the “difficult realm of internal thought and emotional process.” The complex and convoluted prison system in which Ty exists is like an unimaginable weight constantly bearing down on him. Any effort he made to deal with his scarred psyche and to better his lot in life were doomed to fail and, as the author writes, “reveal more about the system in which he was attempting to reform himself than about any failing or duplicity on his part.”

Originally published in 2001, this edition, accompanied by a new introduction by MacIntyre and a foreword by sociologist Elliot Leyton (Hunting Humans, Men of Blood), couldn’t be timelier. Although the national crime rate is at its lowest levels since 1973, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to table a new crime bill which includes measures to put more young offenders in jail. It ignores the mountains of statistical and anecdotal evidence which points to the places where Ty spent the majority of his young life as breeding grounds for more serious criminal behaviour. Who Killed Ty Conn is an important and unique book which certainly deserves mention alongside other Canadian true crime classics.

Mike Heffernan is a non-fiction writer from St. John’s, Newfoundland. He is the author of Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster.