IRA GLASS: A lot of the stories we feature on our show are about unexpectedly life-changing moments. Where something happens - and often it’s something small, something that doesn’t even necessarily seem that important at the time - that ends up dramatically altering the course of a person’s entire life.
A chance conversation that led to a whole new career. Your sister introducing you to her roommate’s brother, who later became your husband. That stranger grabbing your arm at the crosswalk just before a car ran the red light. Our lives are filled with little consequential and inconsequential encounters every day, and we can’t always tell which were truly important until much later.
And it makes sense. These are the sort of events that make for compelling stories. There’s a kind of dramatic tension in not always knowing when a decision we make, a person we meet, will change everything. And when we try to make sense of our lives, of our history, these are the stories we look for - they’re the answer to the questions “just how did we get here?” and “how can I make a difference?” They’re the proof that even the smallest acts can have profound consequences.
Thomas Ward was in a bad place. Living out of his car, unemployed, reduced to relying on the kindness of strangers to support a heroin habit that was becoming increasingly difficult to manage.
THOMAS WARD: Somehow I ended up at O’Hare, I don’t remember why, I think I figured I’d catch the tourists there before anyone else got to ‘em. I had a few lines I’d use. One was - I’m not proud of this now - I said I was raising money for my daughter, who was sick and needed an operation. If you’ve got a good enough story, a lot of people will give you a few bucks on sympathy alone, or at least to just get you out of their face.
IRA: But then Thomas met a man who would end up changing his life.
WARD: I remember he was in a uniform, dark brown coat with shiny brass buttons and one of those flat-brimmed hats, like you sometimes see state troopers or forest rangers in. Young guy, real clean cut. Not somebody I’d normally try to approach, but he overheard me talking to someone else and came over.
At first I thought he was going to tell me off - you’re really not allowed to solicit at the airport and the cops’ll run you off if they catch you. But he just listened to me, asked a few questions, not like he was trying to prove I was scamming him, you know? Like he actually cared.
I told him I could pay him back after I got paid at the end of the week, but needed the money now, thinking maybe I’d get lucky and he’d give me a twenty. Or maybe he’d just tell me he’d keep my daughter in his prayers, I’d gotten that one before.
But then he said the damnedest thing, he said he only had a hundred on him.
“You’re going to give a perfect stranger a hundred dollars?” I asked, “you gotta be kidding.”
And I’ll remember what he said to me ‘til the day I die.
“Son,” he said, “I never kid about a child’s life.” Completely serious. Then he took a hundred dollar bill out of his hat, handed it to me, and walked away.
IRA: Just like that?
WARD: Just like that. I couldn’t believe it. I mean? Who does that? Who’s that trusting of someone they’ve known for maybe five minutes? It wasn’t that he was rich and wouldn’t miss the money, I could tell that much, though I don’t know if he really expected to get it back. It really seemed like he just trusted that I was telling him the truth, that there was some little girl in a hospital bed somewhere that he’d be helping, and I’d pay him back if I could.
And it was like that flipped a switch in my head. Suddenly, I felt really guilty about lying to him, to all the other people I’d lied to, and for what?
I looked down at that hundred dollar bill in my hand, and I just knew that I couldn’t keep it. I had one of those moments, the kind you think only happen in movies, where you suddenly see your whole life laid out in front of you and you just know you’re headed for a disaster if you don’t change something now - I had to get out of there, get clean, and somehow I had to pay that man back his hundred dollars like I promised.
IRA: And did you? Get clean, I mean?
WARD: Yeah. Yeah, I did. I walked into a clinic that night. The people there were able to point me to a treatment program that would take me. It wasn’t easy. But I’ve been clean and sober ever since.
IRA: And the man that gave you the hundred, did you get his name? Any way to contact him?
WARD: No. [laughs] That was the tricky part. I actually ended up finding him again by accident. I was downtown - this was several weeks later, by then I was already doing a lot better, going to meetings, got a job in a kitchen that was keeping me honest - and I walked past this guy standing guard outside a building in a bright red coat, except I noticed he was wearing a familiar hat. I looked closer, and it was the guy!
IRA: So you paid him back then?
WARD: Yeah. Never did tell him what it meant to me though. He was working and couldn’t talk and I was too ashamed of myself at the time to really say anything, so on the off-chance he hears this show, I want him to know how grateful I am. Probably saved my life that day, no lie.
IRA: Twenty five years after that fateful encounter, Thomas Ward now runs a non-profit organization that offers small, no-questions-asked, interest-free loans to people in need and provides support to families of children with serious illnesses, aptly named Perfect Strangers.
And as for the generous stranger who gave Thomas that hundred dollar bill? Who was he? Where is he now? And what was up with that funny hat? The answers to these questions and more, coming up.
Today on our program we’re bringing you a three act investigation into a true Chicago legend. It’s a larger-than-life tale of murder, exile, culture shock, and the incredible power of human kindness as we ask the question: did Chicago have its own Canadian superhero in the ‘90s? The answer may surprise you. From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One: Friendly Neighborhood Mountie
IRA: A quick warning to our listeners that there are some curse words which are unbeeped in this podcast, if you prefer a beeped version, you can find that on our website, thisamericanlife.org.
Welcome to Act One, Friendly Neighborhood Mountie. We begin with a series of life-changing encounters, all leading, incredibly, to one man. Maybe I’d better let Professor Cicily Greene explain.
CICILY GREENE: Hi, Ira.
IRA: Thanks for joining me in the studio today, Dr. Greene. This week’s show was really all thanks to your work, so why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about how you first came across this story.
GREENE: I stumbled onto it entirely accidentally, actually. I was doing research for a book; interviewing people about times when they’d been in need, and someone they didn't know very well stepped in and helped them out. Good Samaritan stories, basically. And while I was conducting my interviews, one of the people I spoke to mentioned that they’d once been helped by a Canadian Mountie. Here in Chicago, of all places.
IRA: A Mountie? Like a real life Dudley Do-Right?
GREENE: [laughing] Exactly! And that would’ve been strange enough, but then later I spoke to a second person who said they’d been helped by a Mountie in Chicago, and immediately I wondered if it was the same person. So I asked a few more questions and discovered that their descriptions of the Mountie matched almost exactly.
Obviously, at that point, I had to know more, so I started searching for any mention of this guy in the news, combing through archives, online forums, looking for anyone else who might have met him too, who might know more about what a Canadian Mountie was doing running around Chicago, doing good deeds for strangers.
IRA: I should probably mention right now for those listeners who may be unfamiliar with the term, by ‘Mountie’ we’re referring to a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They're Canada’s federal police force, perhaps best recognized internationally for their distinctive red uniforms and flat brimmed hats.
GREENE: It’s funny you should mention the uniform, because that was one of the things that everyone I spoke to about him mentioned remembering. But actually, the RCMP only wear those uniforms for special occasions, so at first I thought maybe it was someone wearing it as a costume. It wasn’t until I’d managed to track down more information that I was able to confirm he was really a Mountie.
MARGARITA GAMEZ: The Mountie, he saved my family.
GREENE: This is Margarita Gamez. In the early nineties, she and her four young children emigrated to the United States from El Salvador. The family was living in a one bedroom apartment in Chicago in 1995 when her youngest son became extremely ill.
GAMEZ: There was something wrong with the meat I buy. The hospital, they didn't believe me, they sent a social worker to our home, said that I must not have cooked it properly, and that's why he was sick. Then they came and tried to take my children away from me. But the constable, he was there at the grocery, he heard me talking to the lady there, and he believed me. He and his detective friend, they helped. They proved the store was selling bad meat from horses.
My Mario, he got better and all my children came home. I don’t know what I would have done without him.
GREENE: Some longtime Chicago residents may remember this story: Petit’s Food Town was cited and fined for selling diseased horse meat, obtained from illegally captured wild horses. Petit’s owner, Frank Petit, and several USDA inspectors were among those implicated in the scandal and were arrested and served prison time for their involvement. Court records confirmed the arrests were made in part thanks to the efforts of a visiting RCMP officer and a detective with the Chicago Police Department.
GAMEZ: He was a very nice man. I used to see him sometimes in the building, afterwards, and he always asked about the children, but after the fire a few years later, we moved and I didn’t see him anymore. I hope he is okay.
LUCY PIKE: I first met the Mountie when I was six years old. He saved my father’s life.
GREENE: This is Lucy Pike, in the mid-nineties, she and her father lived in a tiny, run-down apartment in a neighborhood near downtown Chicago which has since been replaced by luxury condos.
PIKE: My dad used to be a boxer. He was good too, good enough that he’d made a name for himself in the eighties, until a bad concussion took him out of the ring for a while. His career never really recovered after that. Then Mom got really sick and it was just the two of us left.
Most of what happened I didn’t find out until much later, when I was older. At the time I just knew that Dad was in trouble and needed help. He kept getting hurt. He’d say everything was okay, he was fine, we’d be fine, but it kept happening and I didn’t know what to do. So I did what they taught us in school - I found a policeman [laughs].
There was a man who lived in our apartment building - I’d seen him a few times in the morning when I went to school - who always wore a bright red uniform. I remember asking him if he was a policeman. He said he was in Canada, so I asked if he could help Dad, and he said he’d try.
It turned out that Dad had gotten involved in this insurance scam, stepping in front of cars to stage accidents and getting paid a couple hundred dollars to risk his life, while these other guys were collecting all the insurance money. When they found out that Dad had been talking to the police, they tried to kill him, and when that didn’t work, they sent some men to try to kidnap me. But Dad came to get me and the police arrested the men.
GREENE: What did your father do afterwards?
PIKE: Dad’s a plumber now. He testified against the doctor who’d been involved in the scam, not sure about the other men, but he didn’t have to go to court for those. I looked it up later; there was a reporter who did a big story about the whole thing who I remember meeting at the time. There were three other boxers they’d been paying who weren’t as lucky as Dad.
GREENE: And the Mountie? Did you see him again after that? You said he lived in your building.
PIKE: Yeah. He was really nice, always said hello. I remember he had a dog - a husky I think? That apartment was really awful. The lights were always going out whenever it rained and the bathroom was at the end of the hall and the toilet kept breaking and they’d take forever to fix it, so you’d have to go to another floor. We moved to a better place about a year later, after Dad got a better job. It was a good thing too, because I heard that building burned down a couple years later. I think I saw him on tv once, years later, something about a train or a submarine?
If I saw him again I’d thank him; if he hadn't gotten involved… my dad told me later that the doctors said that because of all the concussions he’d had fighting and then from the accidents, one more blow to the head might’ve been his last.
WILL LAMBERT: Yeah, I knew the Mountie. Constable Fraser turned my whole life around.
GREENE: Meet Will Lambert, another young resident of the constable’s neighborhood, who credits his encounter and subsequent friendship with the man in question with saving him from a life of crime.
LAMBERT: I was thirteen years old and running wild, cutting school to go to the track, stealing just about anything I could get my hands on, lifting purses, wallets. I’d already been arrested seven times. Mom wasn’t around, never knew my dad. My older sister was supposed to be watching me, but she was working two jobs just to keep a roof over our heads and CPS off our backs. I thought I was a real tough guy.
One day, I picked up this purse off a lady on the street, hoping for some easy cash, but when I opened the bag, all I found was a bunch of paper and a piece, so I ditched the bag and kept the gun.
Didn’t really think much about it until the next day, when I grabbed another purse and this crazy dude in red starts chasing me. He corners me, practically drops out of the sky, and like I said, I thought I was real hot shit then, so I pulled out the gun and pointed it at him. He doesn’t even blink. Just starts talking to me, real calm, cool. He’s got this dog with him, tells the dog to wait and it sits there, eyeing me. Tells me I should give him the gun and apologize to the lady for taking her purse, says he knows I don’t want to hurt nobody.
I was just a kid. And he was right, I didn’t really want to shoot anybody, even if I’d known what I was doing. So I gave him the gun and apologized to the lady and gave her back her purse, and he let me go after making me promise I wouldn’t do it again.
GREENE: Did you mean it?
LAMBERT: You kidding? [laughs] I thought I’d just had the luckiest day of my life, if I’d pulled a gun on any other cop in this city I’d’ve been either in the morgue or a jail cell. I was just saying whatever he wanted to hear. But my luck wasn’t as good as I thought it was, because when the cops processed that handgun, it turned out it had been used to shoot someone during a robbery the day before. I got picked up that afternoon and put in an interrogation room for hours. They thought I had something to do with the robbery.
The only cop there who believed me was the Mountie. He and his friend Ray, one of the detectives at the police station, they got me out of there on the condition that I help them find the bag I found the gun in. So I did and they ended up finding the woman, she’d been part of the robbery and I guess there was this whole thing where she double-crossed her partner or her partner was trying to double-cross her. Fraser told me later that she tried to shoot him and Ray. Bullet went right through his hat; he showed me the hole.
Afterwards, Fraser made me a deal, he’d pay me twenty-five dollars a week to walk his dog every day while he was at work, as long as I stayed in school. The job wasn’t much, but it was regular money and the wolf - Diefenbaker - was pretty cool, so I said yes. It kept me out of trouble. Pretty soon I stopped going to the track altogether, started paying attention in class.
Fraser was a strange dude, he almost didn’t seem real at first, he was such a Boy Scout about everything, spoke like five different languages, walked around looking like an ad for maple syrup all the time, but he had this almost supernatural effect on people, you couldn’t help but want to straighten up and fly right around him.
I worked for him for close to three years, and in that time, he taught me all kinds of things, like how to make a bed with hospital corners, how to track and identify an animal by its scat, how to cook scrambled eggs and spaghetti with meatballs, what to do if you ever get kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car, and at least eighteen different stories involving caribou. He got involved in the craziest cases, things you’d never believe, crooked dog-catchers, the mob, bank robberies, chicken thieves, that thing with the bomb on the train…
I only stopped working for him when his apartment building burned down and he had to stay at his office for a while. He worked at the Canadian Consulate and they’d moved to a different location, it was too far for me to get there after school to walk Dief. At the time, I didn’t mind too much because I’d gotten a girlfriend.
GREENE: Have you stayed in touch?
LAMBERT: Here and there, over the years. When I graduated high school, he sent me this really nice letter telling me how proud he was and how he knew I’d go on to do great things. I’ve still got it somewhere. I used to send him postcards now and then, update him on things in my life. He’d usually write back with more stories from wherever it was he was posted. Switched to email after the RCMP finally convinced him to join the twenty-first century.
He invited me to his wedding actually, but I was busy with grad school at the time, so I wasn’t able to make the trip up north. We met up for coffee maybe six years ago, when he was in Chicago with his family, introduced him to my daughter.
I should send him a note. See how he’s doing. It’s been a while.
GREENE: What are you doing with your life now?
LAMBERT: Believe it or not, I’m a social worker. I spend all my time trying to help kids in tough situations like myself, like Fraser did for me.
[Music - Dudley Do-Right Theme plays.]
Act Two: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
IRA: We’ve arrived at Act Two of our story today, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - in our first act, we met some folks who’d had their lives changed by a chance encounter with the Mountie; Act Two, things start to get a little larger than life as we dig deeper into the history of Chicago’s mysterious Canadian do-gooder. Dr. Cicily Greene continues...
GREENE: Once I had a name for the Mountie, I was able to do some more digging, and confirm that yes, there had been a Constable Fraser assigned to the Canadian Consulate in Chicago in the mid-nineties. I also discovered that there was a lot more to the story than I’d initially thought.
WILLIAM PORTER: I owe Constable Fraser my life.
GREENE: William Porter is an accomplished playwright and crime novelist from Chicago. He’s also a convicted bank robber.
PORTER: I was the wheelman.
GREENE: What’s that mean?
PORTER: I drove the getaway car.
GREENE: How did Constable Fraser save your life?
PORTER: He stopped me from making just about the biggest mistake I ever coulda made. He stopped me from taking my own life and leaving my son without a father.
GREENE: Christmas Eve 1995, fifteen minutes prior to closing, three men dressed in identical Santa Claus costumes robbed the Chicago Commerce Bank in downtown Chicago. As the driver, Porter was supposed to be waiting outside, watching for the police in his own matching Santa suit. Instead, three minutes into the robbery, Porter walked into the bank, pulled the fire alarm, and walked out carrying a sack filled with $23,782 dollars in cash.
PORTER: I first went to prison when my son was six years old. Job in Evanston went south, teller hit the silent alarm, cops were down the street. He was thirteen by the time I got out again. All I wanted was to give him the chance at a better life than I had, so I played by the rules, I kept up with my parole requirements, got a shit job making four dollars an hour and I worked my ass off, twelve hours a day, and another six every night doing a job nobody wanted to pay me for.
Six years, I stayed honest, and what did I have to show for it all? I still couldn’t afford to buy my kid a Christmas present. I'm standing in a department store, feelin' like a loser while the clerk tries to tell me about their layaway program. Three dollars short.
It was all just too much. I snapped. Decided if that was the best I was ever gonna get outta life, the least I could do was leave my son something more than sixty-two dollars and a pile of lousy manuscripts. So I made a plan. I took the bank job. I pulled the alarm. Probably would’ve gotten away with it too, if my son hadn’t seen me outside the bank.
Fraser was working the case with the CPD, he figured out what I was doing and came to talk me out of it. Said a few things I really needed to hear right then. Things that maybe if I hadn’t been such a damn fool I might’ve thought of myself. Or my son might’ve told me if I’d actually thought to ask him.
GREENE: What happened afterwards?
PORTER: I did three and half for the Santa job, because I cooperated with the federal prosecutors. Years later and I still wanna kick myself that it had to happen the way it did, but going back to prison was probably the best thing I ever did for my relationship with my son. It got us really talking for the first time.
GREENE: Obviously a lot’s changed for you in the past twenty years.
PORTER: Yeah. All that time with nothing to do other than sit on my ass and write finally paid off. I sold my first novel the year after I got out. Took until the fourth before I was making enough from the sales to quit my day job, but I’m getting by okay now. And I get to see my son and grandkids every week. Wouldn't trade that for anything.
MACKENZIE KING: Constable Fraser! Now there’s a name I haven’t heard for a while.
GREENE: Mackenzie King is a name many of you may already be familiar with. She’s an award-winning investigative journalist and blogger, who from 1989 until 2005, wrote for the Chicago Guardian, covering a number of high profile crime and police corruption stories during her tenure with the newspaper.
KING: I first met Fraser while I was working on a story about these urgent care clinics that we suspected were involved in an auto insurance scam. Someone had been paying a bunch of former prize-fighters to take dives in front of cars, and then doctors at these clinics were just rubber-stamping their injury claims and pocketing the money. Fraser turned up at the clinic I was checking out with one of these guys and at first I thought he might’ve been involved in the scam. Came to find out later that he was just some random do-gooder who’d picked this guy up off the street after witnessing the accident and was trying to help.
[laughs] A real honest cop. Threw me for a loop, because I sure wasn’t expecting to find that. Fraser was like something out of the movies, or maybe one of those adventure books from the 1930s, because I don’t think he’d be believable even as a fictional character these days. Handsome, polite, good with kids, champion of the downtrodden, and a hell of a lot smarter than he looked. The guy was like a walking checklist of every romance novel hero trope ever combined, all he needed was a tragic past and a mysterious inheritance or something. I asked him to dinner hoping to grill him about the clinic and he brought me a corsage.
GREENE: Was that the only time you met? I noticed his name in several of your stories that I found.
KING: Oh no, that was just the beginning! That man was like a trouble-magnet. It got to the point where if I heard his name, I’d immediately grab my tape recorder because I knew there was going to be a good story there, didn’t matter what it was he’d gotten involved in.
Did you know he once filibustered at a City Council meeting for four hours to protest a redevelopment project that would’ve replaced thousands of low income housing units downtown with eight blocks of luxury condos? It even worked, because he was able to stall until they could get proof that the landlord had been illegally evicting tenants. ‘Course the project ended up quietly going through a year later after somebody torched the building and nobody was still living there to complain, but that’s Chicago politics for you. That was relatively tame, as incidents involving the Mountie go though.
GREENE: Can you talk about some of the less tame incidents?
KING: Sure. Do you remember Randall Bolt and the Fathers of Confederation?
GREENE: The train bomber?
KING: Yeah. So, the Fathers of Confederation was this militant white supremacist group from out in Oregon. And in early 1997, Bolt and some of the group decided they’d make a big political statement by hijacking a train filled with members of the RCMP’s Musical Ride, rigging it with explosives, and setting it on a collision course with a different trainload of spent nuclear fuel rods just outside of Chicago.
Constable Fraser was on that hijacked train and was one of the few passengers that hadn't been in the train car that Bolt gassed. He and two other senior officers onboard subdued the terrorists and then managed to divert the train and disarm the bomb before the American authorities were forced to intervene.
Months later, when Bolt’s trial was set to kick off at the courthouse downtown, Bolt’s older brother comes out of the woodwork with more bombs and takes the whole courtroom hostage to try and ransom his brother’s freedom. Fraser and his partner Vecchio managed to save the day again, and I think the Bolt brothers both ended up taking pleas to avoid another trial. I was one of the lucky few journalists able to get an interview with them after the fact.
The Fathers of Confederation cropped up again a couple years later with that nuclear submarine and small arsenal of automatic rifles and chemical weapons they seized in the Arctic. You remember that? It was the lead story for a couple weeks running until it got quietly buried while the US and Canadian governments fought over who got to keep the sub. I know Fraser had something to do with that business as well, but he disappeared back to Canada without giving any interviews after that. I wonder what did happen to that sub? Hmm…
GREENE: Any other stories stick out in your memory?
KING: Well, there was the thing with the ghost ship and the gold, but I’m probably not the best person to ask about that one. It’s been more than twenty years and I’m still not entirely certain what happened there.
HARDING WELSH: The Mountie was probably one of the best cops I ever worked with.
GREENE: Captain Harding Welsh, Chicago Police Department, retired. For more than fifteen years, he was in charge of Major Crimes for Chicago’s Twenty Seventh precinct, where Constable Fraser spent much of his time.
WELSH: Officially, the constable was what they called a Deputy Liaison Officer; which is one of those vague, diplomatic job titles politicians love to invent because it sounds great on paper, international cooperation and all that, but then nobody bothers telling the rest of us what the hell that means exactly.
In reality, here’s this young cop stuck in a menial desk job helping tourists with their lost passports because he’d embarrassed the brass by actually being good at what they trained him to do. Waste of a perfectly good officer if you ask me; when he really oughta have been out in the woods somewhere, tracking down rogue moose or whatever it is they have that passes for crime in the Yukon. Can’t say I blame him for wanting to spend his free time doing real police work with us.
Most days, I had more crimes than detectives available to solve them, so if his own people didn’t want much to do with him, for whatever reason, Canada’s loss was our gain. The Two-Seven was happy to claim him as one of our own.
In some respects, Fraser was a lieutenant's dream - respectful, thorough, scrupulously honest, always did his paperwork on time. The Mountie was hell on my ulcers though. I swear he had some kinda uncanny ability to attract the strangest cases. And he never seemed to know when to drop something for his own good. Nearly got himself or his partner killed more than once, trying to do the right thing. And the collateral property damage with those two! But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t onto something more often than he was wrong about a case.
GREENE: Can you remember any examples of strange or unusual cases he was involved in?
WELSH: Sure. How ‘bout the time he and his partner followed a treasure map tattooed on a vic’s chest to a toxic waste laden lake freighter that was pretending to be a ghost ship so they could dredge up stolen gold from a wreck on the bottom of Lake Superior?
WELSH: That’s what I said too. Fraser and Kowalski, they drive all the way to Michigan looking for a witness, nearly end up drowning when the freighter they’d boarded sank. Inspector Thatcher and I, she was Fraser’s CO then, had to go chasing up there after them. Did you know the RCMP have got a full sized replica of the HMS Bounty in their fleet? That was one hell of a day. First time I’d ever fired a cannon…
WELSH: Hm? What was I saying? [clears throat] Right. Fraser. I’ve got years of stories like that. Not sure if he’s either the luckiest or unluckiest poor bastard I’ve ever known. Since he came to the States, to my certain knowledge, he’s crashed or jumped out of no less than two light aircraft, walked away from at least one several story fall, survived two potentially fatal gunshot wounds, a stab wound, three cracked ribs, and who knows how many concussions. And that’s just what all I can remember off the top of my head. Frankly, it’s a miracle the man’s still alive and walking. Hell, it’s a miracle I am, with my blood pressure these days. [laughs]
[Music: You Might Die Trying by Dave Matthews Band plays.]
Act Three: To the Ends of the Earth
IRA GLASS: Welcome back to This American Life, finally, we’ve come to Act Three of our show today, To the Ends of the Earth. Murder, exile, nuclear submarines, arctic exploration, and true love where you least expect it - Dr. Cicily Greene finally speaks to the man himself…
GREENE: After hearing all of these incredible stories about Chicago’s legendary Mountie, I knew that I needed to go to the source if I could. I needed to speak to the Mountie himself. As it turned out, finding him wasn't too difficult with the information I had, but it took several calls and a few persuasive emails to get permission from the RCMP. Eventually I was given the okay, and he agreed to an interview.
Sergeant Benton Fraser is now the commanding officer of a small RCMP detachment in the Northwest Territories, Canada. He is, in fact, a real person. I know, I was surprised too.
He and his partner, Ray Kowalski, formerly a detective with the Chicago Police Department, agreed to sit down with me while they were in Chicago visiting family and friends over the holidays.
In person, Sgt. Fraser is everything everyone I’d spoken to about him had led me to expect: tall, handsome, reserved, and incredibly polite. Aside from the lack of red uniform, his hair is the only significant difference from that younger man in the few photographs I’d found - it’s now startlingly snow white.
Beside him, Ray Kowalski is a stark contrast. Lanky with a shock of steel grey hair, scruffy goatee, thick black-rimmed glasses, and laugh lines, the former detective is constantly in motion, talking with his hands and nearly knocking his coffee thermos off of the table three times during the interview.
[muffled sounds of lapel microphone being adjusted]
GREENE: So how did a Canadian Mountie end up living in Chicago of all places?
BENTON FRASER: I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father, and for reasons that require considerable explanation, I remained, attached as liaison at the Canadian Consulate for approximately four years.
GREENE: Did you catch them - your father’s killers?
GREENE: Fraser’s father was something of a legendary Mountie himself. When Sgt. Robert Fraser was killed in the spring of 1995, the RCMP initially ruled it an accident, saying that it appeared Fraser Sr had simply been the tragic victim of a stray bullet during hunting season. This explanation didn’t sit well with his only son, then a constable, stationed some 2,000 miles away in the Yukon at the time.
FRASER: I’d suspected that something was wrong when I’d last spoken to him at Christmas. But he would never have admitted to needing my help even if he did, and so I didn’t ask. I wish I had.
GREENE: When the trail of evidence led over the border to the United States, Constable Fraser requested a transfer to the Canadian Consulate in Chicago, in the hopes that his presence would prompt the Americans to pursue the case with greater urgency.
FRASER: Looking back, I’m not entirely certain that I was thinking clearly at the time. I’m afraid I was quite single-minded in my pursuit of justice, and became rather more directly involved in the investigation than was prudent.
GREENE: After Constable Fraser and the detective assigned to his father’s case were nearly killed in an explosion while attempting to locate a man named Francis Drake, whom they suspected to be the shooter, he was told that he was being recalled to Canada by the RCMP to face a disciplinary hearing.
FRASER: He - Drake - surprised us in the parking garage at the hospital. At the time, I thought it was me he was trying to kill, but it was actually Superintendent Gerrard, a man whom my father had trusted and called a friend, and I had known myself since childhood, who had made the call, and arranged to have my father killed to hide his own corruption. Gerrard killed Drake, in a further attempt to conceal his involvement, and when I refused to remain silent, he tried to have me killed as well.
GREENE: In the weeks that followed, it was revealed that Superintendent Gerrard had taken money to conceal serious structural problems with an enormous hydroelectric generating station, problems which had led to the deaths of hundreds of caribou when dam officials began secretly releasing water at night, periodically flash flooding thousands of acres of Canadian wilderness. The subsequent investigation resulted in several arrests, including three other high ranking members of the RCMP, who were implicated in the scandal.
Despite the public controversy, the East Bay Power Plant completed its Phase II construction in late 1997, permanently flooding a wilderness area the size of Germany, and remains in operation to this day. Following Gerrard's guilty plea, Constable Fraser returned to the States and his position as Deputy Liaison Officer working with the Chicago Police Department.
FRASER: Prior to his arrest and incarceration, Gerrard was a respected figure within the RCMP. In finding my father’s killer, I’d exposed corruption at some of the highest levels of the organization and thus all-but guaranteed a prolonged period of intensified media and governmental scrutiny. Given those factors, it was decided that it would be best if I returned to my consular posting.
GREENE: Did you agree with that decision? At the time?
FRASER: I accepted it.
GREENE: What did you think of Chicago when you first arrived? It must’ve been a shock.
FRASER: It was. Aside from my time at Depot, the largest city I’d ever lived in before then was Moose Jaw, and that assignment only lasted five weeks before I was transferred to a more remote posting. The sounds, the smells, the sheer staggering number of people everywhere, Chicago was like a whole other world from what I was used to.
To say that I felt out of place would be an understatement. Much of my training and expertise was ill suited to such an urban environment and adapting was a challenge. It seemed there was no task or situation in which either my uniform or woeful ignorance of local custom did not immediately mark me as Other. I was accustomed to working on my own, to enduring all manner of physical and mental hardships for the sake of duty, but nonetheless I found the experience profoundly isolating.
It helped, somewhat, to imagine myself as an explorer, visiting another planet for the first time. However, had it not been for Ray Vecchio's and later Ray Kowalski’s friendship, and the valuable work I was able to do with the Chicago Police Department, I’m not sure how I would have survived it.
RAY VECCHIO: You wanna talk about Fraser? Why, what's he done this time? [laughs] Nah, I’m kidding, Fraser's good people.
GREENE: Detective Raymond Vecchio, Chicago Police Department, retired.
VECCHIO: What d’you wanna know?
GREENE: How did you end up working together?
VECCHIO: That was more luck of the draw than anything. I just happened to be the guy assigned to his dad's case and that turned into this whole crazy thing, but we sorta clicked. I saved his life, he saved mine. After he got back from testifying and everything up north, it just sorta made sense for us to keep working together.
Officially, I think he was only supposed to be liaising on cases involving Canadian interests or citizens or something like that, but in practice it was more like he helped out with whatever I was working on whenever they didn't need him at the consulate. Or more often, he’d get sucked into something nuts trying to do a good deed and I’d end up having to help him out. We made a good team. Had the best solve rate in the precinct two years running when I worked with him.
GREENE: What was it like having a Mountie as your partner?
VECCHIO: Like I said, Fraser’s a great guy, generous to a fault, would give you the shirt off his back if you let him. He was always getting us mixed up in stuff, trying to help people. I mean, I know it’s literally in the job description for a police officer - ‘to protect and serve’ and all that, but Fraser took it to a whole ‘nother level.
You'd look at him and think “nobody's really that good all the time,” the whole Dudley Do-Right, Super Mountie thing’s gotta be an act, but Fraser, he's the genuine article, one hundred percent pure, honest-to-goodness Canadian Boy Scout, complete with funny hat and tame animal companion. Made you want to be a better person just so you won’t disappoint him. It’s a lot to live up to.
GREENE: Did that ever bother you?
VECCHIO: It used to get to me sometimes, because nobody wants to be compared to Mr. Perfect and you couldn’t even argue with the guy, because what’re you gonna tell him? He’s wrong to want to do the right thing all the time? No, of course not. So you do the thing. You jump right in there with him, and next thing you know, you’re covered in garbage and somebody’s pointing a gun at your head and your partner’s trying to talk them down empty-handed because he’s Canadian and doesn’t have a license to carry in the States.
But I mean, it’s not like he was trying to be impossible, most of the time.
Police work, it’s an ugly business. The stuff you have to deal with, day in and day out, it changes you, and not for the better. If Benton Fraser has a super power, it’s that he’s been a cop for something like thirty-five years now and hasn’t lost his faith in humanity yet.
GREENE: Are you still close?
VECCHIO: Yeah, of course. Benny's one of my oldest friends. We talk on the phone every few weeks or so, and get together around the holidays most years; it’s hard to do more than that, living so far apart. He can be quite possibly the most irritating man in the world sometimes, but I love him, I really do. Guy's like a brother to me. We were the Best Man at each other’s weddings, which when you really think about it, was a hell of a thing, because he married my wife’s ex.
GREENE: Can you talk about how you met, what it was like working together?
RAY KOWALSKI: Y’know how when some people talk about their partners, they say it was love at first sight? You meet, then ka-blammo! Instant love connection, sign me up for a piece of that, I dunno how or why but I gotta marry this person someday because they are speaking my language?
KOWALSKI: Yeah, it was nothing like that. More like weirdness at first sight. First day we met, we both nearly got killed by a performance arsonist and I ended up driving a burning car into the lake. And that was just the tip of the ice floe. Stuff like that used to happen to us all the time when we worked together back then. If it wasn't octogenarian spies at the ballet, it was ghost ships, or voodoo, or dead guys preserved in shellac, or that damned nuclear sub. I used to think it was something about the red suit that attracted it, but now I’m pretty sure it’s just him, specifically. He was constantly endangering our lives in wildly bizarre ways.
FRASER: Ray, perhaps...
KOWALSKI: Is there anything I’ve said so far that isn’t true?
FRASER: [clears throat] Well, no.
KOWALSKI: Then lemme tell it how I want, Frase. ‘Sides, I never said I didn’t enjoy it.
FRASER: I seem to recall you being rather vocal with your complaints at the time, Ray.
KOWALSKI: Yeah, but then I still went and emigrated to Canada for your ass, Ben, so maybe let an old man remember things how he likes, eh?
GREENE: So then, if you don’t mind my asking, how did you two end up together, if it wasn’t love at first sight?
KOWALSKI: How long have you got? [laughs] It was a lot later than anybody else seems to think, that’s for sure. Apparently, half the Two-Seven thought we were knocking boots years before either of us clued into the fact that maybe there was more than your standard uh… fraternal regard between us. Or, okay, maybe I had a clue about my own feelings sooner than that, but we were cops, and it was the nineties, and you can’t just go putting the moves on your straight partner, you know? That’s not buddies.
Instead you gotta do stupid shit like say "I love you, symbolically" and drive through plate glass windows on motorcycles. Or maybe that's just me. Meanwhile, he’s giving me these looks, these sincere ‘Ray, you’re my very best friend’ looks and spending all his precious free time hanging out with me, and yeah, I was a detective, maybe I coulda put it all together a little sooner, alright? Guess it just goes to show you shouldn’t make assumptions about people.
Anyway, it wasn’t until a couple years after the Quest, after Fraser’d taken a promotion and transfer back to the frozen north and I was back in Chicago on the job. We were calling each other damn near every night, racking up one hell of a long distance bill, and using up all our vacation time going back and forth between here and there as often as we could manage. It finally got to the point where we realized this wasn’t exactly normal behavior for two guys who were just friends and didn’t work together no more, and maybe that meant there was something there, if one of us could just get the courage to speak up about it. So I did.
FRASER: You left a message on my answering machine at three in the morning while I was out on patrol and then dodged my calls for nine days.
KOWALSKI: I panicked. It worked though, didn’t it?
FRASER: Only after I flew to Chicago to get you to speak to me in person!
KOWALSKI: Look, I’ll admit it wasn’t one of my better plans. Still worked.
GREENE: Tell me more about this quest. What was that?
KOWALSKI: You wanna field this one, Frase?
FRASER: Ah, well, you see, my tenure in Chicago came to a rather abrupt conclusion in March of 1999 with the reappearance and subsequent arrest of Holloway Muldoon, a killer and international arms dealer wanted by both the Canadian and American authorities, and the seizure of a stolen nuclear submarine. I had something of a personal connection to the case and at its conclusion I found myself facing the rather unexpected circumstance of being welcomed back into my home country with open arms and a generous offer of the posting of my choosing.
Ray had accompanied me to Canada in our pursuit of Muldoon, and during our journey northward, had expressed regret over never having gone on a proper adventure. As I also had a significant amount of leave saved up and we were both reluctant to part ways just yet, I proposed that we might go and search for Franklin’s Hand together before resuming our respective duties.
Are you familiar with the story of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage?
GREENE: Somewhat. Didn't the expedition disappear and no one knew what exactly had happened to them? There was a TV show about it recently, I think.
KOWALSKI: Oh, don’t get him started on that show, he’ll complain about the ‘lack of respect for historical events’ for hours.
FRASER: Yes, thank you, Ray. That's correct, the entire expedition was lost in the Arctic in 1845, and for more than 150 years the final resting place of Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, remained a mystery, attaining somewhat mythical status in Canadian history.
Ray and I spent nine weeks out on the ice with the dogs before the approaching summer forced us to return to civilization. I’ll confess it wasn't, in all honesty, a serious attempt to locate the missing expedition. It was, however, a profound experience I don't think either of us shall ever forget.
The wrecks of both the Erebus and Terror have since been located by archaeological expeditions better equipped than ourselves.
GREENE: How was it returning to Canada after spending four years in Chicago?
FRASER: Much more difficult than I expected it to be. As much as I’d longed for the natural beauty and slower pace of life in the Territories during my exile, I found that I missed a great deal about living in Chicago. My friends and colleagues, the excitement and intellectually stimulating nature of our cases…
KOWALSKI: You were lonely and bored out of your mind, you mean.
FRASER: I… Not to speak ill of any of the rural communities that I served then and do today, and the important work that we, the RCMP, are called upon to do there, but yes. Quite paradoxically, I found myself even missing things that I’d hated about living in a large American city. I’ve since re-acclimated and found my place, and certainly having Ray at my side has made all the difference, but for the first two and a half years after returning home, I’m afraid I made for pretty miserable company much of the time.
GREENE: I find that hard to imagine. Everyone I’ve interviewed so far has said wonderful things about you.
FRASER: Ah. [clears throat] That’s certainly gratifying to hear.
KOWALSKI: That’s ‘cause most of the folks you talked to don’t know him very well.
KOWALSKI: No, I don’t mean it like you’re thinking, Ben. I’m not saying you’re secretly an asshole or something. I mean, you’ve mostly been talking to people who met The Mountie, right? The ones that really know Fraser, those are friends and family. So of course nobody’s gonna say anything bad about him. Unless maybe you found somebody he arrested who’s willing to talk to ya, but he’s probably charmed most of them too.
KOWALSKI: The point I’m trying to make is that he’s a real guy. Most people only see the Mountie, and sometimes that’s because that’s what he wants them to see. Everybody’s gotta have a game face, that’s just how life works, you can’t do a job like ours without having one, but that ain’t the whole enchilada. He’s not some crazy ideal who nobody could hope to live up to, he’s just a decent guy who gives a damn and actually does something about it. Anybody can do that. More people should. The world would be a better place if they did.
GREENE: How do you feel, Sergeant Fraser, about being called a hero or the ‘legendary Chicago Mountie’?
FRASER: Ah. Well, as Ray said, legends can be difficult to live up to. Particularly one’s own. I hardly feel anything I’ve done is worthy of such praise, but it would probably be hypocritical of me to deny the utility of mythology.
Growing up in the far north, where the people are so few and far between and the elements so unforgiving, if you came across someone in need, your assistance might mean the difference between life and death for that person. It’s simple human decency to render aid if one can. Additionally, as a police officer I have a sworn duty to the members of my community, above and beyond what is expected of an ordinary citizen; a duty I take very seriously. If I can help, I will, even if that assistance occasionally comes at the cost of great personal risk to myself.
I realise that in many ways this attitude marks me as something of an oddity or ‘freak’, as my husband and children are often quick to remind me, but I’ve always simply done what I felt was right, and what I hope any other person, similarly situated might do.
If my actions have inspired anyone to go on to help others, I’m both proud and humbled by that legacy.
[Music: Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers plays, fades out after the first stanza.]
IRA: Cicily Greene is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and occasional contributor to this program. Excerpts from some of the interviews presented today also appear in her forthcoming book, Love Thy Neighbor: Charity, Compassion, and Kindness in Rural and Urban Communities.
This American Life is produced by… [frankly extensive list of names that do not need to be enumerated at this juncture].
Special thanks to Thomas Ward, Margarita Gamez, Will Lambert, Lucy Pike, William Porter, Mackenzie King, Harding Welsh, Ray Vecchio, Ray Kowalski, and Benton Fraser for their contributions to the program this week.
On our website, thisamericanlife.org, you can find and listen to more than 700 episodes of our show for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Support for This American Life comes from listeners like you.
Thanks as always to our program’s co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who, when I asked him what he thought we should feature on the show next week suggested, [LAMBERT: ...at least eighteen different stories involving caribou.]
I’m Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories, This American Life.
[Music: Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers resumes.]
Tracing One Warm Line through a land so wide and SAVAGE, and make a northwest passage to the sea...