Needlepoint Class - Chuck Poulsen  

The gatehouse is all that's left of the B.C. Penitentiary.  (Photo: Contributed)
The gatehouse is all that's left of the B.C. Penitentiary. (Photo: Contributed)

Recalling killer Andy Bruce

by - Story: 57703

In the mid 1970s, Andy Bruce was the most dangerous killer in B.C.

Bruce was in the news last week because he was pulled out of his halfway house and sent back to jail. The parole board won’t say what he did to violate the terms of his parole. This is because, heaven help us, the board wants to protect Bruce’s privacy.

Andy Bruce was originally given a life sentence for shooting to death a North Vancouver dancer who owed money for drugs. A contract killing, he shot her with a .22 in front of her three-year-old daughter.

He went to the B.C. Pen, Canada’s answer to Alcatraz.

The Pen was built in 1878.

I was in there once as a reporter for The Province newspaper during one of two hostage-takings in the ‘70s. The décor was strictly iron bars, steel doors and institutional green walls.

The Pen rose as a dark grey castle above the Fraser River in New Westminster. With the coastal weather, it was often eerily shrouded in rain and fog, the last stop on earth for many of B.C.’s most dangerous.

Today, the property is a residential development, except for the gate house, which was renovated into a bar/restaurant.

A cemetery still exists near the Pen. The cons called it “boot hill” and the only markers on the graves are the prison numbers of the inmates - unwanted in life and death by society and family.

On June 11, 1975 convicts Dwight Lucas, Claire Wilson and Bruce took 15 hostages, including Mary Steinhauser, a 32-year-old old social worker. It was rumoured she was having an affair with Bruce. An armed squad ended the 41-hour hostage-taking. Steinhauser was killed in the exchange, a bullet to the heart. Bruce was shot twice, once in the head, but survived.

I covered the trial for the cons as a reporter. It was held in the old, creaky New West courthouse, every bit as dismal a building as the Pen itself.

The cons came into the courtroom each day doing the “con walk.” Being handcuffed and shackled, they shuffled into the room, taking their sweet time as an insult to the judge and his court.

It was a chilling scene but tame compared with what my fellow reporter and long-time friend Don Hunter would experience.

Hunter had taught a young Wilson in Campbell River. It was Hunter’s first job after coming to Canada from England. During the first hostage-taking, Hunter wrote a story for The Province saying Wilson wasn’t a threat as a Grade 7 student.

Less than a year later, Bruce, Lucas and Dwight Lowe took two more guards hostage. Bruce liked Hunter’s earlier story on Wilson and decided they would provide an interview to Hunter about their grievances. After it was printed, they agreed to give up.

I’ll let Hunter pick it up:

“Bruce demanded that I and a photographer be allowed to go in and record their complaints (feces and glass in their food, allegedly), with the deal being that when they saw the story, they would let the guards go.

"Colin Price, the late Province photographer, and I were escorted in by Dragan Cernetic, the warden. Deal was: no cops, no guns - just me and Colin.

"The three cons were doped up from the pharmacy they had liberated. Bruce had a long, ugly shank which he kept slapping into his palm as he made his points and I tried to make notes.

"Beside me, I didn't know whether the clicking sounds were Colin's camera shutter or his teeth.

Finally, I said: 'Andy, you're making me really nervous with that thing. He looked down at the knife, and said, ‘Oh, sh++, sorry.’ And we carried on the interview.

“Colin rushed off with the film while I filed my story. The story ran and the guards were released.

“It was the most dramatic one-day story of my career.

At that time, the Sun and Province were in the Pacific Press building. There was a short hallway between the two newsrooms.

Hunter. “The Sun, still then an afternoon paper, had nothing. Charlie Warner, the Sun photo boss, came through to our newsroom after we all left and stole Colin's prints from the photo desk basket. The Sun ran them in its next edition like they were their own.”

Hunter has long since retired from The Province. He has written several books and a TV miniseries. If you want a guaranteed good read, try his latest book: Incident at Willow Creek.

Don Hunter.ca

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