“Don’t forget to take their picture.”
As I’d find out, not the best advice for a reporter sent to sneak into a third-world prison.
I was heading to Trinidad to interview two imprisoned teenage drug mules who had attempted to smuggle three suitcases of marijuana back to Canada. Both 17, they’d been sentenced to eight years in an adult prison, filled with murderers on death row.
The Star wanted the boys’ story.
It hadn’t started out as my story. A new hire, a summer student heading to Columbia University’s journalism school in the fall, had been following the case and already called the prison warden asking to interview the boys. Although she had a hunger for foreign assignments and a passport filled with stamps, she was too green to go.
Instead, I was assigned to show up at the prison, say I was a cousin, get their story and a photo: proof of life for the front page.
The flaws in the plan were crater sized. Did I use my real name? And what if the boys were asked to verify I was their cousin? And whose cousin was I, anyway? Both were named Wayne, but one had a name too hard to pronounce, so that’s how I chose.
I figured the assignment was a test. Just one year earlier, an editor who thought I was too young for out-of-country assignments had called me home from Chicago. If I didn’t go to Trinidad, I might be condemned to follow marathon swimmer Vicki Keith for another summer—she was tackling Lake Winnipeg!
During the summer of 1989, the newsroom was changing quickly, with the arrival of more female reporters than ever before; mostly of a type. They had zero qualms about taking the ID off a corpse; had a hunger for travel and an expectation they’d cover stories in faraway places. Nomi Morris, for one, would cover the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year.
And the tenacious and talented Barbara Turnbull (1965-2015) did her first stint as a summer student. A quadriplegic after being shot in the neck, she was studying journalism at Arizona State University when she was hired.
There seemed to be more opportunities.
In the year since I’d arrived at One Yonge from the Star’s east bureau, I’d covered labour disputes, assaults, drownings, the plight of teen prostitutes, drug use at rock concerts and demonstrations outside abortion clinics. I’d also recovered well from a lupus flare and a bout of pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart). I was still on a slightly elevated dose of prednisone that gave me a spring in my step.
On the flight from Miami to Port of Spain, the man sitting beside me enthusiastically masturbated under his airline-issue blanket for much of the flight. By 8 a.m. the next day, I was standing in line at the white-washed brick prison, a near-ruin built in 1812, with the girlfriends, wives and…. Cousin Shelley from Canada.
Once inside the waiting room, all eyes were on me, the only white woman in the place.
I told the prison official that I was Wayne Galloway’s cousin but that I also wanted to see Wayne Wojcichowsky. I gave my name and ID. They searched my bag but didn’t take issue with the point-and-shoot camera inside.
Two hours later, I was led to a room with a dirt floor and standing viewing stalls. Within minutes, two confused teenagers were staring at me from behind bars. Visits were 15 minutes.
“I’m a reporter from the Toronto Star. But the prison doesn’t know that so don’t say anything.”
I looked at the shorter, blonde.
“I told them I am your cousin. My name is Shelley Page.”
He nodded again.
“Say my name.”
He repeated it.
“I want to tell your side of the story.”
I couldn’t pull out a notepad, so I leaned into the bars and tried to memorize everything the former Mississauga Square One mall rats said.
“Earned a free trip to Trinidad. Daily-spending money.”
“Had to carry suitcases of toys. Strollers. A playpen.”
“A lady from Rexdale set it up.”
“What’s her name?”
After a week’s vacation of sun, surf, they said the same lady who picked them up drove them to the airport. A man was waiting with three suitcases stuffed with drugs—later estimated to be worth $1 million.
“We said we didn’t want to take it, we’d get caught,” said Wojcichowsky. “The man pulled out the handgun and said we’d better take the stuff.”
He claimed they wouldn’t be searched and there’d be no dogs inside the airport to sniff out the drugs.
“They were covered in coffee grounds to hide the marijuana smell.”
The teens were escorted off the plane just before takeoff. (A top government official later boasted a new team of sniffer dogs discovered the drugs).
The teens said they were segregated from the rest of the prisoners. “We’re not safe in here.”
Down the corridor, a guard yelled, “Time’s up.”
“I have to go. Sorry,” I said.
“Please help us,” Galloway said.
“Maybe my story will help.”
I went to walk out and then I remembered the photo. For the front-page story. No guard was watching, that I could see, so I pulled the camera out of my bag.
“Stand as close together as you can.” Say cheese.
I snapped a couple of pictures. And then two guards appeared, grabbed my camera—and me.
I was hauled through the corridors of the prison into an open courtyard and then up a staircase into the prison warden’s office.
To say I was scared is cliché. I was curious about what was going to happen next, but mostly it felt like it was happening to someone else. I also had no clue what I should say or what the Waynes would say.
If I hadn’t taken the picture, I’d be in a cab heading back to the Trinidad Hilton.
Middle-aged and mustachioed, the warden came in holding my camera and sat behind his desk. I was young enough to be his daughter.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Wayne Galloway’s cousin.”
I made a split second decision to hold onto the lie, even though I didn’t know the names of Galloway’s family members.
“Why did you take their picture?”
“Our family back home wants to see how they’re doing, make sure they’re healthy. I promised I’d take their photo. For back home.”
“We’ve had lots of calls and lots of requests for interviews from newspaper reporters. Are you sure you’ve not a journalist.”
Again he asked me why I took the photo. How long I was in the country. Why I’d come instead of the boys’ parents.
“I’m going to talk to the prisoners. See what they know.”
Suddenly the situation got more real. Would they keep my secret? Or would they think lying would only get them more trouble. By blowing the whistle on me, maybe they’d get extra prison rations?
As I waited, my joints started to stiffen in my hands. I took a mental inventory of my body. I could tell that I was having a flare right there in the warden’s office. If I’d ever wondered what kind of extreme stress might trigger a flare, I had my answer.
I also hadn’t brought my prednisone to the prison.
Journalism 101: bring your life-saving meds with you when you sneak into prison.
I could hear the warden climbing the steps. I began to consider what would happen if they gave me up, and I ended up in custody without prednisone, in the middle of a flare. I had no idea if lying about your identity to a government official was an offense.
“They confirmed your story.”
They said I was Cousin Shelley?
“But I still don’t believe you.”
I had absolutely no idea what to say. So I played the girl-reporter card and started to cry. Then I pleaded with him to let me go.
He picked up the camera, popped open the back, pulled out the film and then handed the camera back to me.
“You can leave. But remember, I don’t believe you. So I would leave the country quickly.”
I walked out of his office, down the stairs, and a waiting guard led me from the prison. I kept walking for several minutes until I was in a dubious section of Port of Spain. I flagged a passing cab.
Once in the hotel, I phoned the airport to change to an earlier flight. Then I sat outside by the pool, clutching my bag to my stomach. I was terrified the warden would somehow plant drugs in my bag. By then, the pain had spread to many joints throughout my body.
As I waited in line at the airport, sniffer dogs explored the deep recesses of passenger luggage. I hugged my bag tight. I never let go of it until I’d boarded the plane and could stuff it beneath the seat.
The next day, I walked painfully, arthritically into work, to write the story, with a resentful summer student at my elbow.
I had to explain to editors why I’d failed to get the photo but it was impossible to explain to anyone the needless risk.
Eventually the summer student I’d “helped” would end up as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and then a freelancer in the former Soviet Union writing about hoodlums, gangsters, and strife in Chechnya.
I would continue to travel, but not toward danger.