In June 1966, Matthew Charles Lamb took his uncle’s shotgun and wandered down Ford Blvd in Windsor. At the end of the bloody night, two teenagers lay dead, with multiple others injured after an unprovoked shooting spree.
In his investigation into Lamb’s story, William Toffan pieced together the troubled childhood and the history of violence that culminated in the young man’s dubious distinction as Canada’s first known spree killer.
The true story was so strange, twisted and unbelievable that Toffan needed to jot his research down into a new book from Biblioasis called Watching The Devil Dance: How A Spree Killer Slipped Through The Cracks of the Criminal Justice System.
It’s Toffan’s first book and a topic he knows well. The retired RCMP officer was actually affected by the shooting spree and he believes it paved his journey to become a law enforcement officer.
We had a lengthy conversation with Will about this sick and twister affair.
Not everybody in Windsor knows about this. This is kind of national history taking place.
It is national history, not only because he was the first real spree killer in history but also because of what followed afterwards. I mean Saul Nosanchuck, he was a magistrate here for 30 years. Prior to that he was a young defense attorney. He got him acquitted on an insanity defense, which is a difficult defense for any lawyer to take on, but he did an excellent job, the defense attorney. There were repercussions after the trial in that particular case and the acquittal changed the criminal code that led to a change in the criminal code definition of how they define legal insanity, because insanity’s not a medical term, it’s a legal term, right? And that particular case, not only in case law, but just the influence of that case itself would lead to a more liberal interpretation of insanity in the Canadian Criminal Code.
Like the British, we had always gone by what was known as the McNaughton rule. This was a more conservative, very strict interpretation of legal insanity. Well, Lamb’s acquittal actually resulted in Lamb being acquitted based strictly on him being a psychopath. The psychopath’s inability to feel empathy or remorse for what they had done was enough because of the job Saul Nosanchuck did, it was enough to get him off on an insanity plea and so psychopathy itself became the legitimate defense for insanity. Even during the trial, the prosecuting attorney Eugene Duchesne was screaming to the jury saying if you let any one of the psychiatrists at the Oak Ridge facility for the Criminally Insane let this guy go, every psychopath in the country is going to beat the bushes looking for a psychologist to get them off based on the virtue that they have a personality disorder, which is psychopathy, and that’s really what happened.
It led to much more liberal interpretations in future cases for people convicted of similar type crimes.
For people that might not know, what’s the difference between the different killers? Most people know a serial killer from TV, but this was actually a spree killer.
Yes, that’s right. A spree killer is a subcategory of the mass murderer but they have specific psychological and behavioral traits in the commissions of the crimes. For instance, a spree killer is not particularly choosy about their victims. They usually don’t know their victims. Their victims are usually just people of opportunity. They also don’t give any thought to the consequences of their crimes, because 80% of them are thought to be suicidal at the point of the attacks, at the time of the attacks anyway. They don’t take any precautions for getting caught before they go out on these killings, they basically confer that one, they’re either going to be DBC, death by cop, or they’re going to commit suicide or they’re going to just give up without a fight, which is what happened in this case. But they don’t take any measures to hide their crime or to hide who they are, their identity.
They’re also very mobile. They’re independent when they kill. They’re out and about walking. They kill two or more people. They care little about the consequence for their actions. They place no priority on who they particularly kill. In the 1980s when we started seeing more of these types like Mathew Lamb was an anomaly in 1966 but when we started to see more of these types of attacks, like these young men, we used to call them Rambo attacks. I don’t know how old you are, but Sylvester Stallone did a movie in 1983 I think called Rambo, and at the end of the movie he takes it out on the society that mistreated him and he shoots up the whole town and police and even the news media, and these attacks started happening on a more frequent basis after that. I’m not saying the movie was an antecedent to these crimes, but we called them Rambo attacks.
The term spree killer didn’t really come out until the mid ‘80s, till the mass murderer was broken into specific categories.
So from a historical standpoint, this affects more than just Ford Boulevard itself because as you mentioned, it sort of changed things and was the first of its kind. Basically you were there for the first.
I am sure that particular event was a motivating factor for me to become a police officer. One of the ironic things about this is in 1966 when this occurred, 1966 had the lowest homicide rate since Canada kept records. It was 1.08 per 100,000. It’s the lowest, and in the United States as well, 1966 was our lowest year for homicides, and yet the summer of ‘66, in a two month period, you had Mathew Lamb, first spree killer. Less than three weeks after Mathew Lamb, Richard Speck slaughters eight nurses throughout an evening in Chicago. Have you ever heard of the Richard Speck killings?
Yeah. And the American news media declared that and then from the New York Times, Detroit News and the New York Times declared the crime of the century. the Speck killings. Then two weeks after Speck, we had Charles Whitman who ascended the bell tower at the University of Texas at Austin and he shot 45 people. He was a decorated marine, married, all American boy, quarterback of his football team and he lost it and he, like Lamb, he had a love of guns. That’s another thing spree killers have. They have a fascination with guns, and Lamb, from the age of 12, was fascinated with weapons.
In fact, in one event he went with a fellow called Greg Sweet, a local boy who Lamb was friends with. They went walking down the street, Jarvis Street in Windsor—Tecumseh and Lamb was shooting his shotgun late at night into people’s homes of people he apparently didn’t like. It was never reported to the police but it was prophetic because that’s what he would end up doing in 1966, basically repeating that, only this time he was shooting people.
When did you first envision writing a book about it and how long did it take to put together?
My wife had always badgered me to write about it. I started in 2013, and seven years from when I first started it until the actual publications, but I would say about five years of research, a lot of taped interviews. I was fortunate in that most of the investigators from chief of police to Inspector, they were all still alive and of course Saul Nosanchuck, his defense attorney. These guys were still alive when I started doing the research. So I got them all on taped interviews, repeat interviews including some of the surviving victims. So I did a lot of that type of research, and then of course secondary source material, going into the archives and digging out newspaper clippings, the archives of Ontario, secondary source material.
But the interviews were really numerous interviews with everybody involved. Unfortunately most of those have died in the last five years because they were into their late ‘80s and ‘90s, but they’ve passed on now. Two survivors are still alive but one of the girls, after Lamb shot three people that were walking up Ford Boulevard, he ran across the street and he was running up a woman’s driveway right across the street from where the killings were. A 19-year-old girl by the name of Grace Dunlop had heard the shots, and she turned on her light, her side door light and her silhouetted appeared just off her driveway. She had an open screen door. It was a hot summer night, June 25th, and Lamb was running up her driveway, and he shot her at point blank range through the door.
They didn’t think she was going to make it, but she eventually did pull through and then everyone lost contact with her. I had no luck getting her, and then she called me from Florida last week. Someone had obviously got in touch with her and she read the book. She called me just to tell me “Thank you for writing the story,” because it had been somewhat forgotten. It’s not just the killings. Even 10 years after, Lamb would game the system. He would go to the Oak Ridge Facility for the Criminally Insane. At that time there was a new program for the most dangerous criminals that were incarcerated at Oak Ridge.
They had a criminal by the name of Barker, T. Elliott Barker, a psychologist who had a bizarre theory that he could cure psychopaths, he could cure psychopathy, and he did this through a combination of torture and a steady diet of methamphetamine and LSD. I go into the book in great detail on basically what his theory was on how he could cure psychopaths. In fact, there’s a really good article on my book in the Toronto Star last week that talks about the medical aspects of what went on in Oak Ridge.
In 2010, former patients of Oak Ridge facilities that were incarcerated with Mathew Lamb during that period from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘70s had a joint lawsuit against Oak Ridge, against the province of Ontario and specifically against T. Elliott Barker, who was the program director. The judge declared that they had been tortured and as of 2019, last year, it was just a matter as to what the dollar amount of the settlement was going to be. I go into that in the book, of course.
We see that type of stuff in movies and sometimes we don’t realize just how real it is.
It’s not a movie. What went on at Oak Ridge is unbelievable. When Mathew Lamb went there after he was acquitted, he was acquitted of the charge of capital murder, which was a hanging offence in 1966 and sent to Oak Ridge for an indeterminate amount of time. Now up until that time when he was sent there, Oak Ridge had never released a murderer even in its history, and prosecutors were sometimes glad to see these guys go to Oak Ridge because under Canadian law no matter what you do, no matter how horrific your crime, how many people you kill, you cannot spend more than 35 years. This is before they had the dangerous offender act. So they had to release you after 35 years no matter what you did.
So prosecutors sometimes preferred them being sent to Oak Ridge knowing they would never be released. But with the counterculture, in the mid-1960s, much like today, all of our institutions came under scrutiny. We were questioning everything, and the Canadian criminal justice system was not immune to that. Rehabilitation was in the air and Barker’s idea for curing psychopaths just fit in with the climate of the times, the changing times. There were new ways to treat these types of dangerous offenders.
Of course, it would all turn out to be hogwash because when they did a study in the early 1908s about the Oak Ridge facilities that were treating these psychopaths for that 12 to 15 year period and they found that 80% of the psychopaths who went through this program, T. Elliott Barker’s program, would re-offend. They would commit more violent crimes. Within 10 years of their release, 80% of them re-offended. Of the psychopaths at Oak Ridge that did not partake in T. Elliott Barker’s program, only 58% offended. And so you’re actually even more likely to offend if you went in the program right after Lamb was in.
And when they questioned these fellows that re-offended, they said, “Yes, the program was great. We learned what empathy is like and what we’re supposed to act like.” So they were able to better emulate or imitate empathetic feelings in order to manipulate people on the outside. So it was more of a training ground for more sophisticated psychopaths. That would be the end result of the program, but the program itself was horrific. It involved locking them in these chambers in this little room under observations for up to three weeks at a time with nothing but liquid laced with amphetamines. I go into quite detail in the book about that.
But Mathew Lamb took to the program and he became a favorite of T. Elliott Barker that the program head at the Oak Ridge Facility for the Criminally Insane and T. Elliott Barker actually before he was 20 years old, Lamb was made an actual therapeutic assistant, and Lamb would be running these very confrontational settings where you would have anywhere from five to 10 guys in a room and they would badger each other constantly trying to irritate each other to get them to get newcomers and to get reluctant patients to admit that they’re psychopaths, to admit their faults and it was called defense disruptive therapy. It’s quite detailed but it basically comes down to torture.
So you’d be bullied by your fellow patients into admitting that you’re insane, and if you didn’t admit you’re insane, they would not only badger you all the more, but they would bring in security guards. The Oak Ridge facility would, without a word being spoken, they would walk into the room, they would stand behind the patient who wasn’t playing ball and they would choke them unconscious with a towel. They would literally choke them unconscious with towels, because it left no ligature marks.
If this was to happen today, the outcome would definitely be very different. What do you think would have happened if this was something that just happened last week?
Certainly from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘70s The Oak Ridge facility became a place where you never got out to a catch, treat and release program. You know what I mean?
And so they were releasing these dangerous offenders back onto the streets, which we still do today, but I think if that trial was held today, given what we know about psychopathy. Back then, every police officer knew that psychopaths could con medical professionals very easily because back then the forensic literature on psychopathy was just in its infancy. They didn’t really understand the disorder. They didn’t know what it was, and they knew some of the symptoms and they called it psychopathy but they really didn’t understand what really drove the psychopath or what even made the psychopaths.
So they would experiment with these guys thinking that there was a cure, and of course there wasn’t, and there isn’t. But today judges and the criminal justice system is a lot more wiser to these guys and they wouldn’t get away with something like that today.
Why Watching the Devil Dance as the title?
I think it’s apt but also when I was stationed out in Northern British Columbia on Highway 16. It’s the only highway in Northern BC that runs from Prince Rupert on the coast to Prince George in the interior. It’s 700 kilometers long and today it’s called the Highway of Tears. If you drive on that highway today, there are big signs saying “serial killers patrol these highways”. It’s Highway 16 in British Columbia, and they believe there are up to 50, five zero, serial murders have occurred on that one stretch of highway from 1969 until right up until 2012.
Actually there were a couple in the last couple of years too. They believe that there were upwards of five serial killers working that highway and I was stationed on those towns in, like Terrace BC, on those highways, and one of the first victims was a young 14-year-old girl called Monica Ignas from the town of Terrace and I worked that case. I was junior and I was working on the GIS investigative squad. So I was working that homicide. When we would bring in subjects, like every town, every police officer in a rural area knows that every town has the local psychopath who’s usually one or two guys that are responsible for 50% of the crime in their town. Every time, we would catch these guys committing a particularly vile act or one that they knew would send them away for a long time, what would happen is once they were charged, they’d go before the judge and the judge would order a local psychologist to come into the jail cell and interview the suspect to see if there was a possibility that there’s a mental disorder at play here.
And these psychopaths, they knew, they understood what they had to do. We called it the devil dance. They would put on this almost like a performance art. They would put on this hyper physical display in front of these naive psychologists and they would babble on, they would make these grandiose, histrionic statements and they would switch the subject and they’d say they denied, they’d say they had amnesia, they don’t remember doing it. Then they’d say it must have been someone else. The whole idea, they would do this and they jumped around the room so that the staff psychologist would do a recommendation to the judge saying that this person suffers from a mental disorder, because if you can get a mental disorder, what that does is it eliminates concept of intent and premeditation in your crime. The difference between serving one year or serving 20 years is premeditation and intent. You know what I mean?
So these guys, these are very sick psychopaths with long criminal records. They would literally do this dance, I call it the devil dance, and us cops would watch these psychologists interviewing these guys and we knew what these guys were going to say, we knew what they were going to do, but the psychologist’s eyes would be popping out of his head. He was just in shocked at seeing this performance, and they would inevitably write down and look in the DSM-1 manual and they would find every abnormal behavior listed on the report that they would send to the judge, and of course that would be the psychopath’s intent, to inject the possibility of mental illness or insanity into their particularly horrific violent crime.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I think it gives them an inside look. I make a lot of pop cultural references to the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the role that pop culture, the radical change in popular culture in our social systems, and the ‘1960s really led to Mathew Lamb once he left Oak Ridge, going on to become a mercenary, a heroic mercenary in Africa before he was killed by friendly fire in 1976. In fact, it’s in my book, but it came close. He came one phone call away where Barbara Frum. Barbara Frum used to host The National back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and she had a show in 1976, a big news show called As It Happens. She was going to do a big article or a big program on Mathew Lamb and proclaimed him a Canadian hero fighting communists in the jungles of Africa.
Back then, it was a cold war and the Soviet Union and the United States and our allies were fighting for influence among these African nations. He was going to be proclaimed a hero, like this mercenary fighting communists when he was actually fighting for the white minority ruled regime of Rhodesia against black nationalist guerrillas that were trying to overthrow that regime.
We talk a lot about pop culture at 519, so I do have one more question. You have to tell me about being on stage with Meat Loaf.
I’m a pretty good singer. People say that. I was a French singer. I always played in bands my whole life, and I was Elizabeth Taylor’s bodyguard. In 1983, I got hired by Elizabeth Taylor. She was coming to Canada to shoot a movie with Carol Burnett in Toronto called Between Friends.
I was hired in New York to be her bodyguard because her bodyguard, he was not allowed to carry a weapon in Canada, but me, I could. So she hired me and I was her bodyguard and I lived with her for a few months.
Wow. Very cool.
While we were shooting in Toronto, she had already made a commitment to go to the Annapolis Center in Annapolis, Maryland. They were holding a big benefit. Bob Hope was there, Paul Williams, Laura Branigan, Sammy Davis Jr., Elizabeth Taylor and I was running security backstage Meat Loaf had that new Bat Out of Hell album.
He was big at that time, and so he had the dressing room next to our room where Elizabeth was. Meat Loaf comes out and he wanted to meet Elizabeth Taylor so bad. He was a little droopy, and so he says, “Come on, can you get me in? Can you introduce me to her?” So I said, “I don’t know, I’ll see what I can do.” We started talking music and I was telling him that I had done some of his tunes.
Paradise by The Dashboard Light which I had done before, so he says, “You know the tune?” I said, “Yeah, I know the harmony part. I know your lead parts, but also the harmonies,” and he says, “I’ll let you sing backup harmony if you know the harmony part.” He says, “You can come up and sing backup harmony on Paradise by the Dashboard Light if you introduce me to Elizabeth Taylor.”
So I did, and so he brought me up onstage and I sang Paradise by the Dashboard Light in front of 50,000 people. It was great.