“It was too bad a prisoner had to give justice, because Canada doesn’t give justice to people like that.”Former councillor John Huke
One of Canada’s most notorious criminals, who once called Burnt River home, was found dead in his prison cell Saturday (Feb. 26).
Sixty-three-year-old Roch Theriault, former cult leader of the Ant Hill Kids commune, located outside Burnt River from the early 1980s until 1989, was involved in a fight at his correctional centre in Dorchester, New Brunswick early Saturday morning and died of his injuries in his cell, according to RCMP Sergeant Greg Lupson.
He called himself Moses, but a more apt description would be the Savage Messiah as he was dubbed by a 1993 book and 2002 TV movie of the same name, considering his iron-fisted leadership of the group, which included widespread torture and many forms of emotional and sexual abuse.
For longtime Burnt River resident John Huke, who was a member of council at the time the cult was active in the area, Mr. Theriault’s death was simply delayed justice.
“It was too bad a prisoner had to give justice, because Canada doesn’t give justice to people like that,” he said. He believes more could have been done sooner to put a stop to the cult and its depraved leader.
Burnt River was not the commune’s first stop; they were active in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce and Saint-Jogues in Quebec in the early ‘80s until their leader was convicted of criminal negligence in the death of one of his follower’s children and of cutting off another’s testicles and they moved to Ontario in 1982.
Once the group moved to the area, they established themselves on several acres of land in the woods, building several cabins and furniture for themselves and growing vegetables to sell along with handicrafts at the side of the road.
Within a few years, local agencies began getting reports from concerned citizens, particularly based on the fact that winter was coming and the compound had no hydro, said Bob Galipeau, the first local CAS officer to venture onto the commune around the summer of 1984, when there were roughly 18 children, eight women and several other men beside Mr. Theriault.
“When we first went there we were quite impressed by the workmanship,” he said of the commune, which was originally described as having similar values to the hippy-movement with religious overtones.
Mr. Galipeau went into the out-of-the-way commune with several police officers, a Ministry of Community and Social Services representative, a nurse and another of his colleagues with four-wheelers.
“As soon as the vehicles arrived, we could see all the people scatter...and the only person who emerged was Roch,” Mr. Galipeau said, who described the cult leader as cautiously polite.
Upon first inspection, including the nurse checking over the children, all seemed to be relatively well.
“They seemed healthy enough at that point. We didn’t have any immediate concerns.”
In spite of what they saw, Mr. Galipeau said something just didn’t feel right and his agency and others in the area did everything they could to learn about the group’s past in Quebec and keep tabs on them to be sure everyone was safe to the best of their abilities.
“You need to have a reason to take those kids away, you can’t just go on a gut feeling,” he said adding that in the commune set-up, it was very difficult to get information.
During one particularly harrowing visit, Mr. Galipeau said one of the cult’s followers had to cut through a farmer’s fence for access since the group’s land was surrounded by other people’s land. The group member explained to Mr. Galipeau - in broken English - that they had to be careful, because the farmer whose property they were cutting through had shot at them before.
It wasn’t until about a year later, when CAS had enough evidence and reports of atrocities like Mr. Theriault holding babies over a cistern to scare their mothers into doing what he wanted, sexual abuse and clipping the ends off the toes of people who disobeyed, to go to the commune and remove the children. Around that time, a baby also died at the commune. The death was initially believed to be because of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but is now believed to have happened after the child was left out in the cold in a wheelbarrow and froze to death, Mr. Galipeau said.
The mothers were given the chance to leave with their children, an opportunity most didn’t take.
“Most of them decided not to because they were scared of him. They were scared he would haunt their dreams and come after them and kill them because they were brainwashed,” Mr. Galipeau said.
“Basically he tortured everybody to get control over them, which was his undoing in the end,” said Mr. Galipeau, adding that Mr. Theriault believed he had magical powers and had delusions of medical expertise, particularly when he was drinking.
Looking back knowing what he does now, he said there are things he wishes he had done differently, like trying to interview the children in school more, outside of the watchful gaze of Mr. Theriault.
“We tried to do the best we could with what we had and what we anticipated might happen,” Mr. Galipeau said.
“A lot of the information came out afterward, we didn’t know what we were dealing with at the time.”
Mr. Huke was aware of the group’s questionable background and remembers groups of cult members coming into Burnt River dressed in large overcoats with bags sewn into them, and stealing from local stores.
“You might have been having tea with them in your kitchen and they’re stealing from you in the next room.”
Before the sinister nature of the cult came to light, Mr. Huke said many locals were not as wary as he was.
“They probably though they were a great bunch.”
He remembers one candidates’ meeting in which he made negative comments about the group, and locals stepping up in support of them.
Another time, he said he and a group of friends were snowmobiling in the area of the commune.
“We got near his place and he [Mr. Theriault] got right out there with a shot gun to keep us away. He would fire shots in the air to keep people away. So you have to wonder how many people went in there and never came back out,” Mr. Huke said, adding that there has always been lingering questions about what crimes happened in those woods that were never brought to light.
In spite of this misguided trust, when the gory and often disturbing details of exactly what went on at the commune began trickling out into the public consciousness, Mr. Huke said the whole town was shocked.
“It was a real surprise when they really learned the truth,” he said, adding that the horrific news brought the small community together in a strange way, with neighbours looking out for each other.
For Mr. Galipeau, Mr. Theriault’s death is a mixed blessing, which, for some of his victims, will bring back old memories and for others will provide a measure of relief.
The bizarre story of Mr, Theriault and his followers has been carried on in several books as well as two movies.
In 1993 Mr. Theriault was sentenced to life in prison for the gruesome murder of his wife Solange Boilard who was yet another victim of his “medical” intervention after he disembowelled her with a kitchen knife when she had what is believed to be appendicitis. Her remains were found in late October 1989, shortly after he was arrested for assault after amputating the arm of another follower Gabrielle Lavallee.
Police are considering Mr. Theriault’s death a homicide, Sgt. Lupson said, and a 59-year-old inmate was arrested, but later released.
“The investigation is ongoing and to date no charges have been laid,” he said, adding that he expects the man will face charges shortly