Issue 3, April, 1998
Gay Bashing Or Sex Gone Wrong?
Did Danny McIlwaine murder Father Eling or was it a case of accidental death? McIlwain talks for the first time about that fateful night in 1993. An exclusive interview with Richard Burnett.
Danny McIlwaine was sucking on a crack pipe and drinking rum punch the night Anglican priest Warren Eling asked him for a blowjob. When concerned parishioners from St. James the Apostle Church called on Father Eling the next day -- Nov. 9, 1993 -- they found the naked cleric dead in his Montreal home, his wrists tied by his underwear to his brass bedstead and a yellow bathrobe belt wrapped around his neck five times.
McIlwaine, a crack-addicted hustler Eling had picked up in Montreal's Gay Village, was gone, as were some of Eling's computer equipment, his VCR and a CD player that McIlwaine subsequently sold for $270. McIlwaine also stole Eling's Chevette, which he later abandoned by Lake Ontario en route to Toronto.
After his arrest, McIlwaine claimed that Eling's death by erotic asphyxia -- when the body is deprived of oxygen, resulting in reflexive erections and heightened ejaculations -- was an accident. "Warren was a nice guy and this is the hardest part to swallow -- knowing that I never meant this man any harm," McIlwaine says now. "And it bothers me that people actually think that I [deliberately killed him]. I had no intentions of hurting him. I was just doing what he wanted to do."
A jury found McIlwaine guilty of first-degree murder barely six months after Eling's sensational sex killing made national news. The case's lurid side was also compounded by the media frenzy surrounding the Quebec Human Rights Commission's public hearings into violence against homosexuals. The hearing had begun just days after Eling's murder.
The Quebec court of appeal reversed McIlwaine's May '94 first-degree murder conviction, ruling that Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Boilard had misdirected the jury by listing sequestration as a condition for first-degree murder, when Father Eling was not held against his will.
The appellate court then ordered a retrial. With gay activists screaming for justice following a largely unresolved string of gay murders in Montreal, and after Anglican Bishop Andrew Hutchison -- Eling's boss -- testified during the hearings that his church's teachings had given societal homophobia "moral force," the CBC and NBC's Dateline came calling. But McIlwaine refused all interviews about that night. Until now.
McIlwaine's StoryON A HAZY EARLY DECEMBER DAY last year in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Archambault Prison -- with its layers of barbed-wire fences and guard towers -- a guard and a prison official led Danny McIlwaine, 35, into a conference room that looked more like it belongs to a blue-chip corporation. There, for the next hour -- two trials and more than four years after Eling's murder -- McIlwaine squarely blamed himself for the mess his life has become. "All the doors were open to do whatever I wanted to do, but I kept taking shortcuts in school," said McIlwaine, who dropped out in his senior year at LaSalle Protestant High School (now Riverside Academy) after years of hanging out with the tough "in" crowd, drinking beer and smoking grass.
"People who were thrown out of other high schools ended up in mine," he continues. "I was well known and well respected in school. When you're into the things I was, it came with a certain aura of toughness, and when you had to fight to defend yourself, you did."
In fact, he was charged with grievous assault as early as 1984 for beating up an old high-school buddy on downtown Ste-Catherine Street. "We exchanged words, he pulled a knife and stabbed me and so I really lost it," McIlwaine recounted. He was later fined $400.
After dropping out of high school in 1979, McIlwaine managed to hold down a steady job doing manual and clerical duties at the Royal Bank's Montreal Data Centre. But in 1988, he quit a few months after being assigned to a night shift, which interfered with his family life and nights out on the town in some of Montreal's rougher bars, notably the Annex on Bishop Street, the Warehouse in 20/20 University and the Moustache on Lambert-Closse.
"I've got one or two friends from my childhood who're still friends," McIlwaine said, but admitted most of his buddies dropped out of sight after his arrest. "I can't say they used me, because it was a two-way street. I'm no longer part of that lifestyle. No more sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. All I was doing was getting girls and getting high. I worked all week and partied all weekend. I was hanging out with the boys I knew since I was 15 and still doing the things I did when I was 15. And if there was any trouble, you never backed down."
McIlwaine's wife -- whom he'd met in 1984 and requested remain anonymous -- quickly became the only person with some measure of control over his life. Yet by the time his daughter was born in 1986, it was clear McIlwaine was caught in a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse.
"There were the occasional bouts of cocaine binging in the '80s, and by the time I started working at the Royal Bank the price [of coke] had dropped from roughly $200 a gram in the '70s to $80," McIlwaine explained. "It was never really a bad habit -- I'd stop for months and months. But if it was available, I'd never say no."
By the summer of '93, after five years going from job to menial job, McIlwaine was nearing the end of his rope. He'd driven his Mustang into a tree after a night of boozing, began skimming more and more lines from the bags of cocaine he was dealing and became addicted to crack cocaine after "a delivery one night [when] a girl showed me how to freebase. She hooked me up with someone who sold coke precooked so I could smoke it." After the crack started, his wife left with their then-seven-year-old daughter. McIlwaine was penniless.
During my interview with McIlwaine, I handed him a letter I received from a reader claiming to be a McIlwaine family friend. The letter was spurred by HOUR magazine's coverage last January 1997 of the second murder trial, and it supported McIlwaine's claim that Eling's death was accidental -- stressing that McIlwaine is himself homosexual. For McIlwaine's benefit, I pointed to the highlighted passage: "[Danny's] been doing drugs on and off for years, has a few drinks, party down, hang out with similar friends, get short jobs, etc. Also, as it turned out, Danny's gay. I believe he wasn't open about that from the beginning but certainly was as time went on. So he, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, was leading this sort of îirresponsible' [double] life."
But when I asked McIlwaine if the passage is accurate, he flatly denied it: "This is bullshit.
"It came down to a choice," he explained. "I needed to get some dope and I had nothing left to sell. What was I going to do? Hold up a store, or sell my ass? So I hit the street. My pride was in the toilet anyway."
Death by AsphyxiationMcILWAINE CLAIMS ELING GAVE HIM his home telephone number after the priest picked him up the first time. And on Nov. 8, 1993, the night of Eling's murder, a desperately broke McIlwaine called him. "He picked me up, we scored some crack and watched some pornographic videos at his place," McIlwaine says. "Sex was his reason for my being there and coke was my reason for being there. Then we went to the bank machine and got some more dope. Back at his place he suggested the erotic asphyxiation."
With Eling's hands tied to his brass bedstead with his underwear, McIlwaine gave the priest a blowjob as he pulled on the bathrobe entwined around Eling's neck. "He had told me he would tell me to stop or he would kick," McIlwaine says. "He would let me know if something was going on, but he never moved. And at that point he was dead or very close to dying."
Crown prosecutor Lori Weitzman maintained during both trials that McIlwaine murdered Eling because he needed the money. She charged in her closing statements that a crack-addled McIlwaine knew exactly what he was doing: "Danny McIlwaine is not a novice -- he's an addict," she told the eight-woman, four-man jury last February. "He's capable of smoking 28 rocks [of crack cocaine] in an evening and on this night he smoked six." But McIlwaine insists he fled Eling's apartment in a panic. "I didn't think anyone would believe me, and [crack addicts] are paranoid, even when nothing's happening," he says. If he'd intended to rob Eling, McIlwaine adds, he would have done so without killing him. Still, Weitzman charged during the trial that McIlwaine is a chronic and facile liar.
"Furthermore," adds veteran activist Michael Hendricks, "Mr McIlwaine was apprehended. He did not turn himself in after robbing a cadaver that he had murdered. He was arrested because of brilliant police work, and after a costly but thorough investigation he was convicted by a solid Crown preparation. "He says he didn't turn himself in because gays were crying for blood. I was there and it wasn't just gays. It was also Bishop Hutchison."
McIlwaine's lawyer, Salvatore Mascia, said last winter he's confident his client received a fair trial. As he pointed out then, however, the longer the jury deliberates, the better the odds are for the prosecution. On Feb. 21, 1997, the exhausted jury found McIlwaine guilty of second-degree murder after four days of deliberation.
McIlwaine, who's been behind bars since December 1993, was sentenced to life in prison but is eligible for day parole after seven years and full parole after 10. He's close to completing his high school studies at Archambault, where he's also learning to control his personal demons so he can one day cope on the outside. "The partying should have stopped when high school stopped," McIlwaine says. "It shoulda stopped when I met my wife. It shoulda stopped when my daughter was born. But I was living the double life, wanting the best of both worlds, and it can't be done."
Saving Grace: Protecting the Reputation of Father Elingby Richard Burnett
WITH THE QUEBEC COURT OF APPEAL'S reversal of Danny McIlwaine's May '94 first-degree murder conviction and the appellate court's order of a retrial, gay activists expected another lurid assault on Father Eling's reputation and lifestyle by the defence. Even Bishop Hutchison was concerned. "There is no question of my commitment in the name of justice for the gay community," he told me on the eve of the second trial, "and there's no question the [first] trial was a most embarrassing besmirching of a priest. I don't want to see injustice done to anyone."
Veteran activist Michael Hendricks, meanwhile, says he and fellow activist Douglas Buckley-Couvrette, until recently spokesperson for the anti-violence committee of La Table de concentration des gais et lesbiennes du Grand Montreal, wanted "to ensure Eling was not put on trial and that his behavior did not become the reason for his murder."
McIlwaine, for his part, calls Buckley-Couvrette a "clown" out to crucify him as a homophobic gaybasher. "I see this guy on the news with a coffin screaming for blood for this heinous murder," McIlwaine recalls. "Now wait a minute, it wasn't a murder╔ and don't use my situation as a soapbox about your cause."
Buckley-Couvrette is more equivocal these days. "Perhaps it may not have been a hate crime," he says. "But either he hates himself, he hates the homosexual act, or he hated Eling. And the jury found him guilty not once, but twice."
Hendricks emphasizes that he and Buckley-Couvrette were carefully watched by Justice Fraser Martin and the prosecution. "They didn't want us there [in the courtroom], fearing our presence might distract the jury from the essential facts of the murder," Hendricks explains. "The whole story about gay murders is they're always told by the murderer. Therefore, what happened in the moments that led to the murder, which is what this is all about, are always presented in terms that are socially and morally loaded. I mean, Father Eling was described as a perverted homosexual.
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