Canadian News

The verdict that left a mystery

Janet Cotton January 15 1979
Canadian News

The verdict that left a mystery

Janet Cotton January 15 1979

The verdict that left a mystery

Montreal

Canada’s longest and strangest kidnapping-extortion case brought a conviction last week, but it was a verdict that left more questions unanswered than it resolved. Claude Valence was found guilty of attempting to extort $l-million ransom from the employers of Charles Marion, loans manager of a Sherbrooke Caisse Populaire. But the jury found Valence not guilty of kidnapping Marion, which did nothing to dis-

solve persistent but never proven public suspicions that Marion was an accomplice to his own abduction and 182-day detention in a rat-infested hole in the ground 40 miles from his home. Taken Aug. 6,1977, he was freed after his family negotiated and paid a $50,000 ransom, but it was not until eight months later that Valence was apprehended. Valence never denied trying to extort

the $1 million, but his lawyers fought the kidnapping charge by arguing that Valence believed Marion to be a willing victim.

Though no witness other than the convicted Valence suggested Marion was an accomplice, it often seemed that it was Marion himself who was being tried. Well exploited by defence lawyers, the suspicions hanging over the 59-year-old Marion were a legacy of rumors inspired by police investigators frustrated by their inability to solve the crime. During the detention, off-duty cops called the abduction a “hoax” and alleged that Marion himself was heard over CB radio directing an aborted ransom drop. The rumors provided a convenient, if perhaps slanderous, excuse for the embarrassing failure of the Quebec police force to find Marion who, in a letter written from his cavern, complained the police rumors picked up by reporters had “broken my heart and spirit.” Marion is now suing two journalists for libel.

The 13-week trial was marked by the presentation of the sometimes sickening proof of his detention, including the clothing he wore throughout, and empty bottles, evidence of the regular gin ration supplied by his captors. The strangest appearance in the witness box of the Montreal courtroom was that of Power Corporation magnate Paul Desmarais, who was called by the prosecution to testify that he had not conspired with the accused to stage his own kidnapping. Desmarais’ name—and those of seven members of Montreal’s wealthy Bronfman family—were found on an alleged list of kidnap targets drawn up by Valence. Since Desmarais had not consented to be kidnapped, the prosecution implied, there was no rea-

son to suspect Marion of having done so.

The trial did little to polish the image of police whose competence was in doubt throughout the investigation. Public derision of the provincial police force bordered on hilarity when, on two separate occasions, the kidnappers won Keystone Kops-style chases involving 250 officers poised to snare them during attempts to drop ransom payments. Both times, police had deceived not only the abductors but the credit union and the Marion family by secretly substituting for suitcases containing $350,000 in ransom money, identical ones packed with bundles of brochures on road safety. But the most disturbing and still

unexplained police action was the delivery to the Marion home of a fake, police-authorized ransom threat intended to confuse the abductors. Later, a legitimate communiqué sent to a Sherbrooke television station was treated lightly by police who dismissed the kidnapping as “a family affair.” In the end, Marion’s son managed to deliver $50,000 to a drop on an isolated country road and 24 hours later his father emerged from the woods, filthy, exhausted and 30 pounds lighter.

Police never did break the case: more than eight months after Marion’s return, an off-duty, out-of-town prison guard recognized escaped convict Michel De Varennes in a Sherbrooke discotheque. De Varennes was arrested and then linked to the Marion affair by his possession of a $20 bill that had been part of the ransom payment. It was he who implicated Valence (whom he identified as “the boss”), Valence’s wife and two others. Aggravating police embarrassment was the fact that De Varennes was a prominent local dandy who, only weeks before his arrest, had won a disco dance contest. Worse, during the search for Marion, the small-time John Travolta frequented the same bars as police and journalists, keeping well informed on the state of the investigation. Later when Marion’s 21-year-old daughter, Rosaline, arrived for the preliminary hearing against Valence, she saw De Varennes in the court and exclaimed to a friend, “My God—I danced with him while they were holding my father prisoner.”

Marion sat through most of the jury trial and, though he collects his full salary, has not returned to his job. He was constantly escorted by police guards and his psychiatrist who describes him as “a man marred for life.” Another certain victim is 39-year-old Aline Yergeau, his petite, chestnut-haired secretary and former mistress who had been with Marion when he was abducted from his secluded chalet. Bound to the cottage toilet, she was discovered 20 hours later by her lover’s wife and, in court, shyly revealed that the kidnappers had to fetch Marion’s pants from his van. He had removed them during the drive to the chalet because, she said, “it was a very hot night.”

Claude Valence must wait in detention until Jan. 19 for sentencing, while the four other persons still facing charges in the same case (including his wife) await word of their trial dates. Meanwhile, the cavern that served as Marion’s prison near the crossroads village of Gould still attracts the curious, but nothing like the hordes that descended after the hole’s discovery last summer, prompting local politicians to ask that it be declared a historic site.

Janet Cotton