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Full parole for murderer who once orchestrated a helicopter prison break in Agassiz

Robert Lee Ford in an undated photo. - The Province
Robert Lee Ford in an undated photo.
— image credit: The Province

By Douglas Quan, The Province

One-time mid-Vancouver Island drug boss Robert Lee Ford once reportedly boasted, “I own this valley.”

He laundered his drug money through a trucking company he set up called Greed Incorporated.

That braggadocio culminated in 1990, when serving time for the first-degree murder of a drug enemy, Ford orchestrated Canada’s first prison break using a helicopter.

Despite his capacity for “extreme violence,” his ability to manipulate others, and the “audacity” of his short-lived escape, parole board officials now say they no longer believe Ford, 58, poses a risk to society and have granted him full parole.

“Your institutional behaviour was poor for many years and you incurred many institutional charges. Your behaviour demonstrated a lack of respect for authority and the law,” parole officials wrote in a decision late last month.

“However, file content indicates that you took serious stock of your life and its limited potential. Reportedly, you then made the conscious decision to make positive changes in your attitude and lifestyle.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a guy who, in his high school yearbook, wrote that he was an “ambitious gardener” — code for his marijuana growing.

According to a 1990 profile in the Vancouver Sun, Ford’s weed sales turned into large cocaine deals. His drug operation allowed him to amass a collection of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a yacht and an expensive four-by-four truck.

He had designs on joining the Hells Angels and the Mafia.

Wayne Kachur, an RCMP investigator with the Courtenay detachment, said at the time Ford “was definitely identified as a sociopath. Psychopathic and a sociopath.”

His daring escape from maximum-security Kent Institution in Agassiz on June 18, 1990, was straight out of a Hollywood movie.

Ford was serving a sentence for the slaying of Gary Hardy, a minor player in the Island drug scene, outside a Comox hotel. He had been shot seven times.

That morning, a masked accomplice approached helicopter pilot Fred Fandrich at the Hope, B.C., airport and ordered him to fly to the federal prison.

As they approached the prison grounds, the gunman opened fire on a guard who was patrolling in his pickup truck. Ripley Kirby was hit in the leg but survived.

Ford and another prisoner, David Thomas, who was serving time for robbery, ran from the soccer field and scaled a fence to get to the chopper.

Other prisoners in the yard reportedly cheered as the helicopter lifted off with the escapees onboard.

Recalling the helicopter hijack a couple of years ago, Fandrich said he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to him once they landed.

“Do I get a bullet in the head?”

Fortunately, when they landed near Harrison Lake, his captors simply tied him up.

After a two-day manhunt, police recaptured Ford and Thomas on an island on Harrison Lake.

It wasn’t Ford’s first jailbreak. In 1988, while awaiting trial, Ford and two other prisoners at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre in Saanich, used a hydraulic jack to pry apart the bars on their cell windows. They were caught a week and a half later.

“You lived a lawless lifestyle for a long period of time,” parole officials wrote in their recent assessment. “You associated with members of criminal associations and drug dealers. While you were in jail you continued to do so.”

But in deciding to grant Ford full parole, officials noted that his behaviour had been satisfactory since 2009, earning him a transfer to a minimum-security institution in 2010 and day-parole release in 2015.

Officials noted he had completed all required programming and counselling, found full-time employment and was in the process of refurbishing a houseboat. “Your motivation, accountability and reintegration potential have been assessed as high,” parole officials wrote.

Ford’s parole release isn’t without conditions. The parole board said Ford is not to associate with anyone involved in criminal activity. He also cannot engage in any overnight marine travel without permission from a parole supervisor.

“These special conditions are both necessary and reasonable in your case to reduce your risk and to protect the public. They are imposed for the duration of your sentence, which in your case is life.”

According to the parole board, 97 per cent of offenders released on full parole and 99 per cent of offenders on day parole complete their sentences without re-offending.

Kachur, now retired from the RCMP, declined to comment Friday on Ford’s new status.

Fandrich, who is in the process of retiring from his piloting career, said if parole officials are OK with releasing him, “I’ll trust their judgment.”

“I just don’t want (Ford) to come see me.”

With files from the Vancouver Sun

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