On the morning of June 1, 2013, Venard Samson motored across the mouth of Petit-de-Grat Harbour in a small fishing boat. The narrow harbor, off the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia, is wedged between Petit-de-Grat Island, where he lives, and the wooded tail end of a larger island known as Isle Madame. By 6:30 a.m., he’d pulled one line of lobster traps and glided past a green navigational buoy. The North Atlantic, known for its rough winds and heavy swell, stretched out before him, so flat he could have passed a straight razor over its surface. “The water was right dead and calm,” he later recalled. “It was a nice damn day, clear, you could see anything.”
Then, he spotted the dark shape. It was floating along an uninhabited stretch of shoreline the fishermen all knew as Mackerel Cove. At first, Venard thought little of it; he had seen dead deer there before. But as Venard pulled closer, he discovered a banged-up fiberglass skiff, a small oceangoing vessel. It was waterlogged, its sideboards cracked and its bow barely a foot above the water line. No one was on board.
Venard circled the damaged boat three times, and discovered a floating gas tank and some green rope tangled around an anchor. The skiff’s outboard motor was missing, and its bowline, the rope that ties to the front of a boat, was apparently cut. Venard, a short man with a laborer’s physique who often speaks in an excitable squawk, picked up his radio and called the Canadian Coast Guard in Halifax, some 120 miles to the southeast. No, his GPS plotter wasn’t working. He’d have to drop a lobster trap to mark the spot. Around 6:55 a.m., the marine VHF radio cackled with a universal distress call: Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan. All mariners were requested to be on the lookout and report any sightings of a man overboard.
Venard towed the skiff back toward the wharf and handed it off to another lobsterman. In some 50 years of fishing, neither man had encountered a situation like this. But both immediately wondered what had happened to Philip “Bowser,” who often roared around in the beat-up skiff, which he christened the Midnight Slider. The missing man’s full name was Philip Joseph Boudreau, but no one called him that because another local fisherman had the same name. A bull-necked man, 43 and going soft around the waist, Philip didn’t have a license to go lobster fishing. Islanders caught glimpses of him and Brodie, his blonde Labrador, cruising around under the light of the moon.
Later that morning, a ball cap washed ashore and a pair of boots were found floating in the harbor. It seemed Philip Boudreau was gone.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police got involved and determined there had been an “altercation.” Five days later, Mounties arrested the three-man crew of a boat called the Twin Maggies. One deckhand confessed to shooting at the skiff; another later claimed the crew intentionally drowned Philip and dumped his body overboard. Crown prosecutors moved swiftly to charge the three men for a crime the press dubbed “murder for lobster.” Stories described a tranquil fishing village, a place that had not had a murder in over 20 years, rocked by violence. The insular, tight-knit community was the kind of place where spats erupted over fishing territory, many of which inevitably arose each season over missing traps, and yet somehow, people had managed to settle their own disputes.
At first, the CBC portrayed Philip as a missing fisherman. Radio reports also claimed he had a lengthy criminal record. A swirl of rumors divided islanders: One camp claimed Philip was not a fisherman at all. He was nothing more than a notorious, lifelong bully and a petty thief (they pronounce it teef) who had a reputation for stealing lobster.
“Who cares if this man has a criminal history,” another woman wrote in the comments of a local news report. “He also has family. And people who care about him. There is a human being missing or possibly dead.” Even if Philip had been a vandal and a saboteur, he didn’t act alone: Fishermen allegedly paid him, in cash and marijuana, to steal lobster and destroy traps. “They had nothing; they steal to make a buck,” one islander told me. “Fishermen was using him to play tricks.” Not a single report was called in to police.
No two stories about the missing man were the same, but there was a disconcerting fact: To watch someone die a painful death in public without intervening is heartless, but to ignore anyone overboard, anywhere on the water, is also a violation of international law and custom. Upon receiving a distress signal, crews are obligated to “proceed with all speed to render assistance.” Yet, on June 1, 2013, the morning Philip went missing, few fishermen stopped to search for him. It’s believed his body drifted away.
The so-called murder for lobster was an anomaly, but its reverberations contained a familiar ring: This was what happened when the ties that bind any close-knit community together become a gag order. It’s a story about how things can unravel anywhere — not just on a remote island off another island off the coast of Canada. But the Acadians are survivors — as one islander put it to me, “suspicious and a little superstitious.” In the first hectic days after Philip went missing, some remembered thinking it was all a big joke. “I figured he’d be hidden in the woods and in a few months there’d be a reward out,” the owner of one island store told me. “I really thought he had jumped off and was swimming ashore.”
When I visited the island earlier this year, I saw how it wore down islanders when entitled outsiders wrote headlines making them out to be brazen, lawless rogues, who, as one commentator put it, were “a half-step removed from Deliverance.” My first day there, I met one man who wore blue coveralls and a trucker’s cap at a general store. He didn’t want his name used at all. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me. Of course not. He’d known me for the lesser part of an hour. The problem was that he knew everyone — he knew many families going back at least two generations — and everybody knew him. “I want to live with the people. I don’t want to get in shit with them,” he said. “We’re all so much related it’s not even funny.”
Isle Madame (pronounced eel m’dam) lies off the southeastern coast of Cape Breton, an island tethered by a narrow, rocky causeway to Nova Scotia in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. The villages there remain Acadian strongholds, some 3,000 strong. Many families still speak a beautiful French dialect that dates to the 15th century, preserving a vestigial flicker of the early European presence in North America. An 1875 guidebook describes them as “pious Catholics and daring seamen,” who, for several centuries, lived on cod fishing. Near Petit-de-Grat Island, there’s a black granite monument in the middle of the cemetery that depicts a lone fisherman pulling up a single fish. It lists dozens of the men lost at sea. Philip Boudreau’s name isn’t there.
Philip was the youngest of the four Boudreau siblings. His grandfather had built a square saltbox house out on the windswept tip of Petit-de-Grat Island, and Philip’s father earned the family's "Bowser" nickname for his unrelenting wiliness. Philip’s big brother Gerard said, “Bowsers were always in mischief. They had nothing. They poach year-round to get what they want to live to eat, and we grew up still doing the same thing.”
The Bowser brothers definitely got into mischief: Gerard remembered one summer when they were kids when he’d shot Philip in the head. It was an accident. The two brothers were out hunting. Gerard, a jovial man who now weighs at least 300 pounds, admitted he wasn’t quite so big in the belly back then and the two of them crawled around a pond. “Hold it right there,” he told Philip, “I want to shoot that muskrat.” Gerard took a shot. It dinged a metal pipe and the bullet ricocheted straight into Philip’s temple; he then flipped into the pond. After that, their father destroyed his gun, but it was just harmless slapstick, just brothers being brothers, Gerard said. “That’s why we’re the Bowsers.”
His sister, Margaret Rose, called Philip — who never learned to read or write and eventually dropped out of school — the class clown. In the ensuing years, Philip was charged with at least 80 crimes, according to court records; islanders knew he spent many years in prison and, according to the rumor mill, once, or twice — no one could be sure — he’d escaped custody. Flaunting authorities must have resonated with some residents, who hid him, putting him up in old farmsteads or unused sheds. One time, a Mountie arrived, lights flashing, drew her gun, and assumed a shooting stance. A neighbor remembered Philip running off and up a hillside. “Stop in the name of the Queen,” she said. He turned, grabbed his crotch, and yelled back, “Tell the Queen to suck on this.”
To some, he was a kind of modern folk hero, perpetually on the run from the law. There were stories about an official who chased him straight off the end of the wharf into the frigid harbor. Philip hid under some seaweed and emerged, his middle finger held aloft. “Everybody laughing at him,” one islander told me. “When you’re watching it, it’s hilarious. That’s the thing.” A neighbor once saw Philip riding down the road on an ATV with so many marijuana plants, presumably stolen, it looked as if he were wearing a mask of leaves that revealed only his eyes. And in each one of these stories, his arrival was like a punch line. He would show up at a community dance in a village called Little Anse, islanders said, and someone would say, “Philip, you can’t be dancing alone.” “Are you fucking crazy?” he said. “I’m dancing with everybody.”
As his reputation grew, Philip caught the blame for more crimes than a single person seemed capable of committing. As Andre LeBlanc, a local resident, told me, “Every time he was released from prison, there’d be break-ins that week. Was it Philip or was it people taking advantage of when Philip was released?”
“Unfortunately, he also got the blame for what he didn’t do and kind of enjoyed the notoriety," he said. "The way his mind was.” Andre LeBlanc remembered often bumping into Philip around town and at the Corner Bridge, the local convenience store. “You staying out of trouble?” he’d ask. “Well, yeah,” Philip would reply, with a shrug, “I’m still poaching lobsters.”
Around Isle Madame, lobster is a high-stakes game. Crews are up at 4 a.m. and haul as many as 250 traps before returning around midday to sell their catch. The lobster fishing area, formally known as LFA 29, is the smallest in Nova Scotia and makes up about $6 million of Canada’s $1.7 billion lobster industry. (All figures are in Canadian dollars.) Licenses once sold for 25 cents a piece, but now fetch as much as $780,000. Lobster catches climbed in the last decade as cod stocks, the island’s founding fishery, were decimated as a result of overfishing or, depending on who you talk to, the federally sanctioned exploitation. Crews work seven days a week during lobster season, which lasts from late April through late June.
During the 2013 season, five boats set heavy wooden traps and buoys in Mackerel Cove — the place where Venard Samson found Philip Boudreau’s damaged skiff. Most mornings, the Twin Maggies, a large boat by island standards, motored around the cape. Dwayne Samson, 43, the captain, owned the boat with his wife, Carla, 37. The couple, who had twin daughters, were known as a sweet and hardworking. Carla inherited the lobster fishing license from her father, James Landry, and James worked as Dwayne’s deckhand along with one of James’ cousins, Craig Landry. Those two months probably represented the most substantial, if not the sole, portion of the family’s income. (The family declined to be interviewed for tfhis story.)
Lobster fishermen maintain informal boundary lines and some claim the Twin Maggies broke the custom that season. A lobsterman with bloodshot eyes and a leather jacket, who declined to give me his name and later threatened to shoot me if I did use it, said the Twin Maggies crew moved into Mackerel Cove after having depleted their own territory in another small harbor near Petit-de-Grat. Traditionally, the lobsterman told me, you’d set traps only in the little cove where you lived or risk losing your gear. “What you have is now is greed," he said. "It’s only because them guys are young. We were never getting into no racket. We play tricks.” Supposedly, Philip was playing these so-called tricks — poaching lobsters and sabotaging traps.
On the afternoon of Philip’s disappearance, several eyewitnesses who were questioned by the Mounties implied the Twin Maggies crashed into Boudreau’s skiff in retaliation for stealing and sinking their lobster traps. Others claimed the Twin Maggies crew went out in deep waters that morning, deeper than anyone would be setting traps, with something dragging in its wake. A truck driver saw the crew pass around a rifle on the dock. Another lobster buyer claimed the Twin Maggies crew arrived an hour later than usual with scuff marks on her normally pristine bow, though lobster boats get banged up all the time hauling traps.
Late that evening, Twin Maggies deckhand Craig Landry arrived at a small police station on Isle Madame, where he confessed that the boat had, indeed, collided with Philip’s skiff.
It was earlier that week, Craig said, when there'd been dense fog, and Philip had emerged out of nowhere: “All of a sudden, bang!” The fast little skiff slammed into a lobster boat more than twice its size. “He was hollering, ‘I’m going to fucking burn your house if you don’t fuck off from here.’” Then, Craig said, Philip circled and slammed into the Twin Maggies again.
The Mounties heard the fog story again when they interviewed James Landry, Craig’s cousin and the boat’s second-in-command. James spoke so fast, in such short bursts that he sounded out of breath. He admitted the collision had been the last time he saw Philip. “Never seen him, nothing,” James said. “I’m telling you. It was so foggy that day you could barely see the other boats.” Rather abruptly, James wondered if Philip was on the run again. “He may be hiding in the woods.” James laughed uneasily. “You don’t know...about him.”
An escape into the woods was not just any story: It’s a tragedy that's defined the Acadian people. When rural French settlers landed on the shores, they called their promised land in North America Acadie. Then, in 1755, any French-speaking Catholic settlers who refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown and the Anglican Church were forcibly deported. Over the years, exiled Acadians fled to France, to New Brunswick, and, after several stops, to the bayous of Louisiana where Acadians are now known as Cajuns. Those who refused to leave became, in effect, outlaws.
Their descendants still tell stories today about hiding out in the woods before finding a home on the rocky, remote coastline of Isle Madame. Hunters recalled eating eider ducks, sparrows, and snowbirds with little regard for the sanctioned seasons. In recent decades, the fishing communities were hit hard by the collapse of the fisheries and a 1992 federal moratorium of northern cod fishing, but sociologists say an improved standard of living today is due to Canada’s generous social welfare system. In parts of Canada, poaching lobster had once been a way of life. “Today,” as one researcher put it, “those who do it are bandits.” Except, one fisheries official said, around Isle Madame.
James Landry claimed that the Twin Maggies had lost 30 lobster traps in the days leading up to June 1, 2013, which would equal several thousand dollars, plus all the lost revenue from not having traps not in the water. On Friday afternoon, Philip’s big brother Gerard, who was also a lobsterman, called James to explain that he had seen Philip out near the Twin Maggies’s lobster traps.
There are many competing accounts, but fishermen claimed Gerard had previously paid Philip to damage boats with an ax. “Philip only bothered a certain few his brother didn’t like.” At the time, though, some believed Philip stole from his brother. One neighbor told me, “He wasn’t even talking [to] Gerard.”
When James called Gerard about the missing traps, he later recalled, he asked, “What’m I going do?”
James said Gerard told him, “There’s only one thing that you can do. Get rid of him.”
That detail emerged during James' questioning on June 7, six days after the Midnight Slider was discovered. Sgt. Brian Richardson, a slender man with a graying buzz cut and a member of the RCMP’s truth verification unit, made sure James understood he was under arrest for second-degree murder. In the videotaped recording, James sat spread-legged, wearing thick glasses and a black sweatshirt. Initially, he refused to speak, indicating that he had spoken with a lawyer. “He told me not to speak a word,” James said, “and that’s what I’m going to do. ”
For the next several hours, Sgt. Richardson sat with James. He had already tried getting him to talk by explaining that the Americans had sent up a lot of satellites since 9/11 and these would reveal the Twin Maggies’ exact location. (When the Mounties pulled the data off the boat’s GPS plotter, the last recorded plot was from May 5, 2007 — six years earlier.)
Now, Richardson called Philip a petty tyrant who never worked an honest day in his life. "He generated a situation that caused his death because he’s out there fucking around with fishermen’s livelihoods. You work hard for a living."
Richard also said that James, with his decades of experience, was effectively the boat’s skipper, the crew member in charge. "You’re the guy calling the shots out there. You got the experience."
"I don’t call the shots," James said. "I’m a deckhand. That’s all."
"You’re the guy that’s been doing this for 52 years."
"I show them the ropes."
Later that evening, Richardson said, “When you’re laying in bed, I’m sure this event has gone through your mind time and time again.”
James said, “You think?”
“Do you regret what happened? Be honest with yourself.”
“Yeah, I regret it.”
“This is something that spiraled out of control that morning?” Richardson continued. “Was he out there fooling around with your traps?”
“You’re the guy that was firing the shots at him?”
“How many shots did you fire at him?”
“Four? Whose rifle did you use?”
James said the Twin Maggies crew rounded the cape into Mackerel Cove, and that’s when he saw Philip messing around with their traps. During his confession, James said Philip threatened him multiple times. “‘I’m going to burn your house. I’m going to burn [your] shed!’ That’s what he said,” James explained. “He was in front of us, hauling our pots, waving the knife.”
James said his son-in-law, Dwayne, the boat’s captain, raced the Twin Maggies toward Philip. James then grabbed his .30-.30 rifle and fired twice — he figured the shots must have struck the outboard motor because Philip’s skiff stalled out. James watched Philip’s face go white. He took two more shots at closer range and finally pushed Dwayne out of the way, taking command of the Twin Maggies, and rammed straight over the small skiff. "I ran right over him. I wanted to destroy him. I was seeing black." James said. "After that, I never seen him."
That evening, James swore on the Bible and repeated his confession in French to another Mountie. He told them about the phone call with Philip’s brother Gerard and told them “get rid of him” meant, quite literally, “get rid of him.” James told police where to find his rifle. It was unclear at the time what portions of James’ confession were true and which portions were attempts to take the fall for his crew. Carla and Dwayne, his daughter and son-in-law, owned the boat; police determined a bullet found lodged in Philip’s boat came from a Winchester found in their house.
At the time of the interrogation, divers had found no sign of Philip’s body. But when the Mounties asked if he could be lost at sea, James said, “I pray you don’t find him, so he doesn’t get put in the cemetery. He doesn’t deserve that.”
According to reporter Aaron Beswick of the Chronicle Herald, when James watched his interrogation video in court more than a year later, he hunched over and wiped a tear from his cheek.
Dwayne Samson and James’ cousin, Craig, were also arrested for second-degree murder. Craig eventually came forward to give a much different account of what transpired on the morning of Philip's disappearance. Craig said that Dwayne spotted something in Mackerel Cove and said, “It must be Philip playing with the traps again.” (The crew spoke in French; the dialogue assembled here comes from Craig’s testimony.) Dwayne then told the crew to load his own rifle that morning. Craig said, “Dwayne specified to me, ‘Put three shells in the gun. He’s going to get a scare this time.’”
Craig loaded three bullets in the magazine and left the rifle in its case. Then, Dwayne told James to shoot and he fired three times. “After the third shot, I seen Philip fall,” Craig said. “He said, ‘Stop, James, you broke my leg.” Craig heard Dwayne tell James to get another shell. James shot again. But he didn’t stop there. James grabbed the bowline to Philip’s skiff and began towing him out of Mackerel Cove. Philip crawled to his bow. “Philip left from his engine, crawled over his benches, and made it to the front and cut his bowline.” His skiff floated free from the Twin Maggies. Then, Dwayne turned the boat around and slammed into the skiff.
Craig heard three loud thuds as the large lobster boat passed over it. By this point, Craig said he was so scared he shit his pants. When he looked up again, Philip was in the water, clinging to a gas tank, begging for his life and shouting, “Stop!”
James yelled back. “You won’t cut any more of our traps!”
Then, James grabbed a long fiberglass pole used to hook buoys, called a gaffe, and grabbed Philip by his sweater. The crew left the waterlogged skiff behind and Dwayne steamed out toward the open ocean. Philip slipped out of his sweater. In Craig’s recollection, he wore only a black T-shirt. Philip appeared to be free again, half-naked, treading water, and begging for his life. Dwayne spun the Twin Maggies around again. This time, Craig said, James hooked Philip and held his face underwater. When Craig saw Philip again, his body was limp and foam appeared around his mouth. “We come to a stop,” Craig said. “Philip rolled facedown. Dwayne said to get the anchor, said it in French. Neither of us moved. Dwayne specified to me, ‘Craig, get the anchor.’ I went over to the anchor. I tried to lift the anchor and told Dwayne that I couldn’t.”
The Twin Maggies idled as James tied rope under Philip’s arms and, according to Craig, Dwayne grabbed a four-pronged anchor and checked his depth sounder. The water was 73 feet deep.
“Are you far enough?” Dwayne asked James.
“You’re good.” James replied.
They dropped the anchor and sent the body down.
Then, almost as if nothing had happened, the Twin Maggies picked up where the crew left off. Dwayne was at the wheel. James hooked lobster buoys. The crew hauled up their traps. Craig banded lobster claws. At some point that morning, Dwayne bent over the bow to rub out scuff marks. Back at the wharf that afternoon, they unloaded their catch and washed down the boat. Craig helped Dwayne clean the rifle in his basement. Then, he went home and watched TV.
Craig appeared as the key witness in James’ trial last November, over a year later. James faced a charge of second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence with the possibility of parole. On the stand, Craig first admitted he lied when he told the fog story. He claimed it had been cooked up by the rest of the crew in the basement at Carla and Dwayne’s house several hours after the shooting and apparent drowning.
James’ defense attorney, a seasoned high-profile lawyer, pointed out dozens of inconsistencies in Craig’s testimony. The most incriminating was also the most theatrical: If Craig really shit his pants, why then had he spent hours cleaning the boat and the rifle without cleaning himself? There was a toilet on board. Was he exaggerating his testimony for a lesser charge? The physical evidence suggested the outboard motor had not been hit, but rather its propeller became entangled in rope, but the eyewitness accounts made it impossible for anyone to know if this was a deliberate lie or a sloppy recollection. (Crown prosecutors reduced the charge against Craig from second-degree murder to accessory after the fact; he claimed during the cross-examination there had not been a deal.) After a day of deliberation, a jury found James guilty of manslaughter, a lesser offense, which in Canada can range from no minimum to life in prison.
Three months later, the Crown sentenced James. Justice Joseph Kennedy, a graying judge in black robes, read a statement of facts in a cold monotone. The judge relied largely on Craig’s testimony and emphasized that each time Philip tried to escape — three times, by his count — he begged for his life. He parroted Craig’s recollection of Philip’s last words: "Please, James, don't shoot me, I didn't steal your lobsters." James, who sat in the courtroom crossing and uncrossing his arms all morning, swallowed a large gulp of air when he heard these words.
“James Landry says in his presentence report that he 'would like to fish again,’” the judge said. “But that is not likely to ever happen.” He sentenced James to 14 years and deemed the crime manslaughter at the “almost murder” extreme. James is currently appealing his sentence. A charge of accessory after the fact against Carla for allegedly helping concoct the fog story was dismissed in June. Last week, Craig pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact. Dwayne pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The two are currently awaiting sentencing. Dwayne’s lawyer told the CBC he planned to call a psychologist to testify that Philip’s bullying amounted to abuse.
On Jan. 30 of this year, at 6 in the morning after James was sentenced, a dozen men sat around the back of a gas station, drinking coffees, the paper spread out on their tables: “Cape Breton Fisherman Sentenced To 14 Years for Manslaughter.” The Tea Room, as they call it, is a hub for gossip — all sorts of speculation that would never be admissible in court. The men initially claimed they weren’t free to speak, not only to outsiders like me but also to each other. “I’m a local guy,” a former school principal, told me. “I know 85 to 90 people living on this island and maybe even more people know who I am. People aren’t as free to express themselves. And people have different opinions.”
I asked, “And you’re all related on top of that?”
Another guy laughed. “We all know who our mom is. But we don’t know who our dad is.”
But quickly, the group let loose on the failings of the authorities: the Crown, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“If the RCMP and the DFO would’ve done their job, it would never end up like the way it did.”
“I think they were told to leave it alone.”
“Could have been.”
As the morning wore on, there emerged a refrain: James’ trial established his guilt, but the Crown failed to render a plausible motive. The view that this was “murder for lobster” was deeply flawed. If lobstermen killed each other over missing traps, there’d be murders all the time. This had been the first in 20 years. The men claimed they knew James and knew he had a temper, but it seemed to them his crew had given too little forethought to their actions.
“If it had been planned, they wouldn’t have been coming ashore with the rifle. They would have shot him during deer season.”
“It started out as a warning shot.”
“Once they started shooting, the Benadryl is into you.” (I took this to mean adrenaline, but these types of malapropisms are common.)
“It’s a sin. James, I got no use for him. He should’ve gotten 114 years. I mean it from my heart.”
“James got 14. The judge is leaving the impression that he’s the one responsible.”
“I hope it does.”
No one I met thought that this had been a fight over lobster. Some suspected it was about decades of small-town bullying. One afternoon, I overheard a man suggest the murder was understandable and justifiable. “He is where he should be,” he said. An older man, who heard the conversation, chimed in, “That’s the attitude everybody had. It’s sad for three people who are hardworking people to go to jail for a goddamn hoodlum that’s not worth a pinch of shit.”
Others apparently shared the opinion in private: Anonymous emails published on Contrarian, a Cape Breton blog that covered the dispute arising from the “murder for lobster,” made the reasons for privacy clear. A person claiming to be a former resident said, “I would never want anyone to know who I am or that I feel relieved this man is no longer living. Why? It is very simple. Some people would retaliate and torment those people to no end. People still don’t feel safe.”
The real question was just how many others were involved, including members of Philip's own family — especially his brother Gerard. “Yeah, I hear that more than once,” a neighbor said. “‘Shoot him, get rid of him.’ That’s the whole fucking family.” But if that’s what the family said — and Gerard did not deny it — many others let it slide. As another islander told me, the Bowsers “might have even foresaw this happening. They just wished that it hadn’t been so gruesome.”
It irked islanders that Gerard had never been called to testify during James’ trial despite the allegation that he called James the night before his brother’s disappearance and supposedly said, “Get rid of him.” The prosecutor’s office told me the evidence they had against James was sufficient to prove the case — without confirming this bit of hearsay.
Gerard “Bowser” Boudreau kept his lobster boat behind a locked chain-link fence near the harbor edge. His house was not far from the water and, when we met, Gerard sat in a wheelchair drinking beers. By way of introduction, he pointed to his left leg, explained he’d lost it to diabetes and stopped fishing two years ago, and wiggled his prosthetic shin. “It’s half-fiberglass,” he said, “just like my boat.”
When I asked about the rumors, Gerard was adamant: He knew James was about to do something to his brother, he just didn’t know what. “I never thought of nothing,” Gerard said. “I thought they [would] do something to the engine. I didn’t think it was going to turn out like this.” Earlier he’d told me, “It was harmless.”
Gerard repeated what he’d told others: He had a clear view of Mackerel Cove from his house. He’d watched the shooting unfold. It angered Gerard that there was nothing the police could do. No, he had not paid Philip to steal or sink lobster traps. Besides, Philip wasn’t out stealing lobster the day James shot and drowned him, or, as Gerard put it, “made him drink water.”
“He wasn’t hauling no gear. He was going out for a sail, a cruise. They shot him anyway. I seen everything.” The problem was Gerard’s wife was out on his lobster boat. He was stuck at home. “Where do you go with no leg? My boat was gone. I tried to call. No reception. Couldn’t get reception. This happened right here. It’s pretty hard. I call my wife. When I got a hold of them, it was almost 12 o'clock. If I had my two legs, it wouldn’t have happened.”
I met Gerard and his family twice. As he downed a six-pack of beer, he made it sound like the Bowsers had laughed off Philip’s problems, almost as if he wished they wished his problems would simply go away. Only he didn’t put it quite like that. He told me that decades earlier, Philip had been given a psychiatric assessment in prison. The day the prison officials called, a bunch of islanders had been drinking and shooting ducks, out of season. Gerard’s father picked up the phone. Gerard said the conversation went something like this:
“I’d like to speak with Mr. Boudreau.”
“We’ve assessed your son for the last 30 days. Absolutely nothing wrong with Philip.”
“If there’s nothing wrong with my son, then there’s something wrong with you.” Then, Gerard said his father “hung up in his face. Never called again.” Gerard burst out laughing and adjusted his stomach.
In a barren, windswept headland further out on Petit-de-Grat Island, I went to visit the rest of the original Bowser residence. Philip used to sleep there, on a mattress on the kitchen floor. The family’s back bathroom light had been left on for months in the hopes that he would return home. Margaret Rose’s daughter kept Brodie, Philip’s Labrador, who still searched along the shoreline when the Bowsers said the word “daddy.”
I had barely stepped out of my car when Philip’s half-brother Kenneth came charging out of the house. At first, I thought he had a handgun, but it was just a flip phone, which he slapped to his ear. “Listen buddy, get the fuck out of here,” he said, shouting. “Quit aggravating people.”
Maybe Gerard was right, after all. His parents weren’t well. And he’d warned me: “If Kenneth’s there, he’ll tell you to fuck off. Since they kill Philip, he’s not the same.”
Some months later, I finally reached Margaret Rose, Philip’s sister, by phone. She had given a teary victim-impact statement at the sentencing.
What I heard instead were rumors that she used to turn Philip in. She denied having ever received any reward money, but admitted to me that she had called police on Christmas Eve in 1995, or 1996. Philip was on the run robbing homes. She confronted Philip and sat him down. “You know what?” she said. “I called the cops. The house is surrounded.”
“You know what, Margaret Rose? I was tired anyway.”
When the Mounties took him away, she said, “I love you. Merry Christmas.”
This was not a moral failing, she said, but rather something too few others had done: She had stepped in to help a deeply troubled man. “People were laughing it off and helping him out. Some people, they didn’t have the balls to do anything,” she said. “Come on, wake up! If you see someone beating someone to death, what are you going to do, stand there and laugh it off? Come on! You got to do something about the situation.”
She went on: “We had our share of problems with Philip, but he was still my brother. He was still a good person. If he didn’t have that bipolar he would’ve been an awesome, awesome, awesome, person. The only thing that screwed him over was his mental illness. He was sick."
In all the stories about the “murder for lobster,” only one seems to have reported that Philip had an alleged mental illness. In the Globe and Mail, Silver Donald Cameron, an author who lives on Isle Madame, wrote that Philip had been “diagnosed as bipolar.” Cameron told me that he had gotten the information from Margaret Rose. She told me Philip had been diagnosed during another one of his stays in prison, when he was 17.
Canadian privacy laws seal criminal records for 20 years after a person’s death. There was no mention of mental illness during the trial. Few islanders seemed to know about a diagnosis, or, if they did, their attitudes about it were complicated at best. Perhaps their actions best betrayed their attitudes: People knew Philip had a difficult upbringing. That he was tough. That when he had no work and no money and nonetheless found a way to survive. James Landry, the man convicted in his death, allegedly bought lobster from him for an out-of-season feast. Others paid him to watch their crab boats. Some islanders had helped him evade manhunts. Many close neighbors passed off routine threats of violence as innocuous. Perhaps it is indifference that minimized and normalized these deeper, more serious problems.
Margaret Rose made the point that everybody knew not to take Philip's threats seriously. “Philip, how many times did he threaten people? ‘I’m going to burn your house down.’ And, ‘I’m going to smash your window.’ He’s never, ever done anything like that. He’s told he’d kill us.” She laughed. “We knew he didn’t mean that.” She said, “If we wanted him dead, we would have killed him a long time ago.” She laughed again. “Not literally. That was Philip. We’d been living like that all our lives. We knew it was a mental disease that he had. Take the good with bad. You can’t kill everybody that’s sick. He got failed all his life.”
For Isle Madame, an island that appeared almost like a fantasy of small-town life — the Acadians that time forgot, fishing on the far fringe of the continent — but the ways that everyone knotted together had become a sort of trap. In a way, it snared everyone, all of whom, in the end, failed to come to the aid of a drowning man. It wasn’t just a body that floated away. It was that everyone refused to step in and help, and, perhaps for good reason, they’d obfuscated efforts by authorities. In a way, he’d been struggling to stay afloat for 43 years.
At least that’s how Andre LeBlanc put it to me one afternoon earlier this year. Andre had grown up on the island and built a home on his grandfather’s land, near a cemetery where Philip’s body would have been buried. The windows of his house framed the fishermen’s memorial; his grandfather’s name was among the names of those lost at sea.
The dominating ambience of bewilderment made Isle Madame’s grief difficult to detect. Many refused to discuss the tragedy at all. Andre was the only person I met who thought carving Philip’s name on the fishermen's memorial might bring some much-needed closure. He wanted to confront the problem instead of just moving on. “He wasn’t mentally at the same level. Whether through justice or social services, it was never addressed. As a community, we laughed,” Andre said. “This was kind of an ongoing joke with Philip.”
In early August 2013, more than two months after Philip had gone missing, a procession of cars parked down at the base of Petit-de-Grat Harbour for his memorial service at St. Joseph’s, a little white church that overlooks the wharf and all the fishing boats. “He was let down on so many levels,” Andre said. “When the church opened its doors for his memorial service, the church was packed. A lot of that was guilt. When that man was released from prison, a lot of doors closed. People were genuinely scared of him. That’s the only life he knew. Because nobody intervened.”
No one could agree on why so many people attended his funeral: Some believed it was out of compassion; others said it was the fear of not being seen. The men at the Tea Room drinking coffee disagreed about whether the island was divided. The next lobster season came and went. The vandalism and lobster poaching continued, and, as many around town would discuss, even more lobster traps sank to the bottom of the harbor.