In 1942, Gwyn “Jocko” Thomas went to Cobourg, Ontario, to cover the murders of a private detective named William Wallace Cunningham and his assistant, Agnes Fardella. The detective specialized in staging adulterous events for clients who wanted divorce papers. The pair had been shot in the middle of the night on the side of Highway 2, a few yards outside city limits. By the time Thomas got to the story, the case was stale. The police had no leads, nor did reporters. But Thomas and Toronto Daily Star photographer Fred Davis needed a front-page story, so they bought a bundle of posies and tried to coax Fardella’s husband into kneeling at her grave for a photo. “I was afraid that he would knock me down the stairs,” Thomas remembers. “He told me to go to hell.”
Later, tucked away in their hotel room, the duo was dry of ideas, but not whisky. The looming deadline sparked their creativity: they darted down to the beverage room and offered $20 to the first drunk they saw to pose for a picture. Without delay, they snapped the staged photograph of the soak at the grave and sent the picture, void of caption, to theStar. The night editor played along by writing the headline: “Mystery man at murdered woman’s grave.” The police were baffled – could this guy be the murderer? The next day, several Ontario Provincial Police knocked on Thomas and Davis’s hotel room door and demanded to know the identity of the mystery man. The newspapermen were sitting around with a few off-duty cops, playing cards, smoking cigars, and passing the time. When Thomas explained the ruse, they all had a good laugh, and some had a stiff drink.
Thomas was a reporter, not a journalist. He was a storyteller, not a writer. And he was a damn good newspaperman. During 60 years at the Star and 26 years of daily reports on CFRB radio (“Live from police headquar-r-r-ters”) he set the standard for big-city crime reporting in Canada. Thomas was hooked on crime, addicted to getting the scoop, and obsessed with staying on top. He would do anything for a story – even lie, cheat, and steal – yet he was the most trusted reporter at police headquarters.
Ink still runs through Thomas’s veins. He’s 91 now and lives alone in a large home at the top of a quiet circle in uptown Toronto, well away from the bustle of the newspaper business. He still writes copy – mostly obituaries of colleagues and friends. Each morning, after combing the paper, he calls in mistakes that jump out at him. Don Sellar, the Star‘s former ombud, says he expected to hear Thomas’s voice at least once a week, and refers to him as part of the paper’s institutional memory. Every once in a while, the Star calls him up to verify something – Thomas is a regular vault of vintage trivia and fact. Streetcar tickets were a quarter. A glass of beer was a dime. Newspapers cost less then a nickel. “He has a photographic memory for courtrooms and police stations,” says Sellar. “He can tell you which judges sit on which benches and correctly spell their names.”
Not only is his memory intact, so is his stamina. After greeting me cheerfully at the door with a sturdy handshake, he leads me to his basement recreation room – a shrine to his career. Framed and faded newspaper headlines share the walls with trophies, awards, and plaques. I can see the young reporter grit in his aged face. His cheeks have settled softly around his thin smile, like a bulldog’s. His hair holds the same combed-back look, only faded to yellowish white. But the determination that drove him to etch his name indelibly in the newspaper business all those years ago remains.
It was 1929, the year the New York stock market crashed. Getting ahead at the Star was as likely as finding a fully stocked grocer. As the unemployment rate shot up to 30 per cent, Thomas’s father fell out of work, and the responsibility of supporting the household landed on young Gwyn’s shoulders. He dropped out of high school and took the first job he could get – Star copy boy. Thomas’s fear of failure was chronic, and much of his raw ambition was formed during the Great Depression. Five out of every six dollars he earned weekly as a copy boy went to his mother. “I was so poorly paid they couldn’t afford to fire me,” he says. Still, the pressure to support his family goaded him into being hardworking and obedient. When he’d complain to his mom about being forced to sweep the floors, she would shake her finger and say, “Now Gwyn, don’t you do anything that’ll give them a cause to fire you.”
And he didn’t. His zeal immediately set him apart. Through sheer tenacity – and being in the right place at the right time – he started breaking stories. Early on, for instance, he walked into a courtroom with resoled shoes that squeaked with every step – he couldn’t afford the $1.44 for a new pair. All eyes swung in his direction as Justice Nicol Jeffrey shot his finger at the door and told him never to come back. Thomas did come back – shoeless, with a baby toe peeking out one sock. His first court story about a Toronto child molester was a fluke – the other reporters didn’t show up – and he landed his first promotion and a two-dollar raise.
In August 1933, on one of his first shifts as a night reporter on the police beat, Thomas witnessed the Christie Pits Riot, one of the largest ethnic clashes in Toronto history. When Harbord Playground, a predominately Jewish baseball team, won the game in extra innings, a member of a group called the Pit Gang held up a makeshift swastika flag made out of a blanket. Cries of “Hail Hitler” rang through the air, and people quickly became entangled. “Heads were opened, eyes blackened and bodies thumped and battered,” Thomas wrote, “as literally dozens of persons, young and old, many of them noncombatant spectators, were injured more or less seriously by a variety of ugly weapons in the hands of wild-eyed and irresponsible young hoodlums both Jewish and Gentile.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, newspaper journalism was a cutthroat business. The creed was, “Get it first, get it fast, and (try to) get it right.” The Toronto Daily Star (it officially became The Toronto Star in 1971) and The Toronto Telegram competed viciously in an all-out circulation war, with both presses spitting out five main editions a day. The scoop was king, and Thomas thrived. Journalists hunted for stories, wrestled for leads, and cheated whenever there was a chance. “You had to find the story,” says Thomas. “You’d never return to the editor’s desk empty-handed.” Sensationalized stories, like the exploits of the Boyd Gang, dragged on endlessly. Given their famous sobriquet by Thomas, the bank robbers were seemingly unstoppable, escaping twice from the Toronto Don Jail. The story, naturally, hogged headlines and mesmerized readers for almost three years. But, had it not been for the intense circulation war, the story probably would have been short-lived. Front-page crime sold papers.
So did bribing sources and breaking the ethical rules of journalism. Thomas got caught while covering the murder trail of Evelyn Dick in 1946. This sultry-eyed seductress, accused of murdering her husband and dumping his limbless torso, instantly became notorious. The papers speculated on the minutest of details. Hundreds of people flocked to the courthouse to catch a glimpse of her.
One night, Thomas bribed a night janitor with a bottle of rye, sneaked into the barrister’s office, and snatched the unreleased court files. Back at his hotel, he read the stack of papers aloud as Star reporter Marjorie Earl typed frantically. The two stayed up until sunrise, returned the files, and sent the front-page story to the Staron a hold-for-release basis. The pair revelled in the scoop and waited for the judge to read the statements in court. But, moments after Thomas gave the okay to run the story, there were whispers that a juror was sick and possibly dying. The judge brought the trial to a halt. “I felt more sick than that juror when I heard the news,” says Thomas. It was too late to yank copy – the papers had already hit the streets with the screaming headline, “Mobsters slew him – Mrs. Dick.” Alex Stark, the Star lawyer, advised Thomas to keep his trap shut, be thankful there was no byline, and stay away from Justice Fred Barlow. But Thomas was spooked – his career and reputation hung around his neck like a noose, with the trap door being a contempt of court charge. He was “scared like hell” when he heard the judge’s wrath – 60 days in jail or a $5,000 fine – he confessed to his mischief point-blank. Barlow sternly demanded to know how he’d gotten his paws on the secret documents. Thomas remained loyal to his source, telling Barlow he couldn’t say because an innocent man would get in trouble. Thomas’s reputation got him out of that one, but from then on, whenever he saw Barlow coming, he’d drop his head, tip his hat, and pick up the pace.
Thomas’s first big scoop came in 1951, when he traced three unsolved Toronto murders to Stanley Buckowski, a Canadian criminal on death row in California’s San Quentin Penitentiary. He turned a rumour he’d heard at Toronto police headquarters into a full confession from Buckowski – which was surprising, considering he had refused to talk to Toronto detectives. Thomas’s mix of toughness and charm got him past the San Quentin prison guards and into Buckowski’s demented mind.
“Stan, you went to Essex Street Public School, didn’t you?” Thomas asked at one point. “Did you know Miss Washington?”
The hardened criminal’s face lit up and his eyes filled with tears. “Do you take shorthand?” he asked.
Thomas shook his head.
“Then you better write fast because I talk fast and I’m not gonna stop.”
Buckowski gave Thomas a full, detailed confession of his murders – and allowed him to witness his execution. The Star sold out of papers the day the story ran. A few months later, Thomas received the first of his three National Newspaper Awards.
Thomas’s talent was an explosive mix – one part research, one part street sense, two parts memory, and a whole lot of charisma. A lot of chasing the bottle too – at least until 1952, when he quit cold turkey for 26 years. Any pertinent detail that made its way into his head stayed there. As a rookie crime reporter for CFTR/CHFI radio in the 1980s, Dana Lewis competed against Thomas. Lewis, now a foreign correspondent for Fox Television, saw Thomas as a mentor. He says Thomas “was a master of the phones.” Crafty at developing contacts, he would slowly, but not intrusively, weasel his way into your life. He’d start by calling you every day at the same hour. When the conversation drifted to small talk, Thomas would work his magic. If you mentioned you were on your way to the cottage for the weekend, he’d ask you where it was located. By Monday, you would get a follow-up call asking about your weekend. Then, one morning, when eight o’clock rolled past, with no word from Thomas, you’d think, ‘Hey, why didn’t he call?’ You were hooked.
Thomas had good conversation skills: he could throw in a wisecrack at the right moment and make the most ferocious criminal or cautious detective want to talk. Former police chief William McCormack remembers the first call he got from Thomas, when he was fresh on the force from Bermuda. The phone rang at noon.
“Bill McCormack?” Thomas asked.
“Yes, sir?” McCormack answered.
“This is Jocko.”
“Who the hell is this guy?” thought McCormack. Within seconds, Thomas was reciting McCormack’s history. The rookie’s jaw dropped. He hadn’t told anyone he had been a military man in Bermuda, and here was Thomas asking him about his battalion. “I couldn’t believe he knew every last detail. I was amazed at how he broke the ice with me. When I asked him how he’d found it all out, he answered, ‘I make it my business to know you people.'”
And know them he did. His contacts spread from the chief’s desk to the local riffraff. “There must be a bit of hound dog bred into that man,” says McCormack. “He had a scent for news that was uncanny. He was not only fair but straightforward, and he’d appear before anyone else. And how the hell he got there we never knew.”
Police reporters have to act like cocks of the walk to survive. They have to get close enough to the police to get information, yet remain critical enough to placate their editors and the public. “If one of Thomas’s contacts turned up drunk in a squad car, he probably wouldn’t write about it,” says Lewis. “But if one of them screwed up an investigation, he’d hit them in the newspaper.” Thomas was a reporter first – he’d never jeopardize a juicy story for the sake of the cops.
Quick-tempered and possessive about his work, Thomas could slam down a phone like no one else. And he wasn’t afraid to yell at the desk if someone screwed up his story or challenged him on his beat. “He was a real competitive, tough old dog. He’d go toe-to-toe with you any time,” says Lewis. “He was a lovable guy who could be crusty at times, but taught me a lot about human relations.” Once, when a particularly nasty chief of detectives tried to shut police headquarters reporters out of an investigation, Thomas phoned him and gave it to him straight: “We’re doing our job and you’re out of line. And we will report the story.” Then he added his favourite zinger: “You are trying to censor the news – you can’t get away with that.”
This attitude was consistent throughout Thomas’s career. In the late ’60s, he came down hard on a city editor for what he considered meddling. It was a story about a new police project called Checkmate, which encouraged people to call in anything fishy. The editor tweaked the headline to give it an anti-cop sentiment. Thomas was enraged that his routine story was inflated – he thought it shone a bad light on his byline – and called publisher Beland Honderich. By the end of the day, the editor had walked out, leaving his coat on a hook. He never came back for it. This type of outburst made it easy for Thomas’s critics to pick on his close proximity to the cops.
Later that year, though, Thomas responded by winning a third National Newspaper Award, this time for busting crooked cops who were throwing cases out of court and pocketing cash for their services. Nobody on the force would give Thomas a lead, but he noticed that some cops were letting rich folks go scot-free during court cases. When Thomas cracked the case some cops were bitter, but only because he hadn’t verified it with them first. Most were keen to see him expose the racket in the traffic division. He stood his ground in both worlds and solidified his reputation.
Five and a half hours have passed and Thomas has spun me gracefully through his epic career. I almost have to rub the black and white images out of my eyes to see in colour again. His right foot has kept a steady beat while we’ve talked. Suddenly, in mid-sentence, there’s a ring. He picks up his black rotary telephone and chats with his son, Justice Ronald Thomas, in his gruff, booming voice – from smoking up to five cigars a day in the 1970s – about a doctor’s appointment.
After recounting the legend of “Jocko,” Thomas adopts a more casual tone. “You heading to the subway?” he asks. “I’m going to get a cheeseburger. I’ll drive you.”
“Can I join you? I’m starving.”
Ten minutes later, we’re at Burger Hut, Thomas’s favorite joint, chewing on cheeseburgers and swapping stories about dead pets. Last year he took Patrick, his sick feline, to the “cat hospital,” but it was a lost cause. He shuffles to the fridge and helps himself to two bottles of Coors Light and two glasses. “The only thing worse than outliving your wife is outliving your cat.”