Chasing phantom fugitives

My former United Press Canada colleague Nelson Wyatt reminded me the other day of a real fake news story we were dragged into more than 30 years ago.

Real fake news is reported when generally authoritative sources, such as police or government officials, say something that turns out to be claptrap. This can have deadly serious consequences – consider the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that escalated the war in Vietnam and Saddam Hussein’s “WMDs.”

Or it can simply be folly – so far – as with a Fabricator in Chief in the White House.

Then there are the many instances when authorities overreact – think terrorism threats or hurricanes – and get things wrong.

This was the case with the Canadian connection to the tale of the Briley brothers, Linwood and James, who led the breakout of six men from death row at the state prison in Mecklenburg, Virginia, on May 31, 1984.

While the other four fugitives were recaptured quickly, the wily Brileys were on the lam for nearly three weeks.

It was during this time that Canadian news outlets began reporting sightings of the brothers in Quebec’s normally peaceful and picturesque Eastern Townships.

I was running the news desk at UPC headquarters in Toronto. Nelson was a reporter-editor in the Montreal bureau.

The story smelled sketchy from the get-go. I figured someone had spotted a couple of black guys, a rarity in those parts, assumed they were up to no good, called the cops and … voila!

Next thing you knew, police armed to the teeth were combing woods and fields, setting up roadblocks and generally scaring the shit out of everyone from Gaspe to the Laurentians. We dutifully reported what the police said, and the hysteria they unleashed.

(The Brileys were truly scary guys. Over seven months in 1979, in and around their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, they robbed and raped and shot and stabbed more than a dozen total strangers. They were convicted of 10 murders.)

The manhunt in Quebec went on for nearly a week. I talked daily with Nelson. The information was so flimsy we started joking about phantom fugitives.

“Where do you think they really are?” Nelson asked.

“Disneyland?”

“Vegas?”

“Probably never left Virginia,” I concluded.

I was close. Linwood Briley, 30, and brother James, 28, were cornered and captured in their uncle’s garage in Philadelphia on June 19, 1984.

The state of Virginia wasn’t taking any chances on another escape – Linwood was executed in the electric chair that October and James the following April.

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