Chapter 24: The Pokey, by Gum!


The next morning—the day of the insanely expeditious trial—President Tuttle summoned my father and me to the mission home's book-lined study. The first thing he discussed with us—or rather, apprised us of his position on—was the matter of who would be allowed to attend the trial. It would be a public trial, of course—but other missionaries would only be permitted to attend with special permission from the president.

And Tuttle wasn't about to give anyone special permission. He wasn't going to let any of my compatriots anywhere near the trial.

Headline: 'Missionary faces trial over hoax at airport'
Headline from Calgary Herald on February 25, 1987. Click image for facsimile of complete article.
"We don't want this thing to turn into a big media circus, with dozens of missionaries all over the place, talking to reporters," President Tuttle told us. "Proselyting will come to a standstill, and who knows what we'll end up looking like in the news."

In other words, loose lips sink ships. Missionaries could be trusted to carry the message of the Restored Gospel from door to door, but not to talk to reporters without looking silly.

"Elder Snow came to me in private," the president went on, "and asked if he could attend, since he's your companion. I wanted to say yes, but I couldn't. It would open a whole can of worms. If Elder Snow came, then I'd have to let Elder McKay come too since he was Elder Finn's companion, and if we let them both come, then every other missionary in the city will have to come too. I explained this to Elder Snow, and he very humbly agreed with me."

So in other words, I didn't get to have even one single friend come to my trial. I didn't say anything, but I didn't buy into the logic—not all of it, at any rate.

Still, I was buying into that obedience thing . . .

But the president wasn't finished. "The sisters," he said, "were a different matter."

I raised my eyebrows. "How so?"

"The three of them came to me yesterday afternoon," he said, "after they'd heard that I wasn't going to let anyone come to the trial. They were all weepy, doing their best to get my sympathies." President Tuttle made a wrinkled-up, mock-grieving face. "'Oh, President, President. You have to let us go to the trial. All this was our fault! If it wasn't for us, Elder Shunn wouldn't even be in any trouble! Oh, please, President.'

Flight delayed for pal
Headline from Calgary Sun on February 25, 1987. Click image for facsimile of rather more breathless article.
"And when I told them no—well, you know how headstrong Sister Roper can be. The way they were complaining, I was afraid the three of them would end up going anyway, against my wishes, so I pointed my finger at them and I said, in all seriousness, 'Sisters, if I catch sight of any one of you anywhere close to that trial, I will excommunicate the three of you just like that. Am I clear?'

"Well, that shut them up. They went as pale as ghosts. I tell you, they're effective missionaries, but sometimes some of them are almost more trouble than they're worth."

Well, the three of us had a good laugh over that, secure in our status as priesthood-bearing males.

What a revolting memory.

I mean, I'm sure it wouldn't have looked very good if the only missionaries in attendance at the trial were three weeping women—just think about the whole polygamy fiasco that still haunts the Church—but threatening the sisters with excommunication? I'd really like to know what would have happened had one or more of the three of them defied the president and gone to the trial anyway. If they'd gone in casual clothes instead of dresses and left their name tags off, what possible harm could have come of it? No reporter would have known to talk to them.

And that goes for the elders, too. Snow could have attended the trial in his p-day clothes, and no one would have been the wiser.

What it boils down to is this: I couldn't have any friends at my trial because it interfered with some Church bureaucrat's perceived ability to exercise his authority.

Do I think that sucks? Hell, yes.

The next items on the schedule were lunch and then a trip over to President Harvey's office for a bit of a legal powwow before the trial. First, however, President Tuttle suggested that it might not be inappropriate for my father to give me a blessing—father's blessings being generally judged in the Church as more efficacious than your garden-variety blessing.

Was I nervous about the trial? Hell, yes. Did I feel better after my father laid his hands on my head and told me that there would be guardian angels watching over me in the courtroom that day? Okay, yes, I did.

Was I horridly overeager to be reassured that everything would be okay? You bet your sweet bippy I was. Just like any kid who thinks his parents have the power to chase monsters away. But wishing doesn't make it so.

After the blessing was done, President Tuttle offered to buy lunch for my father and me, but my father declined. "We don't need to be a financial burden to you," he said.

"Nonsense," said Tuttle. "What else do you think tithing money is for?"

The president was trying to make a funny. My father was not amused. (He has a rather difficult time with people making light of "sacred" things. That includes the presidency of the United States—so long as a Republican is holding the office.) We ended up having lunch at Wendy's, where each of us paid his own way.

Then we headed over to Fred Harvey's law firm.

The first thing Harvey hit us with, once we were comfortably seated in his large but spartan office, was the simply bad news—as opposed, of course, to the really bad news. For our trial that day, we had drawn a judge named Josiah Fether. "He's impossible to read, Elder," said Harvey. "There are some judges on this circuit who'd throw this case out without a backward glance. There are other judges who'd lock you up and throw away the key without batting an eye. Judge Fether is neither one. He's unpredictable. You can never guess which way he's going to lean. Taking this case before him is risky. You might end up free this afternoon, or you might end up in the pokey."

Harvey had the accent of a southern Alberta farmer—remarkably similar to the accent of rural Mormon farmers in Utah and southern Idaho—and I didn't care for the self-conscious way he tossed out the word "pokey." He sounded like a kid trying out some bit of adult slang that he didn't really know how to properly use. The word seemed awkward, ominous, and out of place coming from his mouth.

"So," he continued, "we have an important decision to make. We can ask for a delay, in the hope that we'll draw a more sympathetic and predictable judge next time around. Of course, if we do that, we might actually draw a worse judge, so there's a risk there, too. Besides which, you wouldn't be able to leave Calgary until after the new trial date, which could be as much as six months from now. In the meantime, your work permit will be suspended, so you won't be able to proselytize. You'll have to just sit around twiddling your thumbs."

I'm naturally quite lazy, so that actually didn't sound so bad to me. In fact, it sounded pretty good to me—all but for the risk of getting a bad judge. My father spoke up before I could say anything, though. "Bill didn't come out on his mission to sit around and do nothing," he said. "He's here to work. Let's go ahead and go through with the trial today. Everything will be okay."

I wasn't entirely convinced of that, but I let it slide. President Tuttle spoke up in agreement, so I nodded as well.

I guess it didn't really matter that Harvey was representing me, a legal adult. The decisions were pretty much out of my hands.

So, with the simply bad news out of the way, it was time for the really bad news. Harvey informed us that the prosecution—under the direction of a fellow named Rich—were attempting to have me tried on charges of hijacking, rather than simple public mischief.

"Hijacking?" I asked incredulously. "How can they do that?"

"Let me ask you a question, Elder," Harvey said, "a very serious question. Where was the airplane when you made your bomb threat?"

I wrinkled my brow. "What do you mean, where was it? It was on the runway. Where else would it be?"

Harvey nodded, then went to one of his bookshelves. "It's good that you think so," he said, "but you're wrong. In fact, the airplane was in the air at the time you made your call. It was on its way from Edmonton to Calgary, and it was only scheduled to stay on the ground for ten or fifteen minutes—just time enough to take on passengers and luggage before continuing to Salt Lake City. The tower radioed the pilot and told him about the bomb threat, but he and his copilot decided not to tell the passengers until ten minutes later, after they were actually on the ground. They didn't want to panic the passengers."

He removed a thick book from the shelf and opened it to a marked page. "Here's the legal definition of hijacking in Canada," he said, handing me the book.

I read the highlighted passage. I don't recall the exact wording, but the law was worded ambiguously enough so that any threat made against an airplane still in the air—whether the person making the threat is on the plane or not—could be construed as hijacking.

And hijacking, the book said, carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.

My stomach did a belly flop. Things weren't looking good for the Mudville Nine.

"Now, based on what you've told me of your understanding of the plane's location," said Harvey, "we can fight this hijacking charge—but I'd rather not have to deal with it at all. What I propose is to offer a deal to Prosecutor Rich. If he goes with the hijacking charge, then we plead not guilty, and if you're found guilty, we appeal and keep appealing as high as we can go. We'll keep this case tied up for years if we have to. If he goes with the original charge of public mischief, however, we'll plead guilty—since you have, after all, made three separate confessions—and then the trial turns into a simple sentencing hearing. So, what do you want to do?"

After conferring, my father and I decided to follow Harvey's advice. I would plead guilty to a charge of public mischief—if the bargaining ploy worked.

"Good," said Harvey, who then grew very serious. "Now, once this goes into sentencing, the question at issue will be whether you get time in jail or merely a fine. We'll be arguing for a fine, but you can be sure that the prosecution will be asking for a stiff sentence—and public mischief carries a maximum sentence of ten years."

(So much Constable X's assurances that public mischief was a minor offense!)

"Now, I doubt that they'll ask for anything that high, but you need to be prepared for what will happen when the judge passes sentence. If he says you're going to the pokey, then you go right that instant—out the back door of the courtroom and right behind bars, without a chance to say goodbye to anybody." His mien darkened. "Elder . . . you need to be prepared to spend some time in the pokey."

It was that damned pokey again! The word rankled on me like fingernails on slate. It made me want to scream.

"Now, it won't necessarily be so bad there," Harvey said. "We can probably get you moved to the minimum-security prison at Spy Hill, which is where they put white-collar criminals, drunken businessmen, people like that. The second counselor in your mission presidency is a dentist there, and we can probably get you assigned as one of his orderlies . . ."

Harvey droned on, but I stopped hearing him as an awful horror began stealing over me. He and President Tuttle had been working behind the scenes to set all this up—this job at the Spy Hill prison. They were expecting me to do time in the frigging pokey!

I can't tell you how promising an omen that seemed.

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

About This Story

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

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