Taxi News is very grateful to Dundurn Press (Toronto) and the estate of Peter McSherry for giving us permission to re-publish excerpts of Peter’s book “Mean Streets.” Today’s feature is the final excerpt; the other five are linked below.
To this juncture in my recounting of the saga of Jesse, the amusing and rugged dispatcher of the Foobler Taxi Company, I have related mostly events of which I had some first-hand knowledge. Now the story hits a watershed. From this point on, I will be telling the tale mostly from my memory of happenings that I read about in newspapers twenty-five years ago. This is not history and it is not even very good journalism. Rather it is a personal account of a story that interests me, and the reader should take it for just that. I am acutely aware that others who read this may be more familiar with this story than I am and that they will probably remember things differently or put a different slant on the events that took place. I mention all of this in a spirit of fairness only.
Not long after I met Jesse at the Chuvalo-Felstein fight, a truly horrific happening transpired. Late on the night of April 22, 1977, Jesse’s friend Ian Rosenberg and a woman named Joan Lipson were brutally murdered in an upstairs bedroom of a house on Strathearn Boulevard. Some person who possessed a key to Joan Lipson’s home let himself in the side door, crept up the stairs, and ruthlessly shot the couple to death as they lay in bed. A housekeeper, who was trying to sleep in an adjoining bedroom, heard Joan Lipson cry out, “Ian, there’s someone in the room!” Then came the sound of gunfire.
Not long after the shooting and not far from the scene of the crime, a man named Jimmy — who was a business associate and sometime friend of Ian Rosenberg’s — was stopped by the police. He was wearing old, loose-fitting clothes and he failed a paraffin test, which is a forensic test that registers positive at the presence of gunpowder and some other substances. Eventually Jimmy was charged with the murders.
At Jimmy’s trial some months later, the Crown attorney put for- ward an interesting motive. It was believed that Jimmy had previously secretly done away with a nineteen-year-old girl from Edmonton, Alberta named Chrystal van Huksluyt, and that this had happened after a dispute over money. Allegedly Ian Rosenberg knew about this and strongly disapproved of what had been done. It was thought that because the police were hounding Rosenberg, not Jimmy, over the girl’s disappearance, Jimmy was afraid that Rosenberg would turn him up. Allegedly Jimmy murdered Rosenberg to head this off and Joan Lipson died simply because she was with Rosenberg.
Incredibly, the person who went into the witness box and provid ed much of the substance of the Crown’s case was Jesse, my former dispatcher at Foobler Taxi. He was nothing less than the star witness for the prosecution. On a night not long after the murders, Jesse had worn a police body pack — a wire — and met Jimmy in a car in a parking lot near the Sky Ranch Restaurant at Dufferin and Castlefield. He tried to inveigle Jimmy into making statements that would incriminate him in the murders. An audio tape of this conversation was put in as evidence at the trial. The Crown attorney said this tape was a strong indication of Jimmy’s guilt, but, in reality, as evidence, it was pretty weak stuff. Jimmy gave only ambivalent answers to Jesse’s leading questions. His words might mean this and they might mean that; every- thing depended on the spin one put on them. Jimmy definitely admitted to absolutely nothing.
The fact that Jesse was going to testify was not news to me. Before the trial I had spoken to “Donny,” a taxi driver acquaintance who was also an acquaintance of Jesse’s. Incredibly, at some previous time, Jesse had let Donny drive him to a North York house where he was hiding out and Jesse had told Donny — a mere acquaintance — the full story of Ian Rosenberg’s alleged dispute with Jimmy in very great detail. Jesse had made sure that Donny knew he would be testifying at the murder trial.
Why would anybody in Jesse’s position be so untoward? I wondered at the time. The answer, I think, was that Jesse was very much an exhibitionist. While Jesse was on the witness stand, there was one really sharp moment. Jimmy straightened his tie, or else made some gesture at his throat, and Jesse took this to be a throat-cutting motion — a death threat. Jesse erupted in the witness box, shouting some words like, “You’re right, I’ll have to go underground, but you’ll have to go under- ground too.”
This was, of course, only bravado — part of Jesse’s act. If Jesse had been capable of fighting fire with fire, he would not have been there in the witness box singing. As a Crown witness, Jesse was making himself a pariah to any criminal associates he may have had. He had become an informer. At best he would be persona non grata to such people; at worst he would be fair game — a legitimate target for anybody who wanted to take a shot at him.
The Crown’s case was mostly Jesse’s testimony, supported by the paraffin test and the audio tape of Jesse’s conversation with Jimmy. It did not help that the police had not been able to find the murder weapon. Instead, the Crown had only some weak stuff about there being the outline of a handgun in the dust on the top of the furnace in Jimmy’s home.
I do not remember whether the accused man testified in his own defense, but I do recall that a very important defense witness was a tow truck driver who went into the box and testified that on the night of the murders Jimmy had accompanied him on a service call and, as a
consequence, had gotten battery acid on his clothing. Like gunpowder, battery acid registers positive on the paraffin test.
The jury chose to find that the Crown’s case was not proven. Jimmy was found not guilty and walked from the courtroom a free man. A Toronto newspaper ran a photograph of him striding confidently from the scene, his arm draped over the shoulder of a good-looking woman. He was smiling broadly.
The big loser was Jesse. Shortly after the trial, Jesse quietly left Toronto for health reasons and, as must have been the case, took up residence elsewhere in North America. For a few years after these events, from time to time, drivers would hear stories that Jesse had telephoned the Foobler dispatch office from Colorado or some other exotic place in the West. Then, as all things change, these stories stopped.
At the trial Jesse was asked why he was testifying for the Crown, and he answered that he was doing it to get even for his friend Rosenberg. If this was all there was to Jesse’s motivation, which I very much doubt, Ian Rosenberg had a very good friend indeed. In testifying, Jesse quite literally poured his own life as he knew it down the drain.
I did not know Jesse well — in fact, I hardly knew him at all. Still, I ’d say he was the most interesting and enigmatic man I’ve met in twenty-six years in the taxi business. He definitely had the courage to go out with a bang, not a whimper, and not many people do. Jesse was never really a criminal. His notion that he was a rounder and could function amongst heavy criminals was of the nature of a tragic personal conceit — a game he was playing with himself that got out of hand. When the stuff hit the fan, Jesse couldn’t cut it and he wound up in the witness box — very much against his own interests.
No person was ever convicted of the brutal murders of Ian Rosenberg and Joan Lipson. As far as I know, Chrystal van Huksluyt is still missing.
— Taxi News, November 1997
This excerpt is from Mean Streets by Peter McSherry and appears here by permission of Dundurn Press Limited and the estate of the Peter McSherry.