Clearing the fumes

June 27, 2002 - Canoe

A fair criminal entrepreneur in his own day, CBC Radio journalist Rosie Rowbotham gets nearly apoplectic when he hears the Hells Angels described as "organized crime."

"I did time with Johnny Papalia, the Cotronis ... I know what organized crime is, and I know what disorganized crime is," says Rowbotham. "So when they say the Hells Angels are some slick, organized crime organization, whose story is that?"

Rowbotham -- whose career as a marijuana importer in Toronto's Rochdale hippie era saw him do a punitive 20 years in prison -- produced Chrome And Thunder, a CHUM/City documentary on bike-culture with director Tom Mann and exec producer Jim Hanley. It debuts on VR Saturday. Said culture includes yuppies on $40,000 Harley-Davidsons, a stripper on a North Dakota bike-party pilgrimage, a female OPP officer who's a member of the Harley-riding "golden helmets," a Quebec hydro official who's a weekend biker-partyer, and a gang of amiable middle-aged Torontonians called The Silverados who fundraise for the Yonge St. Mission.

"But the real steak and sizzle comes from the 'one percenters,' " says Rowbotham, employing the longstanding nickname for "outlaw" bike gangs. Using his contacts, he got his cameras into parties and into the home lives of various Angels, Outlaws and Banditos.

The result will be a disappointment for anyone looking for a story about the seamy underbelly of bikerdom. For the most part, it's facetime with family men with dayjobs.

Mann, also a former '70s "soft-drug dealer," is Rowbotham's partner in Contraband Productions, "and the genesis came from us having relationships with bikers going back to Rochdale (the legendary Toronto hippie co-op)" Rowbotham says. "I mean, there are people who are going to call me a biker apologist. But I really am not naive. I had them bring drugs across the border for me from Washington into B.C. when they were Satan's Angels in 1970. I've had bikers put guns to my head and try to rip me off. I've defended myself and put guns to their heads. So this is not a love story here.

"But for years we've been hearing 'Hell's Angels are coming to Ontario! It's gonna be war, strewn bodies, bombs and mayhem. And that's what got me and Tom interested.

I said to Tom 'This picture's all wrong.' They were using the situation in Quebec, which was truly out of control, and painting the whole country with that brush."

Rowbotham used his prison rep to get his access. "It took a lot of posturing, a lot of politics, a lot of meetings. I came in with 304462A, my prison number, and I said you know who I am. My reputation is that when I got arrested, I never testified against nobody. I was accountable, but I'm not a body trader."

"My line was I'm with the media, your silence is condemning you. You have somebody you can talk to, let's talk. "I mean, I wouldn't say they are a group of people that should not be watched. Bikers will admit there's a lot of testosterone, and the biker ethic can be prone to violence.

"But when you hear law enforcement officials call bikers the number one threat to Canadian security, when they say they're organized crime with possible terrorist terrorist links, you have to stop and ask what's the real agenda? "I'm more worried about other organizations that are slicker, smarter and more dangerous," says Rowbotham, who's working on a series on Toronto street gangs for CBC Radio in the fall.

"Home invasions and carjackings? That's gangbangers. Asian and Russian gangs have been making billions of dollars for the last 10 years and they're not even on the radar.

"The bikers are just an easier target. They've got clubhouses and a sign on their back."

CBC producer, prison activist freed by parole board: Corruption fighter (Robert "Rosie") Rowbotham


Adrian Humphreys, National Post, October 27, 2001


KINGSTON - Robert "Rosie" Rowbotham, a national CBC radio personality who has exposed prison corruption, was released from a maximum-security institution after a spurious allegation of domestic assault led to three months' incarceration.

After hearing the decision of the National Parole Board yesterday, Rowbotham, 50, warmly embraced Valerie Phillips, the woman who made the allegations and later recanted them.

He then walked away from the razor wire-topped fences of Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ont., a notorious prison that has handled some of Canada's hardest criminals, and returned to Toronto with Ms. Phillips on first-class train tickets.

Rowbotham, a producer for CBC national radio news, had 10 months left on his parole after nearly 20 years in prison for large-scale trafficking of marijuana when he was accused in July of domestic assault.

Although the allegations were recanted by Ms. Phillips verbally, in writing and in sworn testimony in court, the accusation triggered the revocation of Rowbotham's parole, placing him first in Metro East Detention in Toronto and later Millhaven.

Rowbotham started working at the CBC in 1997 after he was paroled. He had been an on-air guest talking about life in prison, and producers were impressed. He has since contributed to the station's coverage of crime and justice issues, including an investigative project in June about corruption at Kingston Penitentiary.

At yesterday's hearing, Rowbotham told of the July night when Ms. Phillips had been drinking and locked herself in Rowbotham's van, threatening to drive away. She had no driver's licence and was intoxicated. He grabbed a propane tank, broke the van's window, reached in and took the keys, he said.

"What I did was a responsible act. I felt sorry, but I had to do it to protect her and to protect others."

Days after the incident, Ms. Phillips complained to police of an assault but quickly admitted to making the story up, saying the accusation was made under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs. She had recently been misdiagnosed with liver cancer. The doctor prescribed hundreds of painkillers and Ms. Phillips started compulsively taking the pills, Rowbotham said.

After the allegations were made, however, a zero tolerance policy on domestic violence did not allow for withdrawing the charge. Although granted bail in August and acquitted of the charges earlier this month, Rowbotham remained behind bars.

His job as a journalist raised red flags for the Correctional Service of Canada.

Rowbotham was asked about suggestions he had connected with members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. His only connection, Rowbotham said, was his work as a reporter working on a documentary television program about the gang.

When asked why he did not tell his parole officials about threats phoned to his home because of an investigation he was working on, Rowbotham replied: "Because the piece I was investigating was on the Correctional Service of Canada and I didn't want them to tell their colleagues."

A dozen producers, reporters and on-air hosts from CBC were at the hearing, including Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition. His lawyer also presented the board with two-dozen letters of support, including notes from Alex Frame, vice-president of CBC Radio, and Shelagh Rogers, host of This Morning.

Rowbotham will resume his job at CBC, officials with the public broadcaster said.

Copyright 2001 National Post Online