The saga of Gillian Guess, the most talked about Vancouverite of 1998, began with two men she’d never met.
Just weeks before his death, Ron Dosanjh appeared on Global News Hour alongside rival gangster Bindy Johal in a special broadcast about East Vancouver gang warfare. The two taunted each other on air in what would have been a hilarious bit of machismo if it didn’t actually end in death (quote: “I’m bad mouthing you, buddy!”). Ron was assassinated in broad daylight two weeks later—the glass from the windows of his cherry red truck shattered on the busy intersection where he was shot.
Then 24 years old, Johal was the obvious suspect. He and five associates appeared in court in the summer of 1995 facing murder charges in the deaths of Ron Dosanjh and his brother Jimmy. Johal was outspoken, arrogant, and anti-authoritarian; it was taken for granted that this trash-talking, track-suited gangster would be the star of the show.
Even in Canada, sensational murder trials are always described as circuses. In this particular one the headline act would turn out to be a 40-year-old mother of two named Gillian Guess. Guess had recently begun a degree in criminology, was working as a counsellor for the RCMP, and had the misfortune of being selected for jury duty in the trial of Johal and his associates. Jury duty is, to most, a burden, but the trial aligned nicely with Guess’s evident interest in the justice system.
The trial gained an additional element of interest on the first day of jury selection; Guess noticed a well-dressed, attractive young man in the courtroom, who she thought was a lawyer. It wasn't until proceedings began that she realized the man who caught her eye was in fact one of the defendants, Peter Gill—a long time affiliate of Bindy Johal and suspect in a string of gang-related killings.
The attraction turned out to be mutual, or at least mutually beneficial. Guess was bored—after months in court, who wouldn’t be—and Gill either returned her interest, saw an opportunity to sway the jury, or a combination of the two. Sexual tension escalated into a full-blown affair before the trial was over. Amazingly, Gill was out on bail and free to lightly stalk Guess, profess his innocence, and feed her a personal theory that he was being racially profiled. The two reportedly kissed for the first time on a break from court, under a tree in Stanley Park. After months of non-verbal flirtation in the courtroom, what one clerk described as flipping her hair and looking seductive, Guess and Gill finally started sleeping together in Guess’s North Vancouver townhouse.
Gill had nothing much to lose by tampering with the judicial process. He was already on trial for murder. Guess may not have been aware of what exactly she was risking, but she must have immediately clocked the liaison as an inappropriate (and dangerous) one. Even at the best of times, a relationship with Peter Gill, who was married and demonstrably volatile, sounds like a mixed bag—Guess later testified that, on one occasion, Gill followed her home and choked her.
Guess encouraged the jury to acquit, herself encouraged by Gill. “I believed he had been wrongfully accused,” she later said. “That was my frame of reference going into the trial."
A few months later, the trial ended. Peter Gill, Bindy Johal, and all the co-accused walked free.
Police clued in to the relationship between Guess and Gilll not long after. The two were spotted dancing together at a club, which led to a bizarre surveillance campaign that included bugging Guess’s home and tapping her phone. What they found was incriminating, not just for the couple. Apparently, somewhere in the hundreds of hours of taped phone calls is evidence that Guess’s niece was simultaneously dating David Duchovny and Vancouver Canucks’ right winger Pavel Bure.
Very quickly, Guess went from serving on a jury to appearing in front of one. She’d been charged with obstruction of justice—the only law that seemed to feasibly fit her crime, which was all but unprecedented.
Throughout the media storm that ensued, Guess was portrayed as a walking stereotype: a brassy, sex-crazed drama queen, a love-struck teen, a cougar, but never as fully cognizant of any wrongdoing. In the end she served only 12 weeks in a minimum-security prison and a short period on house arrest (during which she posed for a bath time photoshoot with her ankle bracelet). Her lover, charged with the same crime, got a little more than five years.
The first time Gill came over, Guess says she "looked through the peephole and realized [she’d] made the biggest mistake of [her] life." Allegedly, Gill dressed for this encounter in a standard issue bad boy getup: leather jacket and unkempt hair. There is a sleazy, movie quality to the whole affair—this is the kind of truth people mean when they talk about strangeness deeper than fiction.
But, what love affair doesn’t hinge on fantasy?
By 1998, Guess was lawyered-up and making appearances in court. This is the same year the world learned of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky—a year when sex and scandal must have seemed strongly interconnected. After 20 years, it’s hard to say if criminality has become a field of equal opportunity. On the one hand, we have scam artist Anna Delvey hitting public consciousness, and few seemed compelled to qualify her badness, to use her womanhood to mitigate her criminality. But perhaps Delvey is taken at face value because her crimes seem to be predicated on such feminine desires—for clothing and cache. When sex enters into the equation, female criminality remains perplexing. Take Allison Mack, alleged sex trafficker and NXIVM higher-up, whose involvement in the branding and forced labour of other women treads the irreconcilable line between victimhood and perpetrator that is often evoked by female criminals. Guess’s case is several degrees less extreme, but she too found herself occupying the shifting ground between accomplice and patsy. In a perfect world, women who do bad things would be just that. But women are so often on the receiving end of badness that reversing or even tilting this dynamic can be impossible to grasp.
The affair between Guess and Gill was ludicrously unethical—but it may not have been the sole reason Gill and his co-accused were acquitted. Sometime in the trial, the prosecution’s case lost its momentum. Key witnesses were disproved, and cracks began to show. Guess pressed the jury to acquit, but she likely wouldn’t have had much success doing so unless the case against her lover looked a little shaky.
The case against Guess was similarly off-kilter. It set many precedents in the country: the first (and only) time a juror was ever tried for having an affair with a defendant, the first time Canadian jurors deliberations were made public, and the first time in Canada a defendant was barred from her own trial. The fairness of the trial is still the subject of debate.
Fair or not, the judge presiding over her case was careful not to let even a whiff of scapegoating enter into the sentencing remarks. Whether rhetoric matched reality, however, no one can say.
From the outset, Guess’s trial seemed doomed. It’s unclear what innocence would have meant in this case—and any hopes her lawyer may have had of using coercion as a defence were undermined by Guess’s repeated insistence that what she felt for Gill was “love” or it’s near synonym, “obsession.” Love can co-exist with fear, of course, but it’s too much to hope that a court could successfully disentangle the two. Guess seemed more in love than afraid, more in control than out of it—she did not look like a victim.
Nor did she look entirely like a villain. In dealing with the media, she was brash and quite funny—showing a gift for one liners. She dressed well, often spotted in leopard print—a cartoonish symbol of voraciousness. Much was made of her maturity (in the sense of age, not comportment) and intelligence. Her insistence that she did nothing wrong seemed to speak to a penchant for theatrics, the Shakespearean image of pleading one’s innocence on a grand staircase, more than any actual contempt for the justice system. The woman was pursuing a degree in criminology and actually worked for the police.
All of which is to say, Gillian Guess was complicated.
Complicated women have a hard time on trial and a worse time in the media. Court is, after all, the very serious sibling of theatre, and the narratives that have the most traction in it are the ones without nuance. The prosecutor at Guess’s trial, Joe Bellows, is said to have made such crude remarks in his closing arguments that Guess felt compelled to write a letter of complaint to the Law Society of BC. A column in a local paper called her “a walking, talking, ‘dumb blonde joke’”—though by this time Guess had died her hair a shade she’d dubbed “innocent red.”
It’s doubtful that being called “dumb,” “matronly,” or “stupid” really stung Guess—even her detractors had to admire her “ironclad self-assurance.” And niceties are beside the point. What’s more interesting is that Guess managed to hit upon the perfect balance of being pilloried and protected. Guess was attractive and fashionable, which made it difficult for people to grasp the gravity of her mistake, while also making it impossible to truly believe she was innocent—women who calculate their image are often seen as merely calculating. Guess seemed so much like a character that nothing she did seemed real, or really that bad. Even the judge presiding over Gill's trial called her part in the affair "a foolish adventure." This paternal attitude did as much to protect Guess from punishment as it did to deny her personhood.
This is the crux of womanhood that Guess embodied—to be simultaneously infantilized and vilified. It’s amazing to think the two competing narratives about Guess were ever reconciled, that she was a grown-up woman and yet not fully culpable for her actions. That she was somehow the sole lynchpin of a murder trial that spiraled out of control. Amazing, except that tightrope walking of this kind is the essence of being a woman under scrutiny.
In a 1998 letter to The Peak, Simon Fraser University’s campus newspaper, Guess responded to a student article called “Marrying the Virgin and the Slut.” The story used her case to discuss the media’s fixation on the appearance of notorious women, their wardrobes especially.
“I enjoyed your article,” she begins, "and thought you made some excellent points…Contrary to my lawyers' advice, I refused to conform to a stereotype about what women should look like…. By this I mean, (as suggested) long gingham dresses, ruffles and ribbons—hair in a bun etc.—for the sake of presenting a meek and mild demeanor to my jury. As a result of my choice not to compromise my values, I was publicly stoned. I will never regret my decision because I know I did it out of honesty and to make a statement for women everywhere.”
There is a lot wrong with even this brief letter—I’d argue that Guess was vilified as much for tampering with the judicial process as for what she wore while doing it—but there is a lot that still rings true. Women’s wardrobes do not decide their fate as much as provide an after-the-fact explanation for it. Clothes do not denote values, but a wardrobe is the clearest way women navigate an embattled public sphere.
In a 1998 photo in Maclean's, Guess walks up the steps of the Vancouver courthouse in a black dress and tiny sunglasses that would not look out of place on Bella Hadid. She is trailed by a videographer—his camera pointed at her legs.
Jury members are plucked from obscurity and given tremendous power. Power, everybody knows, is intoxicating—even more so when that power is precarious and held over someone who would normally wield it. Imagine, for a moment, having a married gangster under your thumb. Imagine if he, simultaneously, has you under his thumb. A 1998 profile in the Toronto Sun described Guess’s assessment of her own life before meeting Peter Gill: “despite two marriages and two kids, Gillian Guess felt she hadn't really lived.” The accuracy of this statement is impossible to determine, but it expresses perfectly the drive some women feel to align themselves with men in a bid to experience a full life. With so much denied, a woman’s life can sometimes flower only vicariously.
Guess fucked up, but she did so in a nexus of fantasy, power, and subjugation that sounds like a hyper-drive version of the forces that govern the lives of many women. At a press conference following her sentencing, Guess told reporters she had been “convicted of falling in love and nothing more.” The machinations of love are the closest some women ever get to wielding power—should we really be surprised if they get drunk on it?
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