Dustin Hales killed his wife.
He stabbed the 27-year-old mother of three to death in a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, park in 2011, while their mutual girlfriend watched; Hales planned the murder, covered it up, and only admitted to it after they got caught.
It was a tragic end to a three-way relationship that had turned ugly.
But now, less than four years into a life sentence of at least 17 years, Hales is getting another crack at love behind bars, thanks to an online pen-pal service turned dating site for Canadian prisoners.
I talked to the the 41-year-old last month, just after he received his first two letters in almost a year of being on the site. Hales was pleasantly surprised to receive them and said his goal for now is just to get mail—he'll take things a day at a time after that.
"I expected honestly at some point to be getting hate mail," the soft-spoken killer said over the phone. "I was surprised when somebody wrote me and wanted to be pen pals."
Some of the country's most heinous criminals are featured on the pages of Canadian Inmates Connect, with a catalog of bachelors ranging from killers and thugs to rapists and pimps.
Eaton Centre shooter Christopher Husbands is on there.
So is York University webcam rapist and killer Brian Dickson.
Jane Creba's killer Jeremiah Valentine is on there—and says he dreams about the day he is out of prison and can take his two sons to the park. "I am seeking a confident woman that does not judge a book by its cover," he wrote on the site.
Brett Jones, a former semi-pro hockey star who bludgeoned his girlfriend with a garden tool in Red Deer back in 2009, is on there: "Personality is something I have never lacked," he addressed his potential suitors. "I've always been outgoing and sociable. Manners are important to me. It's a desirable trait."
Magnotta killed a man and then chopped up his body parts and mailed them around the country, setting off an international manhunt. Convicted of first-degree murder, he is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Some of these guys say they're just looking for friendship.
John Derek Mills, for example—who is serving time for "armed robbery, discharging at police, dangerous driving etc."—wrote that he needs a good friend to remind him what's good in the world: "I hope you can be that friend."
But the majority of prisoners on the site are openly looking for love—or at the very least, trailer visits, or as they are officially known here, "private family visits."
When founder Melissa Fazzina, 39, started the site six years ago, after reading about a similar operation in the US, she thought it'd be a pen pal service that could make her a couple of extra bucks.
But as it has evolved into a blatant matchmaking service, Fazzina has faced criticism from those concerned about victims and community safety and the general offensiveness of giving these guys—particularly those on domestic-related charges—a chance to set up dates.
Her rebuttal is simple. She believes her site supports rehabilitation by helping inmates create positive connections in the outside world.
And those who work with prisoners (and ex-cons) tend to at least cautiously agree.
Garry Glowacki is the executive director at the Bridge Prison Ministry in Brampton. As a former offender and heroin addict himself, he knows what it's like to do time—and to long for companionship in the lonely confines of a concrete cell.
He has his reservations about the site, but he strongly believes in the power of community connection.
"Almost anything that can create a sense of community and belonging upon release, or even while you're in there, increases the possibility of a safe reintegration—because often these guys are coming out with nothing and nobody," he told VICE.
But he cautions people to remember that sometimes there is good reason for that—and to him, there is a stark difference between a pen-pal program and a dating service.
While he sees value in Fazzina's idea of writing inmates as a "random act of kindness," he cautions people to be wary of the risks of getting into a prison relationship.
Obviously, there are fucked up people on both sides of the bars. But should anyone be denied something as basic as human interaction?
"To say they don't deserve this or that removes the fact that they're human beings," he said.
Catherine Latimer, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, a nonprofit organization that works with offenders and promotes just and humane responses to crime, echoes this sentiment: "They're in prison as punishment, not for punishment," she told VICE. "They have a right to communicate with people. They have a right to have family and friends on the outside."
She appreciates that a site like this could be upsetting to some.
"It's understandable that victims would have a strong subjective reaction to anything they see as a benefit to someone that hurt one of their own. But that's the reason we have a justice system—to ensure it [their punishment] is impartial and objective," she said.
But while she is supportive of victims receiving all the support they need to overcome the trauma of the crimes committed against them or their loved ones, "that shouldn't compromise justice and the rights of others."
"A lot of it boils down to the fact that these guys are going to get out of jail," Glowacki said. "They're coming out. If they can come out with more support and a community connection, the chance of them having a successful reintegration increases.
"Look, do I think this thing is weird? Oh yeah. But I think weird is kind of wonderful sometimes."
Plus, he added, this is going to happen with or without this site.
"If people knew just how many love letters Bernardo gets, they'd faint," he said.
Latimer seconded that.
The membership on CIC fluctuates—at one point in July, there were 160 men and one woman listed, including dangerous offender Renee Acoby, who is doing time for forcible confinement and cocaine trafficking.
Partway through the month, another woman popped up: Kowtar Rodol, who is doing time for aggravated assault and weapons, and is looking "to correspond with men in hopes of creating new friendships full of positivity and laughter."
"I love all animals so feel free to even just send a simple card with a cute puppy on it just to say hello. I would be forever grateful!" she wrote. "If you would like to know more about me and are willing to take the time to write me, I will anxiously await your letter. Nothing else brightens my day then [sic] receiving mail. I look forward to hearing from you. Keep well and always find a reason to smile just as I do."
The number of profiles fluctuates, according to Fazzina.
"For example, I just removed two because they said they found what they were looking for."
One hundred sixty is just a drop in the federal corrections bucket. On any given day, there are roughly 15,000 offenders in Canada's 43 federal correctional institutions. When you add in provincial institutions that number balloons closer to 140,000.
Fazzina doesn't distinguish between crimes, or who can and can't join. As long as they can pay the $35 annual fee, they're in.
"I don't pick and choose... I can't," she said—though she acknowledged a lot of these guys are in prison for horrendous things. She said she too was nervous when it first started with some of the more extreme or high-profile crimes. But hearing their stories, she has learned that a lot of these guys came from shitty situations to begin with. Their childhoods were traumatic. They were set up to fail.
"For me, in order to understand things, I've had the opportunity to confront a lot of these guys [about their convictions]. Even pedophiles. I'm a mother, so some of these charges don't sit well with me as a mom. [But] hearing their stories—again not that it justifies it—it allows me to have a little more understanding of how crimes happen."
Fazzina explained that she is cognizant that there are victims to each of these crimes, and she has struggled with that. But like Glowacki, she believes that this is a human right.
"Their crimes should not define who they are. If you took the time to get to know one [of them], you'd see they were somebody before this, and they'll be somebody after this."
Correctional Services Canada (CSC) wouldn't do an interview for this story. Spokespeople said it would be "inappropriate to comment on a third party website" and sent an email outlining their general mission statement. They also stressed that federal inmates do not have access to the internet or email.
Any exchanges are done by snail mail—pencil and paper letters sent to and from the prisons. The inmates include their addresses on their profiles.
Fazzina said she is doing CSC a favor by running this website.
"There have been very dangerous people [in prison] who have now just calmed down," she told VICE. "They have something to look forward to. They've possibly got somebody they can come out to. Somebody that's visiting them. And they don't want to screw that up."
Gord Longhi, a probation officer for more than 25 years and current union leader, sees this as a short-term solution. It raises "red flags" for him.
"I'm sure, like anything, it's gonna help some of these guys," he told VICE. "But from a corrections standpoint, I'd really be worried about putting the women in harm's way.
"Most of the guys that are in there, they have some pretty serious issues to work through... this seems like a distraction to me."
He has a point. Scrolling through the profiles, it seems some of these guys are wildly picky—and "supportive" and "intelligent" aren't always high on their lists.
Mark Moore, who claims to have been wrongfully convicted of quadruple homicides, is looking for "Miss Universe between the ages of 22–40, in good shape that would like to explore wid (sic) a Rap Star. Race ain't a issue, perhaps a bubble butt but certainly double Ds."
Lee Reynard, who is serving time for possession of child pornography, internet luring, and distribution of child pornography, is looking for love. At 5'8", he specifies he'd like a lady that is shorter than him and preferably between the ages of 18–35 "to develop a friendship with, or eventually a long-lasting relationship."
Charlie Gagne is no longer listed on the site.
After 14 years in prison, the Montreal hitman will be eligible for parole this September. His wife died of cancer during his time behind bars, and the 43-year-old says he fell into a crippling loneliness after that.
Gagne joined the site on a whim, he told VICE—and now, as he wraps up his sentence in a minimum-security institution, he's getting married again. His partner—who he said would not want to be interviewed—started writing out of curiosity and did not expect to fall in love with a convict.
He credits her with giving him motivation to better himself.
"Every day I wake up with a smile, and I'm working out. I'm not as miserable. It's like I care," he said. "It's like, really, you like me? I'm a liar, I'm a manipulator, I've killed people. But she sees things in me. And I'm willing to cross oceans for this woman. She's got certain values I'm willing to respect, and that's my incentive to better myself.
"I'm on my way out, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do now."
Fazzina and some of the guys on there argue that, in some aspects, it's safer than other dating sites. If you were to go on Plenty of Fish for example, you have no idea who you're getting involved with—you could end up with a murderer on there, too, and not know it.
At least on here, they say, it's all out in the open. Each profile clearly lists the convictions he or she is doing time for. However, it's up to the guys to disclose their convictions. Fazzina googles them as best as she can, but she does not have access to their records.
While she has confronted guys who were not entirely forthcoming about their situations, some profiles are still kind of vague.
For example, a Jack Kelley, 30—an alarmingly muscular man who is looking for a "down ass chick"—lists that he is in prison on "CHARGES/CONVICTIONS PENDING (SERIOUS STUFF) (sic)."
Kelley writes in his profile that "when I'm not in jail, my life is the best and I'm the happiest guy in the world."
... But he is in jail. All of them are.
Latimer has reservations about why an inmate-exclusive site would draw someone's interest: "The [inmates] might have a lot of redeeming qualities... but you sort of wonder why you'd be attracted to them because they are inmates."
Fazzina admits she thought the same thing in the beginning. But she has been just as fascinated by the respondents as she has by the inmates.
"Sure there are women out there writing because they can relate to these guys, pain fixes pain, they have a lot in common with their lifestyle, their upbringing, or their family members have been involved with criminal activity their whole life."
But she also gets religious people, or university students doing research projects, and even people who are simply curious about prison life.
Even the guys she expects will never get a letter end up surprising her.
"There's a lid for every pot," she said.
Frankie Dorsey—a designated dangerous offender and a repeat offender pimp—has been in prison on and off since the 1980s. He admits that some of the women he's gotten letters from clearly have issues. He has had to tell women not to write him anymore. He recognizes it's just not a good idea—for either of them.
Fazzina explained that a lot of the women start out writing—just like Gagne's new belle—out of curiosity. They don't expect to fall in love with a criminal, but then they get to know them...
But getting to third—or even second—base in these cases is not an overnight process.
Getting approved for trailer visits—or even phone calls—takes time. There are forms and screening processes and layers of red tape for everything in prison. It can take weeks or even months.
Hales said prison has been lonely and isolating. He has been cut off from his family and friends. He understands that the murder of his wife was a horrific crime.
"COC sees it in the vain of domestic violence, a very brutal attack, and I get that. It was a horrific crime... [but] I'm trying to do everything I can to leave the person that I was behind, and I'm hoping that anyone who goes to that site or reads your article or decides to contact me can see that."
I asked Fazzina if she'd be open to dating a prisoner, after her years of experience facilitating relationships.
"I always say 'never say never.' You get to know these guys, and you see a different side of them," she said. "But these guys don't even think that way when it comes to me. A lot of them are just terrified [of me]. And they would never want to suggest anything."
But some of them have become friends.
Like Dorsey, 55. When his father died a few years ago, Fazzina went to the funeral—their first time meeting in person.
"I looked around the room there, and it was filled with people from the streets. Pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, thieves. They weren't my true friends. It's that street life," he said. "Melissa showed me that you can meet people that are on the opposite end of the fence. And that if you ever do get out, these are the kinds of people you'll need."
To the people who don't want him to have this opportunity, he said, "you have to give people chances."
But he also acknowledged that, as a dangerous offender, he's run out of chances. At least in this conversation, Dorsey took responsibility for his crimes. He's been a pimp since the 1980s and says he was a product of his environment—it was the family business.
As a dangerous offender, he is likely never getting out. He knows that. But he doesn't want to give up hope—not on getting out of jail, not on bettering himself, and not on love.
Gagne perhaps put it best: "What can I say? I ain't no grand prize, and I ain't no prince charming. I'm just who I am."
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