Walker's Trail of Pain | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Walker's Trail of Pain

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 6, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

Walker's Trail of Pain

For the past 18 months, Sheena Walker has lived quietly with daughters Emily, now 4, and Lily, 2, at her mother Barbara's turn-of-the-century fieldstone home outside the small southwestern Ontario town of Paris. The attractive, dark-browed 22-year-old sometimes attends Sunday services at a local United Church. From September until June, she took her older girl to a twice-weekly preschool program at a public library in the neighboring village of Ayr. Occasionally, she meets friends for drinks at a popular pub overlooking the scenic Grand River, which flows through downtown Paris. But despite the notoriety of her father, Albert Johnson Walker, and troubling questions about their relationship, local residents seem reluctant to pry into her private life. "People who know her don't mention her father when she's in here," says Ayr coffeeshop owner Steve Buck. "And I wouldn't tell anybody who she was if they didn't know her."

The efforts to protect her from unwanted scrutiny are understandable. For most of the past decade, Sheena Walker's life has been marked by turmoil and instability. First, there was the acrimonious breakup of her parents' marriage, which split the family in two. Sheena and her older sister, Jillian, now 26, chose to live with their father while a court granted Barbara custody of the two younger children, Duncan, now 19, and Heather, 16. Then there were her six years on the run with her father, who allegedly fled Canada with as much as $3.2 million stolen from clients of companies he controlled - Walker's Financial Services Inc. and United Canvest Corp. Finally, there was her return to Paris in December, 1996, accompanied by her daughters and followed by a horde of reporters seeking - unsuccessfully - an answer to one of the most disturbing questions raised by the Walker saga: who is the father of Sheena's children?

But for dozens of mainly elderly investors who lost some or all of their life savings when Albert Walker fled Canada, there are more pressing mysteries: how much money is left, and can it be recovered? Their questions may be answered in mid-July when the London, Ont., office of the accounting firm KPMG Inc., which is administering the bankrupt estates of Walker and his company Walker's Financial, applies to an English court to take control of assets known to have belonged to the fugitive financier. Those assets - some of them purchased in the name of victim Ronald Platt - include the sailboat on which Platt was allegedly killed, oil paintings, gold bars and cash. They are worth an estimated $290,000 and were seized by police when they arrested Walker.

KPMG is also seeking access to 25 bank accounts scattered around England, France, Italy, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, many of them in the names of either Platt or his former girlfriend Elaine Boyes. "We've been able to establish that he controlled these accounts," says Angelo D'Ascanio, a London, Ont., lawyer representing KPMG. "The problem is we don't know what's in them."

As investigators try to untangle the financial wreckage, friends and acquaintances in Paris, where Walker lived for 12 years, are still grappling with their conflicting images of the man. Many remember the churchgoer who sat in the same pew every Sunday with his wife and children, sang in the choir and occasionally distributed communion. Some downtown Paris merchants recall a tall, handsome man who was charming, articulate and invariably well dressed. Ex-employees describe Walker as an ambitious businessman with a vision of a network of one-stop financial centres where clients could have their income tax done, set up a retirement account or purchase mutual funds, government bonds and other products. "He was certainly enterprising," says John Moran, who was a senior manager with Walker's Financial for about two years before Walker fled. "He wanted to be a wealthy and influential man."

Others have less flattering recollections. Bertha Searson, a 78-year-old Ayr resident who sold Walker her tax and accounting company in the late 1970s, claims he was habitually late with his monthly payments to cover the purchase price. Brantford, Ont.-based financial consultant Jeffery Brittain once placed a client's money with Walker but says he waited nine months to collect his commission. And Eric Winter, a 76-year-old retired salesman from Brantford, says that in the mid-1980s his late wife, Myrtle, turned down a nephew's $100,000 offer for her tax and bookkeeping company to accept a higher bid from Walker. But he claims she never received the money, and later declared bankruptcy. "She was very upset," Winter recalls. "I used to wake up in the middle of the night and she'd be on the side of the bed crying her heart out."

Albert Walker and Barbara McDonald met in 1968 at the University of Waterloo, where she was a student and he was working in the library. Three months later, on Oct. 25, they were married in a chapel at the university, and then lived for a while in Scotland. The couple returned to her home town of Ayr in 1971, around the time her father, Jack McDonald, died, and the following year their first child, Jillian, was born. They attended Knox United in Ayr and he served as a youth counsellor, taught Sunday school and was made a church elder.

But professionally he seemed to be trying to find his calling. In the 10 years after he got married, Walker worked as a manager trainee at Zellers, a laborer for a feed supply company, a cattle herder and a life insurance salesman. He also took four university courses, in literary criticism, creative writing, computer training and business administration, each at a different institution. "There was always some excuse why the job wasn't any good," recalls his brother-in-law Bob McDonald. "It was getting to the point where there was no money coming in."

Despite their financial difficulties, the Walkers paid $145,000 in 1978 for their turn-of-the-century fieldstone home, a two-storey, five-bedroom dwelling standing on 30 hectares of land just outside Paris. That same year, the couple incorporated Walker's Financial Services, a company they had formed several years earlier to prepare income tax returns and provide bookkeeping services for small business. Walker's Financial began to expand rapidly after acquiring a similar company called Oxford Bookkeeping Systems of Woodstock in December, 1980. The financier looked for companies to purchase, and by the end of the 1980s his firm had branches in nine southwestern Ontario communities, including London, Kitchener and Stratford.

Walker also diversified by selling mutual funds, investing in mortgages and providing advice on wealth management. In September, 1982, Walker formed United Canvest Corp., registered in the Cayman Islands, and in his promotional literature he promised "considerable tax savings." He planned to purchase Canadian government bonds and pay out the earnings in the form of higher share prices, so investors would have a capital gain, where only half the value was taxable, rather than simply receive interest, which is taxable in full. The financier eventually took in $2.6 million, mainly from friends and associates, and made high-risk investments that lost money, police investigators say.

According to one investigator, RCMP Cpl. Ralph King, Walker's character and behavior changed in 1989 after two couples, who were personal friends, entrusted him with a total of $8.7 million realized from the sale of farm properties north of Toronto. In January of that year, he sold an estate for $4 million for Robert Staley, a retired Ontario government forester, and his wife, Elizabeth, who now live in Stouffville, Ont., 45 km north of Toronto. They turned over $3.6 million to him to invest and manage for them.

Elizabeth Staley told Maclean's that she and her husband became friends with the Walkers in the 1970s while living in Ayr and attending the same church. She said they introduced him to her brother and his wife, Bill and Sheila Richardson, who owned a farm near Gormley, 40 km north of Toronto. The Richardsons allowed Walker to represent them when they sold the farm in December, 1989, and they subsequently entrusted him with all but $200,000 of the $5.37 million they received from the deal. The two couples claim to have lost more than $2 million, but would not discuss Walker's impact on their lives.

In a sworn statement prepared for KPMG, however, the RCMP's King says the Staley and Richardson millions certainly had an impact on Walker. "He began to travel extensively throughout Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, Mexico, Britain and Switzerland," King states in an affidavit. "He began to have extramarital affairs, although at work keeping up the appearance of being a happily married family man. Walker purchased a Jaguar and his taste in clothing, restaurants and the good life was on the rise."

While he was enjoying an opulent lifestyle, Walker's marriage was falling apart. In May, 1990, he went to Switzerland, ostensibly on business, accompanied by a female employee with whom he was having an affair. Upon returning, he acknowledged to his wife that he was seeing someone else, although the relationship ended a few weeks later. The Walkers tried to reconcile but failed. They agreed to separate before he left on Aug. 9 on a nine-day vacation in England with his three younger children. During his absence, she had her lawyer draw up a statement of claim seeking custody of the four children, support payments and exclusive possession of the family home.

The day after he got back from England, Walker rented a home in Brantford, five kilometres east of Paris, and on Aug. 24 he moved the children there while his wife was at work. He left no forwarding address, nor his unlisted telephone number. He also prepared a counterclaim and filed it in Brantford on Aug. 30, the day before he and his wife were to appear in court for a custody and support hearing. Walker admitted that he and his wife had been having marital problems for about five years, and had seen a professional counsellor for about 18 months.

He, too, asked for custody of all four children, and backed his request with handwritten notes from them stating that they would prefer to live with their father. In the neat and measured writing of a child, Sheena Walker listed three reasons for preferring her father over her mother: she would enjoy more freedom, more affection and fewer disagreements. "I don't feel that the relationship between my mother and I contains enough love and affection for us to be together on a daily basis," she wrote. "However, my father shows me a lot of affection on a regular basis and we are very close."

On Aug. 31, Judge James Kent awarded Walker interim custody of his two older daughters, but left the two younger children with his wife and ordered him to pay $300 per month in support. The Walkers lived apart during the fall of 1990, but there were still troubles between them. On Nov. 4, he tried to push his way into the family home, and she responded by calling in the police, who subsequently charged him with forcible entry. On Nov. 28, he charged $12,542 on his American Express card for two first-class tickets on a British Airways flight from Toronto to London. Then on Dec. 5, he and daughter Sheena caught their flight, and disappeared for almost six years.

By the end of 1990, family and business associates had become suspicious about Walker's departure and began notifying police. Barbara Walker reported that her daughter was missing and likely abducted. Investors complained that large sums of money were gone. A joint investigation, launched by the Woodstock City Police, Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP, eventually revealed that between July 19 and Dec. 4, 1990, alone Walker had withdrawn just over $1 million from accounts he controlled.

Banking records showed that he used the money to purchase pounds sterling, Swiss francs, French francs and gold bars from a Toronto-based currency company. In some cases, he moved money from Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce accounts at branches in southwestern Ontario to a Credit Suisse account in Toronto, and from there to his Credit Suisse account in Geneva. He also left behind a $41,000 balance owing on his American Express card, which included the purchase of a diamond ring and earrings for $11,556 from Birks Jewellers in Toronto on Nov. 16, 1990. Police eventually compiled enough information to lay 18 charges of theft, fraud and money-laundering, and to make Walker number 1 on their most wanted list. Last week, they amended the list to 37 counts.

Meanwhile, Barbara Walker hired private investigators to look for Sheena, while friends and neighbors in Paris held fund-raisers to offset her costs. She also made several unpleasant discoveries about her husband's activities prior to his disappearance. She learned he had taken out a $90,000 second mortgage on the family home shortly before they separated. In documents filed in court as part of the ongoing custody dispute, she alleged that Walker may have helped their oldest daughter, Jillian, get breast implants. She also claimed that a family physician had informed her that he had helped Sheena, then no older than 15, obtain a prescription for birth control pills. Finally, in June, 1992, Barbara Walker filed for a divorce, which was granted in early 1993.

She refuses to comment about her ex-husband and most of the elderly investors who lost money are equally tight-lipped. Some will admit to being hurt and angry, others are embarrassed that they were taken in by the lure of high interest rates or big tax savings. John Nafziger, a 74-year-old retired farmer willing to speak openly, admits to losing about $70,000. Nafziger, now living in New Hamburg, 20 km west of Kitchener, says Walker had handled his income tax for several years and was ready with investment opportunities once he and his late wife sold their farm. "It was heartbreaking at the time," says Nafziger, as anger enters his voice. "He knew how to play you, the dirty jerk."

Maclean's July 6, 1998