The Trials of Philip Halliday

Did an out-of-work fisherman from Digby knowingly smuggle one and a half tons of cocaine into Spain?

A ship with a Canadian flag on it
Illustration by Min Gyo Chung

Six days out of Antigua, at 25° N, 45° W, Philip Halliday took a break from his watchkeeping aboard the Destiny Empress, a 190-foot former Canadian Coast Guard vessel that he and a crew of seven were sailing from the Caribbean to Spain on behalf of her new owner, an investor named Peter Berkey based in Malaga. It was December 11, 2009, a Friday, the rain had passed, and the retired scallop fisherman from Digby, Nova Scotia, was leaning against the gunwale of the old buoy tender when a bright rainbow appeared. Translucent beams of coloured light, close enough to grasp, touched the waves splashing at the ship’s waterline beneath where he stood, and he wondered where, on a ship that carried no cargo, the pot of gold might be. In Spain, perhaps. Halliday liked to travel and had never been.

A week later, the Destiny Empress was 630 kilometres southwest of the Galician port town of Vigo, home to one of Europe’s largest fishing fleets and their final destination. Halliday was in the habit of calling his wife, Sheree, on the satellite phone, and he told her he would likely be out of touch for a couple of days. He had also been speaking with Michael McDermott, the vessel’s former skipper and the man who hired him. McDermott had missed the crossing, but told Halliday to contact him when he reached Spain and the end of a journey that had turned out to be uneventful, mostly. The phone was turned off when McDermott tried to reach the ship from Morocco, so he called Berkey’s associate, Robert Rothery, who was awaiting its arrival in Spain.

“Is the Canadian on the boat? ” asked McDermott.

“Not on this phone, mate,” said Rothery.

The next day, Kevin Fletcher, the skipper, had to contend with weather he would describe as “not kind.” The ship was “getting battered” and taking thirty-six-knot winds “right on the nose.” Still, she was making headway, and by 8:30 the next morning, Sunday, December 20, the skies still threatened and the light was bad, but the waves had settled.

That was when the trouble started. Fletcher summoned Halliday, off duty and below deck, to the bridge.

“What’s this? ” Fletcher asked his first mate as he pointed into the darkness.

“I don’t know,” said Halliday. He could make out two small boats, possibly Zodiacs, approaching the ship rapidly with no lights on. The agitated skipper was on the satellite phone with Berkey, who had been advising him on a course of entry.

“They’re telling us to stop the boat,” said Fletcher.

“Are they saying it in English, over the radio, or what? ” said Berkey.

“There’s nothing on the radio,” answered Fletcher. (There had been no transmission over channel 16, the international emergency communications frequency, as was customary when the police boarded a vessel in distress.)

“Fuck,” said Berkey.

“Is there pirates around here? ” asked Halliday.

“Mate, I’m going to hang up,” said Fletcher, who had decided not to halt or alter his course as Halliday went below to find out if he could see any better from there. Suddenly, gunshots were coming from the boats, and Halliday, “scared to look,” hurried back up to the wheelhouse, where Fletcher was on the phone again.

“My friend, we’ve got real problems here,” yelled Fletcher at Berkey as the men on the boats started shooting. “We’ve got two RIBs [rigid inflatable boats] out here with people shouting, ‘Stop the ship, stop the ship!’ They’re firing guns but haven’t hit anything, still got the windows—”

“Do what it is they’re telling you to,” said Berkey.

“Say again? ”

“You’re doing nothing wrong.”

“But we don’t know whether they’re police or pirates or who they fucking are. They’re saying, ‘Stop the ship, stop the ship, stop the ship.’ ”

“In English or on the radio or what? ”

“Nothing on the radio, just two RIBs buzzing—”

“How many people? ”

“You’re breaking up—”

Fletcher yelled at the crew member on watch to “close the fucking door” to the wheelhouse, and then the windows were being shot out. He finally gave the order to stop the ship, and Halliday raced back down to the engine room to make it happen.

“Is it Greenpeace doing something stupid? ” shouted Berkey over the line. “Are there any markings on the boats? Hello? ”

Below deck, the chief engineer stepped out of his cabin to see what was going on as Halliday yelled at him to put the engines out of gear. Halliday was on his way back to the wheelhouse when somebody came up the stairs behind him and slammed him to the floor. Winded, he drew himself up, but his assailant kicked him in the stomach and flattened him again. He felt the man’s knee pressing him into the steel floor, now strewn with broken glass.

The man tied Halliday’s hands behind his back and dragged him across the passageway, yelling at him to keep his head turned. Halliday was certain pirates had boarded the vessel. He thought, There’s nothing on this ship! We’re dead.

He was led to his cabin. Inside was a bucket for a toilet, but also a safe. A man in a red floater suit was waiting.

“Where’s the key? ” the man asked.

“I have no idea,” said Halliday.

Where’s the key? ”

“I don’t know,” he repeated. “I never seen the safe open.”

“Why do you think we came aboard? ” the man asked.

“I don’t know.”

A second man struck him on the side of the head. Once. Twice. Three times.

“Why do you think we’re here? ” the man in the red floater suit asked again.

Halliday stole a look at the men around the room. He was certain they were pirates.

“For money? ”

The man in the red floater suit ordered him out of the cabin, and that was when he saw the word POLICIA stencilled in big white capital letters on the jacket of one of the men in the corridor. He was led to another room and told to sit against the foot of the wall with the rest of the crew. Hands still tied, he could do nothing when his fisherman’s jackknife fell out of his pocket. One of the police heard it drop, picked it up, and struck him across the face.

He could hear other police officers making their way through the ship. One was breaking down the wheelhouse door with an axe.

The following day was a Monday, and Sheree Halliday, a caregiver with the Victorian Order of Nurses, was getting ready for Christmas when she noticed a handsome red cardinal landing on the bare branches of the tree in her backyard. She and Philip had bought the house in 1983, the year before their marriage at the Digby United Baptist Church. She had never seen a cardinal there before, but the day had already started oddly, with a 7 a.m. call from a crew member who had been on the Destiny Empress with Philip in Antigua. He wanted to know if Philip had made it to Spain. He said he had heard that the ship might have run into bad weather. Were these omens? she would ask herself early that afternoon, when her twenty-two-year-old son, Daren, called to ask if she could drop by the house before seeing her next client. Sheree “heard in his voice that something was not quite right.” She figured that Daren had taken his father’s truck and maybe dented it. Or worse. Here we go, she thought as she pulled in to the driveway, but the truck was parked as usual and fine. Cody, her elder son by two years, was waiting inside the house and told her to sit down. He had bad news. He had taken a call from the Spanish police, who said that Philip “had either been arrested or was going to be arrested.” Cody apologized, because he was “too shocked to remember exactly what was said.” Still, he had managed to ask, “What for? ”

“Drugs,” the Guardia Civil officer said. “I’m sorry.”

“And that was it,” says Sheree. “Maybe three or four sentences—that’s all Cody was told.” She figured that maybe her husband had one of the other crewmen make the call, and that he was going to stay an extra couple of days in Spain. “It can’t be true. It’s a joke, right? ”

She went off to tend to her client, leaving her sons surprised at how well she’d taken the news, but then she learned that her brother needed to have his gallbladder removed before Christmas. After that, as if things weren’t bad enough, she learned that her mother had died in her Annapolis Valley nursing home. All of a sudden, the shocked family felt besieged. Sheree told the boys, “We’re not telling anybody about Philip, because it’s not true. We’re just keeping it under our hat, and we’ll sort it out tomorrow when your father calls.” She was sure that the accusations were false, or that maybe one of the crew got caught with a joint and the police had confiscated the boat, “because Lord knows what can happen in Spain.”

The next morning—“just to see, just to make sure”—she decided to do an Internet search of the Destiny Empress name, and there it was: news of the bust in the Spanish and English newspapers. “As soon as I read ‘a ton and a half of cocaine,’ I knew things would never be the same.”

Philip Halliday, a willowy, silver-haired, mild-mannered man, was born on December 3, 1956. He had not gone to sea for two years when in January 2009 his friend David Gregory put a word in his ear about work on a ship moored off Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Fishing was in the Hallidays’ blood, although he had not actually wanted to go out on the scallop boats at all. He would rather have been an electrician or a carpenter, but the money was just too good, and, in the way of the district, he had been working off the wharf since grade twelve. His father had started him pitching haddock—getting into the hulls of boats laden with their catch and hauling fish out by the thousand with a pitchfork. He was sixteen years old and making $12 an hour, the same as a deckhand gets paid today and ten times what he’d have made working in a store. Once out on the scallop boats, he earned several hundred dollars a week—a small fortune—and within a few years he had a car new from the factory, but he also had debts. Every year, he vowed that when he got into the black he would quit, but he was hooked, and before he knew it he had been scallop fishing all his life. Fishing was what he did, regardless of whether he liked it.

Besides, it was hard to stay away from the water when there were virtually no other jobs. Those were better days, before the Walmart and the Sobeys and the Atlantic Superstore—days when the catch was still plentiful and brought a good price. The pay was some good while it lasted, although he still wasn’t happy. Things might have been different if he had owned a boat; but his father had lost his scallop and groundfishing licences to a change in government regulations and a wily partner who, “when the paperwork was done, put the licence in his name,” snatching Halliday’s inheritance without paying the family a cent. “Philip saw how his friends who owned boats lived and the way that he did,” says Sheree, “and how hard it was for him to fish and make ends meet. Oh, he was bitter, for years he was.”

Then, in 2007, Halliday underwent a triple bypass for the heart trouble he blamed on the junk food he had lived on for most of his thirty-five years—all of the TV dinners, processed foods, and hot dogs he would sometimes eat cold on the scallop draggers that stopped for no man to eat, piss, or rest. Following his doctor’s advice, he retired. What with work outside the fishery hard to come by, the chances of him ever holding down another full-time job were slim. Sheree says he was “in a rut financially and had reached a point where he thought he was too old—or even too dumb, at times I’d hear him say—to do anything else.” He had been helping a friend with a little carpentry when Gregory told him about the Destiny Empress, bound for the Caribbean after she was fixed up. Halliday, who liked to travel and had never been to the Caribbean, implored Gregory to tell him if a job came up, and after a couple of weeks one did.

“What’s the money? ” he asked.

“Thirty-five hundred US,” said Gregory.

“When do we go? ”

A few days later, the pair of friends drove to Shelburne and saw the Destiny Empress for the first time. The ship was in dry dock at Shelburne Ship Repair, being treated to a litany of repairs and a paint job. She had been ill cared for since her arrival in 2005, after the Crown Assets office in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, sold her to a South African–born Montrealer. In 2008, she was sold again to a company under the direction of Peter Berkey, after which Dean Rothery, the son of his British associate Robert, and an Irishman named Michael McDermott travelled to Nova Scotia to manage the refurbishment.

The Destiny Empress, Halliday could see, was “an old ship.” A gear pump for lubricating the shafts needed to be replaced. The toilets didn’t work. There were issues with the hydraulics, and the single lifeboat was ailing. But it was the redundant coast guard vessel’s unusual seawater ballast fuel system that particularly confounded her new owners. When McDermott and Rothery took Halliday below deck to examine the engines, he said, “No way I can work on them. You need someone who knows what they’re doing down there.”

He agreed to sign on as a deckhand for the maiden voyage, expected the following week. However, there were more problems and more delays, and when, come February, she left the harbour she did so only briefly before having to return for more work. Paddy Lyttle, a Royal Navy submarine veteran and a marine engineer at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, was brought in from Dartmouth to help out. He knew the ship well. He had worked on the CCGS Dawson, her sister ship, and in 1992 he was part of the six-man crew that brought the vessel, then the CCGS Parizeau, from the West Coast to Dartmouth. The Parizeau had enjoyed a reasonably illustrious career. Until June 2000, she had performed the varied research and survey work for which she was commissioned. But she also carried out fishery patrols, served with the RCMP during a Native fisheries dispute, and, in September 1998, took part in the ad hoc flotilla that searched for survivors after the crash of Swissair Flight 111, off Peggy’s Cove. At the Shelburne repair yard, Lyttle could see that the former Parizeau was “in terrible shape. It just made you want to cry.”

Lyttle turned down the job of chief engineer. He could see that Rothery “was the money man,” and that his “couple of buddies,” the Britons Anthony Briggs and William Archer, had “no clue. I don’t think they’d ever been to sea a day in their lives.” Still, Lyttle liked McDermott, who was “not an engineer but pretty sharp and picked things up pretty well, because he was a seaman.” As for Halliday, Lyttle considered him “very amiable, though I would not have employed him as an engineer.”

When the ship departed Shelburne for good, on March 11, 2009, Rothery had flown back to London, as Briggs and Archer had done already. David Gregory, who had returned to a seasonal job showing tourists around Halifax Harbour, was not on board either. McDermott was the skipper and had chosen Halliday as his first mate. Excited about his upcoming visit to the Caribbean, Philip asked Sheree if he could borrow the camera he had given her the previous Christmas. “Sure,” she told him, “but if you do anything to that camera, don’t come home.”

What Halliday didn’t know was that for the better part of a year Detective Inspector Steve Ellen of London’s Metropolitan Police Service (popularly known as the Met) had been observing a mostly Albanian network of money launderers and drug dealers that had moved over £9.8 million ($18 million) through a series of bogus money exchanges. On January 21, 2009, around the time that Halliday first saw the Destiny Empress, Ellen led a raid on the home of one of the gang members that led to a couple of arrests and netted 1.5 kilograms of cocaine. “Run-of-the-mill stuff,” says Ellen. “We probably do one of those every couple of weeks.” Except that in this case they discovered papers in a bedroom wastebasket concerning bank transfers of over $200,000 for the rehabilitation of a vessel called the Destiny Empress, registry number 328076, at a shipyard in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

As part of the ongoing Operation Montecarl, Ellen dispatched a pair of detective constables to Nova Scotia to check out the Britons “having to contend with a Canadian winter in a makeshift office in the Shelburne shipyard,” as they supervised the refit of a vessel he suspected was being designed to transport drugs. The question was where? But Ellen’s men arrived after the ship had left, and, worse still, her transponder was turned off. The trail had gone cold.

On March 19, the Destiny Empress arrived in Jolly Harbour, Antigua, where she remained for the next four months. Halliday’s work was done, but he stayed on for a couple of days to sightsee before leaving for home. Rothery had flown out to Antigua from Britain, and after only two weeks he called Halliday in Digby to see if he would rejoin the ship. The Destiny Empress, he said, was sailing to Spain. Philip talked it over with Sheree, and on April 11 he returned to Antigua, where McDermott picked him up and assigned him to work with the ship’s engineer, doing “whatever he wanted done” for $200 US a day.

The day after Halliday arrived for his second stint, Pierre F. Munoz, a Montrealer, posted a photograph of the ship on Gary LeDrew’s website Louisbourg Blog, out of Nova Scotia. Amateur ship spotters had been posting photos of the Destiny Empress for years, and they were providing a record of her movements despite the disconnected transponder. LeDrew commented that the ship, “which out wore her welcome here has found a new Home in St Johns Antigua and has a new coat of paint too.” The hull that had been painted white and then red and white when it was in government service was now, in the Munoz photograph, green with two broad white stripes from bow to stern.

With the ship going nowhere, Halliday was enjoying himself, often going ashore for a few beers with the skipper. He liked McDermott, and the pair “hung around some” until April 24, when the Irishman flew home for a month. In his absence, Rothery appointed Halliday acting captain, “in case something happened, because he knew I could move the ship.” After just a week, though, he told Rothery he had to go home because he needed his medication. He thought he was “finished with the ship,” but he was a known quantity, a good man to have on board, and two months later Rothery reached out to him again, this time to “help take the ship to Trinidad,” something he and McDermott planned to do “right away, to get beneath the hurricane belt.”

On July 18, Halliday landed in Antigua for the third time, and four days later the Destiny Empress arrived in Trinidad. After ten days, he flew back to Digby, “because me and my wife had a trip planned to go to Newfoundland,” and again he thought he was done. If the ship ever set sail for Spain, it seemed he would not be on it—but it did not appear to be headed anywhere. Rothery and Archer were commuting between the Caribbean, England, and Spain, and McDermott, who had returned to the ship, was carrying a letter addressed to “Dean Rodhery,” from a local marine contractor apparently commissioned by a survey company to find a vessel that could serve as a recording and steamer ship. The Destiny Empress’s owners appeared to be either peddling her or preparing her for some new episode.

In November 2009, Rothery contacted Halliday a fourth time to see if he was up for the overdue trip to Spain. Winter was approaching, and there was firewood to be bought, so Sheree said fine—on the condition that he come home by Christmas. Spain was another country Halliday had never seen, and McDermott had promised to show him around. “Dad,” teased Cody, “do you really know why you’re doin’ all this stuff? What are you helping them for? You’re probably smuggling drugs and don’t know it.” But Halliday and McDermott were tight, and even Sheree liked to talk to the Irishman when, from time to time, he called Digby. “Sometimes he’d been drinking,” recalled Philip. “I’d say, ‘Is anything goin’ on? Do you need me? ’ ‘Oh, yeah, I love you, man, I love you,’ he’d say. ‘When are you comin’ down, when am I goin’ to get to see ya? ’ ”

Halliday agreed to Rothery’s terms and flew to Trinidad on November 16 to join the crew, but when he arrived at the airport it was Rothery, not McDermott, who came to meet him. Rothery explained that they were going to pick up McDermott in Antigua, but Halliday was wary. “Mike and me were good friends,” he says. “I wasn’t going to go if he wasn’t there.” There were new men on board, including Kevin Fletcher, a British expatriate living in the Caribbean who wore his thin, greying hair in a ponytail, and had a real estate business, and another ferrying scuba divers to good water. He was under the impression that the ship had been sold to a German buyer in Spain.

When the ship left Trinidad two days later, Halliday assumed it was bound for Antigua to pick up his pal. However, just hours out of port, Rothery told Halliday that McDermott had flown to Europe after injuring his ribs in a fall, and that they needed to stop at Union Island, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to pick up another engineer. But there was no engineer when they reached Union Island, where Fletcher announced that the ship needed more work and that some of the crew, including himself, were to leave for the nearby island of Bequia. “We’re going on a trip for a couple of days to get a bit of a rest before we go on the long trip to Spain,” he said. Halliday was delighted, but one departing crew member objected to leaving the boat without an engineer. “When the boss says you go on a trip,” said Fletcher, “then you go on a trip.”

While Rothery and two of the crew stayed on board, Halliday, Fletcher, and two others left for Union Island. They proceeded by ferry to St. Vincent, then to Bequia, where they checked in to a local resort for a couple of nights. Halliday “just took it easy. It was beautiful there. I called my wife and told her where we were. She was excited. She went on the computer, and she said it was one of the top places to visit in the world. It was a dream for me.”

But the dream was disturbed. Halliday had heard rumours that a few days before he arrived, Rothery and a couple of his British mates had asked McDermott to accompany them onshore. McDermott figured they were going into town for supplies, but after they got into a taxi one of the men pointed a gun at him. McDermott opened the car door and jumped out, rolling down a steep bank, where he hid, injured, until morning. He had four broken ribs, and his passport, credit cards, and baggage were on the ship—not that he had any intention of going back for them. He wasn’t stupid. Besides, this was Antigua, not the United States or London, and on November 3 he managed to convince a local British Airways agent to sell him a ticket home with no papers.

Philip spoke to Sheree, who tried to find out what she could.

Hi Mike!

I got a call from Philip last night. He’s in the Grenadines. He asked me to e-mail you the following questions:

How are you?

What happened? (Did it really involve a gun?)

Will you be joining him soon?

He misses you and I don’t think he feels comfortable without you there.

Could you please let me know what’s up asap. He’s going to call me from Antigua to see if I’ve heard from you. I hope you are well.

Love, Sheree

On November 23, Halliday and the others returned to the Destiny Empress. That same day, a ship spotter who identified himself as Yvon Perchoc posted a photograph of the vessel, datelined Union Island, showing its bow from the vantage point of the water. In London, Detective Inspector Ellen could hardly believe his luck. In the nearly six months since his officers had returned from Shelburne, the ship’s whereabouts had been a mystery. Now here she was in Perchoc’s post. She had the same name, despite the new livery. The freshly painted green hull with white stripes was strikingly similar, Ellen observed, to the livery of Spain’s Guardia Civil. Operation Montecarl was warm again.

December 3 was Halliday’s fifty-third birthday, and after returning to Trinidad he, Rothery, and a young African American new to the crew went onshore to celebrate. Halliday wasn’t crazy about Rothery, but still picked him up drunk off the floor when he needed to. He was used to this sort of thing in Digby, and acted without judgment—a bit of fun, a hand when it was needed. What with McDermott not around, Rothery had offered Halliday the job of skipper, but he didn’t want it, because of his dyslexia and worries about the paperwork. Two days later, the ship left for Spain with Fletcher at the helm. Couldn’t happen soon enough, thought Halliday, worried that if they waited any longer he would have to skip the passage to be home for Christmas.

Illustration by Min Gyo Chung

As it turned out, Halliday wouldn’t make it home for another four Christmases. Even before the Guardia Civil intercepted the Destiny Empress on December 20, an Italian plane under the direction of MAOC, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre, had been following the vessel’s progress. Meanwhile, the Spanish police were monitoring the suspects’ cellphones. On December 16, Robert Rothery texted Peter Berkey. “Hello, mate. Me and him had it out tonight. He wanted me to tell you no matter what happens. There is 30 grand there for you. He and I will arrange my half million.” Two days later, McDermott called Rothery to ask about “the Canadian.” Rothery said, “Not on this phone, mate,” then contacted Berkey and informed him that he’d had to tell McDermott to shut up. The next day, December 19, as Fletcher contended with the storm beating down on the ship, Rothery arrived at the Hotel Bahía in Vigo, where his son Dean was staying with Berkey (whose real name was Richard Smit Peña). With no idea of what was about to transpire, Peña texted a contact in Ecuador to say, “I’m going to have a bit of sleep. Everything here is a hundred percent ready.”

The next morning, the Guardia Civil boarded the vessel, and it was clear that the job had been compromised. William Archer, the Rotherys’ sidekick, texted Robert’s wife, telling her to scrub the phones and ditch the social insurance numbers (“Get rid of the old man’s rubbish”), but it was too late. In London, the Met raided three houses owned or frequented by the Rothery gang, and seized guns, cash, and papers. Anthony Briggs was arrested, and Dean Rothery’s girlfriend was taken into custody. Back in Vigo, Peña, the Rotherys, and William Archer scrambled to get out of town.

The following day, December 21, the Guardia Civil telephoned the Halliday home in Digby. With Fletcher and Halliday steering under the watchful eyes of the force’s Special Operations Group, the Destiny Empress arrived at Ferrol. There, she was impounded, and, after a more comprehensive search than was possible at sea, a ton and a half of cocaine stored in one-kilogram packets was discovered in sackcloth bales, stashed in a compartment in the bilge, which was hidden with freshly laid carpet. The next morning, Peña was arrested at his home in Marbella, Spain.

Halliday’s trials had just begun. He, Fletcher, and five other crew members were loaded into a paddy wagon and taken to the Centro Penitenciario Teixeiro. Meanwhile, he was running a fever and displaying the symptoms of an extreme nervous condition. His heart was acting up, but he was not yet allowed to call home. He was moved to hospital in handcuffs. Only after several days was he returned to the penitentiary, where he was handed a rolled-up mattress and a blanket and told to sleep on the floor. A few hours later, he woke up “shaking uncontrollable.” He tried to get pills for his nerves, but quickly discovered that “everything is arful hard when nobody understands you.”

That afternoon, he started shaking again. It was then that two police officers took him into an interrogation room and asked him if anything strange had happened during the journey. “Now that I think of it, yes,” he said. “Stopping at Union Island and then going to St. Vincent, where Dean said he was going to pick up an engineer and did not, and Fletcher told us we had to get off the boat and go on to Bequia. That was strange.”

The recording of his first declaration lasted an hour and a half, after which he was taken to a different hospital. Eventually, he was returned to Teixeiro, where he had missed out on the distribution of clothing and towels. The prison had lost his belongings, including Sheree’s prized camera, never to be seen again. Nonetheless, as had been true all of his life, Halliday made friends easily. A Spanish prisoner taught him how to write the tickets to acquire what he needed from the prison store. Another helped him make his first call home, and after that he made a point of keeping some paper in his pocket to jot down anything he might want to tell the family. “I have to try Not to cry around all these Men. Some o them have Ben here a long time,” he wrote in the first of scores of letters home.

Jan 12, 2010

Dear Sheree

I love you more than anything. I now you was a strong woman, But now I know that you realy are. I miss you more than anything All i could think of when I was in the hospital was you. I was worried about you. all I wanted to do was talk to you. I know now that I’m here is that we have a wonderfull life. of course I all ready New that. I love so much that tears come every time I think of you. If it wasn’t for you I don’t now what I would do. Because I don’t now nothing what your on. Any way I love you so much went I get out of here and we go somewhere we will go togethere. I Never want to go with out you.

Love you very much


P. S. Your first love letter From me.

O I just can’t waite to put my arms around you and Hold you Nice and tight.

P. H. ♥ S. H.

An agonizing eight days went by before Sheree was able to speak to her husband, during which she had been far from okay. In Digby, the community had rallied. Halliday’s long-time employer, the Westport fleet owner and seafood processing magnate Daniel B. Kenney, supplied the lobster for a chowder fundraiser. A bank account was set up and swiftly collected upwards of $13,000 in donations. A Facebook group, Family and Friends of Philip Halliday, accumulated more than 1,300 members. Some Digby folk sold Christmas trees; others held yard sales or put on concerts. “We were telling ourselves, Okay, it’ll be three more months. Okay, six more months,” says Cody. “And that’s how Mom got through it as well. We kept thinking, six months and that’s it.”

Only the weeks passed, Philip was still in jail, and the rumours started. In Shelburne, there was speculation that he was “no babe in the woods and had been under RCMP surveillance for moving large weights of pot”; and in Centreville, halfway down the Neck, that “he’d done a run once before, only this time he’d been caught.” A deckhand hauling traps on the Bay of Fundy asked, “Why would a man take a job like that for just $200 a day, when you can make as much on lobster fishing and be home at night? ” Besides, they said, Philip had been working off the docks all his life. He must have known.

Stephanie Gough, the daughter of a friend he knew through his Campobello Island relatives, felt differently. She happened to be living in Spain when she heard of his plight, and she volunteered as the family’s go-between, translating the Spanish lawyers’ communiqués, and bringing Philip clothes, letters, and books. Maybe because of the family connection, she never asked him directly about the charges. “I heard him say many, many times, ‘I’m innocent. Why am I here? ’ He could have turned a blind eye to what was going on,” says Gough, the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of fishermen. “But listen, it’s a different world out there. Boats are big, and they’re dirty. Should he have had an inkling that there were a couple of tons of cocaine on board? Maybe, maybe not. But really, how would you know? ”

By late summer, both of Sheree’s boys had left Digby for Halifax. Cody, who had always wanted to be a veterinarian, landed a decent-paying job at a tissue bank, and Daren, the professional carpenter his father had wanted to be, started a contracting business. As for Sheree, she was trying to cope with financial woes. The $13,000 in donations was not nearly enough to cover the mounting legal costs: approximately $45,000 (30,000 euros) for Francisco Javier Diaz Aparicio, the first Spanish lawyer she hired, and subsequently fired; and another $7,500 for Warren Zimmer, Philip’s first Canadian counsel. On top of this, she was sending Philip $250 every month. By November 2011, the bills exceeded $90,000, so she sold the family house and moved in to the one next door, which Daren owned by then. In 2012, the Halliday Family Support Society was set up, with the goal of raising $250,000, but shortly afterwards Sheree found herself staring at a lamppost with a flyer advertising a fundraiser for Philip next to one raising money for a young Digby girl with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She decided to take down the posters advocating for Philip.

“I just didn’t want people to help us anymore,” she says. “The town was tapped out, it really was, and I thought to myself, I’m getting by. I’ve sold my house. I’ve paid my debt. I’ve paid off my truck, and I have a decent job. I can keep my head above water, but there are many, many people in this town and surrounding communities who can’t . She also worried about appearances. “I was told that I was seen at Tim Hortons, and a comment was made: Didn’t we give money to her, and now she’s at Tim Hortons spending it? So I said to myself, okay, I’ve got some pride left. Enough is enough. I make money, and I want to be able to spend my money, and I want to be able to spend it at Tim Hortons if I want to spend it at Tim Hortons.”

Illustration by Min Gyo Chung

It wasn’t until March 2012 that Sheree and the boys visited Philip in Spain. “We had talked about it so many times over the years, and at first he didn’t want me to come was because he thought that he’d be home any time,” she says. “He’d say, ‘There’s no point coming. I’ll be home.’ Then he didn’t want me coming because we couldn’t afford it—and we couldn’t. And then he didn’t want me to come because he had to go into hospital for surgery, and he wanted me to wait so I could come when he was in the hospital. But then he didn’t want me to come because so many of the other prisoners told him that they’d sunk into depressions when their families left without them. That was the last reason he gave.”

Soon afterwards, Kevin Burke, the family’s new Canadian counsel, visited his client, and when he returned he told them about the changes in Philip’s mood and appearance. Sheree knew it was time. “Finally, it was like, okay, we need to go see him now,” says Cody. “At that point, we’d clued in that we might be in for a long run.” He, Daren, and Sheree flew to Madrid and took the train south to Aranjuez. Six months later—two years and eleven months after Philip’s arrest—they visited him again, this time on the eve of his day in court.

Philip Halliday was a couple of weeks shy of his fifty-sixth birthday when, on November 20, 2012, the seven crew members from the Destiny Empress and the four suspected accomplices arrested on Spanish soil were finally prosecuted in Torrejón de Ardoz. The trial lasted even less than the mere four days it was allotted, although the gravity with which the Audiencia Nacional regarded the proceedings was evident in its choice of chief magistrate. Fernando Grande-Marlaska, trim, aquiline, and inclined to wearing a long scarf, was renowned in Spain as the “anti-terrorism” judge.

In London, Ellen’s team, though keen to retrieve the ship to defray the costs of its investigation, strategically decided not to seek extradition, knowing that the wiretap evidence on which a possible conviction depended would be inadmissible in a British court.

The trial was more of a procedural hearing than an inquiry into the facts. The prisoners’ interrogations were perfunctory, done without oaths, and revealing nothing that was not already documented in their statements. Grande-Marlaska’s interrogation of Halliday took place on the second day, after Richard Smit Peña, Robert Rothery, and Kevin Fletcher had testified.

Fletcher, tall and lanky in a green turtleneck, jeans, and new white running shoes, said that Michael McDermott, whom he had not known previously, hired him in Trinidad at the end of October 2009. He said he had been friends with Smit Peña since about 2000, although they “knew each other professionally more than anything,” but he denied any knowledge of the cargo or Smit Peña’s relationship with the Destiny Empress. Burke, skeptical, shook his head. “If you’re the captain,” he said, “you should know what’s on the ship, where it’s going, and who you’re going to talk to at the end.”

Grande-Marlaska asked about the phone calls Fletcher made to Smit Peña—“Boss” in the Spanish wiretap transcripts—prior to the ship’s seizure on the morning of December 20. “He was management. I took orders from him,” said the skipper, adding that he had also been “in contact with McDermott two or three times to find out what was happening when we got to Vigo.”

McDermott had been the sole man acquitted of fifteen members of the London gang who were tried in a British court in April 2011. He was very much the missing link in the investigation. Grande-Marlaska questioned Fletcher about the conversation during which the Irishman had asked for “the Canadian.”

“Did you have any idea where McDermott was? ” the judge asked.

“No idea.”

Miguel Rodriguez, Halliday’s Spanish lawyer, intervened to ask about the trip to Bequia that Fletcher and the others had made.

“We were told we could leave for three or four days to bond as a crew,” said Fletcher. “Me, my first officer—”

“Who told you? ” asked Rodriguez.

“Dean Rothery,” said Fletcher.

“Did you know what went on with the boat in your absence? ”


The cocaine, said Fletcher, “was found below the ballast doors in the very bottom, lowest level of the ship.” It had been hidden in a compartment in “a pressurized room where divers can leave the boat underwater.” The compartment was “a tank with an upper hatch and lower hatch,” so “the diver goes in, the diver goes out.”

The first recess was called, and the prisoners were led from their seats into a soundproof glass pen to one side, with the few friends and relatives in attendance quickly gathering around it. The accused shifted uneasily, pushing their hands deep into their pockets like teenagers outside the principal’s office. Catching Philip’s gaze, Sheree touched her heart and silently mouthed the words “I love you.” She, Cody, and Daren pressed their palms to the glass, then she held up a sequence of hastily scrawled Post-it Notes for Philip to read.

Tired? You look good!

You can do it!

Will you need $?

I love you too!

With the recess ended, now it was Philip’s turn to speak. Slouching a little, he settled in to the defendant’s chair, his legs extended in front of him. Sheree raised her head slightly. The boys looked at their father and then at her, exchanging reassuring glances.

“Are you Philip Mason Halliday? ” asked Grande-Marlaska.


“You are Canadian? ”


“You have a Canadian passport? ”


“How much were you paid? ”

“Two hundred dollars a day.”

“What were your duties? ”

“To take wheel watches.”

“What’s that? ”

“Steer the ship.”

“Who contracted you? ”

“Dean. And Mike McDermott.”

“You took the boat from where to where? ”

“I’m not a pilot.”

Halliday’s answers were not hostile, but relied on the listener to find meaning in the troughs between them. Grande-Marlaska tried again.

“You went from where to where? ”

“Between Canada and Antigua.”

“Why were you hired? ”

“I been a fisherman all my life.”

“Was the Destiny Empress similar to those boats? ”

“Well, similar. But it wasn’t a fishing boat.”

“Did you contact anyone from the boat? ”

“My wife.”

“More than once? ”


This was not the whole truth. Philip had made a point of speaking to Sheree whenever he could manage it. He had also phoned McDermott, a matter of record, but his Spanish lawyers had persuaded him not to talk about that call during the trial, worried that it might be construed as a coded signal of the ship’s arrival in Vigo, which would have implicated him in the operation. The prospect of perjuring himself distressed him greatly, but when it came time he carried it off.

“Did you have the freedom to move around the boat? ” asked Grande-Marlaska.

“Yeah. Absolute.”

“Did you notice any modifications? ”


“Did your duties entail any reason to go to the area of the boat where the drugs were found? ”


With that, Halliday was dismissed. At the back of the courtroom, a smiling Sheree shook her fist in approval. The prisoners were led out of court and into the soundproof pen to say their goodbyes. Catching Sheree’s gaze, Philip put the index and middle finger of his right hand to his eyes and then to his heart. Sheree quickly scribbled a Post-it and held it up to the glass.

Love you

See you tomorrow

The courtroom emptied, and Sheree said excitedly, “I hope we get to do that glass thing again.” Then, “Did you see? They didn’t even handcuff Phil until he was in the hall. The guards trust him.”

“Maybe they were being compassionate because his family was here,” replied Daren.

Outside the court, Cody took a moment to have a cigarette. “It’s either smoke or cry.”

At Stop Madrid, an old tavern on the Calle de Hortaleza, lists of the day’s tapas were scrawled on blackboards between shelves of wine bottles that reached from the dark wooden wainscotting right to the ceiling. It was Friday, and Madrid had begun its long journey into night. Convivial groups of locals huddled around tables made from casks. Sheree, the boys, and their friends sat nestled in the far corner. The so-called trial was over, and she began to feel sufficiently carefree to have a few drinks. The boys would soon leave, Daren to meet a young translator who fancied him, Cody to explore the city. “It’s kind of hard,” said Cody. “I shouldn’t like Spain—I mean, this is the country that put my dad in jail—but I do.” Sheree walked back to the hostel to pack and rest up for a last visit with Philip in prison the next day. Then the family would return to Digby without him.

Grande-Marlaska scheduled the trial summary and sentencing for the following Tuesday. Some defendants—excluding Smit Peña, Dean and Robert Rothery, Fletcher, Archer, and Halliday—were released. Halliday would pass a fourth Christmas behind bars. His testimony omitting any mention of his calls to McDermott worried him. On the phone with Sheree, now back in Digby, he sounded bad. At one point, he cried. There was no word of when Philip’s sentencing would happen. All the family could do was wait. Sheree went about her nursing routines. Daren returned to his contracting work in Halifax. Cody resumed his job at the tissue bank, salvaging body parts from fresh cadavers to save lives. “Often, people ask if my job gives me perspective,” he said. “I already have perspective. My father’s innocent, and he’s spent the past four years in a Spanish jail.”

Then, on February 13, 2013, the Spanish court issued the remaining prisoners’ sentences. Richard Smit Peña was sentenced to twelve years and a day. Dean Rothery received ten years and six months. Kevin Fletcher, William James Archer, and Dean’s father, Robert, all got nine years and a day. Philip Halliday’s sentence was limited to time served: after 1,140 days, he was free to go home.

Two days later, just before midnight on Wednesday, February 15, he came through the beaten-up, PVC-wrapped steel turnstiles of Halifax Stanfield International Airport. The first to greet him was his niece, Annette LeBlanc, who wrapped her arms around him and burst into tears. His nephew Dennis, a young Canadian Forces soldier who had lost a couple of toes in Afghanistan, approached him pushing his young son in a stroller. Sheree waited with the family dog, Tex, at the back of a small group of loved ones. Finally, it was her turn to hug Philip. Someone asked him what he had told customs. “I told them I was on a business trip,” said Philip.

“Well, I was.”

The Destiny Empress was sold for the last time in July 2011. With her engines disabled and the green paint of her hull rusted, her final journey was witnessed by “Romarin,” a ship spotter who posted a picture showing her being towed out of Ferrol by the tugboats Pehlivan 2 and Eliseo Vasquez.

“Do you know if it’s been scrapped or sold? ” Steve Ellen, now detective chief inspector, asked me.

“Scrapped, I was told.”

“The UK government has been trying to convince the Spanish government that we should have the proceeds from the sale of that vessel, because we had a restraining order on it. Even if it was a fifty-fifty deal, we’d probably be happy.”

On September 1, Philip and Sheree renewed their wedding vows at Digby’s Baptist church, where they were married twenty-nine years before. “You have faced many trials,” Pastor Don told the couple as they faced each other in the apse.

“Sheree, I love you,” said Philip. “You are the amazing mother of my sons, my best friend, and my one true love. I love you through the good times and the bad. I promise to laugh and to cry with you…” The quiet man’s voice was choked with emotion.

Then it was Sheree’s turn. “I promise,” she said, “to love you for as long as I live. You are my best friend and my one true love.”

The coughing motorcycles of Digby’s Wharf Rat Rally roared up and down Water Street as the congregation exited and the family headed home. The Hallidays were seven months into a “whole other chapter. A lot of people just think we’re going to pick up where we left off, but that’s not going to happen,” said Sheree. “I just want him to be the same person that he was, but I don’t know how he can be after going through something like that. I’m not sure what the psychological effects will be. I really don’t know.”

Two months later, almost a year to the day after his Spanish trial, I sat with Philip on the porch of his house on St. Marys Street. Sheree had taken time off to tend to her husband. The front door was open, and she was inside.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of lobster fishing,” Philip said, recalling the scallop boats he had found work on as a young man. “I’d have been back by nightfall.”

The conversation turned to a mutual friend in Digby. I said how much I admired her—admired single mothers in general for the situations they had to master.

Sheree stepped out and looked me in the eye. I could feel her slight reproach. “Maybe I wasn’t a single woman raising kids on her own,” she said, “but from Sunday to Thursday, and for twenty-one years, I was single and raising my two boys on my own.”

Now there was the prospect of work taking Philip away from Digby again, this time to do a little carpentry work for Daren in Halifax—Daren, who had wanted nothing to do with fishing since he was a kid, had managed not to.

“At high tide, we used to swing on ropes and play tag underneath the old ferry wharf,” said Philip. “No one would do that today.”

“Did you tell stories of smugglers down there? ”

“Well, when we were playin’, we weren’t talkin’ to a lot of people. The only thing I woulda heard way back then was about rum-runnin’.”

“And later on, when you were working the boats? ”

“Oh, yeah. I probably heard stories. And different people would ask me before, did I want $5,000, $10,000, to smuggle some drugs or something. But no, I didn’t want to.”

“But you can remember being offered? ”

“Yeah. I heard tell other people doin’ it. Like, I don’t know if they had drugs on their boat, but I heard stories—I don’t know if they were true or not—of putting in money and makin’ money off it.”

“There was a guy in Tiddville.”

“Yeah,” said Philip. “Sheree, what was that guy’s last name? ”

“He died just recently,” I said.

“Oh? ” said Sheree. “He died? ”

“I didn’t know he died,” said Philip. “He was young.”

“Moved to Ontario,” I said.

“He was doin’ drugs? ” asked Philip.

“Yes,” I said, “I think he was.”

“Really,” said Philip. “I don’t know if I heard tell or not. Over the years, I heard different things, but I never—I guess I was naive—I never paid attention to that stuff. Never, ever wanted anything to do with it.”

Then, after another of his long silences, “No, no, never for money. No.”

This appeared in the July/August 2014 issue.

Noah Richler
Noah Richler is an author, journalist, and former political candidate. His most recent book is The Candidate (2016).