Opinion
2 min

High jump in Ottawa

Death by media assassination?

Need caption Credit: Xtra

To celebrate Xtra’s 20 years of publishing to Ottawa’s gay and lesbian community, we’re digging through our archives to reprint a selection of noteworthy stories that highlight our community’s rich history. “High Jump” first appeared in Capital Xtra #31, March 22, 1996.

The year is 1975: a time of Pierre Trudeau and the Watergate tapes. The front-page headlines clamour about an Ottawa high-school teachers’ strike. Then the panic begins.

March 7, 1975

A page-two story in the Ottawa Citizen announces a second arrest in the uncovering of a homosexual prostitution ring in conservative Ottawa. The date is Fri, March 7, 1975 — and a tragedy that will lead to one man’s untimely death has begun.

The morality squad had conducted a two-month vice-ring investigation, the article says. Juveniles were involved, police allege — and the media jump on the case. In 1975, consenting sex is illegal for heterosexuals under age 14. For homosexuals, the age of consent is much higher: 21.

Twenty-one-year-old Michel Gravel is said to be the ringleader — and the media publish his name and address. He is charged with several offences: keeping a common bawdyhouse, gross indecency and contributing to juvenile delinquency.

Defence counsel Doug Singer argues his client is losing a chance at a fair trial because of the widespread publicity. But Judge Elmer Smith dismisses a publication ban motion, stating, “Nothing worthy of print” had been heard.

The judge releases Gravel on $1,000 bail. He is ordered to report to psychiatrists at the Royal Ottawa Hospital Monday morning and to check in with the morality squad three times a week.

Police warn the press it’s only the beginning: charges against customers, some described as prominent persons, may be laid.

Records are seized from the Unique Male Modelling agency on First Avenue and from the Teenage Models for Nude Modelling on Gloucester Street. Ten boys aged 11 to 17 are questioned in connection with the prostitution ring.

Over the next week, radio, television and print media dutifully report the sensational story as charges are announced, a few at a time — a high-level bureaucrat, a journalist, civil servants. A total of 15 men are charged.

March 17, 1975

Ten days later, St Patrick’s Day 1975. The press announce four more names. “More people may be charged,” police declare.

That morning, Warren Zufelt, a 34-year public servant goes to court to face charges of gross indecency in connection with the male prostitution ring involving juveniles. His home address, including apartment number, is printed in the press accounts of the arrest. That afternoon he will jump from the roof of the 13-storey Chesterton Towers apartment building.

Nepean police say Zufelt was pronounced dead on arrival at the Civic Hospital at 4:25pm. Zufelt, the media add, was unmarried.

No more names are announced by the police.

Zufelt’s lawyer, Leonard Shore, publicly accuses the media and police of irresponsibility. He argues that media and police are responsible for Zufelt’s death. He says Zufelt was “highly upset and terrified about the publicity.”

Later that week, 15 members of Gays of Ottawa protest in front of the Ottawa Journal and the police station.

The police and media are now under fire. The coverage is characterized as “vicious,” “a witch hunt,” by more than a dozen University of Toronto professors in a public letter.

By the weekend, the media have dropped the story altogether. A new juicy scandal has arrived, ripe for their reportage — Dr Henry Morgentaler is on his way to prison in Quebec, for performing illegal abortions. His lawyer says he hopes that his client will be out of jail in nine months.