from left, rapist-murderer James Giff (learning to be a chef in prison), victim Heather Fraser and his intended victim, Annette Rogers
There is a question James Giff has refused to answer publicly for a quarter of a century.
Why did he rape and stab to death a 16-year-old girl he did not know?
“It was rage, it had nothing to do with Heather,” says Giff, sitting in a bland, bathroom-sized interview room at minimum-security Pittsburgh Institution on Hwy. 15 in Kingston.
It’s the first time Giff, who did not testify at his trial, has spoken publicly about the murder he committed when he was 17.
A shaggy-haired teen has become a pudgy, middle-aged prisoner.
Heather Fraser was a star Grade 11 student at Smiths Falls District Collegiate when she bumped into Giff, while walking home from school, on a bitterly cold January evening in 1985.
Giff forced Heather into a snow-covered park, raped her, stabbed her twice and fled. The mortally wounded girl crawled more than 600 feet on her hands and knees through nearly two-foot deep snow, toward the lights of a nearby street.
She scraped her knuckles raw but did not make it to the street.
Her father found her lying in the snow, soaked in her own blood and barely conscious, about two hours after Giff stabbed her. She died later in hospital.
Giff was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
He has been on a silent, forced march toward redemption since.
“I didn’t even want to do this interview with you,” says the diminutive 42 year old with piercing blue eyes.
Giff has never spoken to a reporter.
Through the window of the ground-floor prison room, other inmates are visible sweeping a laneway. Some are walking casually, unguarded, between buildings of the fence-less complex.
Giff has been left alone here with his interviewer, free to leave the building when he chooses.
It is the kind of place where a man can see and smell freedom that remains just beyond his grasp.
For most of the interview, Giff seems guarded. He is so focused on his mission to review years of allegations and statements used against him that he does not allow time for spontaneous remarks.
Occasionally, he seems to go off his script.
“It’s hard, especially when you have a rape charge over your head, the bullshit that I have to do, day after day,” he says.
He complains about the routine of prison life. If an inmate is not working, sleeping or eating, he is working out.
The paunchy prisoner clearly is not a fitness buff.
“When I’m not working, I’m not what you call a real people person,” he says. “I don’t socialize much. I don’t get mixed up in institutional politics.”
The day he killed Heather Fraser, Giff says he was tortured by substance abuse, sleep deprivation, thoughts of abandonment and rage.
“I was up all day drinking at my aunt’s,” he says. “I didn’t sleep … I had some valiums.”
He was filled with a growing rage toward his 17-year-old girlfriend, Annette Rogers, with whom he had a sometimes violent and dysfunctional relationship.
“They were all the makings of what they would call the perfect storm,” he says. “It all came to a head this day and my rage, I was totally focused on all the negative things that had happened between me and Annette.”
He had threatened to kill Rogers.
“That day, the rage to kill became uncontrollable,” he says, without emotion.
“Annette was the intended victim. Heather Fraser was an innocent victim.”
Giff has been through years of treatment and counselling designed to unravel the mystery of his deviant thinking.
“It wasn’t Heather I was attacking, but an image, it’s what psychologists call misplaced aggression,” he says.
It is a sophisticated assessment from a high school dropout who went to prison with few skills and little education.
He does not repeat the more damning assessment from other experts who have studied him: That he is a sexual sadist who takes pleasure from inflicting harm and terrorizing women.
Giff admitted, during a treatment program, that he mutilated Heather’s genitals with his knife because she was not screaming enough during the attack and did not seem as terrified as he imagined in his deviant fantasies.
“I admitted to that because if I didn’t, I would have been there taking that program over and over and over,” Giff says, repeating the claim he made to the National Parole Board last year that he lied in the group session because he felt pressured to exaggerate the brutality of his actions.
Giff portrays himself a good candidate for parole.
“If there’s any man who deserves to be in jail for what he did, it’s me,” he says. “That day, I was a psycho. I had no remorse, no compassion for nobody. I didn’t even care about my own life — but I’m different now.”
Despite serving more time behind bars than most killers, his prospects for release don’t appear good.
Giff has appeared before the parole board twice, last year and in 2007, asking for unescorted passes that would allow him short trips out of prison, on his own (read 8 separate Giff parole documents in the Parole Records archive).
He was denied both times, despite his record of successful escorted passes to Kingston. He leaves prison almost daily, he says.
Last year, the board said there’s a risk he’ll commit new sex crimes and his credibility in explaining some details of the murder is questionable.
Prison staff have supported his parole bids.
Giff believes there is one other significant obstacle to his release. Rogers, the former girlfriend who has admitted helping him elude capture in the days after the crime, has made it her mission to see that he stays locked up.
“I think that at the end of the day, the parole board is listening to what Annette is saying and it’s easy to say no,” Giff says.
This is why, he claims, he has broken his silence after so many years.
Rogers has written a slew of victim impact statements and has appeared at Giff’s parole hearings. She has begged the board not to release him. She says he has repeatedly threatened to kill her and she fears he is still a risk to her and her family.
Rogers has told the board that Giff threatened, shortly after his conviction, that he would wait for his chance to kill her once he was released.
She said he made a detailed threat to tie her to a tree, torture her and kill her family.
“These are vicious lies made up by Annette,” Giff says.
He has written to the Crown attorney in Perth, complaining that false statements are being used against him at parole hearings.
“The Crown attorney is taking my thing seriously,” Giff says.
He doesn’t want to leave the impression he is attacking his former partner.
“This is not a vendetta, on my part, against Annette,” he says.
He has a stack of documents, including copies of the impact statements Rogers submitted to the parole board. Many pages are covered with multiple shades of highlighting and
during the two-hour interview he eagerly points to passages he believes are troublesome.
A simple, gold wedding band on Giff’s left hand is his only noticeable jewelry.
He wants unescorted passes so he can visit his wife in Kingston, among other things.
“Every day I think about, ‘How did my life become such a mess?’ ” he says, in apparent introspection.
Giff says he tried to extend an olive branch to Rogers in 2004, because he thought that’s what the parole board wanted him to do.
He wrote a letter to her.
“I don’t hate you or hold any animosity towards you; I certainly don’t wish to harm you, your loved ones or anyone else,” Giff wrote.
The letter did not reach Rogers, who was horrified when she was contacted by authorities who told her that Giff wanted to communicate with her (read the letter).
Giff has made other gestures of penitence.
He did not apply for a faint hope hearing that would have allowed him to plead for earlier parole eligibility (read his letter to his lawyer).
“I don’t want to put anyone, especially Mr. Fraser … through what he went through in the first trial,” Giff says.
Giff pleaded not guilty, forcing the family to endure a painful recitation of the terrible facts of their child’s death.
Partway through the trial, Giff admitted to the rape and murder.
He acknowledged that he did it because he could see that a conviction loomed and he hoped for a more lenient sentence.
“Less time or I figured it would have been second degree instead of first degree so I knew I was going down,” he says.
Now Giff has found God.
He has converted to Islam, he says. He has done well in a cooking program that is teaching him to be a chef, but he is still dogged by Rogers’ claims that he beat her during their tumultuous relationship, which has been presented as evidence of his distorted views of women.
“There was no beating,” Giff says. “There was never any abuse between Annette and I until I came out of the jail and she betrayed me.”
The statement is puzzling, given his admission that on at least one occasion, he threatened to kill Rogers.
“The word kill was after she was bugging me,” he says. “I said, ‘Get away from me or I’m going to kill you.’ ”
He waves a finger in the air, re-creating the moment he tried to dismiss and silence her.
“That’s when she took off because she knew I was very mad,” Giff continues.
He acknowledges that her submissions to the parole board leave the impression she is genuinely afraid of him.
“It’s not my place to say she’s not afraid,” he says.
He insists that no one has any reason to fear him now.
“I know that I have no intention of harming anyone ever again,” he says.
Giff was eligible to seek full parole on March 2. He could request a hearing at any time.
NOTE: Giff was granted full parole, the most permissive form of freedom for a convicted murderer, in July 2016. Cancrime was first to report on Giff’s parole. Read the story and the Parole Board of Canada document explaining the decision here.
Giff’s letter to his former girlfriend: