Diplomat mom picking up pieces of shattered life as son sentenced in killings
Roxanne Dube, who is still on leave from her government job, lost one son to gunfire and nearly lost another to prison.
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The unease Canada's top diplomat in Miami was feeling as her car threaded its way to work that bright, warm early morning was becoming more insistent.
Her phone rang.
"Are your kids OK?" a senior official at Canada's Embassy in Washington was asking.
"And then," Roxanne Dube says in her French-accented lilt, "I knew something was not correct."
As she would later discover, local authorities had contacted the U.S. State Department, which had in turn contacted the Canadian Embassy. Her unease turned to alarm as, at the urging of her embassy contact, she directed her driver to a hospital, where she was ushered into a VIP room. Someone handed her a piece of paper with a phone number to call for information. She did.
"I'm afraid I have bad news, I think we should meet," Det. Rolando Garcia was saying. "And he said: 'Jean is dead.' I knew it was true because of the way he pronounced Jean's name."
Dube dropped the phone. Her world had imploded that sunny day on March 31, 2015. Dube could barely stagger outside.
Now 53, Dube had arrived from Ottawa with her two teen sons exactly two months earlier to take up her post as Canada's consul general in Miami. It had been a whirlwind of wrapping up her old job — she had been director general for North America, helping oversee Canada's consular network in the U.S. and Mexico — finding housing, moving, unpacking, getting the boys settled in school.
"I needed a wife, basically," she says. "That's what I needed. It was very demanding."
Dube had thought little of it when her 18-year-old son, Jean Wabafiyebazu, had asked for money to buy a textbook and take his younger brother, Marc Wabafiyebazu, 15, to a restaurant and movie. The older teen had been doing well and she thought he could do with a reward. She gave him $80 and allowed them to use her black BMW, its diplomatic licence plate sporting the word "Consul," because Jean's car, which she now drives, was in the shop that day. Instead, that March 30 afternoon, the brothers headed to a dingy apartment, Jean's math homework in a black Jansport backpack on the back seat. He was carrying an American-made .40 calibre Smith and Wesson handgun. His plan, police would allege, was to rob a drug dealer of about 800 grams of marijuana.
Jean left Marc sitting in the passenger seat, nearby trees waving in the breeze, as he went into the apartment clutching a green duffel bag emblazoned with a Moosehead beer logo and the words Jean/Marc written in fading ink. Inside, Jean and Anthony Rodriguez, then 19, had a back and forth, according to court evidence, along the lines of, "Show me the money," "Show me the drugs." And then, it went horribly wrong. Within minutes, Jean and another teen, Joshua Wright, 17, had died in an exchange of gunfire. Jean had been shot three times, including in the head. Rodriguez, a bullet wound to his arm, would tell police that he picked up a handgun as he bolted into the sunshine, stopping only to rush back inside to retrieve his drugs. His green iPhone was left inside in a pool of blood.
Outside, an agitated and distraught Marc Wabafiyebazu, who had tried in vain to get some answers from the fleeing dealer, could only watch as Rodriguez drove off to abandon his silver Chevy Malibu at a gas station — the same place he had been arrested a month earlier with a loaded gun for drug trafficking. Police had released him without charge two weeks before Jean's death. Minutes after the dealer's hasty exit, police ordered Marc to his knees and arrested him on the sidewalk as they swarmed the bloody, casing-riddled crime scene.
For hours, Marc was left in an interrogation room, handcuffed to a chair. No one read him his rights or warned him about the perils of speaking to the officers. Investigators refused his pleas to call his mother, who would go to bed about 10 p.m. that night wondering why she couldn't reach her kids, but assuming their phone batteries had died or that they were in a movie theatre and had turned their devices off.
In court the following day, the judge gave Dube, now stricken with the knowledge her older son was dead, 30 seconds to hug her bereft, defeated younger son.
"He said, 'Jean est mort, Jean est mort.' And I said, 'We're going to be brave now'," she says. "I couldn't grieve for Jean at that point. There was no space."
Most pressing for Dube was ensuring that Marc survived. The brothers had developed an extraordinarily close bond through his mother's various postings and moves, including a stint as ambassador to Zimbabwe that began in 2005. More of a pliant follower, Marc kept saying he didn't know if he could live without his brother. In the gloom of the courtroom that day, Dube realized she had to shape up for her boy's sake.
Neither police nor prosecutors would allege Marc shot or even threatened anyone. Surveillance video at the two-storey apartment complex backs that up. But based on a purported confession he gave over a couple of minutes from the back seat of a cruiser to a rookie officer who was driving, police alleged Marc was in on his brother's planned armed robbery of the drug dealer. "He says, 'It was a job gone wrong. I know you're a police officer but everyone is going to talk, so I may as well talk'," Officer Juan Velez testified the accused told him. Marc, the officer testified, also said he and his brother had done such ripoffs before in Ottawa. Dube, however, is adamant that Marc said something quite different: That while Jean might have done something like that, he himself had never done so. Nevertheless, police argued, Marc had now confessed to being a party to the botched robbery and hence was, under Florida's felony law, culpable in the killings.
"These brothers know the business. They know what they're buying," prosecutor Marie Mato declared. "(Marc) didn't even have to be there at all, but the fact is that he was. He was there to assist his brother in the rip."
Even though he had turned 15 a mere two weeks earlier and had never been in trouble with the law, Marc would be formally indicted as an adult on seven charges including felony first-degree murder, with its maximum sentence of life behind bars. Also charged separately with third-degree felony murder were the 21-year-old tenant of the apartment where the shooting happened, which police described as a filthy drug den, and Rodriguez, who had turned himself in. Police found an Argentina-made .380 Bersa Thunder handgun and bag of pot on the front seats of his car. Both co-accused would soon be granted bail and later plead out to lesser marijuana drug charges in exchange for boot-camp sentences and probation. The man who admitted to brokering the deal — he arrived at the scene in his dad's shiny gold Cadillac and fled unhurt when the shooting started — was never charged.
At Marc's bail hearing, Dube buried her face in her hands or dabbed at her eyes as investigators described in gruesome detail how her older son had met his violent end. She listened as they described her younger son's arrest, interrogation and confession. And then, as a witness, Dube found herself impugned as a negligent mother who had failed to properly supervise her teenaged offspring. Momentarily combative at one point, she looked the prosecutor in the eye and asked rhetorically: "You don't have children, do you?" The judge would later lend an official stamp of approval to the jaundiced view of Dube as a parent by stating that a desperate mother might resort to desperate measures to spare her son a lengthy prison term and, given her status as a diplomat, that made the child a flight risk. In addition, Circuit Court Judge Teresa Pooler decided the mother could not be trusted to supervise him properly. Despite being the only juvenile charged in the case, Marc was the only one denied bail pending trial.
"My vision for a better world is a world in which greed, jealousy violence etc. does not exist. Where people are not judged by their race…" Marc had written in a high school essay shortly before the killings. "This is a world I doubt would ever happen because of human nature."
Almost a year later, Dube is still piecing together the shards of her life. At times, she talks with confidence and an unabashed optimism. Other moments, she is clearly close to tears. She stepped down as consul general last August, but remains a Canadian government employee on sick leave. The driver, who allowed her to work en route to the office, is gone, as is the packed schedule of a consul general. She's moved into a more modest rental apartment. The minimally furnished space feels temporary, makeshift, almost empty. "Everything is completely different," she allows. "Everything has changed."
The unfathomable grief at losing Jean, she says, has begun subsiding. As evidence, she says, she can now look at the many photographs she has of her older son, smile and say to herself, "Wow, it was a blast for those 18 years."
"I have almost a sense of joy. That he's with me. He's with Marc, and he will live through us. He has managed to tell me somehow that this was meant to happen and he's OK."
Dealing with the guilt has taken a lot longer.
When a child falls ill, the usual reaction from others is one of sympathy. When a child is accused of being a criminal, Dube would soon learn, a more common reaction is that the parents must have somehow failed. It is, she came to understand, a way for other parents to protect themselves, to be able to declare privately that something that awful could never happen to their kids.
"You really feel the blows," she says, growing quiet, her gaze fixed on the living room window overlooking a manicured, suburban lawn.
A counsellor's words offered another revelation: Focus on what she had done right as a mother and show herself compassion for any mistakes she might have made. It was a pivotal turning point on the winding path to healing.
"It was a very long road to go from 'I am a bad mother' to 'I have made mistakes.' And there's a difference between the two."
A French-Canadian raised in Quebec, Dube had put herself through university before working for a decade on Parliament Hill for a prominent MP who became foreign affairs minister. Her boys' dad, Germano Wabafiyebazu, was a Congolese refugee who came to Canada in 1992. They met at the University of Ottawa in '93. She was in her early 30s when Jean was born. Marc, the "son every mother would want to have," followed a couple of years later. The photographs spread out on her dining room table show the smiling siblings in various stages of childhood. In most, they sport broad winning smiles, in stark contrast to the perplexed upturned face a taller, gangly Marc would later show as he sat in brown prison garb quietly watching court proceedings.
Dube waves her hands as she talks about feeling the need to dig deeper, much deeper, to ask herself what had happened to explain the calamity that had befallen them. Jean had done well in school. He was popular, athletic, smart. She and his father, from whom she separated after her tour as ambassador to Zimbabwe, loved him. They had been strong, supportive, hard-working role models. She had done all the right mom things. She drove him everywhere. They talked. And yet he had drifted into a rougher crowd in Ottawa and had started dabbling in drugs, apparently more with the notion of selling them than using them.
"He wanted money. He wanted to be rich quickly," she says. "He knew what he was doing."
Jean had been arrested in Ottawa on a minor drug-possession charge. He talked of dropping out of high school. Dube and his father sat him down to talk about what was happening with him. He agreed to change schools, away from what they considered the bad influence of his older friends. He wept in embarrassment. "He knew we wanted the best for him," she says.
But there was something yet deeper that Dube now faults herself for not recognizing. She had tried to exercise parental authority by doling out money, by forbidding his unsupervised use of the car _ external things, she calls them. What she might have missed, she says, was the internal: Jean was in the throes of a biracial identity crisis. The son of a black father and white mother, he had started bumping up against the negative views too many people hold of black youth. It destabilized him, she says. Despite what many might see as the wealth of resources available to her, she found it difficult reaching out to family or friends for help in dealing with a troubled, independent-minded son she wanted to protect. In retrospect, she says, she had become isolated as a parent and needed help. She should have done more to find it, she says.
"He needed help and I needed help," she says. "He could have been saved."
Ironically, Dube has now become a source of wisdom and strength for other parents going through their own versions of child or teenage hell. She has, she believes, become a better mother. She has visited Marc whenever allowed over the past year — mostly through glass in the juvenile section of an adult prison — where she was invariably the only white woman among Hispanics and blacks. Everyone, it seems, knows who she is. Despite her own pain, or perhaps because of it, she talks of the strong urge to want to comfort the often bewildered relatives she encounters on visiting days.
"I want to scream, 'I'm so with you!'" she says.
Dube is acutely aware of the special ridicule reserved for mothers who declare their children "innocent," no matter how heinous their crimes. Jean, she says, most certainly played a crucial role in what happened that fateful March day; he committed a crime, with devastating consequences.
"You have two young lives, full of talent, full of dreams, who died so unnecessarily for two stupid pounds of marijuana," she sighs.
On the other hand, she insists, Marc was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He knows he should not have been there. He has taken responsibility for his role, she says. But what's equally clear is that he did not commit murder or even an armed robbery. "He did not participate in the felony. He was sitting in the car in the passenger seat, no means of communicating with his brother, unarmed."
Still, rather than submit to the vagaries of a trial at which his co-accused would testify against him, and the potentially severe consequences of a conviction, Marc pleaded no contest on Friday to four charges, including two counts of third-degree felony murder — one for his brother's death — as well as aggravated battery. From her seat below a sign reading, "We who labour here seek only truth," and after grilling Dube on whether she would properly supervise her son, Judge Pooler accepted the plea along with the jointly recommended sentence of boot camp, modified house arrest and up to eight years of probation. Crucially, if he completes the sentence without incident, he will have no criminal conviction.
"Essentially, he is paying the price for Jean. He is also pleading to the murder of his own brother," Dube says.
It's been tough, Dube says reflectively. She still doesn't have her car back from police. Her surviving son is still not home. But Marc, who once told her they would get through the ordeal one day at a time, has been doing well, although forced to grow up faster than they might have wished. In his fellow inmates, he has seen first-hand the consequences of parental neglect, abuse and cripplingly broken homes. He speaks with compassion about them, she says. If she has grown as a mother, so has her son. They have started looking forward to the day when they can put this tragic chapter of their lives behind them and really start to move on, to rebuild, although exactly how and where is not clear. The no-contest plea and conditional sentence, at least, has allowed for more certainty.
Jean is long buried in Ottawa. He was, his mom says, fiercely protective of his only sibling. At Marc's request, his tombstone carries the epitaph:
"Forever my brother's keeper."