POLITICS

Bikers, Mob bosses and killers: Montreal sketch artist has drawn them all

04/05/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/04/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - It's been a particularly gruesome anniversary year for a man who's had close encounters with some of Canada's most notorious killers.

Mike McLaughlin, a courtroom sketch artist, has illustrated some of the country's most high-profile criminals and is now in his 20th year on the job.

In the last few months alone, he has sat down to draw the likes of alleged murderers Luka Rocco Magnotta and Richard Henry Bain, the man charged in Quebec's election-night shooting last September.

His courthouse seat has given him a unique vantage point into cases involving a murderous university professor, Mafia bosses, Hells Angels kingpin Maurice (Mom) Boucher and Magnotta, whose preliminary hearing in the slaying of Chinese student Jun Lin resumes Monday.

There has been one constant over all the years: cameras have not generally been permitted in Canadian courtrooms. That means illustrations like McLaughlin's are the only window for most people into the legal proceedings.

Using charcoal, pastels and sometimes even field binoculars to capture the essence of a scene, he recognizes the irony that such tools would still take precedence in the age of cellphone cameras.

But he also sees the value in the discretion of Canadian courts.

"Maybe a witness would not be the same under the glare of cameras," McLaughlin said in a recent interview in his small but airy studio.

"We couldn't really have hundreds of cameras in a courtroom — how could we control such a thing?"

His professional journey began by chance in 1993. At the time, he was doing street portraits in Old Montreal, something he still does today.

He remembers getting a phone call and then, an hour and a half later, with pastels and pad in hand, heading off to cover the Valery Fabrikant case. The engineering professor had killed four colleagues at Concordia University in 1992.

"I was very nervous the first time going in there, but it turned out to be a go-with-the-flow (situation)," he said.

One of his more memorable moments came while covering a trial of criminal bikers in 2003.

He found himself interacting with the big, burly accused as they stood boisterously in the prisoner's box. It turned out they had a taste for art — and were keen on seeing his sketches.

"The Hells Angels loved my drawings," McLaughlin said.

"They wanted to see every day how they looked and would signal to me through the bulletproof glass. They were extremely interested in how this was working."

The bikers' interest in him went beyond his work. At one point, he scratched up his face after a tumble down a flight of stairs. He recalls their lawyer asking if he was OK and wondering if they could help in any way.

"The Hells Angels liked me,'' said McLaughlin.

Over the years his work has been published as far away as Russia and Australia and, more recently, he's been plying his trade at the Magnotta case for various news organizations, including The Canadian Press.

The high-profile hearing is just the latest assignment for the Montreal native.

Describing himself as self-taught, the veteran artist drew his first portrait at 14 and had his first paid commission at 15.

And what does McLaughlin have to say about the rule prohibiting judges from allowing the use of cameras in court being overturned at some point?

He doesn't sound too concerned about the prospect.

"I believe the sanctity of the courtroom will be retained," he said.

Media lawyer Mark Bantey doesn't believe the rule is about to change in the near future.

"The judges may change their point of view on this, slowly but surely, but I don't think it is going to happen overnight, that's for sure" he said.

As for McLaughlin, he has no plans any time soon to fold up his easel and put away his chalk.

"It's still exciting for me,'' he said passionately, adding he hopes to still be covering the courts for another 20 years.

''It's not like a job. I love it."