The Death of Benji Hayward

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on May 1, 2012. This article was assigned to me following the publication of an oral history of Degrassi Junior High. 

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“Gordon Hayward, right, father of drowning victim Benji Hayward who disappeared after a rock concert Friday, shown with family friend Henry Goodman, said his son’s apparent experiment with LSD should be a lesson to all parents: ‘Talk to your kids. Listen to your kids.'” Photo by Ron Bull, used on the front page of the May 19, 1988 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0054093f.

May 13, 1988. Exhibition Stadium is packed for a Pink Floyd concert. Among the attendees is 14-year-old Benji Hayward. Despite warnings from friends, Hayward and a friend bought two pieces each of blotter paper sprinkled with LSD. Their drug use that night wasn’t isolated, as acid, coke, and crack were openly passed around the stands. As the concert closed, the friends separated in the crowd, each probably figuring the other would get home okay.

While his friend’s acid-induced wanderings resulted in a police pick up near Queen and Jameson, Benji headed toward the lake. He fell into the water near Coronation Park and drowned. His body was not discovered for four days, a period in which his parents, not satisfied with the relaxed pace the police adopted toward their missing-person request, organized a postering campaign to find their son.

After calls from politicians and community leaders for stronger drug-fighting tactics, a two-month coroner’s inquest was held that summer. Jurors learned that Hayward and his friend were warned by police on Yonge Street about drug possession two months before the concert, but due to regulations related to the Young Offenders Act of 1984, their parents were not informed. It was also revealed that, following the 1982 Charter of Rights, Metro Police turned over responsibility for searching concertgoers for drugs to promoters, who sometimes hired biker gangs involved in dealing to act as security. Hayward’s parents were frustrated at the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” attitude demonstrated by law officials, but also admitted that they had a “not my child” attitude regarding the possibility of Benji using drugs.

As the inquest ended, Metro Police Inspector Julian Fantino admitted that mistakes had been made and the Haywards should have received more care regarding their concerns. He indicated that officers would resume contacting parents when their children had minor brushes with the law, that the procedures for missing person cases would be improved, and that police would launch a major anti-drug program that fall. He blamed the problems in the Hayward case on “the human element,” as officers found their hands tied by human-rights legislation and fear of the Public Complaints Act. Fantino also believed that an officer who had testified at the inquest was led “like a lamb to the slaughter.”

The jury issued 14 pages of recommendations when the inquest ended on August 13, 1988, three months to the day that Hayward disappeared. They urged all levels of government to declare war on drugs and drill drug education into students, even if took time away from other academic activities. Tougher sentencing and heavier police enforcement were needed, leading Fantino to announce a request for up to 90 extra officers and $6 million for an anti-drug campaign.

In an editorial three days later, the Star acknowledged the sincerity of the jurors but advised caution before implementing harsh, counter-productive measures that would further alienate youth. “Where trust is lacking,” the Star wrote, “how can young people feel comfortable discussing drug use openly with those who are trained to help them find equally attractive means of satisfaction in life?” The editorial agreed with a key message from the jury: “Please do not lull yourself into the misconception that living in suburbia and sending your child to a good school guarantees protection from this problem. This is not a problem of a few unfortunate families, the single parent, the poor, or your neighbor. This is your problem, this is my problem, this is our problem.”

The Hayward case inspired a storyline in a two-part episode of Degrassi Junior High (“Taking Off“) in February 1989, wherein Shane dropped acid under circumstances not unlike Benji Hayward’s. Unlike Benji, Shane survived a fall off a bridge but was left in a mentally-impaired state that served as a warning to anyone contemplating taking a hit.

Sources: the July 19, 1988, July 21, 1988, August 10, 1988, August 13, 1988, and August 16, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star.