Frost case a study in tragedy and farce
DESERONTO, Ontario -- The trip into Deseronto makes you feel as if you've entered a time capsule rather than a town, the perfect preservation of a place left behind. Dusty junk stores occasionally open unconvincingly dressed up as antique shops. Gossip is traded over the counter at a couple of greasy spoons.
My first trip here four years ago led me to the most unsettling story I've worked on in 20 years of perching in press boxes and poking around hockey arenas in small-town Canada. The latest chapter in this saga will unfold Tuesday morning when David Frost, once the toast of Deseronto, walks into the courthouse in nearby Napanee to face four counts of sexual exploitation of teenagers and up to 10 years in prison. Frost, 41, has pleaded not guilty.
I started asking folks about Frost four years ago. That's when I first made the trek out to Deseronto, where events led to the criminal charges Frost faces. After visiting the town and writing the story in the summer of 2004, I took a needed shower. Even a shower didn't do the trick after conversations I had with Frost on the phone.
The story fascinates fans of true crime rich in violence, tragedy and, yes, farce. Violence is often an element of hockey stories, but usually it's confined to the arena. Not here. Tragedy might seem an overblown description, but then former NHL player Mike Danton, convicted in a murder-for-hire case for trying to have Frost killed, has a couple of years to run in his 7½-year U.S. federal prison sentence. "Farce" might seem a little cold, but how else do you describe Danton retaining a defense counsel who, it was revealed years later, had never graduated from law school and wasn't licensed? The judge who sentenced Danton declared: "I do not believe in over 18 years on the bench I have been faced with a case as bizarre as this one." And that was early on. Stay tuned, it only gets stranger.
I hope this will be the last thing I'll ever have to write on the subject of David Frost; Mike Danton (formerly Mike Jefferson); friends, family and acquaintances of Frost, Danton et al.; the Quinte Hawks; the town of Deseronto; and assorted strange characters and dreary touchstones that take their place in this Canadian Gothic. My worst fear is that it won't be.
Whenever we talked, Frost's voice was a painful rasp, like a dog straining at his collar. "You're wasting your time -- UUUHHHMMM -- if you want to talk to me about Mike Danton." He nervously cleared his throat and sinuses every half minute or so when he was really worked up. From one gasp to the next he could go from the Quinte Hawks' glory days to the media and law enforcement on either side of the border conspiring against him. He invoked the standard refrain of a man who claims absolute innocence in the face of a litany of greater and lesser evils: "One day the truth will come out." He was most clear-minded and forthcoming when I asked him how he won his players' loyalty. For Frost, a bit of flattery was like a double dose of sodium pentothal. "I've been accused of being a manipulator," he said. "But what are Scotty Bowman and Pat Burns and Mike Keenan? They're all manipulators. That's what a coach is supposed to do."
There's no missing Frost if you see him hanging around a rink or walking out of a courthouse: a beer gut, greasy hockey hair and the pained expression of a coach who has just seen the last five calls go against his team. It only seems that every Canadian arena has someone like him, a guy who's always looking to make the game of hockey his living, who always claims one degree of separation from hockey royalty. Frost's claim was legit, though. He married the daughter of the late John McCauley, an old-time NHL referee.
In the early '90s, Frost took coaching jobs that didn't pay in the hopes of landing one that did. He ran a hockey school and networked to land the seal of approval of Andrew Cassels, an NHL journeyman. Or at least he claimed he did. No matter, that went by the boards. Frost ended up becoming an agent with a couple of NHL clients and a minor leaguer or two. He ran out of clients just about the time the NHL Players' Association ran him out of the business, but three years later he's still going through the motions.
Who is David Frost? I'm tempted to say that he's his own creation. When I talked to him, he changed the subject every time I moved to the personal stuff. Maybe the upcoming trial will fill in some of the holes in his biography. Like his job. Does he have one? Right now he seems to have no visible means of support.
This much is known. Frost grew up in Brampton, just under the flight path out of the Toronto airport. He attended Bramalea Secondary School. His picture in his high school yearbook looks nothing like him now. Frost as a teenager looks like a weedy little pencil neck, a bully magnet. He shows up only in a photo with his class. No indication that he played on any of the school teams. Years later he'd later claim to have played in hockey leagues just below the major junior, some serious hockey. It's hard to imagine that the kid in the yearbook would stand up to it. And when he'd later pull out team photos from his junior days, he wouldn't be in them. "ABSENT: DAVID FROST" was printed beside the list of players' names. It looked as if it had been added after the fact. It was a different typeface.
It's hard to say how much hockey Frost played, or if he played at all. There's no doubt he coached, though. And he was pretty successful, too. Only a few years out of high school he was coaching Tier II in Brampton, decent players barely younger than himself. His approach to the game didn't evolve. It was there from the start, equal parts physical intimidation and skill. When Frost's players gooned-up games, it only looked as if they were out of control. League officials didn't like it, but coaches and parents knew his players got better in his system. He was a coach on the rise but it ended badly when his players were busted drinking at a team party in the early '90s. Around a rink, players, coaches and, yeah, probably a few parents would tell you that the crime wasn't anything Frost did; the crime was getting caught.
Strike one: It was the first time Frost ran afoul of the hockey establishment, a first offense. It's not a snooty game in Canada, in general, and in and around Toronto, in this case. There's no mistaking a local arena for a country club. It costs a big dollar to land a kid in a good program, but blue-collar parents dig deep if they have to. Still, a line is drawn between what's acceptable and what isn't, and Frost had crossed it.
To get back into the game, he had to coach younger kids. He landed a job coaching Toronto Young Nats. It looked like a big drop from coaching junior, 19- and 20-year-olds, to coaching 13- and 14-year-olds. Fact is, though, he was coaching a lot of the top kids in Toronto minor hockey in that age group. Every year a kid or two who has played in the program makes the NHL. That Tier II team in Brampton was a dead end, a place where kids wound up, but the Young Nats were a destination, where players had a reasonable expectation of playing major junior, NCAA and even pro. With Frost calling the shots, the Young Nats won the Ontario championship. It wasn't enough for him to keep his job. Officials nabbed him for forging a parent's signature on a consent document. Maybe he could have beaten that, but some parents didn't approve of his coaching -- not the skill part, but the intimidation. According to league president John Gardiner, he verbally abused them; he brutalized the teens. At one point he dumped a garbage can on a kid's head. Legend has it the kid wearing the trash was the son of then-NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow, not that it stopped Goodenow from becoming Frost's close friend.
Strike two: That's how Frost wound up in Deseronto, with the Quinte Hawks, a new team in the Metro Junior Hockey League. The minor hockey establishment didn't sanction MJHL and looked at it as an "outlaw league." For players not quite ready for major junior, it was a stepping stone, not the most desirable one, not the first choice, but a league where a kid could grow into a man's game. For coaches, though, it was pretty well regarded as the end of the road. One of the team's volunteer coaches, schoolteacher John Boultbee, quit early in the season after a dispute over gas money and pressing concerns with his job and family. The Hawks struggled early in the season and were looking for players and a coach. Frost had his opportunity. "Actually, the team was looking more for players than the coach, but when [the players, including Jefferson and Sheldon Keefe] came in, it was made clear Frost was part of the package," Boultbee said. They were Frost's one shot at hanging on in the business. As Gardiner said: "[Frost] had run out of places where he could coach."
Deseronto then is Deseronto now.
Road crews and walleye fishermen are put up at the Bay View Inn, a charmless motel off the highway where no room has a view of the bay. Townies who find work are most likely to find it at the rope factory. The financial hub is out on the highway on the perimeter of the Tyendinaga Mohawk reserve, native-owned gas stations that sell tax-free smokes and Indian souvenirs to those just passing through. Same as always.
Deseronto, pop. 1,900 and holding, looks like a town without secrets, a place where everybody knows if a neighbor let his dog out. In towns like this across Canada, what passes for a pulse is the sound of slap shots and bodychecks at the local arena and what passes for community spirit is cheering for the home team.
Deseronto didn't have a team for years. It could only look jealously at Wellington just down the road, a village of barely 1,000, home of the Dukes, a franchise that won championships and sent players on to the pros. In the fall of 1996, Deseronto finally got a team of its own, the Quinte Hawks, a lower-junior franchise owned by a crew that was suspected of absconding with funds raised from charity bingo games. Kids from all over Ontario blew into town for tryouts.
It took only five minutes for word to get around town when Jefferson, Keefe and a couple of others from the Young Nats lugged their hockey bags into the arena. Heads would have turned. They all dressed the same, in the same red Young Nats jackets. They had the same haircuts, almost shaved at the side, with mini-mullet rat tails in the back, sort of hockey hard-core, straight edge with curved sticks. Tongues wagged about the living arrangements. Not about the kids who landed the townies' basement apartments and spare bedrooms, not about the few of them who lived close enough to go back to their families' homes after practices. No, they talked about Frost sharing a dingy suite at the Bay View Inn with three of his players: Keefe, who was 15; Larry Barron, who was 20; and Daryl Tiveron, who was 21. And they talked about the girls, high school "puck bunnies," who headed over to Room 22.
The birth certificates said they were boys and young men, but they partied harder than servicemen on shore leave, and the townsfolk closest to the Hawks were concerned. Norm Clark, a retired police chief, thought the team was out of control. And, according to Boultbee and others, so did Greg Royce, a teacher in Belleville who is now an NHL scout. Even though Frost completely called the shots, Royce was nominally the Hawks' head coach and Frost his assistant. Elena Phillips, a retired nurse who gave Jefferson a room and fed him just a couple of blocks from the arena, saw him come back from nights at the Bay View Inn bruised and unable to speak. According to some later accounts, the motel's owners saw Keefe sitting in the hallway, sobbing in his underwear, locked out of the apartment by Frost. All those who thought something was wrong felt like they didn't have enough to call the authorities, no hard evidence, just suspicions.
You might think that a long time had passed between the Quinte Hawks' 1996-97 season and the first trip I made there in 2004, but all those years after the team cleared out of town, the players' names were still above their stalls in what used to be the Hawks' dressing room: Jefferson, Keefe, Barron, Tiveron, Maracle, Paddon, Erskine and the rest. The room was sealed and preserved like a crypt.
Back in 2004, I talked to two of the Hawks who had slept in their own beds: D.J. Maracle, a native from Deseronto, and Kelly Paddon, who would get a ride in from Belleville 30 minutes away.
Maracle swore by Frost, called it "the best year in my career." He also said Frost was the best coach he ever played for, high praise considering Maracle later played for a touring native team that was coached by Ted Nolan, once named the NHL's coach of the year. Maracle was Frost's type of player, a tough guy. "It was the first year I dropped the gloves, and I ended up with 22 fighting majors," Maracle says. Not 22 fights, mind you. There were fights in the warm-ups, line brawls, fights that carried over into the hallways and parking lots after players were thrown out, fights at practice, even fights on the bus, when the players stripped down and the bussie turned on the heater and the windows streamed up.
Paddon had nothing good to say about Frost. "David Frost is an animal," he told me. "A control freak. I was 16 at the time and I went along [because] I just thought that's what junior hockey is about." Paddon was a skilled player who was hoping to catch the eye of a scout from an NCAA school. Fighting wasn't part of his game and he was creeped out by the "cult around the coach." By midseason he wished he had never signed on with the Hawks. Still, like Maracle, he had heard stories about players, girls and booze at Frost's hotel but nothing that he thought was way out of bounds.
Maracle and Paddon told me they never made it over to the Bay View Inn. Completely believable. Maracle had a girlfriend and wasn't a party kid. Paddon couldn't get out of Deseronto fast enough after practice. They'd heard about the nights before at practice. It didn't rattle them. "It was just hockey," Paddon said. "Just part of what goes on around the game no matter where you are."
No matter, coaching a winning team earned "Frosty" a lot of slack. The team went a couple of months during the season without a loss. And in town, eight bucks to see a Hawks win and half a dozen fights was a bargain. A Faustian bargain, as it turned out.
It didn't even last the whole season. On the bench during a playoff game at the arena in Deseronto, Frost was venting at Daryl Tiveron, one of his roommates at the Bay View Inn. Frost thought he was playing soft. To drive home his point, he slugged Tiveron in the jaw. Everyone saw it, everyone including a couple of police officers. Strike three. The Hawks still had games to play but their season ended there. Frost was charged with assault. "How bad could it be if Daryl stuck by him?" Maracle said. "It wasn't him that pressed the charges. It was the police." Ultimately, Frost would take a no-jail-time plea, a slap on the wrist. His real punishment was that he was suspended as a coach. It might have been an "outlaw league," but not a criminal one. The Hawks bombed out in the playoffs. "Frost's players, the kids from Brampton, just shut it down after they hauled him away," Paddon told me.
Everybody in Deseronto remembers the Quinte Hawks, but the team was there for only a season. The franchise was sold and packed off to Bancroft in the summer of '97. You can't find a trace of that Quinte Hawks team in town, just faint outlines where team pictures used to hang at the greasy spoons and empty sleeves of albums that were full of photos of the players and the coaches -- all taken away by police as evidence in a criminal investigation that started more than four years ago. The last thing to go -- the dressing room at the arena. It was unlocked, the Hawks' nameplates were trashed and everything was given a fresh coat of paint.
The hockey story in Deseronto ends there; the weirdness doesn't.
Frost had coached his last game, and maybe he knew it. He still looked for work in the Ontario junior league but never got an interview. He sent out résumés with a letter of reference from Goodenow -- or at least that's the way he presented it. Word about him slugging a kid was all over the grapevine. He couldn't let go, though. He still tracked his players when they made the move up to junior, still worked like a coach from his seat in the stands, still was a presence in their lives. When Sarnia traded Jefferson to the St. Michael's Majors, Keefe's team, the boys from Brampton were back together. A couple of other Frost acolytes, Ryan Barnes and Shawn Cation, were along for the ride. The same act followed -- Frost's players talked only to each other, not to teammates. They walked around with thousand-yard stares, looked for him in the crowd for him to give them hand signals while they tuned out the coach on the bench. Majors management claimed Jefferson stayed at the apartment of the team's goaltending coach, but Steve Jefferson, Mike's father, said his son stayed with Frost and the other players. The Majors' general manager, Reg Quinn, grew tired of the act at St. Mike's. The team was associated with a Toronto Catholic school and management decided it was better to lose without Frost and his players than to win with them. St. Mike's dealt the four players to the Barrie Colts, where they'd go on to a league championship.
In 1999, the New Jersey Devils drafted Jefferson in the fifth round, and the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted Keefe midway in the second. Tom Jefferson, Mike's worshipful little brother, wanted in. In the summer of 2000, Tom, then 13, went to Frost's cottage with Mike, Sheldon Keefe and a couple of other players. Tom came home with a story that his parents didn't believe at first: that he'd been forced to dance naked for hours, that he'd been bound with tape naked to a bedpost, that he'd been forced to climb a tree naked while Frost fired a pellet gun at him. A few months later, a photo of Tom, naked and bound, was passed on to his parents, who forwarded it to the Ontario police. When detectives questioned Frost and his players, they had a story that they stuck to: Tom was a willing participant in an initiation. Police told the Jeffersons that they couldn't build a case against Frost or anyone else -- it was he said, they said.
Frost went from controlling mentor to NHL agent with Jefferson and Keefe as his only name clients. He had a few other kids in junior, others who made it as far as the pro minors. Teammates, coaches, agents and others who came into contact with Jefferson and Keefe thought it was strange that they didn't make a move without running it by Frost, that they were on their cell phones to their agent in the dressing room, in uniform, before games. Everybody thought it stranger when Mike Jefferson changed his name to Michael Sage Danton, taking his new surname from a kid he'd met at a hockey school. Few knew that he had cut off all contact with his parents, his brother and his extended family. Or that, by the time he landed in St. Louis, he was asking his teammates on the Blues what papers needed to be filed to fire an agent.
The whole story, years of it, began to come out only when the feds caught up to Danton after a playoff game in San Jose in the spring of 2004. Danton was arrested for conspiring to murder Frost. A girl who had dated Danton in St. Louis, Katie Wolfmeyer, was charged as his accomplice. The arrests prompted a few of the girls who knew the Quinte Hawks years before to talk to Ontario police. They're women in their late 20s now, with lives, marriages and children. They came forward without publicly disclosing their identities. In September 2006, Frost was charged with 12 counts of sexual exploitation. Eight of the charges have since been dropped, which makes you wonder if the whole story will ever come out. If Frost's lawyer wins a ruling allowing the publication of names of the women, they might decide not to testify at all and the case against Frost could fall apart entirely.
If the case is dropped or Frost is acquitted, it's not the end of his legal troubles. Frost was charged with using Danton's credit card and signing his name to buy a tank of gas a few months back. Maybe some were surprised, but I wasn't. When I exchanged e-mails with Frost, he used an account set up in Danton's name and forwarded me correspondence that Danton's uncle, Jeff Jefferson, had sent to his nephew. Where Danton ends and Frost begins is entirely unclear. Some agents might have a client's power of attorney, but Frost seemed to wield another power entirely.
Back in Deseronto, they still talk about the Quinte Hawks and David Frost. A typical story is one told by a longtime resident of a home down the street from the arena. He asked that his name be withheld. Call him "Doug."
"Our children were just 10 and 12, five or six years younger than most of the players when the Hawks played here," Doug says. "Our kids were in public school while the players were up in Napanee in the high school there. Years later, when this started to come out after [Mike Danton] was trying to kill Frost, my wife and I started to read about and hear about the stuff that was supposed to have gone on with the girls up at the Bay View Inn. My wife and I were shocked and we were just talking about it at the dinner table, just sort of discreetly. Our kids piped up and said, 'Oh, yeah, we heard all about that back then.' On the playground they knew exactly what was happening, but didn't know to tell us or the authorities."
"Doug" and his family were not questioned by the authorities, but lots of neighbors, ones who offered the players room and board, were. And once they've been brought in and questioned and pushed for more detail, once they've told everything they know, well, they're spooked by a stranger's prying questions.
Dennis Vick was the manager of the Deseronto arena when the Quinte Hawks played their last game in the spring of 1997. He retired a couple of years back. In 2004, when I first spoke to him, Vick preferred to talk about the game on the ice and was skeptical about the stories making the rounds about the scene in Room 22 at the Bay View Inn. He preferred to talk about what a great coach Frost would have become if things had turned out differently. He still believes it. "He knew how to read people," Vick says. "He pushed players and other people around, and I half expected them to haul off and hit him, but no one ever did. He knew how to intimidate. That won't help him now, though. Maybe he'll finally get what's coming to him."
Vick says it's hard to say what others in Deseronto are thinking about Frost's trial. "It seems like everybody has talked to the police and to reporters," he says. "The trial's nothing that people in town are comfortable talking about, not even to each other. I'm not going to go to it. I'll read about it in the paper, but I'd sooner go over to the arena to see the junior team that's playing there now, the Deseronto Storm. The coach is Matt Barnhardt. D.J. Maracle and Matt were the two local kids who were on the Quinte Hawks."
In Deseronto, for those like "Doug," it seems as if they just stood by when something criminal was going on. For others involved with the team, those like Vick, it's more like guilt by association. They're hoping the trial, even if Frost is acquitted, will clear their names, make it clear they didn't approve and weren't involved.
In this luckless little town, they feel as if they've lost the lottery, again. It seems like there's a story every hockey season about an initiation gone wrong, gone weird. Last year, five players with the Saginaw Spirit juniors pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and were put on probation for two years. They might have faced stiffer charges, but the family of the girl involved, a minor, didn't want to put her through the ordeal of a trial. But when people talk about Saginaw, that case isn't the first thing that comes to mind. No, David Frost managed to put Deseronto on the map, and the townies wish he hadn't.
Danton first filed a plea of not guilty to his conspiracy-murder charge but had a change of heart, pleaded guilty and never took the stand. Wolfmeyer did testify, tearfully, and was acquitted. There's no telling if Frost will testify in his own defense. Based on his history and my conversations with him, my guess is that he'd want to -- and he'd be a study of surly defiance. My other guess: He won't expose himself to cross-examination. He liked to pick and choose my questions when I interviewed him, or ignored them completely. If he does stand up and take the oath, there's no guessing what he'll say. Nothing short of it would be a fitting close to this Canadian Gothic.
Catching a defendant in an inconsistent statement is a strategy in prosecuting cases. That was Frost at every turn in my conversations with him in the late summer of 2004. In one breath it was: "Mike will always be part of my family." The next: "Mike is bipolar. There's a Big Mike and a Little Mike." In one breath it was: "Hockey isn't the important thing in Mike's life after this." The next: He told me that three NHL teams had contacted him about signing Danton after he served out his sentence. Does a family member advertise a loved one's mental illness? Maybe under certain circumstances. But advertising that your client is bipolar would never help land him a job with an NHL team.
Then again, Frost is nothing if not a contradiction. Two years ago he told a newspaper in Pembroke, Ontario, that he was retiring from hockey. After he was charged months later, he was showing up at games in Pembroke, home of a junior team, the Lumber Kings, a franchise owned and coached by his former client and Danton's best friend, Sheldon Keefe. Even though Pembroke is a good couple of hours away from Frost's home in Kingston, Frost had been a fixture in the Lumber Kings' dressing room before the charges, in defiance of a league-wide ban on any involvement with the former agent. Then there's Keefe's little brother, Adam. Not long after the judge in Napanee granted Frost permission to go to Phoenix to track the younger Keefe's progress, the Coyotes sent him down to the minors. The team made it clear Frost was unwelcome at training camp and unwelcome as an influence in the player's life. According to a report on the CBC television network last week, Keefe was seen chauffeuring Frost to and from court hearings this year. Adam Keefe has always been there to do Frost's bidding -- it strains credulity to suggest it was just a coincidence that in an Ontario league junior game between Kitchener and Oshawa not long after Danton had gone to prison, Adam Keefe jumped and pummeled Tom Jefferson, the kid who ratted out Frost after the hazing at the cottage.
None of the Keefes have ever commented on this story. Messages for others in Frost's fold were not returned, and other agents disavowed any association with Frost.
The one thing that sticks in my mind after talking with Frost and with dozens who know him: He wanted to be a coach, wanted it more desperately than anything else. He told me he used to sneak into Maple Leaf Gardens to watch Pat Burns coaching the Leafs. "I never played the game but neither did Pat Burns or Mike Keenan or Ken Hitchcock, and they all coached Stanley Cup winners," he said. "I'm not saying that I would have coached in the NHL, but I think I could have coached at the next level in major junior. I could have changed my approach some. But to coach, you have to get players to play for you, to go to the wall for you. I had always been able to do that."
In the court in Napanee this week, Frost might find out if some of his players will be willing to go to the wall for him one last time.
Gare Joyce first wrote about David Frost and Mike Danton for ESPN The Magazine in 2004. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.