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Behind foreign bars

How did a simple job abroad land a Nova Scotian sailor in a Spanish jail for three years?

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Back home in Nova Scotia, Philip Halliday tries to resume a normal life. Photo: George Reeves, CTV Atlantic

Back home in Nova Scotia, Philip Halliday tries to resume a normal life. Photo: George Reeves, CTV Atlantic

It’s a busy morning at the Halliday household. The boys are home from Halifax for a few days, and dad is in the kitchen. “I haven’t made these in over three years,” Philip Halliday sighs as he scrapes pancake mix into a frying pan. “Good to be back here.”

Philip Halliday thought he was setting out for a grand adventure when he set sail on the decommissioned coast guard ship, the Destiny Empress. He thought it would be a chance to see the world, and make some extra cash to finish building cupboards for his kitchen. He had no idea he would end up locked away in a Spanish prison for three years.

Now, back in the comfort of his home in Digby, Nova Scotia, Halliday recalls the day he was arrested, December 20, 2009. “They were shooting at the boat and hollering, ‘Stop the boat! Stop the ship!’” he exclaims. “I was on my hands and knees and I heard something behind me and I tried to get around the corner and they just slammed me on the floor and tied my hands behind my back.”

The ship was carrying 1,200 kilograms of cocaine worth an estimated $625-million. Halliday maintains he had no idea they were hidden in the hull of the ship.

Nevertheless, he spent time in three prisons over three years.

“This is where they served the food over here,” he describes showing his family images of one of the prisons sketched by another inmate. “The last prison I was at, the living conditions was pretty good,” he continues. “Other than in the winter they was running out of money so they couldn’t put no heat on, so it was pretty cold.”

Halliday also dealt with chronic health problems during his time in prison, including a tumour on his right kidney and liver disease. He lost more than 27 kilograms. He ate and slept alongside child molesters and murderers. “I wasn’t there to judge anybody,” he says, his voice breaking with emotion. “I had to live with them.”

But when asked to pinpoint the hardest part of it all, Halliday doesn’t speak of the cold, his declining health or the other inmates. “Missing my family,” he falters, “And friends.” Then he stops, unable to say anything else.

Halliday’s wife, Sheree, has been his fierce defender from afar. She hired lawyers, petitioned governments, and spoke out whenever she was asked. It was not easy, or cheap. The Hallidays have racked up $150,000 in legal bills and were forced to sell their home. Despite the hardships, Sheree refused to give up. “I never lost hope. There’s always hope. In any situation there’s always hope,” she says.

“Sometimes I was down, really down,” her husband says, his lip trembling. “She’d bring me up.”

Spanish law is such that a person can be held for four years without trial, but finally in November 2012, Philip Halliday appeared before a judge in Madrid. In the end he was convicted of importing cocaine, but then released with no explanation.

It’s something his Halifax lawyer still does not understand. He also says Halliday did not get a fair trial. “In the Canadian context, no, simply because he didn’t understand a word that was being said through the whole trial,” says Kevin Burke. “There was no effort made to have a translator such that Philip could understand what was being said so consequently he simply sat there as if he wasn’t there.”

The verdict is not an issue for Halliday’s family. “What they have decided, they as in Spain, it doesn’t matter to us,” says Sheree Halliday. “And by the looks of the hundreds of people that lined the streets of Digby to meet us [when we arrived home], they don’t care either.”

The Halliday family at home five days after Philip’s return to Nova Scotia. Photo: Pat Kennedy, CTV Atlantic

The Halliday family at home five days after Philip’s return to Nova Scotia. Photo: Pat Kennedy, CTV Atlantic

Six months later, Sheree is at work, and Philip spends his days in his wood shop. His health is improving and he’s gained back more than 9 kilograms. Although he is still unable to work because of a blocked artery, life is slowly beginning to return to normal. “My nerves bother me once in a while but I guess that’s to be expected,” he says.

He didn’t expect so much could change in three years. He says he was shocked to see how popular iPhones had become, had never heard of a Keurig and, when he left home, credit and debit cards didn’t have security chips. “Just roads and stuff around here,” he says. “This is a three-lane highway out here now and it was only two before.”

He has also been pleasantly surprised at the incredible support he’s received. “Everybody around here has been so great to me,” he says. “I get hugs everywhere I go.”

Strangers have even stopped him while he was shopping with his wife in Halifax. “Sheree had just said to me, ‘Do you suppose anyone knows who we are?’ And we walked around the aisle in Costco and this woman came running over and, ‘Oh I’m gonna cry, I’m gonna cry,’ and she told us she watched the story right along.”

These are the kind of moments that get him through the dark days.

“I block quite a lot of stuff out,” he says. “Like over there, I can block that right out.” He pauses. “I try to.”

He’s not blocking out the unlikely friendships he created with the other inmates. Halliday says many of the inmates treated him well. He recalls two in particular who would fill empty pop bottles with hot water and bring them to him to put in his bed as heaters because they knew he was always cold. They called him dad. So since his return home, he has written them letters, and they have written him back.

“They were quite happy to get my letters,” says Halliday, “And I knew they would be because just getting a letter over there is a big deal.”

The ordeal behind him, Halliday’s fight is not over. He has launched an appeal, which his Halifax lawyer says he expects the court to hear this fall.

“I am confident,” says Kevin Burke. “I had a chance to review the decision of the lower court. . . I’ve been advised by Spanish council that there are very clear errors, glaring errors that under normal circumstances should be successful for an appeal.”

“I want my name cleared,” says Halliday.

“I’m hopeful that the truth will win out,” says his lawyer.

While he waits, he is rebuilding his life, and renewing a pledge to the love of his life.

Five days after he returned from Spain, Philip Halliday proposed to his wife. “I just wanted to do something to make her happy because I knew what she was going through over here,” says Halliday. “A lot of times she had it as bad, or worse than me.”

And so on September 1st, on their 29th wedding anniversary the Hallidays renewed their vows, a perfect end to a Spanish nightmare from which they’ve finally awoken.

  • Shannon

    I still find it hard to believe that anyone would captain a ship to Spain and not bother checking to see what was on board????????

  • BARRY CONRAD

    ALL THE VERY BEST PHIL

  • Digbychix

    I suppose if you were told it was empty and the illegal cargo was hidden under a welded lid with carpet glued back over with furniture put on top you would see it was empty.. empty empty empty!

  • MetricChipmunk

    He wasn’t the captain, hence not responsible (by our standards) to know what was on board 😉

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