Jessica Melo didn’t wear any makeup and wore her hair pulled back tightly from her face.
She wanted Charles Gagne, the underworld hitman who murdered her father, to see the family resemblance — the rounded cheeks, buttonish nose, and sharp, often sad, eyes.
“I never stared at somebody so long and so hard as I did that day,” she said, recalling she made a point to not look away that August day in Muskoka, at Beaver Creek minimum-security prison.
Gagne, 45, murdered Eddie “Hurricane” Melo, a middleweight boxing champ and feared underworld figure, on April 6, 2001.
Jessica was 19.
Gagne was on a day pass for an armed robbery conviction when he killed Eddie and Pavao. He drove down to the GTA from a halfway house near Ottawa, shot them dead outside the café, then drove back in time for curfew.
The Crown first charged him with two counts of first-degree murder, but he cut a deal and pleaded guilty to second.
The first-degree charge would have given him a life sentence.
Instead, he was eligible for parole after 12 years.
Melo said she needed to talk to Gagne to help her understand how that was possible.
No one was ever convicted for ordering the hit on her father, who was linked by police to the late Santos (Frank) Cotroni, a Montreal mob boss.
Melo said she also needed Gagne to explain his plea deal. She said she has unsuccessfully tried for answers from the retired prosecutor who tried his case, court records officers and several others she thought might help her.
She said she has even recently written Premier Doug Ford in an effort to get answers about why the killing of her father wasn’t considered first-degree, premeditated murder.
She noted that Gagne had a long criminal record before he was hired to kill her dad, with 11 criminal convictions between 1991 and 2003, including multiple armed robberies.
“Charles should have been designated as a dangerous offender,” she said, noting that may have kept him off the streets for life.
Her curiosity about Gagne’s plea deal meant she sat for six hours at minimum security Beaver Creek prison in Muskoka with the man whom she says has put her family through hell since 2001.
Melo is 36 and a mother of two now. Her two-year-old and five-year-old children never met their grandfather, and yet the murder still haunts them all.
“There are nights that my babies cry for a man that they never met,” she said. “My aunts and uncles have never been the same since their big brother’s murder.”
“My grandmother can never feel the warmth of her first born, or smell his cologne, or watch him smile as he speaks with her, or hear his voice as he calls for her when opening her door for a visit.”
She said it disgusted her to ask her father’s killer for answers, but she wasn’t going to back down either.
She said she wanted the hitman to see up close that Eddie Melo’s daughter has grown up unafraid of him; that she’s angry, disgusted and deeply sad.
But not afraid.
It was just how her father must have felt before a big fight, she said.
Gagne had repeatedly asked her for a meeting over the past decade, she said.
Before she agreed to sit down with him, Melo said she had several conversations with his wife, Melissa, whom he married behind bars after his murder convictions.
She said Melissa said something she found particularly bizarre: “His crime doesn’t define him.”
Melo said she can’t get those words out of her mind.
“I don’t know Charles other than from the horrific crime he committed,” she said.
They sat down together in an office room at Beaver Creek, with only a prison official present. She said his back was towards the window and he looked down a lot.
“He was crying, sweating,” Melo recalled in a series of phone conversations after the meeting. “Couldn’t get his words straight at first.”
Gagne quickly made it clear that he craves forgiveness, she said, adding she wasn’t ready to offer him that.
Instead, she said she gave him blunt advice: “Do your time like a man.”
Between tears, Gagne said he wanted to be a better man. Melo told him he has no right to call himself a man. Her father was a man.
Their meeting lasted six hours. Gagne said he was sorry, over and over, she said.
Between tears, Gagne said he has often thought of killing himself, but changed his mind because he thinks he still has something to offer the world.
Gagne told her that he once was ready to end his own life when a squirrel ran by his cell window, stopped, and began vigorously scratching itself. Somehow, Gagne took this as a message to go on living.
“So he talks to squirrels,” Melo said later, sounding amused.
He cried more when she pulled out her family scrapbooks. They included a photo of her dad at age 18 when he beat Fernand Marcotte to win the Canadian pro middleweight boxing title in Montreal.
There were also plenty of family photos, several of them taken at her birthdays — one of her giving her dad a cake on Father’s Day. “Happy Knock-out FATHER’S DAY,” the icing read.
“He (Gagne) was crying when I went through the photo album of my dad,” she said.
In particular, she remembers the photo of her and her dad at Mont Tremblant outside Montreal when she was 14 and they went on a skiing adventure.
“He was terrible at it,” she recalled, laughing at the memory. “Wiped everyone out …. He felt bad because he did knock a few people down.”
When their meeting finally ended, Melo said Gagne made promises to help her in her quest for information on the plea deal.
So far, she hasn’t received anything, she said.
Meanwhile, she shudders at the thought that Gagne has already been out in the community on day passes, performing community service near his prison. She hasn’t heard yet if he was successful in an application he filed this October for a family visit to see his teenaged daughter in Mississauga, who was born shortly after his arrest in 2003.
Melo said she is generally proud of how she handled the meeting with Gagne, even though she didn’t get the information she sought.
She cried a little too. Even so, she loves the thought that her dad would have been proud of her.
“I wasn’t bawling like (Gagne) was,” she said.
Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Follow him on Twitter: @PeterEdwards3