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'Makes me feel sick': Sex offender's return to Calgary alarming for some

A former member of a youth performance group run by the Calgary Stampede says he expects he'll feel on guard now that day parole has been granted to the man who sexually abused teens over three decades. Crowds at the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Sunday, July 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — A former member of a youth performance group run by the Calgary Stampedesays he expects he'll feel on guard now that day parole has been granted to the man who sexually abused teens over three decades. 

The decision from the Parole Board of Canada last month came as a shock to the accuser, who had been scheduled to testify before Phillip Heerema pleaded guilty partway through his trial in 2018. 

"I feel like I will always be looking over my shoulder," said the man, whose name is protected by apublication ban. "The whole thing makes me feel sick to my stomach."

Heerema pleaded guilty to eight charges, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, luring and making child pornography while he was at the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

The six victims were male students between 15 and 17, who were at the school between 1992 and 2013. Heerema admitted to using his position to lure and groom the boys into sexual relationships.

The school, operated by the Calgary Stampede Foundation, puts on nightly grandstand shows during the Stampede. 

Heerema was granted day parole from a B.C. prison on the condition he reside at a halfway house in Calgary. None of his accusers attended the parole hearing and some have said they weren't informed it had been scheduled.

"We're disappointed. There have been quite a few victims that have come forward who are based in Calgary," said the accuser.

"It's surprising he's going to live in the city that he offended in for 30 years."

Heerema told the board he was self-centred, selfish and ashamed of being bisexual. He said he knew he could control and manipulate boys into keeping the abuse secret.

The board asked him if there are more victims who didn't come forward. 

"I believe there probably are more victims," Heerema said. After prodding from a panel member, he added: "I know that there are." 

After a class-action lawsuit was filed by about three dozen complainants, the Stampede admitted to negligence and breach of duty. Earlier this month, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede and the Calgary Stampede Foundation agreed to pay $9.5 million in damages.

Another complainant in the lawsuit said he was at the performing troupe for a decade and had been among the boys being groomed by Heerema, but he wasn't abused.

He said it's doubtful any words of remorse from Heerema were true.

"He was an actor and he was a performer. But in my experience, he was a practised liar and the kind of liar who would lie about anything," he said. 

"Anyone with any level of familiarity of the situation knows in their heart that there's more victims."

He said Heerema had a way of rewarding his favourites and had a preferred type.

"It was the boys that were sort of struggling with their own sexuality … the ones that were gay or bisexual, but not the ones that were comfortable in their own skin," he said.

He said some of Heerema's favourites were asked to help put up and take down equipment or to help out after hours, which would increase the time he could spend alone with them. At the end of the season, those who helped out received an extra honorarium.

"One of the silliest ones, when I think about it now in hindsight, was those who were making juice for all the other Young Canadians. They were called the juice boys. If you were a juice boy, you'd get some extra money," he said.

"The result of that would be you would show up early and leave late after rehearsal, during which time Phil would have unsupervised access."

Heerema told the parole board he feels he needs to return to Calgary.

"Part of it is a good feeling … that's where 90 per cent of my supports are. Those are the people who will gather around me and help me to walk the path I want to walk," Heerema said.

"There's a huge amount of fear going back as well."

His parole conditions prevent him from contacting any of his victims or having unchaperoned access to anyone under 18.

Heerema said he has the financial means to support himself while looking for a job, which he admitted could be a challenge.

Calgary police say they have not received any new complaints about Heerema.

"As such, there is no new investigation underway. As is standard procedure when any new reports are made, they will be thoroughly investigated," said a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2024. 

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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