Published on May 06, 2013
Julie Young holds a portrait drawn by her boyfriend Steve Mehlenbacher in Truro, N.S. on Friday, April 19, 2013. Young has established a relationship with the federal prisoner was is serving time for bank robbery in British Columbia. She met Mehlenbbacher on a dating/friendship website that connects prisoners with people on the outside.
The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan
Published on May 06, 2013
Inmate Steve Mehlenbacher is shown in a handout photo provided by Canadian Inmates Connect Inc .Mehlenbacher, who is serving his fourth federal sentence after a total of 16 bank-heist convictions, met his girlfriend on the website, which hooks up people on the inside with those on the outside.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO/Canadian Inmates Connect Inc.
By Andy Blatchford - The Canadian Press
MONTREAL — Bachelor No. 1 boasts about his “bad-boy body and sweet-guy attitude” and Bachelor No. 2 wants a woman to join him as he closes a dark chapter from his past.
Bachelor No. 3, meanwhile, says he can’t be available for a first date for awhile — at least not before 2021.
Not only do these men share a quest for love, they have something else in common: they’re all in prison for murder. The suitors are among dozens of male and female cons who have posted personal profiles and photos on a matchmaking website with a twist.
This site hooks up people on the inside with those on the outside. The federal prisoners, many behind bars for violent offences like attempted murder, sexual assault and first-degree murder, have written blurbs highlighting their personal qualities — and, in some cases, their crimes.
Which leads us to Bachelor No. 4.
He claims to hold the Toronto record for robbing the most banks in the shortest span: 11 financial institutions knocked off in four-and-a-half hours.
“Not something I am really proud of,” Alex Nikoloski writes in his profile.
The page indicates that any prospective partner should be ready to wait for his expected May 2015 release date, adding: “But I am worth it.”
Canadian Inmates Connect Inc. showcases numerous prisoners serving life sentences and helps the incarcerated find pen pals and, perhaps, much more.
The 16-month-old website, which promotes some 40 convict profiles, has even churned out a few lockup love stories.
The site’s founder says several prisoners have asked her to remove their bios because they have already found that special someone.
Melissa, who does not want her family name published due to privacy and safety concerns, was inspired to start the website after seeing similar ones in the United States. Initially, the 35-year-old Toronto mom thought she would make a profit for her effort, but she said she quickly realized she would have to spend her own money to keep it alive.
It doesn’t matter, insists Melissa, who says the site helps prisoners pass the time and “get back into the swing of things” as they reconnect with women.
“I’m making a difference, for sure — and that’s become most important to me,” said Melissa, whose website is open to any offender. “It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. It’s not for me to judge... I’m just a firm believer in redemption and rehabilitation... I believe everybody deserves a second chance.”
For some, the results have led to jailhouse bliss.
Julie Young, a single mother from Truro, N.S., credits the website for introducing her to a convicted bank robber she hopes to marry one day.
“I would marry him because I love him and I see him having a really good future now,” said Young, whose sweetheart, Steve Mehlenbacher, is serving his fourth federal sentence after a total of 16 bank-heist convictions. “We get really deep and personal in our letters about our pasts and just stuff like that, so we’re able to open up to one another.
“I never was able to open up to anybody before him.”
Young, 24, first connected with Mehlenbacher, 42, in November after she sent Christmas cards to a few of the inmates on the website.
She plans to move across the country this month to be closer to her man, who’s locked up in the medium-security Mountain Institution in Agassiz, B.C., about 140 kilometres east of Vancouver.
They have never met in person, but they exchange letters regularly and have daily chats on the phone, which Mehlenbacher is permitted to do at his institution. He says his statutory release date is September 2017, though he hopes to be paroled earlier.
Eventually, they plan to go to school together to become child-care workers.
Young argues that it’s probably safer to get to know a convict than to meet someone at a bar or on standard dating websites.
“I heard from a lot of people there’s a lot of weirdos on there,” she said, referring to one popular matchmaking website. “You could talk to somebody on a dating site in the United States, and you could talk for like three years every day after work or something, and that person could be murdering a bunch of people and you don’t know because they’re just some everyday person, right?”
By comparison, Young says, an inmate cannot just show up at your house uninvited right after you meet them. And she believes they would be less likely to lie since you already know why they were sent to jail.
“You just do your research on them, or whatever, and you’ll be good,” she said.
Not every prison love story, though, has a fairy-tale ending.
Young is actually separated from another federal inmate she married in a jailhouse wedding, just last summer. She said her ex-husband is actually the one who told her about the website.
Melissa, however, has a warning for those interested in contacting one of the inmates on her website: proceed with caution.
The profiles are authored entirely by the convicts, which means nobody double-checks them for accuracy. In a disclaimer on the website, Canadian Inmates Connect states that it’s not responsible for any type of relationship developed through its pages.
“It’s up to the people out there,” said Melissa, who recommends that homework, such as Internet searches, be conducted on the prisoners. “They’re taking the chance to write to these guys.”
Since inmates don’t have Internet access in the clink, initial contact must be made via snail-mail to their respective penitentiary.
Melissa says most of the profiled prisoners heard about the website through word of mouth and inmate committees. They mailed her a blurb, photos of themselves and a $35 annual membership fee.
Canadian Inmates Connect helps prisoners like Mehlenbacher escape, so to speak, from the daily grind of life in the pen.
“He’s in there with a bunch of weirdos or whatever, so by getting a letter from somebody from the outside brings a smile to him,” Young said. “I guess it just makes somebody’s day.”
Mehlenbacher said the website has given many guys he knows on the inside a boost.
“I was kinda lonely,” Mehlenbacher, who spoke to The Canadian Press on the phone from prison, said of his decision to join the website.
Shortly after posting his profile, he said he started to receive letters, including one from a woman in Nairobi, Kenya, who was looking for a pen pal. Many of the notes, he said, were from women hoping to see him at the prison for conjugal visits.
“I already had women who were willing to do that,” Mehlenbacher said. “That’s not what I was looking for.
“I wanted to find a real relationship.”
Then, he connected with Young, who he says swept him off his feet. They exchanged letters, shared laughs together on the phone, and she sent him a photo.
“I fell in love with her — love at first sight — and I’ve never done that before,” said Mehlenbacher, who bought a ring and plans to pop the question to her soon. “Basically, I feel like she’s my angel that came to me.”
Mehlenbacher, who describes himself as a born-again Christian, said he’s spent nearly 17 years of his life in jail because of crimes he committed to support a drug habit. He said the website is already well known, and appreciated, throughout Canada’s prison system.
“She’s an angel for helping some of the people that society has basically given up on,” he said of Melissa.
The Correctional Service of Canada declined to comment on “an external site” when asked about Canadian Inmates Connect. Instead, a spokeswoman highlighted the department’s policy on inmate correspondence.
“The safety of public, staff and inmates remains paramount,” Christa McGregor wrote in an email.
Mehlenbacher said prison staff he’s spoken to about the website think it’s “awesome,” although they do have concerns that some inmates aren’t always honest about their convictions. He also urged people to look into a prisoner before opening up a dialogue.
“You’re writing a federal inmate — it’s a dangerous thing... These guys are the real deal,” Mehlenbacher said. “There are bogeymen in here.”
As for himself, Mehlenbacher said, he has been charged with 27 bank robberies over the years and was convicted on 16 of them. He insisted he only ever used a weapon once in a robbery: a knife to hold up a beer store. During the bank robberies, he said he would slip a note to a teller warning that he was armed and that they had better hand over some cash.
According to a police report, before his last arrest Mehlenbacher entered a Bank of Montreal on Church Street in Toronto and showed the teller a note requesting $20, $50 and $100 bills with the added message: “This is a robbery no dye packs please.”
Mehlenbacher said no one was ever physically harmed in any of his robberies.
“But psychological harm was pretty bad,” admitted Mehlenbacher, who added that his getaway vehicle of choice was a mountain bike.
Melissa was prepared to face criticism for the website. However, she said she has received only one complaint — via email — from the loved one of a victim.
“He (that inmate) has lost his freedom, yes, but he hasn’t lost his freedom to write to people,” said Melissa. “Obviously, with every inmate there’s going to be some sort of victim on the other end.”
Melissa said about half of her own loved ones disagreed with the idea to create the website. She declined to discuss many other details about her everyday life. Melissa said only that she works in the health-sciences field.
And she said she is sensitive to the victim’s perspective.
She said her cousin has died since she started the website and the death occurred in a suspicious case that she said police believe might have been murder, though the investigation is still ongoing.
Melissa added that she’s been in contact with the potential suspect and even brought that person to the funeral home when nobody was around, so the person could say a final goodbye to her cousin. All of this was with her family’s blessing, she added.
“The person’s still a human being,” she said. “I don’t think anything that happened that night was intentional. “Would I allow this person to join the website? Absolutely.”