Kitchener-Waterloo

'Elmira Case' tells of restorative justice for Russ Kelly's 1974 drunk rampage

A teenager's 1974 drunken wrecking spree, and the global trend of restorative justice it spawned, is the subject of a new documentary that premiers at the Grand River Film Festival.

Film will have Canadian premiere on Wednesday at the Grand River Film Festival

Russ Kelly said his experience with the criminal justice system in 1974 has transformed the way conflict is resolved around the world. (Russ Kelly)

The reckless wrecking spree of a Mount Forest teenager is the subject of a new documentary, premiering at the Grand River Film Festival on Wednesday. 

In 1974, 18-year-old Russ Kelly and a friend went on a drunken rampage in Elmira, slashing tires, smashing windows and even overturning a boat. By morning, 22 properties had been damaged at a cost exceeding $3,000 according to media reports at the time.

"We really messed up," said Kelly, now 59, in an interview on The Morning Edition. "We caused a lot of damage to a lot of innocent people."

No jail time

To see the anger in their eyes and the disgust on their face—I felt very much ashamed.- Russ Kelly

Kelly and his friend were arrested and questioned by the police the morning after the event, but instead of going to jail, the probation officer suggested a different punishment.

"He saw that there could be some therapeutic value in us meeting our victims," he said, so the two young men went door-to-door, apologizing to the people whose property they had destroyed.

"Honestly, it was very, very scary. It took every ounce of courage I had to stand on these people's property...and meet them face to face," Kelly said. "To see the anger in their eyes and the disgust on their face—I felt very much ashamed."

Turning point

 I probably would have ended up in jail again.- Russ Kelly

The experience was critical for Kelly, who said his life could have turned out much differently if he had been sent to jail at 18.

"I quite likely would have came out a hardened person—a hardened heart, chip on my shoulder, angry at society and everyone in it. I probably would have ended up in jail again."

Instead, Kelly went on to graduate from Conestoga College, has become an advocate for young offenders, and is now the subject of a new documentary, The Elmira Case, produced by Rosco Films.

Impact on conflict resolution

His story has also transformed the way conflict is resolved in more than 50 countries according to Community Justice Initiatives, a Kitchener, Ont. organization that partnered with Rosco Films to produce the documentary.

"It makes me very proud and honoured," Kelly said. "I made the right choice to do something that has turned into something very big that helps people to have closure and to heal from the effects of conflict and crime."


The film 'The Elmira Case' will have its Canadian premier at the Grand River Film Festival on November 4 and will also be showing at the Apollo Cinema on November 19.