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On a wall opposite his bunk he scrawled the names of people he loved. Then he meticulously tore two-inch-wide strands from a towel he'd been given. He tied them into a noose, wreathed it around his neck and knotted the free end to the top of the bunk. Sobbing, he inhaled and jumped off the bed, figuring it was a better alternative to the bleak future now confronting him. It would be a brutally simple end to a story that had become impossibly complex.
Danton was born Mike Jefferson and grew up in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, the son of Steve and Sue Jefferson, who made their living operating a coffee concession at construction sites. Mike wasn't big, but he was a hell of a young hockey player, a rugged, energetic mucker who seemed to know where the puck was going before anyone else on the ice. From the time he was 11, Danton's junior coach was David Frost.
Even before Mike's abundant talent was apparent, he had decided to devote his life to hockey. It was less what he did than who he was. The speed and the hitting were intoxicating, and he took particular pleasure in outskating (and later, outfighting) bigger opponents. Besides, he says, it beat being at home. Since his arrest Mike has repeatedly claimed that he was physically and emotionally abused, though there is no record he ever made such allegations before. It's a charge his parents have always vigorously denied, as they did to SI last week. By his early teen years Mike had left home and moved in with Frost and his wife, Bridget. He considered the couple to be his surrogate parents.
Frost's junior teams—led by Mike Jefferson; a second future NHL forward, Sheldon Keefe; and Joe Goodenow, son of former NHL Players' Association head Bob Goodenow—were cocky and combative, a reflection of their coach. In 1997, Frost pleaded guilty to a charge of hitting one of his own players. After a 2004 altercation between Frost and a Central A Junior Hockey League official at a game in Ottawa, the league's commissioner banned Frost and reportedly distributed his photo to arena personnel.
Frost, though, inspired fierce loyalty and closeness among his players, particularly Mike Jefferson, who sat with his coach on bus rides and communicated with him on the ice through an elaborate system of hand gestures. In the 2005 documentary Rogue Agent, aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Frost is depicted as a manipulative Svengali who held his team's star under a spell. Sue Jefferson has claimed that Frost was so controlling he would permit her to see her son only for an hour on Christmas. Steve Jefferson later told the Toronto Globe and Mail that Frost "stole Michael from us, [and has taken] Michael's mind from him."
Apart from maintaining what some felt was an inappropriate closeness with Mike Jefferson, Frost was accused of hosting alcohol-fueled sex parties at a motel in Deseronto, Ont. In a criminal case brought in 2006, he was charged with multiple counts of sexual exploitation stemming from several parties that occurred in 1996--97 while Danton was a member of the Junior A Quinte Hawks. According to the allegations, Frost encouraged, and then watched, sexual acts between his players and girls under the age of 17. (He was acquitted of all charges in 2008, in part because two of the former players appeared as witnesses for the defense and denied that any sexual exploitation had ever occurred.)
For all the dissonance in his life, Mike's hockey career was a steady progression of success. In May 2000 he led the Barrie (Ont.) Colts to the finals of the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior-hockey club championship. The Devils drafted him in the fifth round one month later. His agent of record: David Frost. It was around that time that Jefferson formally changed his surname to Danton—the name of a former teammate that Mike thought sounded "cool"—a further attempt to disassociate himself from his family. He reported to the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats of the AHL and kept climbing hockey's org chart.
By the '02--03 season Danton was in the NHL, making more than $500,000. In June '03 he was traded to the Blues, one of the league's class organizations. "He had a smallish build, but he was strong, he had some speed, good hands, and we knew he'd battle," recalls Larry Pleau, then the general manager in St. Louis. "We knew there was some baggage—there were rumors about his agent—but we were happy to have him."
On the ice and in the dressing room Danton was fine. When he left the arena he was often miserable. "I had a big problem with being alone," he says. "I had no one I could count on and who cared for me the way I wanted them to." His solution was to avoid sleep. He'd go to strip clubs, drink immodestly, take up female companionship and stay up until sunrise. He'd crash for a few hours and maybe steal a nap in the afternoon.
According to the complaint filed in the Southern District of Illinois on April 16, 2004, a figure later identified as an "individual from Canada" was, according to Danton, coming to St. Louis to murder him over money owed. Danton tried to have the man killed. On two separate occasions he offered $10,000 for the murder of the "individual from Canada," and asked that the crime be made to look like a botched robbery. An East St. Louis strip-club bouncer declined his offer; Danton next used an intermediary to approach another man about the job. The potential hit man, however, was Justin Levi Jones, a 19-year-old police dispatcher from Columbia, Ill., who promptly notified the FBI.