Kevin Hiebert is back on Canadian soil today and a free man, ending a legal, political and bureaucratic battle that kept the former Winnipegger in a Greek prison for over 15 years.
"I feel like I am in a dream," Hiebert told CBC News as his father, Dick Hiebert, and sister Tracy hugged him at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Thursday afternoon.
"I kept waiting for something to go wrong."
It was a day, Hiebert said, that he feared would never come — even on Wednesday, he said, he waited for some official, somewhere, to call an 11th-hour halt to his release.
"When you get a presidential pardon and they don't honour it, and you get rejected from the public prosecution … and that struggle to get out, and then getting the deportation after all, finishing my 20-year sentence and then to be here today … it's just exhausting, really," he said.
Dick Hiebert said it was "overwhelming" to see his son again.
"It feels really good; a lot of excitement. It's finally over. He's doing exceptionally well," he said.
The homecoming marks an end to a controversial story that, at times, played out like a Hollywood movie filled with courtroom drama, jail breaks, betrayals and alleged bribes.
It began, however, with a crime.
Hiebert, who is now entering his 40s, was 26 years old in 1999 when he and two other Winnipeggers tried to smuggle cocaine through the Netherlands.
His accomplices were busted in Amsterdam. They were convicted, sent to jail and released back to Canada within two years. Hiebert, however, made it to Greece before he was arrested.
Fought to have sentence transferred
From the start, Hiebert admitted his guilt, but fought to have his sentence transferred so he could return to Canada and serve his time here.
Three times, it almost happened. As recently as last fall, Hiebert thought he had been granted a pardon and would be home in time for Christmas.
- September 2013: Winnipegger getting out of Greek prison after 14 years
But each time, either Greek or Canadian officials abruptly halted the efforts.
In 2008, Hiebert escaped while on a temporary supervised absence. He spent the next year living and working in Greece and Germany before he went to a Canadian Embassy.
According to family members, Hiebert was told there was no outstanding warrant for his arrest. A passport and travel visa were arranged for his return to Canada.
But moments before he was to board a plane home from Amsterdam, he was re-arrested and returned to prison.
- November 2008: Canadian drug smuggler flees Greek prison
- October 2009: Winnipeg man back in European custody
- November 2009: Canadian ordered back to Greek prison
Through the years, Dutch and local lawyers took on Hiebert's case, citing human rights violations. For example, his interpreter did not show up during his first trial, so the entire hearing was held in Greek. Hiebert did not understand a word of it.
Later, former Liberal MPs Dan McTeague and Anita Neville also advocated for Hiebert's release, noting that the same crime here in Canada netted fewer than four years behind bars.
Then there were the rumours of bribery. In the past, family members said Greek officials clandestinely promised his freedom for a price.