Jermaine Lawrence’s two handguns were prepped and ready — but the man he intended to kill had just escaped from his vehicle and now he was stuck in a muddy ditch in the back roads near the Toronto Zoo.
And so ended the final chapter in Lawrence’s life as a criminal, with Toronto Police cruisers surrounding him and a five-year stint in prison ahead for weapon possession.
I knew none of this when Lawrence called that day in 2015. I had no idea of the back story of a son who had just turned in his mom for the shocking crime of throwing an acid-like substance at a young child.
He is now Mayne Champagne, the stage name he uses to pursue his dual careers in music and acting. But in a different life, he was a hardened criminal who spent almost eight years behind bars before the shock of his own mother’s crime finally set him on a different path.
He grew up in Scarborough, the only child of a single mom who came here from Jamaica — a strict, God-fearing woman who poured all her energy into her Pentecostal church and her job as a nurse. There was little left over for a son who wanted the ungodly pursuit of music outside the confines of the choir.
So Champagne dropped out of school in Grade 10 and was soon under arrest for a home invasion.
“I made a lot of bad decisions,” he says.
After two years in custody, he was released on Sept. 11, 2001.
“My head still wasn’t straight,” he recalls.
He wasn’t talking to his mom — he was angry that while she’d refused to bail him out, she’d tried to be a surety for “some random guy that was at our church.”
Champagne ended up living with a buddy he’d met in jail — a Detroit pimp who’d set up shop in London.
“He put me up on robberies and I was just doing robberies to survive.”
Once again, he was arrested — this time for robbing a convenience store with a shotgun. He was sentenced to four years in Joyceville Penitentiary.
In prison, Champagne re-discovered his passion for music. After he got out, he convinced a Toronto producer to let him intern for free at his studio where he learned production and started “shopping beats,” including one he sent to Drake via MSN that ended up, he says, on his second mixtape — Comeback Season in 2007.
He began producing for a few other local artists.
“But music still wasn’t paying the bills. I was still doing crime.”
Then came the night in 2009 when he planned a murder. Champagne’s cousin had been robbed of his firearm at gunpoint and they were bent on revenge.
“We planned to kill him,” he says coolly. “There’s a different mentality when you’re in the street. Not to say it’s right. But you look weak if you take Ls.”
“Losses”, he explains. “Your reputation means everything.”
He lured the man into his vehicle under the pretence he was going to buy some guns. Fortunately, the victim got away — and Champagne was back in prison to serve a five-year sentence.
Released in 2013, he began concentrating on his music. But it was that day in 2015 that made him turn his back on his old life for good.
He’d started that day as a machine operator and was sitting in the lunchroom when he looked up at the TV news: A woman was wanted for throwing a chemical at a little boy at a movie theatre.
No one knew her identity, but he recognized her immediately. The suspect was his mom, Alverna Maria Lawrence.
Jerome Lawrence of the street wouldn’t call the authorities.
“But I put myself in the family’s shoes,” he recalls.
“Calling the police to protect my mom from hurting herself and others forced me to look at things as a grown man instead of looking at things one way from a street perspective. I had to evaluate what’s really pertinent and be able to think for myself.”
A lot of his friends from that old life or either incarcerated or dead.
“Very few people who get into the game come away unscathed,” he says.
Champagne is now a recording artist and actor — he’s worked background roles on Suits, The Handmaid’s Tale and even played an NYPD cop.
“That’s crazy, considering my history,” he says with a laugh.
As for his mom, she was released from a halfway house and is still mentally ill, but she refuses to get help.
“I can’t describe it in words, I wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy,” her son says of her condition. “To see someone who was totally functional, who had a house, a car, a career, and then just deteriorate like that and you’re helpless to do anything about it, it’s very frustrating.”
But if only she knew that her illness finally scared him straight.