Heists of yore make for great yarns

We all love a great crime story and, recently, I came across a first-hand account of the greatest gold heist in Canada.

The robbery dates back to 1974, when the infamous “Stopwatch Gang” stole more than $750,000 in gold from the Ottawa airport, which was destined for the Royal Canadian Mint’s Ottawa plant.

The Stopwatch Gang, consisting of three Canadians, was idolized for their brilliant planning of bank heists as they were able to pull off a job in less than 90 seconds and disappear without a trace. According to Wikipedia, it is estimated they robbed an estimated 100 banks across Canada and the United States, and their total haul came in around $15 million Cdn.

They were nicknamed the Stopwatch Gang by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) because the leader was seen wearing a stopwatch around his neck.

This gang of robbers – Lionel Wright, Stephen Reid and leader Paddy Mitchell – became the inspiration for two popular movies: Point Break and Heist. A third movie, The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang, is in production.

In an article he wrote for the Ottawa Citizen in 2000, the Stopwatch leader revealed how they were able to pull off the biggest gold heist in Canadian history.

We needed an inside man who could tell us when the gold arrived and how much there was, Mitchell wrote. “The guy I recruited worked on the night shift and was a petty thief who had been stealing things at the airport for years, mostly nickel-and-dime stuff.

“We had to get past an armed guard into a locked warehouse, break into a security room, lug out six gold bars weighing 65 pounds each, and hope that the RCMP or the city policy didn’t drive by the busy access road and notice something amiss.

“Minutes later, the guard’s head was covered and he was handcuffed to a steel bar. Stephen (Reid) let Lionel (Wright) in through the door, the gold bars were loaded into the car, and they hit it down the road with the car 4,380 troy ounces heavier than it was when it arrived. At least, that’s what know-it-all journalists and book authors wrote. The truth is, we just re-labelled the boxes in the cargo area, and Air Canada very generously delivered them to us in Windsor the next day.

“I shipped five bars of gold across the Windsor-Detroit border, collected $250,000 cash as a down payment, and got a promise of another $250,000 when (a middleman fence) sold the gold. I never saw another dime from it.”

Mitchell was convicted in 1977 and given a 17-year sentence. He escaped from prison twice – once from Joyceville penitentiary near Kingston in 1979, the second time from Arizona State prison in 1984 – was recaptured and died in a U.S. prison in 2007. Reid also served time, has since been released and is now an award-winning Canadian author. Wright’s whereabouts is reportedly unknown.

This heist was almost upstaged in 2008 when the Royal Canadian Mint announced it could not account for half a ton of gold from its Ottawa vaults, at that time worth an estimated $15.3 million. Fortunately, after months of reviews, the gold was accounted for through a series of accounting errors. Whew!

If you enjoy crime stories, especially involving our Canadian currency, be sure to read about Kenneth Leishman – also known as the Flying Bandit – and how he and his cohorts made off with $385,000 in gold bullion in 1966, again involving Air Canada.

Happy reading!

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