The Stopwatch Gang

17 April 1974

If Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were the quintessential bank robbers of the late nineteenth century, the Stopwatch Gang was their late twentieth-century alter egos.  Both gangs became infamous for their audacious heists throughout the American west. While armed robbery was their profession, the two gangs avoided bloodshed. For a time, they both ran rings around the police.  They were finally brought to book but not before they entered popular folklore. The story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was romanticized and immortalized in the 1969 classic movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Similarly, the fascinating tale of the Stopwatch Gang has been recounted in numerous newspaper articles, books and documentaries; a major motion picture is currently in production.

The story of the Stopwatch Gang begins in, of all places, Ottawa. It was in Canada’s capital that three young men, Stephen Reid, Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell and Lionel Wright, met. Combining their skills, they pulled a daring gold heist at the Ottawa airport in 1974. Although arrested and subsequently sentenced to long jail terms, they escaped from prison, fleeing to the United States. There, the trio became known as the “Stopwatch Gang,” knocking off banks with clockwork precision. Police estimate that they stole as much as $15 million from as many as 100 banks during their crime spree. Fuelled by their illicit earnings, the gang experienced the high life. But the money quickly drained away. Life on the run was expensive and lost its allure. In a perennial search of the big score that would allow them to retire, the men began to make mistakes. With the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as well as state and local police on their trail, the trio was finally apprehended. They had run afoul not only of the people’s law but also the law of averages.

Stopwatch

The trio became known as the “Stopwatch Gang” since one member wore a stopwatch around his neck in a heist. They were in and out in under two minutes.

Their story starts in 1973. Stephen Reid, a young, troubled, bank robber from Massey, Ontario who had escaped policy custody by jumping out of a restaurant window while on a day-pass from the Kingston Penitentiary, arrived in Ottawa and hooked-up with Paddy Mitchell, a handsome, articulate crook from Stittsville, a small town outside of Ottawa. Mitchell had previously taken under his wing Lionel Wright, a socially-awkward introvert with a passion for details. The duo had been stealing goods from delivery trucks, making use of information Wright received in his job as a night clerk in a shipping yard. In late 1973, Mitchell got wind of a far larger score. A crooked Air Canada baggage handler who had been thieving from Air Canada shipments, told Mitchell that Air Canada regularly shipped gold destined for the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa. The gold bars were temporarily stored in the freight building at the Ottawa International Airport. The baggage handler agreed to tip off Mitchell when a shipment arrived in return for a cut of the proceeds.  Mitchell, Reid and Wright immediately set about planning a gold heist that would allow them to live and retire in style.

On 17 April 1974, Mitchell received word that a shipment of gold from the Campbell Red Lake Mines in northern Ontario had arrived in Ottawa on Air Canada flight 444.  Five wooden boxes containing six gold bars totalling 5,167 ounces, worth $750,000 (roughly $8 million at 2016 Canadian prices) were stored in a wire security cage in the airport warehouse, awaiting pickup by armoured car.

Shortly before midnight, Reid, dressed in an Air Canada parka and wearing a counterfeit security pass, knocked on the warehouse door. When the Universal Security guard answered, Reid pulled a gun. After disarming the guard, Reid marched him over to the security cage and demanded the key. Discovering to his dismay that the key was kept overnight in the main air terminal, Reid used tools from the warehouse repair shop to snap the padlock securing the 16-by-10 foot wire cage. With the guard handcuffed to a metal pipe, and a cardboard box placed over his head, the gang loaded the gold onto a small, metal handcart for transport across the warehouse to their get-away car, a green station wagon.  Although the heist took longer than expected—twenty-five minutes instead of the planned five minutes—the gang successfully eluded the roadblocks set up by Gloucester Police after janitorial staff found the handcuffed guard and raised the alarm.

From early on, police had a strong conviction that an insider was involved. How else could the thieves have known of the gold shipment? Paddy Mitchell also quickly became a person of interest. But there was insufficient evidence for an arrest warrant. The gold had vanished and nobody was talking.

Behind the scenes, Mitchell sold the gold to California mobsters for only a fraction of its market value; fencing hot bullion is not easy. After Reid left temporarily for the United States, Mitchell and Wright, running short of cash, organized an airport drug smuggling racket with the aid of their baggage-handler contact. Things started to go wrong. The cocaine were intercepted by a sniffer dog. The baggage handler also ignored Mitchell’s advice and started to spend lavishly, buying a diamond ring, a motor-cycle and a boat. Picked up by police and questioned, he squealed on the others. Meanwhile, police who had wire-tapped Mitchell’s telephone overheard him talking about the sale of the airport gold.

In 1976, Mitchell and Wright each got 17 years for cocaine smuggling. Mitchell received an additional three years for possession of the stolen bullion. Reid, although not involved in the drugs deal, was picked up for escaping custody after he had returned to Canada. Identified in the airport heist, he received an additional ten years for armed robbery. As for the gold, only a small portion was ever recovered.

With the three behind bars, one would have thought this was the end of Reid, Mitchell and Wright. But their story had only just begun. Wright almost immediately escaped from the Ottawa Detention Centre and disappeared. Reid and Mitchell were both sent to the notorious, maximum-security Millhaven Penitentiary. There, the two worked hard to become model prisoners in an effort to get transferred to a more salubrious jail. Reid even took a hair-dressing course. It was a con. Out on a day-pass to visit a hair salon, the well-spoken, polite Reid reprised his earlier jail brake by convincing the accompanying policeman to stop for fish and chips. Saying he had to go to the bathroom, Reid vanished out the restaurant’s washroom window.

Mitchell too managed to escape from prison. He feigned a heart attack by poisoning himself with nicotine obtained by soaking cigarettes in water. Rushed to the hospital with chest pains, confusion and nausea, his ambulance was met by gowned hospital attendants. They were Reid and Wright. The armed duo locked Mitchell’s guards in the back of the ambulance, and transferred the near-comatose Mitchell to a Chevy van, and vanished into the night.

The trio made their way to the United States, hiding for a time in a cheap, Florida motel where Wright worked as a clerk under an assumed alias. In Florida, the gang began their crime wave, robbing a department store before shifting to banks. When things got too hot, they headed west. It was in California that the trio became known as the “Stopwatch Gang” hitting bank after bank with the same modus operandi. One man with a gun held up the place, another jumped over the counter and grabbed the cash, and a third drove the get-away car. All wore masks or disguises. One member of the gang typically carried a stopwatch around his neck. They were in and out in under two minutes.

After taking a short break, during which time Reid and Wright rented a luxurious cabin on a creek in Sedona, Arizona, the trio hit a Bank of America branch in San Diego, California in late September 1980. Mitchell was again the driver while Reid and Wright disguised with make-up, wigs, and fake beards held up the branch with an Uzi machine gun and a magnum revolver.  The gang made off with US$283,000 in cash.

In their haste to get away, Wright threw their wigs, empty money bags, stolen licence plates used to disguise the get-away car, and other incriminating evidence in a nearby dumpster. The material was later found by dumpster divers looking for cans who alerted the police. Investigators were able to find a partial fingerprint on one of the Bank of America money bags. Also found was a copy of the fake car licence Wright used to rent a car. The noose began to tighten around the gang.

The trio decamped to their Sedona hide-out to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. They seemingly fitted in well into the small community, and were even befriended by the local sheriff’s deputy. Reid took flight lessons and bought a plane. But FBI agent Steve Chenoweth and his colleagues were watching and waiting. Tipped off regarding their true identities, the partial fingerprint was sent to the RCMP in Canada for positive identification. With the identity of one of the gang members confirmed, a judge provided a warrant for their arrest on bank robbery and conspiracy charges. At the end of October 1980, Lionel Wright was arrested naked in bed in the Sedona hide-out. Stephen Reid was later stopped without a struggle as he drove to the airport to go flying. By chance, Mitchell was on holiday and escaped the police dragnet.

In April 1981, Wright and Reid pled guilty to the armed robbery of the San Diego Bank of America branch. The duo each received twenty-year sentences in federal prisons; their sentences were later reduced to ten years. Both were eventually transferred to Millhaven Penitentiary in Ontario to finish their time in Canada. Here, the story takes a novel twist. Reid began to write about his experiences, producing a semi-autobiographical book called Jackrabbit Parole. In a neighbouring cell, Wright typed the manuscript. The book caught the attention of Susan Musgrave, a noted Canadian poet and editor. Reid and she started to correspond. Later, they married in the prison chapel at Millhaven. By this time, the couple had become famous; the CBC television programme The Fifth Estate was invited to the ceremony. Reid was later moved to a British Columbian prison to be close to Musgrave. He was paroled in 1987 and for a time led a model life, raising a family with Musgrave on Vancouver Island. Writing appeared to have been his salvation.

As for the other two, Wright didn’t get out of jail until the mid-1990s. He then disappeared, this time permanently. Mitchell, who remained at large after Reid and Wright’s arrest in Sedona, went solo in the robbery business. Robbing department stores and banks from Florida to Arizona, Reid became number seven on the FBI’s most wanted list. He was described as “armed and dangerous and an escape risk.” Mitchell missed his two colleagues who had previously taken care of all those important heist details. He got sloppy and was finally tracked down in early 1983 to the small town of Astatula, Florida, and was apprehended by the FBI. He was transferred to San Diego to stand trial for the Bank of America heist as well as for the robbery of an Arizona Bank. He ended up in the Arizona State Penitentiary looking at decades behind bars. But after four years, he and two other inmates successfully broke out via a ventilation shaft. He fled to the Philippines, got married, and had a son. He supported his family through an occasional trip back state-side to rob more banks. His career finally came to an end in 1994 in the little town of Southaven, Mississippi when be bungled his last bank robbery. He got 30 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. In 2006, Mitchell died of cancer in a prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina, his request to be transferred to Canada denied.

The story of the Stopwatch Gang wasn’t quite over. Stephen Reid couldn’t adapt to his new life on the outside. Back on drugs, he held up a bank in 1999 with an accomplice in Victoria, British Columbia, making off with $93,000. In the ensuing chase, he fired shots at the police. He was apprehended and sentenced to eighteen years for armed robbery and attempted murder. Returned in prison, he resumed writing. In 2013, he published a collection of essays titled A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison. He is now out of jail living in British Columbia with Susan Musgrave who stood by her man despite everything.

 

Sources:

Story idea courtesy of André LaFlamme, Ottawa Free Tours, http://www.ottawafreetour.com/.

CBC, 2011. “My Friend The Bank Robber,” The Fifth Estate, 25 March, http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2010-2011/my-friend-the-bank-robber.

Citizen, (The), 1974. “Airport bandits escape with $165,000 in gold,” 18 April.

—————–, 1974. “Great gold caper baffles detectives,” 19 April.

—————–, 2006. “Paddy Mitchell’s dying wish,” 30 July.

—————–, 2014. “Ottawa Stopwatch Gang’s Stephen Reid is out of prison,” 19 February.

Dean, Josh. 2015. “The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang,” The Atavist Magazine, https://read.atavist.com/the-life-and-times-of-the-stopwatch-gang.

Meissner, Dirk, 2014. “Stopwatch Gang bank robber and author Stephen Reid denied full parole,” The Globe and Mail, 3 March.

Star Phoenix (The), 2007. “Time runs out on Stopwatch Gang leader,” 16 January.

Tuscaloosa News (The), 1995. “Bank robber proud of precision work,” 29 August.

Weston, Greg. 1992. The Stopwatch Gang, Macmillan: Toronto.

 

 

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