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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Happy Independence Day?

17 April 1982

There is no definitive moment in history that marks the birth of Canada as an independent nation. Instead, we have a series of dates representing steps along a constitutional continuum from colonial subordination to complete independence. To complicate matters further, Canada became effectively independent decades before the legal papers were signed. Confusingly, none of the dates coincide with Canada Day on 1 July. Canada Day commemorates the passage of the British North America Act (BNA Act), a piece of British legislation that took effect on that date in 1867, giving birth to the Dominion of Canada. The Act, which set out religious and linguistic rights as well as the respective responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments, became Canada’s constitution. One thing it did not do was change Canada’s status within the British Empire.

Notwithstanding the fuzziness over when Canada became independent, there are two strong contenders for a Canadian “independence day.” The first is 11 December 1931, when the Statute of Westminster received Royal Assent in London. The second is 17 April 1982, when Queen Elizabeth assented to the Constitution Act 1982 in Ottawa. While the former date has its merits, I favour the latter.

When the Statute of Westminster became law on 11 December 1931, the British Parliament renounced its right to enact laws for a dominion without the consent of the dominion government, or to overturn dominion legislation that was considered “repugnant” to English law under the Colonial Validity Act of 1865. The Statute was the culmination of work undertaken by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, in concert with other dominion leaders, especially South Africa’s J.B.M. Hertzog, at the Imperial Conference of 1926. Leaders agreed that the United Kingdom and dominion governments (Canada, Australia, Union of South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and the Irish Free State) within the British Empire were in no way subordinate to each other in both domestic and foreign affairs, though all were united through a common allegiance to the Crown, and were freely associated members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Up until the Statute’s passage, Canada’s governors general were appointed by the British government (or more correctly by the Crown on the advice of the British government) and reported to British authorities. After 11 December 1931, Canada’s governors general were appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Canadian government. As well, diplomatic contacts between the Canadian and British governments were handled by high commissioners who held ambassadorial rank rather than by governors general talking to their British authorities. Canada could also conduct its foreign affairs with other countries without British involvement, though it had already been doing so for some years by convention, signing a bilateral agreement with the United States as early as 1911.

However, whether the Statute of Westminster implied independence is debatable. In 1959, Maurice Allard, the Progressive Conservative MP for Sherbrooke, was sufficiently convinced that he submitted a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to declare 11 December Canada’s Independence Day. Like most private members’ bills, however, his proposal went nowhere.

Back in 1931, the Statute’s passage was largely ignored; there were no independence-day fireworks. The Ottawa Evening Citizen’s brief coverage was sandwiched between a story on an abducted American co-ed and another on four Christmas turkeys left at an Ottawa police station. Toronto’s Globe covered the Statute on page fourteen. While calling it “an admirable piece of legislation,” the newspaper stated, “But let us be honest, who in Canada, barring a few gentlemen suffering from ‘status’ on the brain, worries about the Statute of Westminster?” In another article, the Globe wrote “As far as Canada is concerned, everything remains virtually as it was before the constitutional hair splitting commenced. Canada has governed herself without any interference from any outside source since 1867; She will continue to do so.”

The Globe was partially right. The last time Britain overturned a Canadian law was in 1873 with respect to an act dealing with oaths. But while Canada was effectively independent when it came to domestic matters, it remained subordinate in foreign affairs. Consequently, when Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically committed on Britain’s side. Things were different following the passage of the Statute of Westminster. Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 did not mean Canada was at war. To stress Canadian independence, Prime Minister Mackenzie King waited a week before joining the Allies. While Canada and Britain had the same monarch, the Crown had effectively been divided. There was now a British Crown and a Canadian Crown, with the same person wearing both “hats.” The divisibility of the Crown subsequently became a generally-accepted constitutional principle throughout the Commonwealth, with the Queen speaking on the advice of her Canadian prime minister when she is in Canada, and on the advice of her Australian prime minister when she is in Australia, etc.

Notwithstanding the Statute of Westminster, legal and constitutional links with Britain remained after 1931 which continued to place Canada in a subordinate position. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was Canada’s highest appellant Court until 1949 for civil cases. Canada’s Governors General continued to be Britons for another twenty years; the first Canadian appointed to the post, Vincent Massey, didn’t take office until 1952. Most importantly, the Statute explicitly exempted changes to the BNA Act from its purview. In other words, Canadians were unable to make changes to their own constitution without the consent of the British Parliament. This was not a task the British government had insisted on retaining. Rather, the anomalous situation was due to the inability of the federal and provincial governments to agree on a formula to make constitutional amendments. Consequently, Canada’s Parliament remained subordinate to the British Parliament in one vestigial but important way until the BNA Act was finally patriated in early 1982 by the government of Pierre Trudeau.

On 29 March 1982, Queen Elizabeth, wearing her “hat” as Queen of the United Kingdom, assented to the Canada Act 1982, legislation passed by her British Parliament at the request of the Canadian government to patriate the BNA Act to Canada. Three weeks later, on 17 April 1982, as Queen of Canada, she assented in Ottawa to the Constitution Act 1982, legislation passed by her Canadian Parliament. This Act, which includes Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a constitutional amending formula, forms part of Canada’s Constitution. Other key parts of the Constitution include the BNA Act, renamed in Canada as the Constitution Act 1867, and subsequent amendments.

The decision to patriate the Constitution was highly controversial. Two years earlier, with the failure of a separatist referendum in Quebec on “sovereignty association,” Prime Minister Trudeau had promised constitutional renewal to Quebec. But despite lengthy negotiations, a federal-provincial consensus could not be reached. A major sticking point was the proposed charter of rights and freedoms which many provinces feared would transfer powers from legislatures to the courts. Only Ontario and New Brunswick supported Trudeau. The others, known as the Gang of Eight, which included Quebec, held out. Following last ditch talks in Ottawa in November 1981, and threats by Trudeau to patriate the Constitution without provincial support, a position that the Supreme Court ruled as being legal though not desirable, the Gang of Eight collapsed.  In what later became known as the “Night of Long Knives,” a late-night agreement was reached in Ottawa among the leaders of the federal government and nine provinces after Levesque had left the negotiations to go to bed. In his memoirs, Levesque said that “he had been stabbed in the back by a bunch of carpetbaggers.”

Constitution Act

Queen Elizabeth signing Proclamation of Constitution Act, 17 April 1982

17 April 1982 was a drab, rainy day in Ottawa when Queen Elizabeth appended her signature to the Constitution Act on an outdoor dais setup on Parliament Hill. The proclamation document was also signed by Prime Minister Trudeau, André Ouellet, in his capacity as the Registrar-General, and Justice Minister Jean Chrétien. 32,000 spectators watched the historic occasion, undaunted by torrential rain showers. People started to show up on the Hill as early as 5.30am, five hours before the scheduled event. But the event was clouded by more than just the weather. Quebec, under the separatist Parti Quebecois government of René Levesque, boycotted the event. Instead, Levesque led a demonstration in Montreal against the new Constitution attended by 20,000 people. With considerable hyperbole, the demonstrators called Quebec’s Liberal MPs who supported the new Constitution “traitors,” and the Constitution, a “charter of genocide.”

Proclamation of Canada's Constitution

Proclamation of Canada’s Constitution

Trudeau made reference to Quebec’s absence at the patriation ceremony on Parliament Hill. Speaking to the “silent majority” in Quebec, he remarked that the Charter and the amending formula which allows Quebec to opt out of any constitutional change that might touch on language and culture with full financial compensation, did not sacrifice anything “essential to the originality of Quebec.” For her part, Queen Elizabeth, speaking in French, expressed sorrow for Quebec’s refusal to participate in the proclamation of Canada’s new Constitution. She ended her remarks saying “Today, I have proclaimed the new Constitution – one that is truly Canadian at last. There could be no better moment for me, as Queen of Canada, to declare again my unbounded confidence in the future of this wonderful country.”

In the years that followed, attempts were made by the federal government under Brian Mulroney to find a formula acceptable to Quebec. With the failure of both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the constitutional issue was put on the back burner, the nation fatigued by its constitutional problems. The Province of Quebec has still not endorsed the Constitution Act.

 

Sources:

CBC, 2001, “The Knight of Long Knives,” http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP17CH1PA3LE.html.

Edinger, Elizabeth, 2011-12. Casebook, Law 100, Canadian Constitutional Law, University of British Columbia, http://faculty.law.ubc.ca.

Department of Justice, 2013. The Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982, http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/PDF/CONST_E.pdf.

Heard, Andrew, 1990. Canadian Independence, http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/324/Independence.html.

Hilmer, Norman, 2013. “Patriation: The Constitution Comes Home,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/patriation-the-constitution-comes-home-feature/.

Senate of Canada, 2014. The Constitution Table, Royal Proclamation on Parliament Hill, http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/Senate/Constitution/royal_proclamation-e.html.

The Globe, 1931. “Constitutional Safeguards,” 9 April.

———————, 1931. “Score for the First Week,” 16 November.

———————, 1931. “Westminster Bill Goes to Committee in British House,” 21 November.

———————, 1931. “Finis to Status,” 5 December.

——————–, 1931.  “Westminster Bill Given Final Assent,” 11 December.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1982. “The nation’s coming of age was a day made for children,” 19 April.

———————-, 1982. “Queen offers Quebec praise for its cultural contribution,” 19 April.

———————-, 1982. “Ceremonies leave PM in a Whirl,” 19 April.

———————-, 1982. “PQ renews drive for separation,” 19 April.

———————-, 1982. “Queen Elizabeth: ‘I have seen a vision of this country take shape,’” 19 April.

———————-, 1982. “PM: Constitution a fresh beginning,” 19 April.

The Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1931. “Westminster Statute Given Royal Assent,” 11 December.

The National Archives (UK), 2014. Statute of Westminster 1931, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/22-23/4/section/7.

Images: Queen Elizabeth signing Proclamation of Constitution Act, 17 April 1982, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/patriation-the-constitution-comes-home-feature/.

Proclamation of Constitution Act, Government of Canada, http://data2.archives.ca/misc/txt/23v886k.jpg.