Monday, December 04, 2017

Montreal crew pulls off major bank heist, scores cash and misery: an inside, exclusive look into the great heist of 1958

Samson, Yacknin, Stepanoff
   The Brockville Savings and Trust robbery of 3 May, 1958, was an epic heist that saw authorities opt to enrich  the thieves by cashing their stolen bonds, as we reveal for the first time today thanks to an exclusive insider account obtained by Coolopolis.
  More on that below. First, the basics.
  Five men entered the side door of the Fulford Building near the Brockville Courthouse and tore apart four layers of brick and half an inch of tempered steel plate with sledgehammers, chisels, drills and blow torches.
   The theft was initially estimated at $3.5 million, then $7 million, then $10 million but the true figure cannot be known because owners of the 36 safety deposit boxes surely exaggerated the value of their loss.
   The crew included:

Rene Martin, 23. He dropped his bank book, complete with full name at address at the scene and was rounded up in Montreal within 48 hours. He was convicted on 19 November and sentenced to 14 years and served eight. He refused to name his accomplices. They were never
   Giuseppe "Pep" Cotroni, born 1920, was sufficiently well-known to be invited to the Alapachin mafia meeting in November 14, 1957, as Montreal mob representative along with Luigi Grego. It turned into a fiasco as 60 were arrested and many others fled.
   Seven months after the Brockville heist, on
8 Dec. 1958 some of Cotroni's friends and employees from the Bonfire Restaurant dropped into his cottage in St. Adele where he weekended.. Ernest Costello, 40, of Ste. Adele.
  Cotroni poured them some anisette and they drank it back. Ernest Costello, 40, was paralyzed after drinking it. The others initially thought he was clowning around but he died in hospital a few hours later.
  Gaston Savard and Cotroni also survived, as their sips were smaller. Someone had broken in and poured strychnine into the bottle, surely in an attempt to kill Pep Cotroni.
   More on the possible poisoner below.
  In November 1959 Cotroni was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $88.000 after undercover agents purchased heroin from him and Rene Robert.
   Cotroni was sentenced to an additional seven years for the stolen bonds from Brockville.
   Cotroni was finally released freed from prison in 1971 and died without further arrest in 1979.
 René Robert, who worked for Cotroni as a waiter, was nailed for both the heroin and the bonds on July 28, 1958 and was sentenced to prison.
Peter "The Russian" Stepanoff, born in 1919, is believed to have organized the Brockville heist. He was never charged in connection with the theft but ended up doing plenty of prison time for other affairs nonetheless.

   Stepanoff first came to prominence in 1946 as part of a crew of eight that knocked over a bank in New Richmond Gaspe, subsequently burning much of the bonds in an oven to avoid getting caught.
   By 1958 he owned the semi-fancy Ontario Spagetti House with Pep Cotroni and Philippi Pandolfi at 297 Ontario East, which was around until at least 1970.
    Authorities mused about classifying Stepanoff as a habitual offender in May 1959. He had been living at 3615 Ridgewood at the time.
    Stepanoff, then 40, was also tried for a heist $890,000 at the First Trust Company at 44 James in St. Catharines Ontario that took place, once again involving blow torches, between 30 January and 3 February 1959.  Moses Yacknin, 40, (of 4446 Wilson) and Henri Samson, 45, were both arrested along with him in Montreal in February 1959.  Accomplice Raymond Galarneau, then 19, testified that Stepanoff brought a big pile of papers to Yanknin at his store at 1830 Ontario. Galarneau, 21, however, went back on his story in an attempt to exonerate Stepanoff and was sentenced for a stiff five years for perjury in November 1959.
   In June 1960 Stepanoff was sentenced to eight years after being caught with $9,000 of the bonds from the St. Catharines heist.
   Stepanoff was later caught with 200 morphine pills in his glove compartment but Cecile Gauthier, 45, said that she put them there to frame him in spite for breaking up with him. He was sentenced to seven yersr in 1968 for heroin in Toronto and fell off the radar thereafter.

 Kenneth "China Boy" Winford (1925-1959) Winford had been targeted outside his Lincoln stret apartment July 1955, on the same night somebody shot at two Toronto gangsters at Stanley and St. Catherine. Winford was kept in protective custody after that while awaiting trial for burgling the home of Claude Deangelis.
   Ten months after the heist, specifically on March 18 1959, he was blasted with two bullets in the chest and one in the stomach at Piedmont, about 12 minutes south of where Cotroni had a cottage. He died four days later in hospital in March 1959. One newspaper suggested that it might have been retribution for the poisoning at Cotroni's place.  Police cryptically said that Winford was a victim of his own ambitions.
   And now for another perspective on the thefts, as written in an unpublished manuscript by Philip "Pip" Caddell, who died in 2005. It has been shared by his son Andrew.
   In May of 1958, a robbery occurred in Brockville Trust and Savings, a small company that Montreal Trust had just acquired as part of a minor expansion.  It might not seem like much, but Brockville, a small city on the shores of Lake Ontario near Kingston, was the home of many very wealthy people.  There were several millionaires, not the least of which was he Fulford family, who made “Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People,” which claimed to cure everything. I always got a laugh out of the name.  I think Mother sometimes bought them for us when we were sick, although I doubt she put much stock in them.  It did make the Fulford family, and Brockville, quite rich.
   So, rather than this being a small town bank with not much inside, this bank was brimming with riches. Millions of dollars, in a little bank in a small town. And clearly the thieves knew what they were doing.
   To give them credit, the robbers had been quite ingenious: they did not go in the front door and just rob the place while everyone was there.  Instead, they rented a building adjacent to the Trust Company and tunnelled into the bank through the basement, where the vault was located.  It took them a good part of the weekend. They then emptied the contents of the vault -  valuables, cash, and millions of dollars of stocks and bonds -  and hightailed it out of there without any being aware, until, Monday morning when the theft was discovered and an accounting revealed that it had been Canada’s largest-ever robbery, at $3.7 million dollars. This at a time when a good meal in a fine restaurant cost about $5, and an expensive car was $4,000. So it was a lot of money.
   The first break came when a bank book was discovered on the bank floor.  It belonged to a fellow who was associated with the Montreal Mafia.  He was cornered and arrested. It did not seem as if he was the key in the operation, though, which appeared to have been planned and executed by some of the top people in organized crime in Montreal.  And although there was an enormous theft of cash and valuables, there were also securities – stocks, bonds and treasury bills –  that could be easily traced.
   When the dust settled, the people in our security section at Montreal Trust knew what to do.  They would make an offer to recover the securities, using a go-between to provide cash in return for the stolen securities.  The cash would be paid on the basis of about 10 cents on the dollar, so no one would lose any money, not even the thieves, once the insurance company had paid for them.  It seemed like an unfair arrangement, as crime should not pay, but the thieves had the Trust Company over a barrel.  The securities were worth a lot of money to their owners and to the company, although not that much to those who took them, as they could be traced.  So we wanted them back and they were willing to give them up.
   There would be an operation, organized with the insurance company, to retrieve the outstanding securities.  And I was asked to work with the people doing the retrieval operation. My boss, Lorne Ashton, approached me and said he had recommended me because he felt I was the best person for the job, and he trusted me implicitly. He suggested there would be recognition by the company if I did well in this task.
   As he explained it, I was to be the go-between, as I was not a police officer, but rather an employee of the company.  And I was clearly, at 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, not going to overwhelm any heavyset criminal! The other reason I was chosen was that it had only been a decade or so since I had been an officer in the Army.  They needed someone who could fire a gun if necessary, and who could follow orders to the “T.”  They did not want someone who would get nervous or not follow through. As well, I was new and very eager to make sure those upstairs, especially Lorne Ashton, realized how much I wanted this job.  I had to feed my family.
   The first thing I was asked to do was to take firearms training, as to do this job, I would be asked to carry a gun.  So, each Tuesday night, I would go to the Montreal police firing range and practice my marksmanship.  I would stand at one end of the range and fire at a target about 50 feet away with a 38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver, the standard police issue.  The target was a bullseye, printed in black and white on a piece of paper about two feet by two feet. At first, I remembered why I had always hated shooting a revolver, especially over a rifle: the recoil was enormous. My aim was terrible, and I really felt I would have a better chance of hitting the target by throwing the gun at it.        The first night I came home with a very sore shoulder, and I had to have liniment spread over my arm and back.
   As the training sessions went on, my aim got better, and I would bring the target sheets home to show Duckie and the kids. She knew what was going on, as we talked about everything, and so was somewhat worried.  The children, who were still pretty young,   had no idea why I was training to shoot a revolver.  I said it was for sport, because I had always enjoyed shooting in the Army, which was not necessarily true.  I liked shooting a rifle, and always had, but I could do without the PIAT gun, and Tommy-guns were so terribly inaccurate, they were a waste of time.  As for revolvers, in wartime they were not much use unless you were almost face to face.  And you might as well be dead in that situation. So although my aim was pretty good, I did not expect or intend to have to use my gun.
   So, I was ready to take on this task, and while still working, and learning the job of personnel officer, the work to retrieve the securities began.
My role was to drop off money in return for the stolen securities.  It could happen at any time of the day or night, and it could be anywhere in the city, although it was invariably downtown.  Those scenes you see in the movies, of exchanges in open fields in the dead of night, are a little far-fetched.     There were a couple of situations like that for me, but most occurred on city streets, where a briefcase or a container held the securities.
    It was almost tedious in some ways, as I would be asked to take a satchel of money to a drop-off point, and leave it, while picking up the container or briefcase that had been left behind.  It could be a back alley or a blind street, or behind a building in the area near the old Montreal Trust building down on Place d’Armes, in Old Montreal.
   I was carrying my revolver as insurance in case something went wrong, or if someone decided they could rob me without making the payoff.  But to their credit, the guys we were dealing with were businessmen – they knew it was not in their interest to botch an operation that was giving them money for paper that was essentially worthless to them.
   The fellow who was coordinating the operation was an expert in organized crime from New York, who had done this sort of thing before and was seen as an “honest broker” by both the insurance companies and Montreal Trust.  He would get a call at the office on the sixth floor where he worked in the Trust Company building and I was sent out with my satchel to gather the next bunch of securities.
   One day, he was looking at the scrapbooks of photos he had assembled of the people he calculated were in on the robbery.  Many were key players in organized crime in Montreal and elsewhere, so they were pretty tough, and had a reputation for being ruthless. He asked me if I wanted to see who we were dealing with.  I answered, “Are you kidding? If I knew what these mugs looked like, all I would have to do is look at one of them sideways and my life would not be worth a plugged nickel!”  He had to agree, so I never knew who it was I was the “go-between” with.
   One day, I was waiting for the call to come, that there was to be a “package” picked up in the downtown area near the Trust Company.  The pick-up was to be around noon, and it was around 11:30. I was very hungry, and so I decided to slip out for a sandwich before reporting to get my satchel, my orders and my revolver from the boss man on the sixth floor.  When I came back to my desk in the personnel department, I got an urgent call.  It was the fellow upstairs.
  “Did you go out just a few minutes ago?”
  “Yes, I went out to get a sandwich. I was famished.”   
  “Well, don’t every do that again without telling me.”
  “Why not?” I asked. I could see something was troubling him.
  “Well, it is obvious they have you staked out.  We just got a call asking why you were going out 20 minutes early. The other side was suspicious we were trying to pull a fast one.  They nearly got nervous and called off the exchange.”
   So, they had our building staked out.  More than likely they had rented an office overlooking Place d’Armes and were watching my every movement, which did not make me feel too good.  It did make me feel I had made the right choice in not looking at their photographs.
   As it was, I never went out for a sandwich at noon again while I was involved with the retrieval operation.  And I wondered who, among the crowds among the bankers and the shoppers on St. James and Place d’Armes, were the “businessmen” that I was exchanging cash for paper with.  After several months of this, the operation was wrapped up, and the vast majority of the securities were recovered.  I went back to working full-time as personnel officer, and gave back my revolver.  There were no more Tuesday night sessions at the firing range, although my aim was getting better.  In a short time, I received a promotion to Personnel Manager, which I think was a reward for having made that sacrifice.  I showed that I was willing to do what was required to serve the company, and my boss, Lorne Ashton, recognized that and rewarded me. 
   There was an interesting epilogue to this story a number of years later.
Montreal Trust had moved from the office at Place d’Armes to the new Place Ville Marie in the centre of Montreal.  I received a call from our securities fellows on the main floor, and was asked to come down to see them.  It had to do with the Brockville robbery, I was told.  I had not thought about it for quite a while, but I was the resident expert on what had happened, as I was closest to the investigation.
   When I came down, I found a few of our lads sitting with a fellow who could only be described as a tradesman, as he was dressed in workboots, a heavy coat, work shirt, dirty trousers, and a wool cap.  He had with him some of the securities that appeared to be from the Brockville robbery.  The problem was that these securities, although quite clearly from the same batch as those stolen, were not listed as stolen in the special inventory that had been taken.
   It turned out that this fellow was building a house Victor Cotroni, the reputed “Godfather” of the Montreal Mafia, and he had paid him in securities.  We began to ask this fellow some questions.
  “How does Mr. Cotroni pay you,” we asked.
   He replied, in a very matter-of-fact way, “Mr. Cotroni has a big box of these bills in his basement, and he pulls them out and gives them to me.”
   One of our fellows had a thought:  “Does Mr. Cotroni do anything before he gives these bills to you?” he asked.
  “Yes, he looks in a little book and checks the numbers on the bills and then he gives them to me.”
  “Does he do this with anyone else that you know?”
  “Yes, with all the contractors working on the construction.” 
   You could have knocked our lads over with a feather.  The “little book” was a very precious item.       When the inventory was taken of the bonds, stocks and treasury bills that had been stolen in 1958, a small “top secret” book was distributed to bank executives, securities specialists and police across the country and the States.
   The book listed the securities that were stolen by number and lot, so that the listing might be “Royal Bank Securities, serial number 101-200.”  But if the serial numbers of 1-100 were not listed, they were presumed not to be stolen.  Given the thousands of securities lost, the inventory was not perfect, and there were more than likely some that escaped scrutiny.  In checking the book, “Vic” Cotroni was making sure he was giving out securities that were not considered stolen, but were actually part of the haul from the Brockville robbery. 
   So it was that by bribery or theft the inventory book had fallen into the hands of the head of the most notorious crime syndicate in Montreal, and eastern North America.  And he was using it to pay off contractors in the construction of his house, and there was not much we could do about it, as there was no proof they were stolen.  We told this contractor that he should take cash from Mr. Cotroni from now on, and we kept an eye out for any more of the “phantom” securities.
   There had been some indication a few years before, that the hand of organized crime had been involved in the Brockville robbery.  In May of 1960, one of the Cotroni gang was jailed for seven years for being found with stolen bonds, which had been taken during the Brockville Trustaand  Savings robbery in 1958.
   At the time, the word came out that the robbery had been the act of one of Cotroni's main lieutenants, Peter "The Russian" Stepanoff, who had enormous skills as a safecracker, and was very adept with explosives.
   These skills were put to use again in 1961, with one of the other members of the Cotroni gang, when a branch of the City and District Savings Bank in west end Montreal was tunneled into over a weekend and the safe blown.
   Unfortunately for them, the neighbours heard the tunneling and the explosion and thought something was up.  And that was the first time Frank Cotroni ever went to jail.  I imagine the money gave organized crime in Montreal a solid footing for the “work” it would do in the 1960s: drugs, loan sharking, numbers rackets and prostitution.
   And through it all, there were many murders, or as the press called them “settling of accounts.”
   I always tried to look back on those times and laugh, and I enjoyed telling the story about the contractor.  There were lots of stories that came out of that dangerous operation.  But I came out of it unscathed: my luck held up once again.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Love to get comments! Please, please, please speak your mind !
Links welcome - please google "how to embed a link" it'll make your comment much more fun and clickable.