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Historicist: A Perfect Crime, Forgotten

"We're completely in the dark," a Trans-Canada Air Lines official admitted after thieves took gold bullion from Malton Airport in 1952 in a seemingly perfect and still-unsolved caper.

Globe and Mail of September 26, 1952.

On the evening of September 24, 1952, $215,000 worth of gold bullion was stolen at Malton Airport. The heist—which, at the time, was the largest gold robbery in Canadian history—involved no threat of violence and no gun play. In fact, no one had even seen stick-up/hold-up men.

Of 10 boxes of gold removed from a locked steel wire-mesh cage in the airport’s cargo area to be loaded aboard a Trans-Canada Air Lines cargo flight to Montreal, only four arrived as scheduled.

Police were baffled by the crime, which made waves as far away as Australia. Investigators never solved the case.

Toronto Star of September 26, 1952.

Originally believing that the six missing boxes of gold bullion were simply lost in the cargo facility or—at worst—loaded onto the wrong plane, unworried Trans-Canada Air Lines officials hesitated to notify law enforcement. By Thursday morning, after their initial search turned up nothing, the airline sought the assistance of the Canadian National Railways’ private police force. At the time, the CNR was still involved in the management of the airline.

Later that day, regular police were finally contacted. A variety of officers and detectives drawn from the RCMP, provincial police, and Toronto Township descended upon Malton Airport (the precursor to Pearson International) to join the CNR men in the investigation.

They inspected the eight-foot-high valuables cage where the bullion was temporarily stored, finding that the cage hadn’t been tampered with and that it would be rather difficult to break open. Investigators also noted cargo handlers’ standard practices by watching another gold shipment on its path from cage to wheel-truck to the airstrip for loading onto a plane. A great deal of the investigators’ time was spent questioning TCA and CNR employees, and even the airport manager, behind closed doors. Assembling facts into order, police established a timeline of events surrounding the theft.

At 4:46 on Wednesday afternoon, an armoured Brink’s van arrived at Malton airport, delivering a total of 10 wooden boxes from the local gold refineries of Johnson, Matthey and Mallory in Mount Dennis, and Handy and Harman of John Street. After TCA cargo agent Deny Mann signed for it, handlers weighed the valuable cargo and locked it into the cargo shed’s steel wire-mesh cage.

Such shipments were not at all unusual. The easing of International Monetary Fund regulations a year earlier had given Canadian mining companies greater ability to freely sell gold on the open market for industrial purposes, rather than solely selling to the Canadian Mint. With local commercial refineries in Toronto, where 24-carat gold was debased into a 22-carat gold alloy in accordance with government regulations concerning gold destined for industrial usage, Malton Airport became an important shipping point for gold. Originating at northern Ontario mines, gold was ferried via Malton and Montreal to industrial buyers in England and Europe. One representative of a local refinery, speaking upon condition of anonymity, told the press that their operation regularly used air freight for gold shipments worth $100,000 and $150,000. With a rapidly expanding fleet of cargo planes, TCA was well-positioned in 1952 to take advantage of this increasing trade.

Detail from Toronto Star of September 26, 1952.

In preparation for its scheduled departure for Montreal at 8:10 on the evening of September 24, a single, unarmed TCA cargo handler removed the bullion from the valuables locker and loaded it onto a cargo cart—as was established practice. The employee, Howard Halpenny, said it took him about six minutes to complete the task. Although wrapped with a steel band, each box weighed 88 pounds and he couldn’t carry more than one at a time—a key reason police believed no culprit could have pulled the job off alone.

On the way to the plane, Halpenny stopped at the post office across the road from Malton’s cargo shed to pick up mail destined for Montreal on that evening’s flight. Halpenny’s wheel-truck was unattended for three or four minutes.

Halpenny then wheeled the cart across the tarmac, where the Canadair North Star—arriving behind schedule from Winnipeg—awaited. Leaving his cargo aside, Halpenny helped other employees quickly unload the plane and then—after fetching some papers from the terminal—he returned to find that someone had already loaded the gold aboard. The plane took off at 8:33—23 minutes late.

Upon the plane’s arrival in Montreal at 10:45 p.m., it was discovered that six boxes were missing. But this news didn’t reach Malton until 2 a.m., at which point TCA began its modest initial investigation.

Despite their interrogations, police had no better than a partial picture of the loot’s disappearance. “It just seemed to vanish,” one baffled investigator told the Star on September 26. Another weary policeman told the Globe and Mail: “We haven’t even got a suspect yet. Our men are still trying to clear up just when the gold was taken.” Theories abounded.

The most likely scenario, police said, was that a group of fast-working thieves took advantage of an unattended cargo cart for a lightning raid. Because all private planes operating from the airfield since the theft had been thoroughly investigated, it seemed likely that the thieves used a getaway car, parked on a publicly accessible road just feet from the Malton cargo shed entrance.

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