Historicist: A Perfect Crime, Forgotten
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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 October 11, 1952.

The thieves could’ve also used the nearby public roadway to case the freight facility, watching the movements of cargo handlers. However, in statements to the press, the police believed that a well-organized gang was tipped off by an inside source. “It was obvious, reported RCMP speakers, that major gold thefts were the work of men who knew the methods of gold shipment adopted by Canadian mines,” according to the Star of September 26.”These methods are a closely guarded secret. Mine operators will not reveal even the manner in which gold is sold.” Another official was unequivocal in telling the Globe and Mail: “Someone on the inside fingered the job.”

Early on, investigators paid particular attention to Halpenny, the 22-year-old cargo handler, who was interrogated in a marathon session lasting several hours. “It wasn’t any picnic,” Halpenny told the Star. He said that he hadn’t even known about the missing boxes of gold until late the following afternoon, when he was called in for questioning. The investigation soon moved on.

Another theory held that the six boxes of bullion had never left the cargo facility at all but had been hidden among the other packages and parcels to be quietly removed at a later date. But the TCA’s search of its facilities found nothing out of the ordinary.

What the police knew was that the delay between the theft—which must’ve occurred between 4:46 and 8:33—and its discovery (and the further delay in reporting the theft to police) had given the thieves a decided head start on pursuers. The early assumption was that the gold was smuggled across the border immediately. The legal price for gold was kept artificially low—at about $35 or $37 per ounce—by market restrictions. On the black market, however, gold could be worth much more, ranging from $55 and $60 per ounce. This meant the bullion stolen from Malton could easily fetch between $300,000 and $500,000.

Toronto Star of September 26, 1952.

The black market incentive also meant that, in the early 1950s, there had been a rash of gold thefts in Central Canada: $230,000 worth of gold was stolen in a series of robberies in Timmins; $125,000 was taken from a mine in Malartic, Quebec; and $80,000 from Sudbury. The Star noted that, in recent years, smugglers concealed gold in the form of nickel-plated hub-caps, in a four-pound salami, and in a black lacquer-covered walking cane.

In the daily press, experts discussed the most likely course for the illicit gold, explaining that the loot’s ultimate destination would be “in nations where people traditionally distrust national currencies and seek to convert their wealth into gold for safekeeping.” Communist China was listed as one such example. Claude K. Highmoor of the Canadian Bank of Commerce’s foreign trade department suggested that, with lower regulation of gold trading, Holland, Tangiers, Hong Kong, or Syria presented possible routes. The difficulties of international smuggling also gave credence to the theory of a highly organized gang being involved in the crime.

“Gold thieves on yesterday’s scale must sell to an international group of smugglers or their loot becomes heavy as lead and twice as useless,” the Star reported on September 26, 1952. “And the smugglers must be experts in handling gold. The bigger rings will pay more than twice the value of the lost bullion when they have a sure sale in one of the free markets. Right now, their briskest trade is with governments unable to buy gold openly in the free world.”

The theory that organized crime syndicates may have been involved was given credence when much later, in April 1953, Quebec police speculated that Charles “The Kid” Wagner, a recently slain member of the Montreal underworld, may have been connected to the bullion theft. But the police failed to share further details with the public at the time.

Toronto Star of October 10, 1952.

The RCMP revised their smuggling theory. In October 1952, the police force now stated that the gold had likely not been rushed across the border after all. Rather, they suspected that it had been cached in Ontario until the heightened police attention and tighter border security prompted by the Malton theft had cooled. Although officials would not disclose where their investigations were leading them, they felt that they were closing in on the culprits. One inspector publicly stated: “The next few days will prove vital.”

With several overseas banking and insurance companies in England, Switzerland, and Belgium now concerned in the case, the police announced a reward of $13,000 for information on October 11. “They think the loot is cached away somewhere in Ontario,” the Globe and Mail said of the police, “and that a number of people know not only the identity of the gold gang, but also where the bullion is hidden.” It was for naught. The gold was never recovered and the culprits were never brought to justice.

That didn’t mean culpability wasn’t assigned. Although the bullion shipment was insured, upon accepting it, as carrier, TCA was fully responsible for its security and delivery. The investigation revealed a number of short-comings in the company’s procedures. “Investigators are puzzled about the lax handling of the gold,” the Globe and Mail reported on September 26, 1952. “They cannot understand why the gold was not checked onto the plane. If this obvious procedure had been taken, the theft would have been discovered soon after 8 p.m. instead of six hours later in Montreal,” and exponentially increased the odds of an arrest.

Moreover, in the months leading up to the incident, police received reports of several other break-ins at the airport. When a consignment of Swiss watches had disappeared, police had recommended that TCA tighten its security measures. But nothing was done. At least one high-ranking police officer, speaking confidentially, expressed outrage about the lax security to the press. “He said it would be easy for a car or truck to drive up to the express shed, load up the shipment once the break-in had been made, and make its getaway,” according to the Globe and Mail.

Although the TCA had tightened its security procedures since the robbery, shortly afterward, the owners of the gold bullion filed suit against the airline. Charging gross carelessness in the loss of the gold, the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Johnson, Matthey Company of England sought $233,499 in damages. In January 1954, Aircraft reported that the TCA reached an out-of-court settlement of $160,000 plus costs, a “very substantial part of the original claim.”

Although the 1952 bullion heist at Malton Airport was the biggest gold heist in Canadian history at the time, it has been largely forgotten. Similar crimes have surpassed it in the public imagination. In 1966, Ken Leishman made off with $400,000 worth of gold from Winnipeg’s airport. And in 1974, Stephen Reid, Paddy Mitchell, and Lionel Wright took gold bars worth $750,000 from the airport in Ottawa. The difference between these and the earlier heist was that they were solved. The Malton job was so perfectly executed that the gold seemed to simply disappear into thin air, but the more memorable later crimes were executed by charismatic, well-known criminals who were caught. And the airport theft became part of their personal mythology.

Sources consulted: issues of Aircraft magazine from January 1953, February 1953, and January 1954; editions of the Globe and Mail from September 26 and 27, and October 11, 1952; and editions of the Toronto Star from September 26, 27, and 30, and October 10, 1952, and April 1, 1953.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.