Amazing Flight and Flyers - Shirlee Smith Matheson - Google Books
(Gregson's Gold - Amazing Flights and Flyers Pages 31 to 38)
The Discovery gold mine, located some 55 miles north of Yellowknife, was humming. Beginning with the first gold brick produced here on February 10, 1950, by Consolidated Discovery Yellowknife Mines Ltd., the mine site had grown to include a couple of bunkhouses that accommodated 50 workers, a cookhouse, a recreation hall and office building, several residences and a warehouse. But there was no radio, or even telephone communication. With no road to connect this isolated mine to town, the main means of transportation to Yellowknife was by air.
The workforce of such a place is always comprised of people who've come from elsewhere. One such person employed at Discovery Mine was Tony Gregson, a handsome young Englishman of about 30 years of age. The year was 1954.
At first Gregson worked in the mine's office, but soon found himself in trouble with the boss. After a weekend off in Yellowknife he apparently "forgot" to return to work, and was gone for a week. When he finally showed up, supposedly walking the full distance to get there, his boss decided that Gregson needed an attitude adjustment and assigned him to the worst job in camp...operating the "honey wagon."
Angered and humiliated, Gregson formulated a plan. At that time, mine management was rather cavalier regarding the handling of their product. Every week the mine poured two gold bricks, each weighing 48 to 50 pounds; with gold at that time costing between $32.50 and 35.00 an ounce, the combined value of two bricks was approximately $55,000. The bricks were sewn into canvas bags and marked with inventory numbers, and their destination, in this case the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa. The bags containing the gold bricks were then included in the mail sack and loaded with other cargo into the back of bush pilot Max Ward's chartered DHC-3 Otter (CF-GBY).
When the floatplane docked at Yellowknife and passengers had disembarked, the cargo would be unloaded onto the dock. Frenchy's Transport, a small local expediting company, would pick up the mail sack and take it to the post office. If it came in after office hours, the sack would be taken into Frenchy's office, also located on the dock, for storage until the post office opened. Then the bricks would be weighed, registered and shipped by post to Ottawa.
How could anything go wrong? No one could steal from any of these gold mines...Consolidated, Discovery, or Giant...and hope to escape. The Northwest Territories was an isolated place, with just two ways out. From Yellowknife one could fly south via Canadian Pacific Air Lines' scheduled daily flight, or get to the town of Hay River on the south side of Great Slave Lake and from there take the bus. The police could easily detain both these transportation facilities if an alarm was raised about some missing gold.
Gregson was seething as he drove the honey wagon truck around the camp, loading the slop. He had been an office clerk, and now was forced to perform the most stinking job in the place. A few guys smirked when they saw him coming, but most were sympathetic. Gregson was well liked, and the boss was being a jerk. Everyone said so. The punishment did not fit this crime. Who hadn't gone AWOL once in a while from these isolated camp jobs? It would drive anyone daft after a while.
Gregson had seen the gold being poured, and the pure gold bricks snuggled into canvas sacks, to await their ride to Ottawa on the mail plane. Heck, anyone could pick them up! It was just that nobody had thought of it before. Nobody had a reason to think of it before. Now, he did. Those two little bricks would set him up for life. A nice house in the city could be bought for under $10,000, and the fanciest Cadillac for less than $5,000.
He began to plan. The best idea would be to replace the gold with something else. No one ever looked inside the sewn bags until they arrived at the Mint. The only time the bricks would be handled was when they were weighed and registered in the post office in Yellowknife...and even then they were not removed from the bags.
Gregson continued to make daily rounds with the truck, waiting for his days off. At the next opportunity he booked a flight to Yellowknife. En route, he carefully watched the operation: the mail sack was hauled out of the airplane, placed on the dock and picked up by Frenchy's Transport. No one even looked at it, just a heave-ho and it was onto the truck and over to the post office, or Frenchy's office.
While on leave, Gregson contacted a seamstress in Edmonton and gave her an order to sew two canvas bags, of a certain material and dimension. Step One.
Back in Yellowknife, he paid a visit to Mayor J.G. "Jock" McNiven, manager of the Negus Mine (and the first appointed Northern Councillor of the Northwest Territories), and bought 150 pounds of lead "to fix his boat."* (The Story of Discovery Mine compiled by the Discovery Women's Institute states that Gregson bought one lead brick for $25.00 from a foundry and a second at a later date for $30.00 from a watchman at a non-operating gold property in Yellowknife.)
It would not be difficult to melt down the lead...a cast iron pot over an open fire would do, and pour it into bread pans to form bricks to imitate the size and shape of the gold bricks. Gold weighs about five percent more than lead so he'd have to mould the bricks close to the right size without making the weight difference noticeable. Luckily, they were included in a sack with other mail so the pilot or the transport people shouldn't notice the difference when they picked them up.
He carefully wrapped his homemade bricks into the canvas bags. Now, what did they write on them? Oh yeah. "Royal Canadien Mint, Ottowa, Ont.," he pencilled, not realizing he'd misspelled a couple of words. Then he coppied the numbers from the last shipment. By the time that was discovered he'd be long gone.
His escape plan was the next matter. He was an avid canoeist and knew the dangerous and erratic waters of Great Slave Lake. Some of the guys had laughed at his little boathouse down on the lake near the "Con" mine. He had to admit it looked kind of strange, poking up like a telephone booth, but it kept his canoe stored in an upright position, out of the weather, with room inside for his small outboard motor. Going along with their joke, he'd even made a sign, "Tony's Boat House in the North." Some joker had stuck up another sign, "Looks more like a two-story Outhouse in the South." But Gregson would have the last laugh.
Between Yellowknife on the north side of Great Slave Lake and the town of Hay River on its south shore (where the road from the south actually terminated) lay a span of 90 miles of churning water, or a shoreline trip of nearly twice that distance. In preparation for his getaway to coincide with the July 1 holiday, Gregson got into his canoe and then hid it and the outboard motor from view near the float plane dock in Yellowknife, ready for his escape south by water.
He would fly from the mine to Yellowknife with the other camp men and cargo, and switch the sacks en rout - lead for gold - on the aircraft. Once in Yellowknife he'd hail a taxi from the dock to town, and when the coast was clear he'd return to the dock, hop into his canoe and be off.
Right on schedule, Max Ward came in to Discovery Mine with his float-equipped single engine Otter, painted in the new Wardair colours of blue with red and white trim. Gregson was ready with his ticket to Yellowknife. Max Ward loaded the cargo and the mail sack containing the two newly poured gold bricks for the short 55-mile trip while Gregson and two other passengers climbed aboard.
In order to be left alone, Gregson developed a scheme: he'd pretend to be drunk, not an unusual situation for miners ready for a whoop-up in Yellowknife. On the way, Ward had to drop off some groceries and pick up mail at a survey camp, and also stop at Consolidated's woodcutters' camp a few miles to the south where a crew was doing maintenance work on the power line to Discovery. Good. The passengers stayed on the aircraft while Max Ward went out onto the float, handing off the freight and throwing in new mail sacks.
Continuing his drunken act, Gregson leaned over the mail sack that lay beside the pilot's seat, as if losing his balance. In the confusion of righting himself and sorting out items that had fallen, he deftly made the switcheroo - his "mail sack" for the one from the mine containing the gold. No one noticed, but Gregson could barely breathe during the remainder of the short trip.
Yellowknife quickly came into view. Ward taxied to the dock, tied up and began the chore of offloading the cargo, swinging the bags down from the sill of the aircraft onto the dock. Tony noticed that Ward gave an extra heave-ho as he swung off his bag.
"My God, what's in here, gold bricks?" Ward asked jokingly. Gregson gave a little laugh but said nothing, as Ward hadn't looked directly at him. In fact, he wouldn't know whose bag it was. But close call, that.
With baggage in hand, Gregson scurried off in a taxi. Later, he returned to his secluded canoe and turned the bow out into the dark waters. When he was a short distance from shore, however, the motor quit. What now? He looked around - big waves threatened to upset the canoe no matter which way he turned. Maybe it wasn't such a good plan to brave these waters all the way down to Hay River. He'd once gone on a canoe trip to the Nahanni region with three other fellows, and had been the only one to return. The others had drowned. Awful thing. Perhaps fate had intervened once again to save him from a watery death.
He paddled back to the dock late toward evening, and went into town to make a couple of phone calls. The first call was to Jim McAvoy, who flew a Stinson for his family company, McAvoy Diamond Drilling. "No, sorry," McAvoy replied, "I just can't take you to Hay River right now. Too busy."
Wardair was risky. What if Max Ward had figured out he'd switched the bags? But, there were no others.
Shorty Brown was with John Parker at the Wardair dock watching cargo being unloaded. He was surprised to see Gregson return.
"Shorty, is that plane over there, that Beaver, for rent?"
"Yeah, it probably is," Brown replied. "Go inside and talk to Max Ward."
"I have to get to Hay River, right away," Gregson explained, seeming flustered. "Family emergency. I can't wait for the regular CP Air flight on Monday. I'll pay the full six-seat fare in the Beaver, in cash. Just get me there, first thing Sunday morning. Gregson's the name. Tony Gregson."
Max Ward felt that something was odd. First, it was pretty expensive for a chap from the mine to charter an aircraft. Also, he'd just brought this passenger in on an earlier flight from Discovery Mine and there'd been no mention of an emergency. Maybe he should phone the RCMP, as he usually did to report on unusual movements. He had his finger on the dial when a taxi cab pulled up in front of the office. He'd make the call later. Just take this guy's money and call pilot Henry Hicks to fly him to Hay River in the Beaver.
The trip was uneventful. If the pilot wondered why someone wanted to pay full fare for a six-seat charter, it was none of his business. he was being paid by the flying mile and the extra income would be useful. Hicks' attempt at casual conversation went unanswered. His passenger in fact seemed a bit nervous, but didn't Max say the guy had some kind of family emergency?
On reaching Hay River, Gregson nodded farewell to the pilot, and caught a ride into town. There he purchased a bus ticket for Edmonton, leaving Monday morning.
Before boarding, he wrote a short letter to the manager at Discovery Mine, and dropped it off at the post office. "Give my pittance of a salary to charity. Good-bye. Tony Gregson."
Sitting on that long bus ride he considered his next step. By the time the bus reached Edmonton, the word would have got out about the switch and the police would be waiting for him. When the bus pulled into the town of Peace River, he got off.
After enjoying a meal and a walk around town, he returned to the bus depot and bought a ticket for Prince George. Once there, he purchased a train ticket to the farthest destination he could reach by land on the B.C. coast - Prince Rupert. This would take him far away through miles of forested wilderness of British Columbia. Good!
Four days later, "Anthony Johnson" bought a ferry ticket for Vancouver...and Tony Gregson disappeared.
When Max Ward placed the mine's mail sack containing the gold bricks on the end of the dock for pickup by Frenchy's Transport, John Parker, a local mining engineer, had been present. Noticing Ward standing around as if waiting for someone, Parker asked him what was up. "Oh, there's the gold bricks from Discovery," Ward said, indicating the bag. "Just keep an eye on them."
"What do they feel like?" Parker asked. "Are they heavy?" He bent to pick one up. "What is this supposed to weigh?"
"Fifty to seventy pounds each," Ward replied. "They're marked right on the tag."
Parker again hefted each bag. "They feel quite a bit lighter than that."
"Don't be ridiculous," Ward responded.
"Oh well," Parker responded, putting the bags down. "I thought I was a better judge of weight than that."
Nothing more was said. Frenchy's Transport picked up the bags, and Tommy Nuttall put them in the office safe until the post office opened on Monday. First thing Monday morning the canvas bags from Discovery Mine were taken to the post office to be weighed and registered in preparation for mailing.
The numbers on the bags did not at all match those on the documents. The numbers were those from the last shipment! The weights were wrong! And why was the destination spelled incorrectly? They called mining engineer Norman Byrne, brother of Consolidated Discovery Gold Mines president Jerry Byrne, and when he arrived the bags were opened.
"Lead!" cried one man.
"Lead, eh?" echoed a second, as they found themselves staring at the two crudely poured loaves. They stood staring at the useless cargo in front of them, and then phoned mine manager R.J. Kilgour. He asked them to weigh the bags. When it was discovered that they weighed 48.2 and 43.2 pounds, rather that the recorded 72 and 52 pounds that Gregson had printed on the bags, they knew they had a crime on their hands.* (Max Ward states that the bags were marked to weigh 48 pounds, and John Parker said they were too light. The Max Ward Story, pp. 130. The Story of Discovery Mine states that the bags were found to weigh 48.2 and 43.2 pounds instead of 72 and 52 pounds. It is probable that Gregson did not have the exact loaf mould used for gold casting, and his lead loaves were smaller than the gold ones, since the weight differences cannot be accounted for by the greater density of gold over lead...approximately five percent).
Max Ward now recalled, with embarrassing clarity, lifting a passenger's bag from the aircraft and jokingly asking if it contained gold bricks. He also recalled this oddly behaved passenger Tony Gregson and the man's desperation to book a charter flight out of Yellowknife. At that moment Max Ward knew he had been party to an incredible scam. Now, thanks to the efficiency of his own chartered Beaver aircraft that had flown him out of Yellowknife, the crook had a three-day head start.
"He is not someone I am ever likely to forget," Max Ward states in his autobiography, The Max Ward Story, "and, while the loss was covered by Discovery's insurance, the shock to my system when I found I had been duped was considerable."
Corporal Bill Campbell of the RCMP was put on the case, with charges laid against Anthony Gregson the following Tuesday and a warrant issued for his arrest. The letter directing his "pittance of a salary" to charity had been received, as well as disclosure that he'd declared the beneficiary of his company life insurance policy as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
The Yellowknife weekly newspaper, News of the North, had a field day with the story, a definite Page One item for its July 9, 1954 issue. In the article, titled "$50,000 Worth of Gold Spirited Away," the editor couldn't help add admonishment regarding the lackadaisical manner in which the gold was handled by the mine: "Up to the present Yellowknife's great protection has been its isolation, but whoever is responsible for last week's theft of two bricks from Discovery figured out a way to make that isolation work for him."
Many of the locals approached by editor Ted Horton acknowledged that they too had at times entertained the thought of slipping a couple of ounces of gold bullion into their bags. The editor stated, "We have frequently heard even law-abiding, upright and honest citizens of Yellowknife day-dreaming audibly about how just such a theft could be done. Though actually few of the virtuous would have the slightest idea as to what to do with a gold brick, if they had it, it was still regarded as a tempting idea."
The idea seems to have been that while stealing a gold brick is a crime and therefore an act to be deplored and frowned upon...it's still not a sin.
Max Ward admitted that the affair caused him to become more cautious with his cargo. "Thereafter we took very good care of gold bricks when we had to move them, " he said, on the CBC radio documentary Gold Heist. "We continued to move them as we did before, but they were under my seat in the aircraft, and if I went out of the aircraft I checked them when I came back. Yet, we weren't as secure as having a Brinks truck or anything like that around."
Three years passed. On the streets of Yellowknife and in the bunkhouses at the mines, people continued to theorize on where Gregson might be, how he'd cashed in the gold, and what he'd done with it.
Rumors circulated that Gregson was living the good life, shaving off bits and pieces of gold and selling them as needed. Some heard he'd sold the gold in Vancouver for much below value. Others that he'd bought a boat in the Maritimes and sailed to the Caribbean. He was enjoying some high living in Los Angeles. He blew the money on racetrack betting. He had gone to Cuba where his fortune had been stolen from him.
One rumor guaranteed continued interest in the story - some of the gold had never left the North! One brick was buried near Yellowknife, in Old Town, where the airplanes docked and where Gregson's canoe had been launched and then abandoned. It made sense. If he was caught, he'd lose only half his booty. No one would ever know where he'd cached the remainder.
Then, on June 27, 1957, the speculations came to a dead stop when News of the North announced, "Tony Gregson Without Bricks Picked Up in Australian Gaol." He had been caught on a relatively minor offence for stowing away on a ship, S.S. Cornwall. While serving a short stint in a Sydney jail, the outstanding Canadian warrant had surfaced.
Gregson was brought back to Yellowknife to answer the theft charges and on August 19, 1957, he appeared before Justice J.H. Sissons. In the August 22 issue of News of the North, the public was treated to a rather short "facts only" item:
"Gregson's plea is guilty of theft.
Tony Gregson has stopped running. No longer need he look over his shoulder nor writhe when he sees a policeman. He pleaded guilty here on Monday to the gheft of gold bricks from Discovery some three years ago and he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail, which he will serve in Prince Albert. Offence is said to have been committed by him by substituting lead blocks he had fashioned himself and wrapped to resemble gold in transit.
He appeared for his preliminary hearing before Magistrate L.H. Phinney at nine o'clock on Monday morning, was remanded to a higher court, and appeared before Mr. justic Sissons at 10 and was sentenced by 10:30. Yellowknife citizens had anticipated a long drown out legal battle and many felt Gregson would have gotten away."