(Stephen Reid on the right at the Millhaven Penitentiary where he wrote his book Jackrabbit Parole)
As bad ass as it gets…
Canadian Stephen Reid is not only one of the members of the infamous bank thieves called “The Stopwatch Gang” who stole millions of loot through their various heists in numerous banks during the 70’s and 80’s, but he is also a bestselling novelist for his book Jackrabbit Parole (his autobiography about his life in crime). He is also married to literary poet Susan Musgrave, whom he married during his stint in the penitentiary. Watch the videos below to get a glimpse of the legendary mastermind…
The Stopwatch Gang, all Canadian, is still talked about 30 years after their bank robbing exploits, joining other renowned bad guys in books and in film and television dramas.
Patrick (Paddy) Mitchell was the ringleader, operating with Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright.
Reid and his cohorts got their name from the stopwatch he wore around his neck as they robbed banks all across North America. They made the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Among the gang’s scores were the 1974 heist of six gold bars worth $700,000 from the Ottawa airport, the biggest bank job in San Diego history ($283,000 US) and about 100 other bank jobs from Seattle to Miami to Montreal, scooping up some $15 million.
When Stephen Reid was robbing banks for a living, he took great care with the planning, timing and execution of each heist. There was always the chance of the unexpected, the bad-luck fluke, but good planning overcame most obstacles.
He also took great care with the language when he robbed banks.
“My job was to make panic leave but fear stay,” a bank-robbing character says in Jackrabbit Parole, the novel Reid wrote while doing time in Millhaven Penitentiary. The novel was autobiographical, it is likely that’s how he conducted himself while robbing banks.
The Jackrabbit Parole character once tried to be clever, saying things like, “OK, folks, imitate your favourite statue.” This backfired when an elderly lady in the bank walked over and said, “Pardon me, young man. Would you mind repeating that?”
Reid found it better to say, “Reach for the sky!” and “Stay where you are and nobody gets hurt.” Reid tried to keep things calm by saying, “This won’t take long, folks.”
It didn’t take long, no more than two minutes, sometimes 90 seconds.
Stephen Reid went straight for a while, then robbed a bank in Victoria in 1999 and is now out on parole. Mitchell is in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Wright last was reported living in Kingston, Ont., working as an accountant for Corrections.
Between heists, the Stopwatch Gang lived in a lavish cedar-and-glass home in the Arizona mountains. They explained their frequent absences to neighbours by saying they were concert promoters. A local sheriff used to invite Reid and his girlfriend over for an evening of bridge.
They used guns, but they were known as considerate bandits because they were polite and orderly and never shot anyone.
Violence wasn’t Reid’s style. That’s what is surprising about the bank holdup in Victoria. Reid and Allan McCallum, 31, were accused of robbing a bank in Victoria, then firing at pursuing police officers. It wasn’t out of character for Reid to rob banks, but it was to shoot at people. He faced 10 charges, including attempted murder, armed robbery and unlawful confinement.
It appears Reid and McCallum encountered one of those bad-luck flukes: police happened near the bank investigating a troublesome panhandler. Police recovered the money from the car used in the escape. A SWAT team captured Reid after a five-hour standoff at the apartment of an elderly Victoria couple. Reid was found hiding in a foldout couch.
Stephen had been working on building a new home on the Queen Charlotte Islands for his wife, the poet Susan Musgrave, and their two daughters. Musgrave says Stephen started with marijuana, then cocaine and heroin. She said when Stephen was trying to recover from his addiction, “friends” smuggled drugs to him in his hospital room. Liise McCallum says her husband had been doing well on a methadone program until he and Stephen began working on the new home.
Susan fell in love with Stephen when she was editing his manuscript for Jackrabbit Parole. He was in prison at the time, serving a 14-year sentence for bank robbery. She asked him to marry her, which he did in 1986, the same year the novel was published.
She had been married twice before, first to a lawyer, then to one of her husband’s clients, a drug dealer who won an acquittal through her first husband’s efforts.
When Stephen was paroled in 1987, he and Susan set up a life for themselves on Vancouver Island. Reid often has been quoted as saying, “My criminal career ended the day I began writing.”
Susan and her friends are raising money for a defence fund for Stephen. She established a trust fund for this purpose at Pacific Coast Credit Union in Victoria, but the credit union later closed the account when executives realized what it was for.
The decision to close the account came after an executive from the Bank of Montreal called the credit union to tell them that the trust account was to be used as a defence fund.
At a trial in Victoria in November 1999, Reid pleaded guilty to bank robbery, but not guilty to charges of attempted murder. It was revealed during the trial that he and his partner fled the bank with $92,000. It was also revealed that Reid started taking heroin when he was 13 years old, and did drugs the day of the bank holdup. While fleeing police, Reid fired blasts from a sawed-off shotgun and a .44 magnum handgun.
On Dec. 1, 1999, Judge Alan Filmer found Reid guilty of attempted murder. He was later sentenced to 18 years in prison.
For years Mitchell was on top of the FBI’s Most Wanted List. It was a single-handed robbery in Mississippi that was his downfall. Unlike the Stopwatch heists, it was sloppy, almost amateur. The police were waiting outside when he emerged from the bank. He was sentenced to 30 years and the United States has always refused to allow him to transfer to a Canadian prison.
Paddy Mitchell has since written his own autobiography, The Bank Robber’s Life, which he sells from behind bars via his own website.
Reid isn’t the first bank robber to gain a measure of celebrity writing books. In 1978, Roger Caron won a Governor General’s Award for his book Go Boy! Caron wrote three more books, but is back behind bars after being convicted in 1993 of robbery, assault and taking a hostage.
Watch this video of the news broadcast regarding his attempt to rob a bank in Victoria dressed as a cop: