|“||One time we had so much money we didn't know what to do with it, I looked at him and said: "Lionel, what a nice problem to have, huh?"||”|
Patrick Michael "Paddy" Mitchell, Stephen Reid, and Lionel Wright, collectively known as The Stopwatch Gang, or as The Presidential Robbers, were a trio of Canadian-born bank robbers who mainly operated out of Canada and the United States, from 1974 to 1980.
Patrick "Paddy" Mitchell was born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1942, in a working-class Catholic family. Of Irish descent, Mitchell grew up in Preston Street, part of a rough section of Ottawa's Little Italy. A child delinquent, he became popular as a bon vivant, being always "well-dressed, well-heeled, and soft-spoken", according to Reid. Mitchell debuted in the criminal underworld as a sort of jack-of-all-trades, and a "brain", helping people who came to him by figuring out ways to commit crimes, although never directly exposing himself. Throughout this period, he essentially lived a double life: he lived with his family, his wife Joan and their young son Kevin, in the suburbs, pretending to be a salesman while, in actuality, he spent all his daytime hanging out at the Belle Claire Tavern, where he would later met with Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright. Mitchell would usually act as the getaway driver during the trio's heists, this because of an incident, occurred soon after the gang escaped from prison, in which he panicked during a robbery at a department store in Tampa, Florida.
Stephen Reid was born in Massey, Ontario, in 1950. He started going to jail at sixteen, being involved in both petty crimes and drugs, and being a drug addict. At about eighteen-nineteen, according to himself, he became a "professional", and started committing bank robberies in Toronto and Ontario, for which he was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. In 1973, on a day pass from Kingston Penitentiary, he managed to elude his counsellor by crawling out of a restaurant's bathroom window. Reid fled to Ottawa, where he met Wright and Mitchell, whom he would later describe as "the unofficial mayor of the local underworld", because of his charismatic attitude.
Lionel Wright was born and raised in Ottawa. A shy, quiet, and introverted student who lived with his mother, he was working as a night clerk at a trucking firm when he first met Mitchell (who at the time worked as a truck driver), with whom he set up a partnership in which Wright routinely pilfered cigarettes, alcohol, candy and other goods from his work, covering his tracks with doctored papers, while Mitchell fenced the stolen property. He was the "details guy", being described by Reid as very brilliant, dependable, and with an amazing memory. He acted as the "caretaker" of his two accomplices' careless and flamboyant lives.
Robberies, Arrests, and Aftermath
The Ottawa Airport Gold Heist
Mitchell, Reid, and Wright embarked on a year-long crime spree, consisting mostly of petty thefts, before meeting Gary Coutanche, an Air Canada baggage handler who sold electronic calculators he stole from work. At the Bell Claire Tavern, Gary and the trio came up with the plan to commit one of the biggest robberies in Canada's history. Coutanche told Mitchell of gold shipments which monthly passed through the Ottawa airport on their way to the mint, and of how security was relaxed. He also accepted to let Mitchell know when the next shipping was scheduled to arrive in exchange for money. On April 17, 1974, the gold would have arrived from the Red Lake mines to the airport. In order to enter the guarded warehouse where the gold was being kept, the gang employed a ruse in which Reid pretended to be an Air Canada employee. As soon as the security guard, David Braham, opened the door, Reid held him at gunpoint and brought with him the gold, worth $750.000 (the equivalent, today, of about $5.000.000).
The authorities, however, immediately thought of an inside job, and focused on Coutanche because he was already suspected of theft and was involved with Mitchell. In return for leniency, Coutanche accepted to wear a wire in order to aid the investigators build a case against the gang. In March 1975, Mitchell and Wright were arrested for the robbery and for cocaine trafficking, which they also conducted with help from Coutanche. Reid followed shortly thereafter. Mitchell and Wright were both sentenced to seventeen years for trafficking (Mitchell's sentence was increased by three years for possession of the stolen gold). Reid was sentenced to ten years for the robbery, along with all the time he still owed.
Prison Escapes and Later Crimes in the U.S.
In October 1976, Wright escaped from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and fled to Florida, United States. Reid and Mitchell, who, after several unsuccessfull escape attempts, had acted like model prisoners and had been transferred to a less secure facility, followed in 1979: Reid was able to again walk out of a restaurant's bathroom window while on a day pass, and immediately resumed committing robberies. Mitchell went as far as to simulate a heart attack by drinking a self-made nicotine concoction (almost killing himself), being later brought away from the hospital by Reid, disguised as an orderly, who handcuffed the guards together in the ambulance.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, the trio began their lives as fugitives, embarking on a string of bank robberies both in Florida and in California. This time, in order to avoid getting caught again, they meticulously planned every heist, down to how many steps it was from the curb to the bank to the teller to the vault. They also precisely timed every robbery, spending no more than two minutes or less inside the banks. Because of the stopwatch they employed during their crimes (most of the times worn by Reid around his neck), they became known by the FBI as "The Stopwatch Gang", while it was for their habit of wearing full masks of deceased former presidents (Richard Nixon, Donald Reagan...) that they came to be also known as "The Presidential Robbers". During the course of their spree, the gang did routinely one or two hundred thousand dollars per score, which they mainly spent at Las Vegas casinos. According to the Bureau, they approximately committed up to 140 robberies in total, during the course of which not a single civilian, bank staff member, or security guard was hurt.
While the rest of the trio, when they were not robbing banks, spent a rather ordinary and domestic lifestyle, Paddy was more of a party animal, getting high on drugs, and having fun creating stories about himself with people he knew, which attracted attention and didn't like to Reid and Wright. Looking for a place where they could retire some day, the latters rented a house in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona, which became their hideout, while Mitchell parted ways with them for a while, going north, to Washington. Reid and Wright committed two more bank robberies, one in Phoenix and another in Little Rock, Arkansas, with help from another accomplice. The pair enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, also, quite ironically, becoming very good friends with local sheriff's deputies. The gang, now again including Mitchell, committed their last big score on September 23, 1980, at a San Diego Bank of America branch, leaving with $283.000 ($1 million dollars today) just dropped from an armored truck. At the time, that was the largest bank robbery ever committed in California, and the most fruitful for the trio.
Arrests and Later Years
Discarded money bags from the San Diego heist were eventually recovered by an elderly couple looking for aluminium cans in a dumpster, who brought them to the authorities hoping to get a reward. Police was able to obtain a partial fingerprint from the bags. On top of that, Donny Hollingsworth, a Canadian former halfback who had helped the gang since the 1974 gold heist, and was now being held for running a crystal meth operation outside San Diego, which had caused the death of at least one man, accepted to give the FBI the Stopwatch Gang in exchange for leniency. On October 31, 1980, both Reid and Wright were arrested at the Arizona hideout, while Mitchell, who was elsewhere at that time, went on the lam. He kept committing bank robberies by himself, in Florida and Arkansas, until he was finally caught in Arizona, before again escaping prison and fleeing to the Philippines, where he remarried and had a son. In 1993, his neighbours, who had seen an America's Most Wanted show about him, alerted the FBI, at which point Mitchell returned to the U.S. and was again arrested, on February 22, 1994, after another robbery in Mississippi. He again unsuccessfully attempted to escape.
While in prison, Mitchell wrote his autobiography: The Bank Robber's Life. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006, and eventually died on January 14, 2007, at 64, at the Federal Correction Complex in Butner, North Carolina. He ended his last letter to Reid, written around Christmas, with: "We've had a life, haven't we?" Reid too, who was sentenced to twenty years along with Wright, turned to writing while in prison, publishing his first novel, Jackrabbit Parole, based on his life as a robber, in 1986, the same year in which he married poet Susan Musgrave, with whom he corresponded while behind bars. Released in 1987, he became addicted to cocaine and heroin and again committed a bank robbery in 1999. He was again released in February 2014, dying in 2018 of natural causes. Wright was released in 1994, eventually deciding to remain in the prison system, working as a clerk. A book by author Greg Weston, titled The Stopwatch Gang, and detailing Mitchell, Reid, and Wright's careers, was published in 1992.
After first escaping from prison, Mitchell, Reid, and Wright began meticulously planning every single bank robbery they committed, in order to avoid getting caught again. They would usually made inspections prior to their heists, targeting banks which were close to the road, with at least two access points, and (if possible) big glass windows with southern sunlight exposure, in order for the sun to turn the windows into two-way mirrors, avoiding passers-by alerting the authorities. They would wear full masks, such as former presidents masks or Star Wars helmets. Another trick they employed was to add to their outfits a remarkable detail, such as a sticker or a banana sticking out of a pocket, so that bank employees and civilians would remember just that particularity and nothing else of their appearance. The gang, who was always polite and non-violent with everyone present, usually stayed in the bank for two minutes or less (it was their use of stopwatches that earned them their nickname), with the getaway driver, listening to a police scanner, waiting outside and ready to hit the road on a stolen car.
- Unspecified dates in 1967, 1968, and 1969, Toronto and Ontario: Several victimless bank robberies (committed by Reid alone)
- Unspecified dates in 1973: Several victimless petty thefts
- April 17, 1974: the Ottawa Airport gold heist: David Braham, 24 (held at gunpoint and incapacitated by Reid)
- August-November: Several unspecified bank robberies (committed by Reid)
- November, 15: Unspecified Kingston hospital, Ontario: Two unnamed prison guards (both held at gunpoint and incapacitated by Reid)
- Unspecified date: a victimless robbery at the Robinson's department store in Tampa, Florida
- Unspecified dates prior to September 23, 1980, Florida and California: several victimless bank robberies
- Unspecified dates prior to the fall of 1980, in Phoenix, Arizona, and Little Rock, Arkansas: Two victimless bank robberies (committed by Reid, Wright, and another accomplice)
- September 23, 1980: Garnet Avenue 912, San Diego: a robbery at a Bank of America branch: Harlen Lee Hudson (held at gunpoint by Reid)
- Unspecified dates between October 31, 1980, and February 22, 1994, in Florida and Arkansas: Several victimless robberies (committed by Mitchell while on the run; one was botched)
- February 22, 1994, Southaven, Mississippi: A botched robbery (committed by Mitchell while on the run)
- June 9, 1999: Victoria, British Columbia: A robbery at the Royal Bank of Canada committed by Reid and an accomplice: An unnamed policeman (shot at by Reid, was not hit)
- Note: The Stopwatch Gang was estimated by the FBI to have committed at least 140 bank robberies while in the U.S.
On Criminal Minds
While the Stopwatch Gang was never directly mentioned or referenced on the show, they appear to have been an inspiration for the following unsubs:
- Season Five
- Dale Schrader ("Retaliation") - All were prolific bank robbers and escapists who were sold out at least one time by an accomplice. What's also interesting to note is that Lee Tergesen (the actor who played Schrader) previously starred in the 1991 film Point Break, which was partly based off of the Stopwatch Gang's exploits.
- Season Seven
- The Stopwatch Gang possibly inspired the "ex-presidents gang" featured in the 1991 action film by Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break - Both groups wore former presidents masks and suits in their bank robberies, operated in Southern California, and would precisely time each heist in order to avoid getting caught by the authorities.