MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

THE GENTLEMAN ROBBER

“What I wanted was big money. So I robbed banks. I was good at it, and I lived high — but it’s not like Hollywood says it is”

September 1 1968
MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

THE GENTLEMAN ROBBER

“What I wanted was big money. So I robbed banks. I was good at it, and I lived high — but it’s not like Hollywood says it is”

September 1 1968

THE GENTLEMAN ROBBER

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

“What I wanted was big money. So I robbed banks. I was good at it, and I lived high — but it’s not like Hollywood says it is”

In 1960, Lawrence Day (an alias) was sentenced to 25 years for bank robbery, one of the severest penalties ever given by a Quebec court to a man who robbed without violence. “The Gentleman Robber,” as Day was called, had baffled Montreal and Quebec Provincial Police for eight months with a siring of precisely planned, methodical robberies. Of course, bank robbery, especially by gangs, is as indigenous to Quebec as Maurice Richard: one out of every 15 chartered banks is robbed every year (the figure doesn't include credit unions). Still, Day’s gang was the elite of these super-Jesse James bands. Who is Lawrence Day? The son of a fireman, he was born and brought up in the middle-class Montreal suburb of Notre Dame de Grâce. He was a good student, matriculating with high marks from St. Thomas High School, and, before launching his career in bank robbery, he was a sales manager and a cost accountant with a steel company. But somewhere along the line he made a wrong turn. If you asked him eight years ago what his profession was, Day might have replied blandly like Clyde Barrow, “J rob banks.” Now, Day is out of prison, paroled after serving seven years. He is a writer, and critic of our penitentiaries. He works as personnel manager in a textile factory, is writing a novel, and has a project going to help former convicts. Reporter Don Bell asked Day to talk about his life as a bank robber.

Maclean’s: How did you get started in crime?

Day: It was a gradual process involving many things. All the pressures of life were bearing down on an immature individual: my marriage was on the rocks, I was heavily in debt. I drank too much — I simply couldn’t cope with all these things. 1 was all wound up. Then in 1959 I began digging into our bank account. From there, it was a short step to w r i t i n g NSF cheques. Then I said to hell with it and left my wife and kids and became involved with a very large forgery ring. We forged paycheques from a few large firms and cashed them. Eventually one of our gang was arrested, he talked, and shortly after I was picked up, charged and sentenced to six months in Bordeaux jail outside Montreal. Maclean’s: Did Bordeaux change you?

Day: Prison did nothing for me. I knew that I couldn’t go back to my wife and children — the marriage was broken up for good. I spent six months in Bordeaux scheming and developing plans for when I would be released. Maclean’s: What happened after you were released?

Day: l had only $150, saved up in prison, and no strong desire to find a job. I started hanging around the old haunts and meeting my old friends, living off them and doing practically nothing. I was just riding with the wind. Most of them were involved in breaking-andentering and not making a hell of a lot of money out of it. If they were extremely lucky, they might clear $400 in a week. But prowlby-night is as risky as the bigger operations. You have bulk to carry and you have to deal with fences, who usually pay you peanuts for the stolen goods. If you get caught, you may get as large a sentence as for bank robbery. So one day I made up my mind to concentrate where the big money was to be made.

Maclean’s: In other words, a bank heist.

Day: Yes. So the first problem was to get hold of some pieces — hardware, or guns. We got some .25and .32-calibre pistols which looked pretty persuasive. I’m not much of a marksman and didn’t anticipate having to use my piece, but you can’t go into a bank emptyhanded. The next step was to find a suitable bank, one that would be a sitting duck. Old banks are preferred because they probably won’t have a modernized alarm system, and you try to find a bank that you know will be loaded. We finally picked a bank in Point St. Charles, just over the line from Verdun. Maclean’s: How did you go about casing a bank?

Day: On some occasions we’d go into a bank two, three, up to four times. There was no set pattern. I might go in by myself the first time and calculate how many tellers were there, where the vault was. when it was opened. All of this would take place while I was writing out a cheque or something of that nature. I would also note

where the manager’s office was located. In most banks at least one alarm button will be in the manager’s office. So one of the first places we would go to would be the manager’s office to stop him from sounding an alarm. One or two of us would go to the tellers’ cages, telling them to step back so that they couldn’t step on an alarm. Maclean’s: Did you ever try to rob customers?

Day: No. When you’re getting $50,000 out of a bank, you’re not interested in $100.

Maclean’s: When you were through casing the bank, would you draw a map and work out a precise schedule for your gang?

Day: We might go over it in detail with a pencil and paper, but not like in a Hollywood movie, where they set watches beforehand. But you do have some set timing, of course. For instance, you know that to take more than two minutes in a bank is risky, so you try to be as precise as possible and get things over as quickly as you can. The rest of the plan involves the getaway car, or cars, and how many people are on the job.

Maclean’s: Do you ever consider the possibility of your own violent death?

Day: Yes, but that’s what’s driving you on this road. At one point in your life you just give up all hope of living. You just don’t care. Maclean’s: What about the death of others? Were you prepared to use your weapons if you met resistance?

Day: We were prepared but always tried to avoid it.

Maclean’s: Did you ever have to use them?

Day: Not in robbing banks, although once we came pretty close. We went into a bank one time and the manager was on the phone. One of my buddies gently took the receiver from him and hung it up. Well, the fellow at the other end must have thought he was disconnected because he called back. I suppose it made him suspicious that no one answered and he called police. A minute or two later a couple of plainclothesmen entered the bank, thinking it was a routine investigation. We disarmed them and made them lie on the floor with everyone else while we made our break.

Maclean’s: Did you use a getaway car in your first job?

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Day: Yes. The usual procedure is to steal a car a few days before the job. then steal a set of license plates for it, to confuse the police. Obtaining a car is never very difficult: sets of keys are available in the underworld that can open the doors of most any car. We would usually have the car tuned up and filled with gas, and it’s smart to put in a new battery and ignition to make sure it doesn't stall on you at the critical moment. One of our gang would wait in the car outside the bank — or perhaps be cruising around the corner. If the escape was good, we would ditch the car a few blocks away and jump into a second car. properly licensed and registered under my name, and speed off to the rendezvous place to divvy up. Maclean’s: You wore disguises?

Day: Nothing elaborate. 1 usually had smoked glasses, and 1 dirtied my face. Maclean’s: And everything went off well?

Day: Like clockwork.

Maclean’s: What happened after that? Day: After that we went on a spree of bank robberies that lasted eight months and netted me $69,000. Of course, this is nothing new in Quebec.*

Maclean’s: Tell me more about the act of robbery. What happens inside the bank? Do you threaten customers?

Day: Many gangs do. But my method was always to be polite, put the customers and employees at ease. As soon as we entered the bank. I would announce: “This is a holdup. Don’t panic, obey our orders and no one will be hurt. All of you please lie flat on your stomachs on the floor. After we have gone, you may call the police.”

Maclean’s: Any language problems, since you were operating in Quebec? Day: None at all. Our gang was a miniature confederation. Two of us were Anglo-Saxons but we were fluent in French, a third was a French Canadian who got along well in English, and we had an Italian and a Chinese member. But when people see a gun they know what’s happening — in any language.

Maclean’s: What were your feelings toward the job, and toward the people you were robbing?

Day: I was anti-Establishment, to begin with, and 1 didn’t feel that I was stealing from an individual as such. I felt that I was taking money from an organization that was opposed to my own way of thinking.

Maclean’s: What about preparing

yourself psychologically for a holdup — did you get boozed up, or take goofballs?

Day: Some do but they usually bungle the job. I usually tied on a pretty good one the night before, but I've always been good at working off a

*There are more banks robbed in Quebec than in all the rest of Canada put together. From 1963 through 1966. 475 branches of chartered banks were held up or burglarized in Quebec, compared to 312 for the rest of Canada. Eighty percent of the holdups in Quebec are pulled by organized gangs. In the rest of Canada, nearly 80 percent of the jobs are by lone bandits.

hangover. On the day of a robbery, I might take a pinch of brandy or cognac to calm my nerves, but when I entered the bank 1 would be dead sober. If you didn’t keep your cool at all times, you would be walking up danger alley.

Maclean’s: Were you nervous?

Day: Of course. Every job is like the first one. You never know what to expect. what may go wrong.

Maclean’s: How did you feel after a robbery? Did you have a sense of exhilaration?

Day: No. I usually felt sick and vomited. 1 wanted to be left alone. I would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and maybe doze a little. There was always a bottle of gin beside the bed, and 1 would tie one on — not to celebrate, but to stop shaking.

Maclean’s: How did you split up the money?

Day: It was usually a

straight cut of the pie into five equal pieces. 1 didn't get any more than the others. But J remember once after we had robbed a factory we had an argument because the newspapers reported that the take w'as $10,000 more than we had. We later realized, of course, that the owner had upped the figure so that he w'ould have a higher insurance claim.

Maclean’s: How' did you spend your money?

Day: 1 was pretty naïve in handling it. but it came so damn easy. 1 would live in high style at some luxurious hotel in the Laurentians at $100 a day. I thought nothing of going into a department store and buying $500 worth of clothes, or buying a dozen shirts at once. 1 also loaned quite a lot of money, which 1 never got back. If it w'as easy come, it was also easy go.

Maclean’s: Did you ever have any social hangup about spending money you hadn’t rightfully earned?

Day: 1 never thought of it that way. Remember, busting a bank is a pretty antisocial activity to begin with. If you're going to worry and fret about it, then you choose an honest way to make a living. Maclean’s: Weren’t you afraid that this high living would put the police wise to you?

Day: That’s the chance you have to take. But apart from my sprees in department stores, 1 was reasonably prudent as hank robbers go. Some guys will buy a new car and pay for it in cash, or blow $1,000 in some dumpy nightclub that’s filled with plainclothesmen. They could as easily wear a sign saying: ”1 just robbed a bank.”

Maclean’s: You implied that you once had lo use a gun, although not in a bank robbery.

Day: Yes. It’s something I don’t like to talk about. I still have nightmares about it ... I was in need of some fast cash one day and tried to knock over a grocery store. I had been drinking — the only time when I went on a holdup while 1 had been

drinking. I went in with my gun in my hand. There were two men and a woman in the store. The owner decided he would resist and started coming for me. 1 shot lour times at the floor to scare him, but he kept coming. Then I pointed the gun at his temple and pulled the trigger. 1 can still hear that click. By some miracle, the chamber was empty. To this day I still don’t know why. 1 was sure the gun w'as fully loaded when 1 went out that morning. Mind you, if there had been another bullet in it, l‘m sure I

would have fired it. Fortunately, it was empty. So 1 looked at the gun in my hand, and I looked at him coming at me, and I simply hit him with the gun, and that was it. When 1 came out of (he store with the money, 1 was hit over the head. The cash box I was carrying went up in the air. hit the ground and the money spread all over the street. It was a total loss. 1 didn’t

get any of the $5,000 or $6.000 in that cash box.

Maclean’s: What misconceptions would you say people have about bank robbery or the way armed bandits operate?

Day: There are many. You have the Hollywood stereotype of what a bank robber looks like, what kind of clothes he wears, where he lives, what type of woman he goes out with, and so forth. But it’s not necessarily true. J think bank robbers, or robbers of any type, are simply individuals look-

ing for a place in life. Usually, they arc men hungry for recognition. They might be lonely, completely lost. They have no foundations. Stories about them all being killers, hard rocks — I don’t think this kind of thing applies. It certainly didn't in my case. Maclean’s: What should a bank customer who has just taken a large sum of cash out of his account do when a holdup begins?

Day: There's only one thing anybody should do: do as you’re told and forget that you have the money in your pocket. Don’t turn it over because the robbers aren't after it. They'll be satisfied with what they get from the bank.

Maclean’s: Did your gang stick together as friends, or was it a purely professional arrangement?

Day: Some of us were very close friends. Others involved with us were simply called in when the time came to use their services.

Maclean’s: Is there any foundation to the old notion of “honor among thieves”?

Day: There’s no truth to it at all. What you have is yours, and if you want to make more you're going to steal more, regardless of whose it might be. Of course, when the gang is comprised of very close friends — there may have been three members of our gang w'ho would never think of stealing money from one another. But as for outsiders, I wouldn’t trust them just as they wouldn’t trust me. Maclean’s: Did you have any heroes — John Dillinger, say — and model yourself after them?

Day: No. The only influence and textbooks were the lessons you had in prison. Listening to other people talk about their own episodes, how they got caught and why so-

and-so didn’t, you can usually come up with something in the way of a working plan.

Maclean’s: How were you finally caught?

Day: Ironically, the last job we pulled was at the same bank in Point St.

Charles that we had robbed the first time. Our getaway car was marked by police and we weren’t able to switch cars immediately. We couldn’t just ditch the car and walk to the second because our loot was in pillow cases and they would draw

attention to us. 1 was all for phoning and having someone pick up the second car and meet us, but my buddies felt we should follow a circuitous route and try to pick up the second car ourselves. They won out. As J feared, a police car was soon on our tail, and we w'ere cut off by several other squad cars. My two buddies

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out and ran; they surrendered when police started shooting. I dashed into a bank building. Because of the lunchtime crowd, police had to hold their fire. I hid in the women's washroom for a few minutes, then slipped out of the building through a back entrance, and grabbed a cab.

Maclean’s: You escaped?

Day: Yes, but it wasn't long before someone put the finger on me. possibly under pressure. I changed my hideout and haunts. But there was one nightclub that I would still frequent sometimes, always calling the manager first to find out if the heat was on the place. One time the manager called to warn that the place was loaded with heat and that I should stay away. He also had news from one of my buddies who was in hospital and wanted me to help him escape. I made arrangements to receive his call in a phone booth at a prearranged time. Well, I went to the kiosk and no sooner had the phone rung and my “buddy” began jabbering about his wanting to get out of the hospital than the kiosk was surrounded by police. It was a trap. I didn't have a chance and gave up without a fight.

Maclean’s: You were sentenced to 25

years. That seems like a severe penalty for Quebec, especially considering that there was no violence in your holdups.

Day: There's a system in Quebec referred to. among the gangster elite, as “dirty justice." What it means is that the more money you have to pay for your defense, the lighter your sen-

tence will be. I'm not saying this works all the time — but l do say it doesn't hurt to save up some of the money you got robbing banks to defray the legal costs when you are caught. In my case. I saved very little. Maclean’s: What happened to you after your conviction?

Day: My first four years were spent

at St. Vincent de Paul. I signed up for correspondence courses from Queen's, the Henry George School of Social Science in Montreal, and New York University. But for the first year or so I didn't take this studying seriously: it was basically designed to put me in the good graces of prison authorities and get me an early ticket. Then in 1962 we had the infamous and bloody riot that made national headlines and, although 1 wasn't involved in its planning, 1 witnessed it

at close range. I believe it was after that that a change in outlook came over me. I suppose after seeing the killing and the bloodshed and the horror, I said to myself: this isn’t it. At that time I was taking a correspondence course in psychology from Queen's and — I know this may sound trite to you — I came to an understanding of myself. I began to change. I became a model prisoner — or a “master manipulator” as prison authorities call anyone who keeps his nose clean. I became immersed in my studies.

Maclean’s: You were eventually transferred to the Leclerc Medium Security Institution.

Day: Yes. in 1965. One thing I was thankful for was the library. By this time I had notions of becoming a writer, and I read Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Sinclair Lewis. Hemingway. I began a novel myself, and also wrote a book about alcoholics in prison, which may be published by the AA in the United States. I researched an article on air pollution, edited the prison magazine Contact, and produced a bilingual radio program aired on loudspeakers in the prison wings. Then the Creative Awards Association moved in. setting up courses in painting, literature, music. creative writing, semantics. I became active in the courses and made some wonderful friends. Through these contacts I was able to walk straight into a job when I was paroled in September I 967.

Maclean’s: It must be a strange and happy feeling to realize that you are free.

Day: It was for me because I knew I had left the old life behind for good. I

had friends and a job, and 1 had saved some money in prison, so I had a solid base to build on. But i can never help thinking about inmates less fortunate than myself whose release is just a temporary binge of freedom, who will inevitably return to their old ways, get caught and be sent back to the pen. You know, this country has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world. It's basically a question of economics. The average convict has only $40 pocket money when he's released. He can't get a job because of his record. He pulls a job. His status on leaving prison is that of a discarded dishrag. This is a situation that concerns me deeply and I’m trying to do something about it.

Maclean’s: You have a project on the boards?

Day: Yes. Something must be done to get him past the first six months of freedom. My idea is to set up a string of workshops across the country where ex-convicts will be paid $1.50 an hour to work at any of a number of different crafts — upholstering, say, or woodworking, or making picture frames. It's not a lot of money but it's enough for him to survive on. He'll know there is this way available to him out of the impasse. At the moment, I'm looking for backing for the project. I hope the federal government may become interested. Maclean’s: Have any of your ex-cronics in crime sought you out to plan a job with them?

Day: No. It's a myth that a guy can’t go straight if he wants to. If you want to get involved in a job. you have to go after it: it doesn’t come to you. I haven't, and I don't plan to. I’ve sworn off it for good. ★