Whitey Benoit ran the biggest forged-cheque ring in Canada. He milked the public of $150,000. His system was foolproof till he hired a chef named Pelletier and ran foul of the post-office detectivesALAN PHILLIPS January 15 1955
Whitey Benoit ran the biggest forged-cheque ring in Canada. He milked the public of $150,000. His system was foolproof till he hired a chef named Pelletier and ran foul of the post-office detectivesALAN PHILLIPS January 15 1955
THREE DAYS before Christmas 1953 an ordinary and basically honest citizen named Gerard Pelletier went to work for the biggest cheque-passing ring in Canada. His boss was a black-browed white-haired man whom he knew only casually at first as a crook called “Whitey.” But he soon learned that Whitey was a master forger and strong-arm racketeer with a gaudy criminal record an underworld big shot named Milton Benoit who was the black sheep of a prominent family in Windsor.
For more than three months after that December meeting Gerard Pelletier worked regularly for Benoit week ends at first and then, as their crimes prospered, every day— passing forged cheques and phony money orders. From the master forger he learned all the tricks of a spurious trade and he learned to use them skilfully. He also got to know the workings of a criminal organization that his boss Benoit directed with the cruel unquestioned authority of an underworld czar. The ring covered Ontario from Windsor to Kirkland Lake and operated as far east as Ste. Agathe, Que. Ultimately it cheated the Canadian public of an estimated $150,000.
As a restaurant chef in Toronto Gerard Pelletier had earned enough to live on and not much more. As a full-time crook he made up to two hundred dollars a day not counting what he turned over to Benoit. He lived riotously but he lived in constant fear, both of the law which he knew would inevitably catch him and of the criminals he worked with and who he knew would turn on him to save themselves.
In the end the law did catch Gerard Pelletier. Because it caught him it also caught Whitey Benoit and other big and little crooks who worked for him. For, in his three-month criminal apprenticeship and practice, Pelletier had learned most of the details of forgery and deceit by which Benoit built and ran his organization. In the hands of the law the knowledge of these details was enough to put Benoit and many of the mob behind bars.
A Toronto Hangout For Crooks
This is the inside story of the forgery ring for which Pelletier worked—and its downfall. It began a year ago last December in a small Toronto restaurant where Gerard Pelletier was employed as a cook.
At the time, Pelletier was thirty-nine, married, a member of a large poor French-speaking family in Ottawa. He had left school when he was twelve, worked through his teens as a potwasher in restaurants and fought with the Three Rivers Tanks during World War Two. In the army he was successful for the first time in his life and he became a sergeant. After the war he went back to cooking for a living.
Then, early in December a year ago, the restaurant where he was working went out of business. A few days later in Ottawa his father-in-law died. Pelletier was jobless and broke and he couldn’t borrow the money to send his wife to the funeral. He became bitter.
One afternoon soon after his father-in-law’s funeral, he dropped into a beer parlor on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, a hangout for crooks of all kinds. Holding court at one table was a thickset man in his mid-forties. His dark complexion and heavy dark brows were in striking contrast to a bristling crown of prematurely white hair.
Pelletier recognized him. A year before, this man had come into a Hull beer garden where Pelletier had been filling in as a waiter, and some steady customers, minor criminals, had introduced Pelletier as a right guy. The man was Milton Benoit. He was a master forger.
Pelletier joined the table. The other men, he noticed, deferred to Benoit, who sat nursing a beer, saying little. After a while, Benoit nodded to a well-dressed man, who went out. He was back in an hour. He tossed $150 across the table to Benoit, who gave him back $100.
“Jeez,!” said Pelletier, “Where were you? How do you make that kind of dough?”
Benoit looked at him, coldly, appraisingly. “Have you got nerve?”
“When you need money bad,” Pelletier said, “you get desperate. And when a guy is desperate he’ll do anything.”
Benoit smiled but his eyes, beneath horn-rimmed glasses, were still bleak. “You don’t have to be that desperate,” he said. “Here—” He placed three cheques on the table. The well-dressed man picked them up. “Get going,” Benoit told Pelletier. “This guy will show you the ropes.”
That moment was the beginning of a new life for Gerard Pelletier—a life that provided him with more ready money than he had ever had before and gave him an entry into the world of criminals and shady activity and easy debauchery. It was a life he finally grew to hate so much he couldn’t stand it unless he was drinking heavily.
Pelletier accompanied the well-dressed cheque passer into a lingerie shop. The clerk who waited on them insisted on calling the manager of the bank on which the cheque was drawn. Luckily for the passers, the manager was out. “I’m sorry, sir,” the clerk said. “Perhaps you could come back later?”
Outside, the passer sponged beads of sweat from his forehead. “The hell with that,” he said, “I’ve had it. I’m no good for any more today.”
“I got to get some money,” Pelletier said grimly. “Give me the cheques.”
Alone, he went into another clothing store. The clerk cashed his cheque. He tried two more, missed, then cashed another. He went back to the hotel feeling proud of himself.
“You did pretty good,” Benoit said. “We’ll send you out with a crew.”
Pelletier became one of Whitey Benoit’s boys, one of a crew of four men with sometimes a woman for front. They would sit in the hotel in the early afternoon, talking shop, thinking up new stories, improving them, practicing them; one man would take the role of the clerk, the other would play the passer.
At three o’clock when the banks closed Benoit would say, “Okay. You’ll work west today.” He would pull out half a dozen wallets and hand them their cheques. “I’ll be at this number for the next two hours. Call me every twenty minutes.”
They would drive to their destination and park near a phone booth. The driver, the car owner, covered the phone; he was the spotter, the lookout. The others would spread out over the block.
Most stores are reluctant to cash a stranger’s cheque. Pelletier soon learned how to break down their suspicion without seeming to know it existed. He would walk into a shoe store: “Yeah, the wife’s in the hospital. The kid needs shoes. Gosh, I don’t know what size—about the size of that kid over there. Better make it two pair.” This role of the male out of his depth performing a feminine chore was completely disarming.
Whenever possible Pelletier picked a woman clerk for a victim—a middle-aged motherly type. They liked to gossip. They were suckers for a sob story. It made them sympathetic to him, hesitant to offend him. It took their mind off the risk in cashing his paper and made his nervousness seem credible.
The cheques themselves were cunningly forged to dispel suspicion. No one ever saw Benoit make them out. but this was not because there was any secret method; he simply wanted no witnesses to his forgery. It was not even forgery in the accustomed sense. Benoit merely stamped the cheques with a rubber company stamp; he had several made up for him in Detroit where they wouldn’t be easy to trace. Beneath the company stamp he would scrawl a fictitious name and write “manager” after it. The amounts were made out for uneven sums, such as $69.67, like a pay cheque from which deductions have been made. Sometimes Benoit wrote “plus bonus” on them. They were dated the day before as if they had just come in the mail. The passers simply endorsed them.
There was, of course, the problem of producing identification to match the name on the cheque. This, too, Benoit supplied. Every hood on Jarvis Street knew who Whitey Benoit was. The pickpockets, the strong-arm boys who slug and rob strangers in washrooms, all brought him the papers from the wallets they lifted. For a good set of identification papers, Benoit would pay as high as fifteen dollars.
Each passer carried an assortment of cheques from the forties to the eighties. Pelletier learned to judge from the look of the store and its price tags how big a cheque a clerk would accept without balking. He learned to estimate exactly how much money to spend to excite the cupidity of the storekeeper. On a sixty-dollar cheque, fifteen dollars would be his limit, unless it was something easily sold.
As soon as a passer cashed a cheque he brought his parcels back to the car and gave the driver the cash. The driver would phone Benoit: “One gone, Whitey.” If a passer felt something was wrong, he immediately called Benoit. Benoit called the driver and the driver warned the others.
They worked when the stores were busiest—Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Around five o’clock they drove to Benoit’s rooming house, a rat hole across from their hangout near a row of bawdy houses. The driver would hand the money to Benoit.
His wife suspected he was in a racket but now he was too frightened to quit Benoit would count it, add up the bills for the goods bought, and figure out the pay-off. “Gerry,” he’d say to Pelletier, “you got two hundred dollars. There’ll be thirty for the driver and I’ll take seventy.” Pelletier would be left with one hundred dollars, plus the goods he bought, for about two hours work.
Often he gave the goods to people that needed them. More often, he sold them in a beverage room in the evening. He would pick out a likely stranger, sit down, buy a beer, then remark sadly, “My wife left me today. And here I went and bought her a housecoat. It’s no use to me now. You got five bucks, you can have it.” As Pelletier puts it, “An ordinary citizen sitting in a beverage room is your best fence.”
Sometimes Pelletier couldn’t get in the mood to work; he couldn’t believe the cheque was real. “If a passer doesn’t believe his paper is real,” he says, “he can’t pass. He gets scared. He gets the shakes. You got to have confidence. It’s just like selling. That first one is the hardest. If you get that, the rest go good.”
No storekeeper ever called the police on any of Benoit’s passers. Nevertheless there was always that danger. The constant strain was exhausting. Pelletier had the additional handicap of a conscience. He grew irritable.
How He Learned to Swindle
His wife began to suspect he was in a racket. She threatened to leave him. Pelletier decided to quit. One afternoon in mid-January he didn’t go in to work.
Benoit appeared in his bedroom unexpectedly next morning and looked at him in silence until Pelletier’s nerves were tingling. When Benoit spoke his voice was low and rasping, “I wonder if I can trust you, Gerry?”
Pelletier knew that Benoit was dangerous; normally cold and calculating, he knew when to use violence; his record is studded with charges for assault. Pelletier reassured him quickly.
“All right then,” Benoit said. “Better go out and get to work. We’re breaking in a couple of new boys. And Gerry—remember, you don’t make this kind of money in a restaurant.”
By listening to Benoit, by watching the others, and most of all by experience, Pelletier picked up the finer points of his trade. He learned how to hit the small grocery stores.
“My wife’s sick, I’m doing the shopping today,” he would say. “You know my wife. She comes in here every day. We just live around the corner. Say, has she got a bill she didn’t pay last week end? No? I thought she said she had. Well, give me some milk and a roast of beef, something easy to cook.” This type of store would take a cheque for something like $49.62.
He would walk into a tailor shop and let himself he measured for a sixty-dollar suit. “I’ll pay half now,” he’d say, “the rest when I pick it up.” This was good for a cheque in the eighties. He would leave a four-dollar suitcase and a bad cheque in the fifties at a second-rate hotel. He would walk into a florist shop and order a wreath sent to a funeral parlor.
There was satisfaction in being one of the Jarvis Street elite, a con man who took pride in using finesse rather than force. There was only one really tough passer: Oscar Gravelle, half French and half Iroquois. His face looked like a beat-up boxer’s and his burly arms and shoulders were heavily corded with muscle.
Oscar dressed as a workman and carried a lunch pail. He would pencil on the back of his cheque the current pay phone number and, frequently, a cautious store clerk would call it.
The ring’s driver would be waiting at the pay phone.
“Is this Dominion Pipe and Valve?” the clerk would ask doubtfully.
“Well, no. It’s not the office. This is the superintendent. Is anything wrong?”
“No, no sir. But one of your men has brought in a cheque . . .”
“What’s his name? . . . Yeah he’s good. Except that he drinks too much. I’ll tell you, I didn’t pay him cash because I wanted that cheque to get home to his wife. When you cash it, tell him for God’s sake go right home.” This specialty of Oscar’s was almost sure-fire.
Pelletier, more flexible, was soon adept at striking an attitude. If a clerk turned him down, he’d demand to see the manager. “If you’re going to cash my cheque, I’ll buy here,” he’d tell the manager, “if not I’ll go somewhere else.” Sometimes he would mortify an adamant manager by finally paying cash. The manager would feel that excessive caution had almost cost him a sale. He would be an easy mark next day for one of the other passers.
Always Pelletier argued about the price of the goods he was buying. He became so glib that one storekeeper refused Benoit’s carefully made-out company cheque and asked for Pelletier’s personal cheque instead.
Once a shoe merchant handed him his cheque back. “I haven’t got enough money in the till to cash that,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do?” said Pelletier indifferently.
“I could give you my cheque,” the merchant offered.
“I don’t know,” Pelletier said doubtfully. He allowed himself to be convinced only after an argument.
He cashed the cheque at a next-door tobacconist’s and Benoit was angry. “You fool! Why didn’t you keep it? I could have made half a dozen copies.”
“I’m not the mastermind around here,” said Pelletier defensively. “You are.”
Benoit let no one doubt that he was the mastermind. If a passer got independent he cut off his cheques. “Once you make that kind of money,” Pelletier says, “it’s like a drug. As soon as your money was gone, you’d go back to Whitey and say, ‘Give me a cheque, eh Whitey?’ He’d say, ‘You going to be good?’ And you’d knuckle under.”
A new man would occasionally try to cut in on the easy money. Benoit would listen to him talk for a while without saying more than a few words. Then, abruptly, he would say, “No, you won’t do.” Or, “Okay, you’re in.” He favored men who had done time in penitentiary. Some, the ones he could trust to work alone, disappeared after their apprenticeship. Pelletier was later to learn that these became district representatives.
No one questioned Benoit’s authority. He never passed a cheque himself, but he was the boss, the brains. A passer with initiative could have bought his own company stamp, made out his own cheques and cut Benoit out. But Benoit paid his passers well. They had confidence in his product in his skill as an organizer. They knew he had been in the racket for fifteen years and had served only one six month stretch, for a bad cheque passed in Kitchener.
They were vaguely impressed by his background. He had attended Loyola College in Montreal and studied law at the University of Toronto. And they knew him as a dangerous man to cross. “If you ever get picked up,” he warned them, “keep your lip buttoned.”
Week ends, Benoit took a train or bus to Tillsonburg, in southwestern Ontario, which he called home. He would leave Pelletier in charge as crew manager, with enough cheques to carry him over.
In early February, Benoit came back from Tillsonburg, and told the passers: “I’ve got something good. I got a machine that perforates the cheques. From now on we’re going big. We’ll operate every week day, not just the end of the week. Instead of working one district, we’ll cut the city into sections.” The crew began to take in three to five thousand dollars a week.
Pelletier was now earning six or seven hundred dollars a week. But his nerves were getting bad. He would go to bed at night and think, how many years will I get when I’m caught? He did not doubt that he would be caught. He expected it momentarily.
A Stool Pigeon’s Tip-off
He kept planning to leave town when he had a couple of thousand dollars ahead, but the fear of capture was always with him; it made him spend his money as fast as he made it. He gave two-dollar tips. He would order rounds for the prostitutes who gathered every night in the women’s side of the beer parlor.
It was one of those twilight denizens of the Jarvis Street hotels, some stool pigeon among the boosters, pickpockets, pimps and prostitutes who, Pelletier was sure, finally put the finger on him. He had entered a haberdashery, bought a hat and passed his paper, a routine performance. He was picked up on Jarvis Street a few days later by “Big John” Mullins of the Toronto fraud squad, who was clearly acting on a tip.
The haberdasher’s clerk was waiting at the police station to identify him.
“Take off your hat,” the detective ordered.
Pelletier set his hat down carefully on the desk.
“Is that him?” Big John asked.
The clerk looked him over. “No,” he said finally, “that’s not the guy.”
“Okay,” the detective said, “you can go.”
Pelletier picked up his hat and went out. He hailed a cab. His legs were weak. It had been a narrow escape. There was no way of identifying him by the cheque; his signature was a scrawl. But there was the hat right under their eyes. If Mullins had turned it over he would have seen the haberdasher’s label.
Pelletier did not go to the hotel that night. He went home and told his wife, “Come on, pack up. We’re leaving town.” From Montreal he phoned Benoit and asked for “material.” “Okay,” said Benoit, “but don’t work north of St. Catherine Street. I’ve already got two men in Montreal.”
For the first time, Pelletier realized the extent of the ring he was in. His contact was now Benoit’s address in Tillsonburg. Tillsonburg, he knew now, was Benoit’s real headquarters.
Pelletier became Benoit’s district representative between Montreal and Ottawa. He sent in blank cheques from his district and Benoit would send them back, stamped, perforated and payable to some person whose identification papers would be enclosed. Every two weeks Pelletier would return the identification, and Benoit would stop the police cold by sending the same identification papers west or north to passers who looked completely different from the passers who’d used them before.
Pelletier took his wife with him on these trips, and she would sit in the car while he made his calls. He told her he was traveling for a firm that made water filters. They arrived in Ottawa every week end. Pelletier had a friend there, a man named Leopold Proulx.
Proulx was thirty-nine, tall and slim with a little black mustache. He had once worked for Pelletier as a potwasher. He was out of work; he had three children; he was falling behind in his rent; and he was very glad to have Pelletier and his wife arrive at his apartment for the week end, their arms full of groceries. He too believed that Pelletier was a commercial traveler. Proulx was not a stable character, not a man Pelletier could safely trust with his secret.
Working alone was heightening the strain on Pelletier’s nerves. He missed the Toronto shop talk. There was no one to whom he could unburden himself. He began to drink heavily.
At night in bed he would relive the day, thinking, did I cover every angle? He would finally get up and drink himself to sleep. Next morning he would be sick. He would need a massage, a steam bath, and another drink or two to steady his nerves for the work ahead. The vicious circle tightened around him. He began to have moments of confusion. He would catch himself hiding his money from himself.
The compulsion to talk to someone became more than Pelletier could bear. One day when Proulx was bemoaning his lack of money, Pelletier said, “All right, Leo, come with me. I’ll show you hew to make some easy money.”
But Proulx was too tense. He ran out on his first job as a spotter when the clerk took a long time bringing Pelletier’s change. It was a bad omen. Pelletier didn’t need Proulx; he knew he should write him off; but he had to have someone to talk to.
“Look, Leo,” he said angrily, “you want to work with me, you got to have nerve. This is no game. We’re gambling for good money against a lot of jail time.”
Toward the middle of last March Pelletier had a call from Benoit who said, “I’ve got something good for you, Gerry. ” The next morning’s mail brought a package of money orders. They were filled out the way a postal clerk would write them. The amounts varied from the fifties to the nineties. Pelletier cashed three in a row.
Excitedly he called Benoit back. “My God, Whitey, they’re as good as gold. You can cash them anywhere. You don’t even need a story. Send me more.”
Even Proulx could sell this new product, Pelletier figured. You didn’t have to be a cheque artist to cash a forged money order.
Fifty Dollars for a Car
He began to plan his calls for the coming week, writing to the hotels along his route for rooms. It was easier to cash a cheque if your room was reserved in advance, especially if you mailed the cheque to yourself in care of the hotel and opened your letter in front of the desk clerk. Pelletier was almost happy thinking how fine it would be to have someone to work with again.
Pelletier’s car was in the garage, but Proulx said he had a friend, a CNR baggageman, who would rent them his car for fifty dollars a day. At the last moment the baggageman insisted on going with them. It was too late to change their plans. “There’s only one way to keep him out of it,” Pelletier told Proulx, “—get him drunk.”
They plied the baggageman with beer till he passed out. They were all, including Pelletier’s wife, half drunk by this time. They started along the highway to Montreal, cashing money orders, occasionally a cheque, stopping overnight as arranged. Pelletier was on edge despite the beer he was drinking. “Look, Leo,” he told Proulx, “play it safe. If they argue get out. Don’t take a chance.” But Proulx was paying no attention to Pelletier’s advice. Alcohol had given him a sort of heedless courage. He kept repeating, “I’m going to prove myself, Gerry.”
By Thursday, they had reached Vaudreuil-Dorion, near Montreal. Proulx pulled up directly in front of the hotel. “Don’t park here, Leo,” said Pelletier anxiously. “Remember, you’re giving a phony license number. They’re liable to get the right one if you park here.”
“Stop worrying,” Proulx said. He swaggered into the hotel.
Pelletier waited in the car. It was all going wrong. The trip had become a joy ride. In the back seat his wife was asleep and the baggageman was snoring. Pelletier could feel the warm flush of the alcohol on his skin but a cold uneasiness lay in the pit of his stomach.
If he had known of the circumstances mounting against him he would have felt even more uneasy. For, as Pelletier was heading back toward Ottawa and the end of his reckless ride with Proulx, a short thick-shouldered man with a cheerful snub-nosed face was sitting in a glassed-in cubicle in Ottawa’s shabby federal post office building, studying a thick sheaf of forged money orders. His name was Bill Taylor; he is a post office investigator.
In every major Canadian city the Post Office Department has from one to half a dozen men like Taylor. They handle cases of fraud or theft involving the mail.
On this Friday afternoon another post-office detective, a wiry young man named Jerry Manor, entered Taylor’s office. “What’s new in the Downsview case, Bill?” he asked.
The Downsview case was the robbery of the safe in the Downsview Post Office, just north of Toronto, on Feb. 27. Along with stamps, cash and postal script worth about five thousand dollars, the safecrackers had escaped with 515 blank money orders. Two weeks later, the blanks began to turn up—forged. By now, March 26, Taylor had more than a hundred of them, cashed for an average of sixty-five dollars.
“Look at these signatures, Jerry,” Taylor said. “It’s the screwiest thing. Take this passer “John Diabold.” He cashes one in Windsor the other day. One of our men goes out and gets his description—he’s a great big guy. Now here’s another one, “John Diabold,” cashed in a Montreal hotel. Our man gets his description—a little skinny guy. Well, who’s crazy?”
“You figure they’re working together?”
“Sure. Seven thousand bucks worth in less than two weeks? That takes an organization. I’ve talked to a dozen police forces on this case. Last fall they start getting hit by cheque passers. It starts in a small way around Windsor. By winter it’s spread to just about every city in Ontario. It got so bad last month that Big John Mullins of the Toronto fraud squad went on television and warned hotels and stores to watch out.”
Taylor unfolded a map of Ontario. “Here’s the territory the cheques are coming from. Exactly the same as the money orders. Look at the writing on them. See how the “f”s are all the same? There may be fifteen, twenty passers, but one guy’s writing them all. I wouldn’t believe it—he’s got it all organized in districts.”
The phone rang. D. L. Clerk, head of post-office investigations in Montreal, was calling: “Bill, I think we got something good on the Downsview case. Money order No. 81449371 was cashed for seventy dollars at the hotel in Vaudreuil-Dorion yesterday around nine o’clock. The guy gave his name as Leopold Proulx, 146 Slater Street, Ottawa.”
Checking this address, Manor and Taylor found, to their surprise, that a man named Leopold Proulx actually had lived there some months earlier. They couldn’t find out where he lived now but they did get his description. Next morning they drove to Vaudreuil-Dorion and interviewed the hotelkeeper. Two men and a woman, he said, had cashed the money order. One man’s description tallied with that of Proulx. “What a break!” Taylor said. “The guy must be off his rocker giving his right name.”
Vaudreuil-Dorion is at the junction of Highway No. 2 to Toronto and No. 17 to Ottawa. It was anybody’s guess which route the racketeers had taken. “Well,” Taylor said finally, “let’s head back to Ottawa.”
Their luck was running strong. They picked up the trail in a beverage room in the very first village, Rigaud, and followed it with ease to Hawkesbury. Clearly the racketeers had been more interested in drinking than in working. At Ottawa the trail went cold. The investigators passed along their facts to the city police and went home to bed.
Next day, Sunday, just after Taylor had come home from church, he had a call to report to the Ottawa police station. He and Manor were greeted by city detective Russ Berndt, a large, blond, mild-mannered man. “We picked them up at three o’clock this morning,” he said. “Proulx and a guy called Gerard Pelletier and his wife. A hotelkeeper at Carleton Place got suspicious and took their license. The owner of the car told us he rented it to Proulx on Caroline Street. You want to talk to them, go ahead.”
Proulx was voluble in his fright. “Pelletier had the money orders,” he cried. “It was Pelletier told me to cash them. I don’t know where he got them. I didn’t know what he was doing till this week.”
The policeman took Proulx back to his cell. “He’ll plead guilty,” Berndt said. “The other lad’s tougher.”
The policeman brought Pelletier in. Taylor looked at him curiously. He was slim, about average height. His sleek head and slightly hooked nose gave him an alert bird like appearance. He would normally be dapper and quick on the uptake. Now he was rumpled and haggard, his eyes dull and bloodshot from weeks of heavy drinking.
“Well, we finally caught up with you,” Taylor said. “Where’d you get the money orders?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“You know what you’re facing. Maybe five. Maybe ten.”
“Yeah? And maybe one and maybe two.”
“Well,” said Taylor mildly, “we got you on charges of robbery, fraud, false pretenses—”
“Robbery?” interrupted Pelletier. “What’s this robbery stuff? I don’t know anything about any robbery.” “The Downsview Post Office robbery,” Taylor said, “where you got your money orders.”
“I’m telling you,” Pelletier protested, “I don’t know anything about that. I want a lawyer. You guys go on grilling me every fifteen minutes. You don’t let me sleep. I don’t even know if it’s night or day. I want some law.”
“Sure,” Taylor said, “you can have a lawyer. You got that kind of money?” Pelletier’s defiance faded. “How much would it cost?”
“Fifty to a hundred and fifty.”
Pelletier looked down at his knees, silent.
“Look,” Taylor said, “I’ll give it to you straight. The number of raps against you, they’ll send you down for years. Take a chance. Plead guilty. I can’t promise you anything, but I think on a guilty plea you’ll come out light. Think it over.”
Pelletier was led away. “That’s our boy,” Taylor said to city detective Berndt. “That’s the guy can break this case wide open.”
Alone in his cell, Pelletier was trying to think. He lay on the iron cot, his head pounding; the muscles in his body jerked spasmodically. Now he had to make up his mind: talk and go straight, or keep his mouth shut and stay a crook for life.
“I don’t want to rat,” he said to himself. But there were other loyalties —his wife in the cell down the corridor. She had already talked, Berndt had told him. He believed Berndt. He had known she couldn’t stand up under the constant relentless pressure. What was the use of his holding out now? They were still grilling her. And then there was Proulx. What was the sense of dragging Leo into it? “Suppose I tell the truth,” he thought, “maybe they will treat me white.”
By five o’clock the next day Pelletier had decided. “Proulx didn’t know from nothing,” he told Berndt. “He wasn’t in the racket, he was just an errand boy. I’ll make a bargain with you. Let my wife go and I’ll give you the story.”
“The real one?” Berndt asked quizzically. Pelletier had already given him three phony statements.
“A lot of people are going to be sorry for this,” Pelletier said. “Maybe I’ll be one of them. You can start writing.”
Berndt called in a stenographer.
“Three days before Christmas 1953,” Pelletier began, “I met a man named Milton Benoit . . .”
That night Pelletier had the first good sleep he had had in more than three months.
Handy Hide-out for Hoods
About three hours drive southwest of Toronto is the thriving tobacco centre of Tillsonburg. Its winter population is about sixty-five hundred, but with the first spring sun the tobacco hands arrive, drawn by wages of up to $150 a week. The population doubles. The bootleggers multiply. Prostitutes arrive for the season. Then, with the first frosts, the floaters drift on. Behind them they leave empty rooms, cheap accommodation, a handy hide-out for Windsor and Toronto hoods, from the breaking - and - entering boys to the white-slave crowd.
They live quietly, seldom causing trouble for Police Chief Thomas L. Corbett, a stocky man with heavy, even features. His six policemen are busy enough keeping in hand the people who trade on the transients.
When the phone rang in the townhall police station that Sunday night Chief Corbett was in the midst of a bootlegging raid. The call was from Detective Sergeant Albert Bunn of the Toronto suburb of North York.
“You know Milton Benoit?” he asked. “We got information from Ottawa that he’s the guy behind all this bad paper. I’m holding a warrant for his arrest.”
“We’ll have him in a couple of hours,” Corbett promised.
He sent Sergeant Cecil Marquett over to Benoit’s room in the Royal Hotel. Benoit wasn’t there. Marquett found him in a bootlegging joint with his girl friend Dorothy Barber. Marquett put Benoit in the cells after removing from his pocket a knife of the kind used by food inspectors. The blade, nearly five inches long, was honed to a razor sharpness.
Then Marquett went hack to search Benoit’s rooms. He was just a bit too late. Dorothy had been there before him.
Corbett had Dorothy picked up at once. She refused to say what she had taken from Benoit’s room. When they searched her they found a half-dozen cheques all made out for the passers. The cheques had been through a machine, but the police could not find the machine.
Corbett felt badly that they had let this piece of evidence slip through their fingers. It was, indeed, a bad break that might cost them the case. Pelletier’s story by itself would not convict Benoit in court. It had to be supported by corroborative evidence. They had to connect Benoit with the cheque machine, cheques and money orders or else get another passer to implicate him.
Det. Sgt. Bunn arrived in Tillsonburg on Monday afternoon. He had driven down through a late March blizzard with John Collins, a Toronto post-office investigator.
Bunn shrugged when he heard the situation. “We’ll just have to see what we can dig up, Chief. Can we start with Benoit?”
Benoit was ushered into Corbett’s private cubbyhole. Rubbing his hands he complained, “Why don’t you get some heat in this joint?”
“This is what they give me,” Corbett said. “If I can put up with it, you can. Sit down. Detective Bunn from North York wants to ask you some questions.”
“Where the devil’s North York?’ Benoit asked, calmly insolent. He parried all their questions with knowing assurance. Finally he said, “Now' look, you guys. You know I work with paper. But I wouldn’t have nothing to do with those money orders. They’re too hot.”
“We’ll get nothing out of him,” Bunn said. “Back to your refrigerator, Benny. Can we talk to his girl friend, Chief?” Benoit was led out, demanding more heat in his cell.
“He's a smart boy, that one,” Corbett observed.
They had no better luck with Dorothy Barber, a strapping buxom dark-haired Ukrainian girl whose face showed the experience she had crowded into her twenty-seven years.
“Let's shake the town down,” Bunn said.
They searched Dorothy Barber’s house and all Benoit’s known hangouts. The cheque machine had disappeared. They made the rounds of the beer parlors, bawdy houses and blind pigs. Everyone in the underworld knew Benoit had money orders, but all the detectives’ questioning turned up no evidence.
Among the characters they grilled were two so-called tramps. On Wednesday, walking the main street with Collins, Bunn saw the two men get out of a cab. “Tramps don’t take cabs!” he exclaimed. The cab driver said he’d brought them in from Guelph.
Bunn picked them up, then phoned the Guelph police. Two men had cashed a number of money orders in Guelph and Galt. Their descriptions checked with Bunn’s two “tramps.”
The two men, Rodney Gillis, twenty-four, and Gerald Briggs, twenty-six, confessed. But they wouldn’t tell who had given them the money orders. “We’ll take the beefs. We’ll take the rap ourselves,” Briggs declared. He was later sentenced to two years, his partner to eighteen months.
In the meantime a bootlegger, anxious for Chief Corbett’s goodwill, had tipped them off that two of the gang had been drinking the night before and had crashed their car near London. Bunn phoned the Ontario Provincial Police. They checked their accident list and came up with the name of Leonard Elnor. Bunn knew him as a top Toronto safecracker. “Have that wreck searched, will you?” he asked, “I suspect those boys are part of a forgery ring.”
By the time Bunn, Chief Corbett and Collins had driven as far as Woodstock, an OPP corporal had Elnor in custody. The corporal had reached the wreck just as Elnor had come back to remove some cheque-stamping equipment. Elnor didn’t deny he had got it from Benoit, but he would not make a statement. There was not enough evidence to hold him.
All during April they tried to link the forged paper to Benoit. They patiently traced back through Canadian Pacific Telegraph records to show that Pelletier had sent money to Benoit. They searched post-office records and found a registered letter Benoit had sent to Pelletier in Montreal. They kept a close watch on Lenny Elnor. Above all, they tried to find some sample of Benoit’s handwriting. They had to have a standard to compare with the handwriting on the forged cheques and money orders. But in all Benoit’s dealings under his own name, even in personal correspondence, he had never used anything but block letters.
In an effort to contact the gang and locate the missing cheque machine, Bill Taylor’s young aide, Jerry Manor, posed as a crook in Tillsonburg. “Fifteen squad cars came down from Toronto last month,” he was told. “The town’s cleaned out.” Manor picked up only one tip: a burly tough named Oscar was due in town next day to see Benoit.
The Toronto detective, Big John Mullins, a man with an excellent memory, figured this was Oscar Gravelle; he held dozens of forged cheques cashed by a man of Oscar’s appearance. But Oscar gave the Toronto detectives the slip in Tillsonburg. He spotted their car, ducked into a funeral parlor, followed the procession to the highway and hitchhiked back to Toronto. They picked him up on Jarvis Street four days later as he was changing a tire.
“What makes you think I passed any money orders?” the big man growled.
“Look, Oscar,” said Bill Dickey, a wryly humorous Toronto post-office investigator, “ever seen yourself in a mirror?”
“Yeah ...” Oscar said suspiciously.
“Do you think if anyone looks at your mug they’re going to forget it?”
A grin crept slowly over Oscar’s battered face. “Yeah, I guess you got something there. Well, I had a good time, it’s been a good caper. You show me what you got of mine and I’ll tell you what I did.”
Oscar pleaded guilty and received two years and six months. But when they asked him where he had got the money orders, he said: “Look, you know where I got them. But I’m going to Kingston. I got to live there.” He refused to implicate his boss Benoit.
Two weeks before Benoit’s hearing on May 26 police diligence paid off. Detective Bunn picked up Lenny Elnor trucking away a safe he had stolen. Elnor now had nothing to lose by confessing to the Downsview robbery, for both sentences would run concurrently.
“Well,” he said to Bunn, “I might as well go for two beefs as one, or I’ll still have you guys on my tail when I get out.” He and an unknown man, his statement read, were guilty of breaking and entering the Downsview Post Office. He had sold the loot to Benoit.
Shortly afterward Tillsonburg’s Chief Corbett telephoned Bunn. “I got that cheque machine,” he said. “The boys were checking a bootlegging joint just outside town. The cheque machine was underneath the house in a canvas bag. Two rubbies live there. They say Milton Benoit left the bag.”
The court hearings held for Benoit went well. He was committed for trial by high court in early November. The case against him was now airtight—as I long as Pelletier didn’t change his mind about testifying. The case depended on Pelletier—all the work of four police ; forces and half a dozen post-office investigators.
Pelletier had gone into court in April with butterflies in his stomach. He didn’t dare believe he’d get less than three years. “When the magistrate said three months,” he told Taylor afterward, during one of Taylor’s trips to the Ottawa County Jail to see him, “I could have jumped out of that witness box and kissed him and you too.”
Pelletier’s feelings were mixed as his jail term drew to a close. In jail he’d been safe from his former friends. Only once had he been in danger—when they’d transferred him to the Don Jail in Toronto during the hearings. Gravelle and Elnor had been in the Don. "They could have thrown a blanket over my head in the exercise yard and kicked him into condition where he couldn’t have testified. He didn’t know that Bill Taylor had arranged to have him I protected.
“It’s a funny thing,” he told Taylor afterward. “Ever since the Boyd gang broke out of the Don, they change cell mates every day. But they never changed this great big bruiser I had in with me. I asked him, ‘When are you getting out?’ and he said, ‘Oh, about the same time you are.’ ”
A Knife in His Back
When Pelletier got out in July he reported to Taylor. “Are you going straight now?” Taylor asked. “You’re not cut out for a crook.”
“I hate it,” Pelletier said.
“Just a minute, I’ll phone Berndt, down at police headquarters. I think he’s got a job lined up for you.”
Pelletier’s eyes filled. “You know, Mr. Taylor, I was a cop-hater. I ran with a smart-money bunch. But when I need friends—who helps me? An Ottawa city cop and a post-office dick.”
“Just take the stand against Benoit in November,” Taylor said. “That’s going to take guts. He may try to get you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Pelletier said. “Nothing’s going to stop me from telling the truth. You just make sure I’m able to tell it.”
“Keep moving,” Taylor said. “Don’t stay more than two weeks in one place. Check in with me after every move. And don’t tell anyone where you’re working. I don’t suppose you’ve got any money. Here’s ten bucks.”
Pelletier did as he was told. But the strain grew worse every day. He knew that without him Benoit would be safe. He expected a knife in his back at any time. At night in his rooming house he lay awake listening for footsteps. He couldn’t sleep. He started to drink again, and in his cups he told a couple of friends where he was working.
At one o’clock in the afternoon a week before the trial, a stranger, a large man, walked into the kitchen where Pelletier was cooking. “There’s a friend of yours outside,” the stranger said.
“Who?” Pelletier asked apprehensively.
“You’re crazy.” But Pelletier knew it was true and then Benoit came into the kitchen.
He came close and stood looking at Pelletier. “It takes a long time to find you, Gerry. Your mother, your sister, they don’t know where you live. I’ve been in every poolroom and hotel in Hull. Lucky you told one waiter where you work. What are you hiding for, Gerry?”
“What do you want?” Pelletier asked, glancing around nervously.
“We got a few things to talk over, Gerry.”
“We can’t talk here. I’m through at seven. I’ll meet you wherever you say.”
“The Bank Hotel in Hull. Don’t make a mistake and run out. There’ll be someone watching you.”
Over a beer at the Bank, Benoit leaned forward and asked, “What’s the idea of ratting on me?” His voice had an edge now.
“What could I do? When they picked me up, they picked up my wife. She told them everything she knew. I wasn’t going to commit perjury. I had to go along.”
“Better not go along again, Gerry.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to get out. Leave the country.”
Pelletier tried to hide the fact that he was badly frightened. “Sure, Whitey, I’ll leave. But I got to have some money. I can’t go broke.”
“I’ll be in here Monday with three hundred dollars for you. I want you to make a plane reservation for Syracuse. Don’t tell anyone you’re leaving. You can send for your wife when you get there. Let me know where you are. Maybe you can send me some of those Chase National blanks and we’ll do a little business in the States.” Pelletier caught the plane to Syracuse. There were only a few other passengers. They paid no attention to him. He looked down for one last look at Canada. It hurt him to leave. He hated to think how he was letting Taylor down. But neither of these feelings meant as much to him as his life. He was certain that Benoit would kill him rather than serve a term in jail. In the seat beside him a small wiry man with a shrewd face slept.
The man was just ahead of him at the immigration barrier in the Syracuse airline depot. The U. S. immigration officer took the man into his office. Pelletier waited uneasily. Then the immigration officer beckoned him. “Gerard Pelletier?”
“We’ll have to put you on the next flight back. You have a criminal record and this gentleman holds a warrant for your arrest. You’re charged as a material witness fleeing the country.” Pelletier looked at the small man without surprise. “I should have known,” he said. “Who are you with —the city or the post office?”
“The post office,” said Jerry Manor. “I’m in Taylor’s office. We’ve been keeping a pretty close watch on you these past few days. We’d like you to testify Nov. 2 in Toronto.”
Benoit was standing in the Toronto courthouse corridor with a group of his henchmen when Pelletier was led in. The master forger’s jaw sagged. He turned beet-red. The trial, due to begin at ten o’clock, was delayed till 11:30 while Benoit changed his plea to guilty. He was sentenced to four years in Kingston Penitentiary.
You Can’t Keep Running
Pelletier is now back at his chef’s job in Ottawa. He still drinks too much; he is not a happy man. “There’s no such thing as an easy buck,” he says. “If you want to sleep nights and walk among decent people with your head up, don’t go like I did. Don’t try to be a big shot. Better to live on ten dollars a week than a hundred a day and have nothing. You won’t have to live like I do—in fear.
“They didn’t get them all yet, you know. And maybe the boys figure they’d be safer if I was out of the way. Man to man I’m not scared of them. It’s the waiting. I don’t think they’d kill me, just cripple me. I don’t know —they must know if I haven’t squealed yet I’m not going to. If I don’t get it soon, I figure I got about three more years. With good behavior that’s when he’ll get out.
“I lie in bed at night and think, ‘What would I feel in his place?’ I’m out and he’s in. He’s counting the bolts on the bars, counting the days till he’s out. He’s not loving me, that’s sure. He’s going to take a trip here. I never go to bed that I don’t see his face, and that knife.
“Why don’t I leave town? I ran away once. You can’t go on running away. This is my city. I’m better off here. I got a job. The boss knows my story. He believes in what a man can do, not what he’s done. It’s not easy to get a job when you got a record. Everybody’s down on you. They think they’re better than you are. Why? Are they really all that honest? Or are they lucky. I figure I know what being honest means. I wonder what you’d have done in my place?” ★