The night of terror we’ll never forget
“It happened to us”
This Is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time In Maclean’s . . , stories told by Its readers about some interesting dramatic event In their lives.
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The children were alone when the bandits came. With guns in hand, they waited for us. When they took me away to open the supermarket safe, the leader said to my wife: "Take a good look at your husband. It may be the last time...”
The worst night my family and I ever spent was about four years ago. There were four men who made it so horrible, and one of them said to us when he left. “I guess you'll remember this night for quite a while, eh?”
How right he was. It helped kill my wife, Teresa. It fixed my little daughter Louise so that she still can't sleep in a dark room. It put me in hospital for over a month, and finally we had such terrible memories about it that we felt compelled to sell our house and move.
That night has scarred all our lives so badly that none of us will ever be the same again.
I'm the manager of the Dominion Store in Cornwall, Ont., which is now the headquarters city for the St. Lawrence Seaway. The seaway was just getting going back in 1955. and the Dominion Stores people persuaded me to leave my own grocery shop which I was running in Manchester. N.H., and come up to Canada to manage their new' $250,000 store. I was born in New Hampshire (in 1908) hut 1 had w'orked for the A&P stores all over Quebec — Valleyfield. Lachute, Rouyn — from 1930 until 1952. u'hen 1 went back home to start my own business. I married in Montreal in 1934. My wife was of French-Canadian stock, like myself.
The Dominion Store is in the middle of downtown Cornwall, and when it opened for business in March, 1955, it was the only big supermarket in town. We did a roaring business, especially on weekends. I suppose it was foolish of me. but I didn t think it necessary to make night bank deposits oí the money w'e took in. Our own safe w'as very strong, and it stood in the store window, exposed on all sides and lit by two
spotlights. You’d have thought it would be impossible for anyone to even think of trying to crack it. And it was just across the street from the provincial police. In fact they have a special parking area lor their cars along the curb, not tu'enty feet away from the safe.
Yet that's what those four men wanted — the money that was in our safe that night: $17.456.17 in hills, silver and pennies. They sat in the store parking lot and watched us for days. I found out later, and they figured out just what hours the police did their rounds. When the time came to strike, they struck. They were real professionals if I ever saw them. Or at least one of them was — the tall fellow, the chief.
It was on a Saturday night. Nov. 26, 1955. quite a nice evening. My wile and I had gone out about 9:30 to play some 500 Rummy with our friends, the Majors, who still run the motel at the bottom of liryden Avenue, the street where we lived at that time.
When we left, our two teen-age boys Robert and Roland were watching hockey on TV; Louise, our lour-year-old youngest was in bed; Ghislaine, our 19-year-old daughter, was in the bathroom getting fixed up to go lo a dance downtown with her date. Laurent Langlois. He works in Courtauld’s, the big silk mill in Cornwall.
We walked down to the Majors' because it was only a block or so.
When we were coming back to the house, * about midnight, I saw somebody run from our driveway into the house, which was fairly dark.
1 said to my wife. “What goes on here?” and ran after the man. I dashed up the steps and slammed open the door. Only the bathroom light was on, so I was halfway down the passageway to the kitchen before I saw what was going on.
And then I thought I must he going mad, or it was a crazy joke or something. Robert, my 16-year-old, was standing there in the kitchen, looking scared. Behind him was a dark-haired man with a white hanky over his face, poking the barrel of a Luger in his hack. There was another taller man. also masked, standing to my right, near the door to the boys' bedroom. He had a sawed-ofl shotgun and he was pointing it right at me.
“Come right in, Vic,” the tall man said. I thought, He knows my
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The night of terror we'll never forget
continued from page 19
“He stuck the gun in my ribs and said, ‘Don't
try to be a hero’ ’’
name. So it must be a gag!’ But he stuck the shotgun in my ribs and said, “Take it easy and don’t try to be a hero.” I didn’t recognize the voice.
Just then my wife came in. She walked right into the kitchen without saying a
word, just staring. The tall man waved the shotgun at her and said, “Sit down.” Teresa sat down on one of the kitchen chairs.
Then, without saying anything more, the fellow with the automatic pushed
Robert down on a chair and took out some rope lie had with him and tied him to the chair. I remember saying, "Not so tight!” But they paid no attention. They lied Robert’s hands and feet to the chair and then looped the end round his neck
so that if he moved his feet it would tighten the rope on his throat. It was terrible.
And I still had no idea what was behind all this.
Next they tied my wife the same way, but not so tightly. Then they tied me, very tightly. I had my left wrist in a sling from where I had stepped on a roller and fallen through a plate - glass window in the store the week before, while I was showing a new employee how to clean windows. It was very painful. But when they tied me to the chair they paid no attention to this, and my shoulder began to ache too. In the hospital later, I found they had dislocated my shoulder.
I kept saying, “What’s going on? What’s this all about?” while they were tying us. But the tall fellow only said, “You'll find out.” He put a tea towel around my eyes, and finally put a strip of adhesive tape over my mouth.
"Now,” said the leader, when they had us all tied up like turkeys, "what we want is the keys to the store and the combination to the safe.” I tried to talk, but of course with the plaster there, 1 couldn't. So they ripped it off again, and almost took the skin with it. They also took off the blindfold.
"I don't have the combination,” I lied. “It needs three people to open it.”
“Vic,” the smaller man said, “don’t try to kid us. We’ve been watching you for days. We know you have the combination. We even know the money is in the top half of the safe. Don’t be a hero. Just play along and everything will be all right.”
They had the right information, and they certainly had us at their mercy, so there was nothing else to do but give them what they wanted.
“The keys are in my pocket,” I said. The tall man reached in and took them out, and I showed him which one opened the door. “The combination is easy,” 1 added. "It’s just three numbers.” I gave them the three numbers, and the tall fellow wrote them on a match book. I didn’t think 1 had to mention that they had to have those three numbers exactly right. They seemed such pros, I didn't think they’d have any trouble.
“We’re not fooling, you know,” the tall fellow said to me. "If this isn’t the right combination, you’ll get it bad.”
“But it is the right one,” I said.
He went out. leaving the smaller guy there to guard us. At first I thought he was the only one left. But he seemed to know what I was thinking. He told me there were two more of them on the back porch, “just in case you've got any bright ideas.” One of the fellows out back must have heard what he said because he stamped his feet and I realized there really were more of them outside. I never did sec either of the outside men, except later at quite a distance.
I didn't have any bright ideas for spoiling their plans, anyway. I’d seen TV programs just about like this situation and the hero always thought of something smart to do. But all I could do was sit there and wait.
1 was wondering where my other son. Roily, was. It turned out he was tied up in his bed. He called out once, and the man went in to see what he wanted, and I guess he’d been trying to squeeze out of the ropes because I heard the man say, “Who do you think you are —Dick T racy?”
Once Roily called out that he had to go to the bathroom, so the fellow carried a pot in there and even rinsed it out afterward. It was crazy, ail this service, because my other boy was sitting there almost strangling to death.
My wife, whose English was not so goo'd. kept trying to comfort Robert. She implored the man in French to do something for him. but he only said. “Stop than talk! Speak English!"
S>o 1 asked him too. and finally he loossened the rope around Robert.
After about an hour of this, the leader came storming back into the kitchen.
" You tricked me!” he said.
I said 1 hadn't, and that 1 had given him the real combination.
" Repeat it!" he said. So 1 did.
"Okay,” he said. "Ell try it again. But if it doesn't work this time, we'll come back and take you down."
1 didn't say anything. 1 wondered — andl still wonder—• why he didn't take me down to the store in the first place.
ƒ list then the front door was filing open andl my daughter Ghislaine came Hying into the room. One of the men outside haul pushed her in. Her boy friend came tunnbling into the room. too.
The robbers knew who they were. As I said, they were real professionals, and they had everything figured out. While we were sitting there, Robert had told us that the short man — the fellow I'd seen first with the Enger stuck in Robert's back — had come to the house about 10: 30 that evening. He had told the two boys that he was a business acquaintance of mine, and that he’d like to wait till I got. home. He'd asked questions about us, and the kids had answered him. not suspecting anything, of course. He had sat there in the front room for over an hoiur without his mask. The leader was either smarter or cagicr because he hadn't shown himself until just when we arrived, and then only with his mask on.
There wasn’t enough rope left to tie up Ghislaine and Laurent, so the short man ripped the cord ofl the Venetian blinds. I could only hear this because they had put the blindfold and the tape back on me. They tied Ghislaine to a chair, very tightly. There were no more chairs left for Laurent, so they sal him on the floor and put the rope around his neck and looped it over the door to the basement. They tied his hands and feel as well. It was pretty cruel, because he couldn't move more than a couple of inches.
As soon as they finished this, the two bandits said something about the cops making their rounds soon, and they left to try the safe again. We were alone — almost. The men on the back porch kept shining their flashlight in on us.
By now it was about three a.m.
The two who'd tied us up weren't away long this time, maybe a half hour or so. When I heard them coming up the steps again. 1 could tell by the way they walked that they were mad. They still hailn t been able to get the safe open. The leader started to yell at me and call me names. As he was doing this he woke up Louise, who called out. "Mama! '
My wife said to the man. "La petite a peur. Laisse:.-moi aller la réconforter, je vous implore." ("The child is scared. Let me go and soothe her. I beg you. ) But he said no. that he would look after it.
He went into Louise's room and we could hear him telling her that it was just a game we were playing, that we were all friends and were only playing cowboys. He did a good job, I II say that for him. but Louise knew something was wrong just the same.
The chief came back to me and leaned right up close. “You’re still stalling! he hissed. "You gave us the wrong combination again."
I started to shake my head, but he grabbed me by the hair and twisted me around toward my wife and said, “Take a good look at your husband, Mrs. Des-
Groseilliers. It may be the last time.” They ripped the tape off again, but left the blindfold on, and the two of them led me out to the car. 1 sat in the front seat between them. They started down town — 1 knew every foot of the way — but at the intersection they turned left toward Montreal. For the first time that evening I really felt scared. “They're going to dump me somewhere along the road and then come back and finish the job.” I thought. But just then they turned again, and we were once more going around the block toward the store.
They stopped about a block away from the store and pushed me out and along the street, still blindfolded. Just in front of the store they took the blindfold off. I saw two men in a car by the curb and realized they must be the two who had been on the back porch. One of them waved. The men with me waved back, and the two in the car took off toward my house again.
The leader opened the door and pushed me toward the back of the store. He told me I was to open the.safe and then step away from it. He said they would
take the money out of it by themselves.
They led me back to the front of the store, and the leader crouched down behind a Quaker Oats display about seventy-five feet from the safe. He told me to open it. So I started turning the dials. The little guy stood there all the time with his finger in my back. 1 said. “1 can’t do anything with him bothering me!” So the leader said, “Leave him alone."
While I was working on the safe a car came along Augustus Street. I thought the little guy would run behind the display but he stayed right there. The
driver didn't even notice us there in the brightly lit window.
After the safe was opened, they ordered me to stand back behind the display. Just then, two city policemen came along, trying doors. The two robbers crouched down and drew their guns. I heard the leader say. “If they spot us. let ’em have it!" So I hoped, for their sake, that the two cops wouldn't notice anything. And they didn’t! They shone their flashlight right on the open door of the safe hut kept right on walking.
The robbers waited till the cops were gone. Then they took the money out of the safe and we all went to the back of the store. They dumped it all out on the banana display counter. Then they got a couple of shopping hags and filled them with the money.
The clock on the wall now said 5:40. It was starting to get light outside. The two men had taken off their masks, and I could see them quite clearly. They tied me up again, very tightly, and threw me on the floor. Then the little dark one put the huger very close to my head and said to the leader, "Shall I get rid of him?”
"We don’t have time." the other one said. "L.et’s go."
So they went. The leader called back to me as they went out the door, "See you again!"
Tears of relief
1 began to roll toward the stock room at the back, where there was a phone. But it was real torture. My shoulder felt like it was coming off. It’s only about forty feet all told, hut it seemed like a mile to go.
Fortunately, they hadn’t got dial phones in Cornwall yet. so I was able to knock the receiver off the hook and talk into it. I asked the operator to give me the police, and I told them what had happened.
They thought I was kidding. One of them said. "But we were just over there!"
1 said. "Yes. I know. We saw you."
As soon as t ,ey realized 1 was serious, they came right over. They climbed in through the skylight in the back and cut me loose. T he first thing I did was phone the township police—our house was then in their territory — to go and release my family. I was going to phone them too. but I wanted to see them so badly I rushed out and the cops took me home.
What a wonderful thing it was to see them again, all safe! My wife cried like a baby when she saw me. She’d thought I was gone forever. She had started to work herself loose soon after the robbers left and had cut the kids loose just before 1 arrived. Now that it was all over she was on the verge of collapse. But she cooked breakfast for the kids before she lay down herself.
It was now about 6:30 a.m. of the worst night in our lives. The two city police. Fd Osier and Percy Rivière, look me hack down to the store, and they took pictures and fingerprints. A little later in the day Inspector Nicol of the provincial police arrived from Toronto. The RCMP were also there.
We were all dead tired, but they needed us to identify pictures of the crooks. So \xe looked at pictures and at one point we all said. "That one!" It was the short, dark fellow who had put the gun to my head in the store.
They picked him up the next day in Brantford. Ont., with over four thousand dollars on him —just about what he would have on a four-way split of $17,456.17. He was brought hack to Cornwall. and they got quite a hit of information out of him, I imagine.
It turned out he came from Chesterviile, a small town about thirty-five miles northwest of Cornwall. His name was William Irwin Stata, and I think he was Italian.
He’d only been out of jail for two months, having had eight years of his sentence knocked off for good behavior. He and the leader had apparently known each other in the pen. and had plotted the holdup there, right down to the details.
We also picked out of the picture file a man who looked to us like the leader. I’d seen the leader without his mask, at the store, and Ghislaine had seen him by the light from the bathroom, when he took off his mask to go outside.
A year or so later, they picked up another man in Mexico and brought him to Cornwall for trial. Ghislaine and 1 both testified that he was the leader of the gang, hut our evidence was not accepted. He was acquitted.
Stata had pleaded guilty before this, and got ten years in Kingston Penitentiary. They added this on to the eight they had knocked off his previous sentence. so he’s serving an eighteen - year term right now.
I heard that one of the two fellows who had been outside on our porch that night — a fellow named Brisson — killed a woman in Alabama last year and was executed in the electric chair. They never did find out who the fourth man was. hut we’re almost certain it must be somebody from around Cornwall.
Later that Sunday morning my neighbors on each side — Cliff Leroux and Paul Landry — came around to say that they had thought of dropping in on me when they saw my light on about three a.m.. as they normally would do. But they had gone on into their own homes when they figured it was a little too late, or perhaps we were having a family party. It was just as well for them, or they probably would have been tied up. too.
My wife was under doctor’s care for weeks afterward. She died a year ago. and I'm sure her death was hastened along hv the events of that terrible night.
Louise is now eight. She didn't seem affected much at the time, but afterward she started to show nervous symptoms. She's scared of the dark now. and just a couple of months ago when I brought an Italian worker into our house, she got terribly frightened.
"The bandit!" she screamed, "the bandit!"
She goes to a good boarding school in Outremont, but I worry about her a lot.
Robert attends college in Waterloo. Ont. He seems okay, but he can’t quite settle down. Roily, who is going to the University of Toronto next year to study optometry, is probably the least affected. Ghislaine is more angry than anything. She’s mad at the jury for not believing her testimony. I imagine she will get over it.
People still stop us on the street to talk about it. hut I don’t go along with that any more. All I want to do now is try to forget the terrible events of that terrible night in November. 1955. ic