CANADA

The ‘flying bank robber’ died hard

ROSALIE WOLOSKI December 29 1980
CANADA

The ‘flying bank robber’ died hard

ROSALIE WOLOSKI December 29 1980

The ‘flying bank robber’ died hard

Ontario

It was on a cold December evening just over a year ago that bush pilot Ken Leishman, 48, taxied his twin-engine Piper Aztec down the runway at Sandy Lake, in the northwestern Ontario wilderness. He marked his time of departure as 5:05 p.m. CST and made a casual comment to a bystander that he expected to be in Thunder Bay by 6:40. On board were two Indian women: Eva Harper, who had suffered a fractured hip in a snowmobiling accident, and Jackie Meekis, who had come along to tend her during the 600-km journey to hospital. It wasn’t until shortly after 7 p.m. that Leishman contacted the Thunder Bay control tower. Then the Piper Aztec disappeared from the radar screen.

Despite the combined efforts of the armed forces search and rescue team, numerous volunteer groups, family and friends, no trace of the plane was found until early last May. The crash, just 40 km short of its destination, had split the Piper Aztec in two and wild animals had devoured most of the human remains, so it was almost impossible to make positive identification. That is why it required a coroner’s jury, assembled in Thunder Bay last week, to declare that the three persons who had boarded the plane at Sandy Lake were legally dead, settling any doubt in most minds about the fate of the two passengers. If there were any lingering, pos-

sibly romantic, doubts about the final end of bush pilot Ken Leishman, it was because he was better known as “the flying bank robber” and the gold-heist mastermind who escaped police custody and almost got away with $400,000 in bullion 14 years ago. A legend like Leishman’s dies hard.

It was back in the 1960s that Winnipeg businessman Ken Leishman—in need, he said, of financing for a tourist resort he planned to build in Northern Ontario—twice flew to Toronto by Air Canada to get it by robbing banks. Finally apprehended, he served a fouryear term but, shortly after his release, he organized the famous 1966 gold heist from an Air Canada hangar at Winnipeg International Airport. He might have got away with the $400,000 except for a slipup by one of his accomplices— and then, while awaiting sentence, he escaped and flew himself out of the country in a stolen plane, a skill he had foresightedly acquired some years before.

Recaptured in Indiana, Leishman served eight years for the bullion job and then moved his wife, Elva, and four of his seven children to northwestern Ontario, where he made a fresh start with considerable success. Choosing, ironically, to settle in Red Lake, one of whose mines had produced the gold he had stolen, he began working as a bush pilot and became so liked and respected that he was made president of the Chamber of Commerce and was almost

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elected reeve. But when he disappeared without a trace during the mercy flight, people inevitably began to talk—partly because they couldn’t believe this living legend would die, but perhaps also because they wanted to believe Leishman had gotten away with another daring con. Some said he had never crashed but flown to the United States to pick up $2 million in gold bullion he had hidden away. Others said he had crashed but escaped injury and was now living the life of Leishman in California.

Even the wreckage didn’t stop the rumors, so the inquest was ordered. The best that forensic pathologist Dr. John Hillsdon Smith of Toronto could say was that the thigh bones found were those of a man, while bits of jawbone identified Jackie Meekis and Eva Harper. Scattered around the crash scene were credit cards, a birth certificate and driver’s licence, all in the name of Leishman, as well as parts of his Skidoo boots and bits of his pants. And the pilot’s son Wade, 25, who had sat grimly through the one-day inquest, said there was no doubt in his mind that his father was dead. There was nothing to be gained by faking anything anymore, he said, since all the gold had been recovered by authorities.

Or nearly all of it—and here was a last intriguing footnote to the Leishman legend. His father had told him, said Wade, that six pounds of the stolen gold bullion lies buried somewhere beneath a runway at Vancouver International Airport. Even that much could be worth about $58,600 at today’s prices, if anybody wanted to pursue the trail of Ken Leishman a little further. ROSALIE WOLOSKI