Crime

BOOKWORM BANDIT

Surgery made him a woman, but what came after turned her into a thief

DOUG BEAZLEY March 1 2004
Crime

BOOKWORM BANDIT

Surgery made him a woman, but what came after turned her into a thief

DOUG BEAZLEY March 1 2004

BOOKWORM BANDIT

Crime

Surgery made him a woman, but what came after turned her into a thief

DOUG BEAZLEY

THE GUN was a fake, but so was the rest of the outfit. Walking away from the Scotiabank in a shopping mall in Belleville, Ont., on Nov. 18, 1998, Christine White felt a jolt of dread sharper than her usual post-robbery nausea. First, there had been that police car in the parking lot. Then there was the bank manager, yelling and chasing her out into the mall—that almost never happened. She showed him the starter’s pistol under her jacket, he backed up, and she walked briskly to her car, got in, took off. Minutes later, she was lying on her belly in the mud outside Belleville surrounded by police. It would take them a few hours to work out they’d finally caught the infamous Bookworm Bandit, who’d been robbing banks across the country for 18 months.

It would take them slightly longer to discover their effeminate-looking male was actually a woman—who used to be a man. White didn’t much care at that point. “I was tired,” she says. She’s 55 now, a striking, broad-shouldered woman with ropy arms, wide hands and iron-grey hair, serving time at Quebec’s Joliette Institution after transferring there from Burnaby, B.C. “No friends, no home. Would it be so bad just to get caught, so I could stop running for a while?”

She’d been running a long time. Christine White was born Anatoli Misura in Belgium on Nov. 17,1949, the male and stateless child of Ukrainian refugees. After coming to Canada, the family settled on an isolated farm about 50 km outside Montreal. Anatoli had few friends. White remembers her father as a brooding man with a volatile temper. “He never liked to see my mother wearing shorts, he never liked anything feminine about anybody. He thought that was disgusting. He used to beat my mother and myself, not my brother. We lived in fear.” (White’s father is deceased and no else from her family could be reached for this article. But during her trial, her estranged brother, Wally Misura, denied the accounts of childhood abuse, calling White a “con artist, liar and manipulator.”)

Anatoli was far closer to his mother. “She used to tell me, ‘You’re my little daughter,’ ” White says. “I’m closer to her than I am to anybody. She was the glue that kept the family together.” Amateur psychologists might point to Anatoli’s thorny relationship with a distant father and emotional dependence on his mother as a source of the gender confusion that overtook him in his teens. White’s not so sure: she doesn’t recall feeling troubled until, at age 18, she started reading stories in newspapers about sex changes. “It stimulated me and confirmed a lot of things in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d never liked my body at all. I never considered myself gay. I was asphyxiated by my own body. I wanted to be female because women were so much better. They don’t have this evil my father had, this anger and violence.”

Through his 20s, Anatoli struggled to ignore his growing feelings of unease. He studied mechanical design in Montreal, joined the construction industry in 1970, worked 60to 70-hour weeks for the distraction. In 1973, he even got married; the union was an unhappy one, and it dissolved in 1983. In 1984, he moved to Edmonton, looking for construction work. In 1990, he wrote a letter to his family, telling them he would be “taking off” for a while.

FIRST came hormone therapy, and the change was gradual: his walk altered, the pattern of hair on his body shifted

What he had in mind was transformation. He started the long process that year with hormone therapy. The change was gradual: his walk altered, the pattern of hair on his body shifted. His testicles shrank. The final cut came in November 1993—in Belgium again. Anatoli Misura vanished under general anaesthetic—and Christine White woke up four hours later with a burning pain in her groin. “Unbelievable pain,” she recalls. “But when it healed, it felt very natural. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t have to worry about the toilet seat anymore.’ ”

The psychological ease with which White morphed from man to woman did not extend to the rest of her life. By 1994, she’d spent $60,000 on gender reassignment surgery and was living alone in Edmonton, jobless. Resumés sent to construction companies got no takers: employers, she says, were having a hard time accepting two decades of experience under a different gender. Her voice still raspy and strange from vocal cord surgery, she couldn’t even get a job waiting tables. She wound up working as an escort in Edmonton’s bustling sex trade, an experience she now describes in tones of deep disgust. “The whole experience was horrible. Clients strung out on crack, trying to rip me off. I didn’t date, outside of business. The whole thing just made me sick.”

In 1996, she quit. “I was looking at a future as a bag lady, picking through garbage to survive. So I started thinking.” That led White, down to her last $100, to planning the first of the 30 bank robberies to which she’s admitted publicly. It was a downtown Bank of Montreal in Edmonton on May 20,1997. Setting the pattern for all her subsequent jobs, she disguised herself with male clothing and earned the “Bookworm Bandit” handle by keeping the robbery note in a commercial receipt book, which she took with her when she fled—no fingerprints left behind. She planned obsessively before her first job and every one after: timing police patrols at intersections, mapping escape routes, fixing a stolen plate to her car with double-sided tape for easy removal during the getaway. Women’s clothing in the trunk, sandwiches in the cooler.

UNABLE to find work in construction, White turned to the sex trade before going on an 18-month crime spree

White walked away with $1,700 that day, and it led to 18 months of living out of her car, sleeping in truck-stop parking lots, hitting and running from bank to bank. “I kept trying to find work, but the money would run out and I’d have to rob another bank. It was starting to sink in by 1998 that I just wasn’t going to find a job.” But the money was less than great: White took about $75,000 during her spree, mostly hitting small-town Ontario banks with light security. Her biggest security. single haul, she says, was $7,500; her lightest, just $150.

After White’s arrest— and after the media knew enough about her to start calling her the “Unisex Bandit”— she was sentenced to 11 years in prison with three years’ credit for pretrial custody. In December 2003, she transferred from B.C. to Quebec, to be closer to a lawsuit she’s brought against Belleville police for injuries she says she sustained

during her arrest. At Joliette, she quickly became friendly with the prison’s most infamous prison’s most tenant—Karla Homolka. “I don’t think she’s dangerous,” says White. “She’s a very intelligent person, very perceptive. We’ve had a lot of conversations.”

White comes up for parole in the fall. She wants to move to Ottawa, maybe become a paralegal. No surprise, she’s working on a book. Looking back, she still blames “society” for not accepting her transformation and for blocking her efforts to work. She acknowledges now that she probably should have gotten counselling. “I’ll get parole,” she says. “Just to be able to ride a bicycle through the city, buy some fruit, walk out in my backyard with a drink in my hand and know I don’t have to run from anything. To use my hands and head for something worthwhile, for a change. Stuff the world takes for granted. That’s what I want. This time, I’m going to get it.” m