Stephen Reid, Gentleman Bank Robber Turned Writer, Dies at 68
Posted June 15, 2018 8:21 p.m. EDT
OTTAWA, Ontario — Stephen Reid, who helped carry out a long series of meticulously executed bank robberies in Canada and the United States and then became a well-regarded author before returning to his original trade, died Tuesday in British Columbia. He was 68.
His death, at a hospital in Masset, a village on the Haida Gwaii islands, resulted from complications of a lung infection and heart failure, his wife, Susan Musgrave, a noted Canadian poet and author, said.
Along with Patrick Mitchell, who was known as Paddy, and Lionel Wright, Reid was a member of a group of well-dressed bandits who came to be known as the The Stop Watch Gang. The name appeared to have come from FBI investigators who noticed that at least one gang member, usually Reid, wore a stopwatch around his neck to keep holdups within the group’s self-imposed two-minute time limit.
While there is no precise accounting of their crimes, police have estimated the gang participated in at least 100 holdups during the 1970s and ′80s, getting away with about $15 million.
Reid spent time in 20 prisons over 40 years. His move into writing, which was championed and guided by Musgrave, produced two books and many widely published essays. He frequently appeared on television and elsewhere in the Canadian media as a commentator on the prison system, and he was also a teacher and lecturer and worked with indigenous young offenders.
Stephen Reid was born on March 13, 1950, in Massey, a town along the Trans-Canada Highway in Northern Ontario. At 13 he ran away to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he developed a heroin habit that would resurface for the rest of his life.
When he was 23 and serving his second prison sentence, in Kingston, Ontario, for bank robbery, Reid escaped from guards while out on a day leave to attend a seminar in Ottawa, the nearest large city. He made his move after asking to stop for Chinese food. He met Mitchell, who was well established in the underworld, in Ottawa.
The gang got off to a dramatic start in April 1974, when the men stole gold bullion from a storage area at the Ottawa airport. Worth 785,000 Canadian dollars at the time, the gold had been destined for the Royal Canadian Mint.
Not every robbery went smoothly. But the group’s members attributed their successes to careful planning. Every aspect of each robbery, including scripting what they would say, was worked out in advance.
“It’s not rocket science,” Reid said in an interview with The Atavist Magazine in 2015. “You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking.”
He described how the gang would open an account at a bank before staking it out and surveying its security. “I probably know more about banks than most bankers,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The robbers were unwilling to use violence except as a threat. Sometimes they carried unloaded guns. In fact, Reid said, the first robbery in which he fired a gun was not a real robbery at all. It was in a scene from “Four Days,” a 1999 Canadian movie about a teenage bank robber. He played a guard.
“Our No. 1 rule was: nobody gets hurt,” Mitchell, who died 11 years ago, wrote in a letter to The Ottawa Citizen in 2000.
The gang’s life of crime was interrupted by arrests and prison sentences, but they were generally for drug-related offenses, not their principal line of work.
Reid proved as talented at escaping the clutches of the authorities as he was at robbery. While in prison for the Ottawa gold theft, Reid studied hair dressing, calculating that showing interest in a trade would get him transferred to a lower security prison. His hunch proved correct: He was moved. Then, let out for a day with a lone guard, he got away, again during a meal. This time it was fish and chips.
The Stopwatch Gang moved to Arizona, and as the men committed robberies throughout the western United States, they maintained their reputation for politeness and precision. But after they had begun moving away from bank robbery and into drug smuggling, the FBI finally caught up with them, arresting Reid in Arizona in 1980.
He took up writing after he was transferred to a prison in Canada. In 1984 he sent a manuscript to Musgrave, who was then a writer in residence at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
She edited what became “Jack Rabbit Parole,” a semi-autobiographical novel, and their personal relationship grew. They married at the Kent Institution, a maximum-security prison in Agassiz, British Columbia, in 1986, the year his novel was published to critical acclaim and robust sales.
In addition to Musgrave, Reid is survived by a daughter, Sophie Reid Jenkins; a stepdaughter, Charlotte Musgrave; two grandchildren; and seven siblings, from whom he had long been estranged, Musgrave said.
Al Forrie, of Thistledown Press, publisher of Reid’s latest book, the essay collection “A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden,” said Reid had used his experience in prison to try to reshape public attitudes toward convicts. Reid, who was of Irish and Ojibway ancestry, was particularly disturbed by the large number of indigenous men in jail, Forrie said.
Despite his marriage and his literary success, Reid continued to struggle with drug and alcohol addictions. Fueled by drugs, he returned to crime and robbed a bank in 1999 in Victoria, British Columbia.
Unlike the heists with the Stop Watch Gang, this one was a messy affair, with a police chase, shots fired and an arrest. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison and spent some of his last years returning to jail for parole violations. Musgrave, who operated a guesthouse with Reid on Haida Gwaii, said Thursday that her husband had always been uncomfortable with his notoriety and celebrity.
“The bank robberies were a really big story,” she said. “But up here he wasn’t known for that. He was a normal guy who would help you out if your car had a flat tire. He’s not a violent person. It’s very hard to imagine him in a bank with a gun.”