The Flying Bandit

I’m taking a course with Roland Penner a well-known Manitoba lawyer. Our class is called Winnipeg Fact or Fiction. In my first post about the course I wrote about the Winnipeg Strike. Our second class was about a famous Winnipeg criminal, Kenneth Leishman. Roland was intimately familiar with his case because he defended Leishman’s accomplice Harry Backlin in court. Although Leishman’s story honestly sounds like fiction, Roland gave us a good factual account of what actually happened. 

March 3 of 1966 Ken Leishman masterminded the theft of nearly $400,000 in gold bars from the Winnipeg International Airport and he almost got away with it. The gold was coming into Winnipeg from Red Lake, en route to the mint in Ottawa and Ken knew it had no police protection as it was moved from the plane to the airport. He took advantage of this and posing as an Air Canada driver intercepted the gold and drove away with it.

Harry Backlin, a lawyer Ken had known in prison was part of the scheme. He was on a planned holiday in California so it would look like he wasn’t involved. On his return from the United States Backlin was going to take the gold to Hong Kong and sell it. Ken went to Harry’s house right after the heist and told Harry’s mother-in-law who had not gone to California, that he was Harry’s friend and was going to store some moose meat in his freezer. That’s where he stashed the gold, planning to pick it up the next day and take it to his uncle’s farm in Treherne. 

Unfortunately for Ken a huge blizzard hit Winnipeg that night and he couldn’t get out of the city in the morning. In desperation he hid the gold in the snow banks in Harry’s backyard, which made Harry pretty upset when he arrived home. Harry’s plans to go to Hong Kong were thwarted when there was a problem with his passport so Ken decided to go to Hong Kong to sell the gold himself. He sawed off a piece of gold to take to Hong Kong in his briefcase as a sample to sell. However Ken needed a small pox vaccination to go to Hong Kong. Harry arranged one with a friend who was a doctor. There was supposed to be a seven-day waiting period after a vaccination but Ken convinced the doctor to lie and put the wrong date on the vaccination form so he could leave Canada right away. The doctor feeling guilty confessed what he’d done to a friend who was a police officer. The police officer recognized Ken’s name. Ken had been high on the police list of suspects for the gold robbery because of his previous criminal activity.  The RCMP made plans to arrest Ken in the Vancouver airport when he arrived there on his way to Hong Kong. Ken managed to get out of the airport long enough to get rid of the gold in his briefcase before he was arrested. It was never found. 

Ken made the mistake of explaining the robbery in detail to the man sharing his cell in Vancouver. He was an RCMP agent incarcerated with Ken for the purpose of extracting incriminating information. After Ken’s Vancouver jail house confession the gold was dug up from Harry’s backyard and Ken was sent to jail in Headingly, Manitoba to await trial. 

Unbelievably Ken managed to escape from Headingly, was recaptured in Indiana and sent to the Vaughn Street Detention Centre and he escaped from there too. Finally he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for twelve years, however he managed to get out of prison after just eight years for good behavior. 

Following his prison release Ken and his wife Elva and their seven children moved to Red Lake where they opened a store and Ken became a pillar of the community, even serving as president of the Red Lake Chamber of Commerce. 

Ken, a former pilot began flying mercy flights taking people from northern communities to hospitals. In 1979 while flying one of these mercy flights his plane went missing. It took almost five months of searching but remains of the aircraft and human bodies were eventually found. 

My course with Roland Penner is called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction and for each event in Winnipeg history we study, Roland recommends several fictional accounts. I read Heather Robertson’s The Flying Bandit. It is fiction, because Heather invents conversation and actions and scenes, but she does stick very closely to the actual events that happened. 

I liked the book because I learned lots more about Ken Leishman’s personal life. He had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced. He was in a series of foster homes and lived for a while with very strict and unaffectionate grandparents. I truly admired his wife Elva who stuck with him through everything and raised their seven children. I also learned about the crimes Ken had committed before the gold heist– two bank robberies and a break and enter at a furniture store so he could furnish an apartment to bring Elva home to after their wedding.  Ken was very successful for a time at selling Queen Anne cookware door to door. I can remember a salesman coming to our home to do a pitch for that cookware for my Mom. 

Something interesting I learned from reading the book was that when Ken escaped from Headingly Jail in September of 1966 he went to Steinbach, where my family was living at the time, and stole a plane from Abe Loewen, a pharmacist my father knew well, since Dad was a doctor in Steinbach. Ken and three other Headingly escapees flew the plane to Gary Indiana before they were arrested. 

Heather does a good job of helping us get to know Ken as a person. He truly believed he could get away with his crimes. He was a ‘nice’ man –polite, friendly, dressed neatly and fashionably, was faithful to his wife, loved his children, wrote poetry and secretly reveled in the fame his crimes brought him. 

What next? I’ve just started reading Bandit, a novel about Kenneth Leishman written by Wayne Tefs. It has been nominated for five Manitoba book awards. 

If you liked this post you might also want to read……

The 1919 Winnipeg Strike- Fact or Fiction

John Hirsch Place- A Theatrical Winnipeg Street

Winnipeg’s Kelly House


Filed under Books, History, Winnipeg

14 responses to “The Flying Bandit

  1. Nicole

    I am looking for a copy of the book. The only copy I know of was my mom’s and since her death no one seems to know where it is. This man is my great uncle, I remember reading the first couple of pages when I was a kid and remember the amazement when I read my great grandmothers name “Irene Agarand”.


  2. Nicole

    Thanks I acctually want a copy to keep! Do you know if I can get one from the publisher?


  3. Nicole

    I actually misrepresented myself, I was looking at my family tree and Irene agarand is actual my great-great aunt!


  4. I read this stuff and was just intrigued. I was engaged to Harry Backlin’s only son Neil Backlin. He died almost 15 years ago. Cancer took him at the age of 34yr old. He was the love of my life.

    Wow a lot of history. Very very smart men I would have to say. They just got on the wrong track. So young. Turning there lives around leaving a good legacy for them selves.


  5. chris H

    This is a story with many more turns than are listed here. To Sheila I am Neil’s little brother from Ca & would like to talk to you in this regard how can I contact you.


  6. Neil Harry Backlin and I went to school (grade/middle/high) together and for a long while, we were best friends. From what I can recall, Neil’s reputation in school went from “very smart” to “very troubled”. We used to ice skate at the rink in Paramus and in the frozen swamps behind the Sheraton Heights. In high school he started to run with the wrong crown and by the late 70’s early 80’s he and I went our separate ways. In high high school he was accused of many bad things and eventually he completely disconnected from all of us in the neighborhood. I don’t recall him having a “little brother” unless he was born around or after 1978. I do recall his mom was remarried and he moved to our small town in NJ in the early 70’s.


    • Sheila M Lindsey

      Thank you for your response. ..Yes you are correct with my recollection as I did know who he was and where he came from..No little brother and I was close with his mom. He was an only son. Neil was back on the right track by the time we met. He had just graduated from Stevens Tech. before he passed. As far as being the love of his life . No one knew him as well as his mom. We talked often before she passed not long after Neil… I believe he died loving me..No one can take that from me no matter what.. I will love Neil Harry David Backlin until the day I die.. God bless u


  7. mike bell

    roland penner back in the 80s was dead against citizens patrols and said they would never fly and that they were anarchists etc. he said he would never condone anyone other than the police patrolling our streets and wearing police like uniforms etc. now many years later we have the downtown biz patrol, west end biz patrol and exchange district patrol etc.


  8. Sean Smith

    What ever happened to John Berry?


  9. Mckenna

    None of you guys know what you are talking about if you were related to Ken Leishman like I am then you would know what happened and I can say half the the stuff you said are NOT true
    Just saying


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