Many years ago I took an evening course about Winnipeg history with Roland Penner a former Attorney General of Manitoba. Mr Penner had been involved in a legal case associated with a notorious Winnipeg robbery and he told us all about it.
On March 3, 1966, a man named Ken Leishman masterminded the theft of nearly $400,000 in gold bars from the Winnipeg International Airport. The gold was en route to the mint in Ottawa. Ken posing as an Air Canada driver intercepted the gold and drove away with it.
Harry Backlin, a lawyer was part of the scheme. He was on a planned holiday in California so it would look like he wasn’t involved in the robbery. On his return from the United States Backlin was going to take the gold to Hong Kong and sell it. Ken hid the gold in a snowbank in Harry’s backyard.
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 as a sample for potential buyers.
However, Ken needed a smallpox 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 vaccination before travel, 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 police officer. The officer recognized Ken’s name because of his previous criminal activity. The RCMP arrested Ken in the Vancouver airport when he arrived there on his way to Hong Kong. He managed to get rid of his sawed-off piece of gold before he was arrested. It has never been found.
While in prison in Vancouver after his arrest Ken made the mistake of explaining the heist in detail to the man sharing his cell. He was an RCMP agent incarcerated with Ken for the purpose of extracting incriminating information. After Ken’s Vancouver jailhouse confession, the gold was dug up from Harry’s backyard and Ken was sent to jail in Headingly, Manitoba till his trial.
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. He managed to be released after just eight years for good behaviour.
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 the remains of the aircraft were eventually found.
After learning about Kenneth Leishman from Mr Penner’s course I read a book about him, called The Flying Bandit by Heather Robertson. She writes about Ken’s difficult childhood. His parents were divorced, he was in foster homes and he lived with some 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.
Something interesting I discovered 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. Ken and three other Headingly escapees flew the plane to Gary Indiana before they were arrested.
Heather Robertson 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 but………. secretly revelled in the fame his crimes brought him.
If you’d like to know more about this notorious Winnipeg robber I’d recommend a great little movie called Ken Leishman- The Flying Bandit.