Written by Jenna Greig. Pictures by Nicholas Mather
In a quiet and inconspicuous corner of the Alberta Aviation Museum’s Wardair Exhibit, sits a tribute to a gold heist and subsequent manhunt straight out of a Hollywood film. To uninformed eyes what may seem like a pair of slate grey bricks, not dissimilar from cinder blocks used in a household construction project, is actually the beginning of a three year-long story that brought Tony Gregson around the world. And little did pilot Max Ward realize on that fateful night in early July 1954, his airline would always have a connection to Canadian criminal history.
Like many men of his day, Tony Gregson found himself in Canada’s north looking for his golden ticket. After spending three years panning for gold, prospecting the Nahanni and Mackenzie Valleys, and toiling through other labour-intensive jobs, Gregson began strategizing a plan that would net him a quick buck and return him to a more southern locale – he would steal the heavy gold bricks he often found himself so captivatingly close to. He told Maclean’s Magazine in 1964 that, “It was no trick to get hold of the bricks… but how to jump those hundreds of miles to a big city without getting caught. That was the question.”
In fact, the heavy gold bricks mined, formed, and shipped south were generally transported in basic canvas sacks on the floor of small planes, like Wardair’s Beavers and Otters throughout the 1950s. Noticing this early into his tenure in the north, Gregson quickly devised a plan using specially designed canvas bags made by a seamstress from Edmonton and $30.30 in lead from a caretaker at the Negus Mines in Yellowknife. Using a lead brick purchased from a foundry for $25, he was easily able to make a second brick from the clandestine Negus lead the same size and shape as the gold he targeted.
On July 1st, 1954, Consolidated Discovery Mine poured its most recent haul of gold into two bars weighing a hefty 72 and 52 pounds, respectively. Despite only working with Consolidated since the winter prior, Gregson told his mill superintendent, James Engstrom, that he intended to quit and fly out on that Saturday’s plane, the same plane that happened to be carrying the gold to Yellowknife. The close proximity and a quick stop at a bush camp en route to town that left Gregson alone with the gold bricks made it easy for the criminal to switch his lead foolers for the real thing. It was in Yellowknife that Max Ward quipped while unloading Gregson’s bag from the plane, “Jeez, Tony, what’s in there, gold bricks?”
Of course, anyone who opened the canvas sacks would know instantly something was off. Not only did his lead bricks look nothing like gold, the weights were way off, coming in at only 48 and 43 pounds. Knowing his time was limited before the swap was discovered by inspectors in the mine office, Gregson chartered a Wardair Beaver that same night to the edge of the highway, Hay River and began his journey south.
Using a series of buses and steamers, the race to stay ahead of law enforcement was on. Multiple aliases were used, including Anthony Johnson, who Gregson became upon his arrival in Vancouver. From Vancouver, he escaped to more exotic climates in multiple attempts to market his stolen gold. Cities like Havana, Cuba and Nassau, Bahamas provided easy opportunities to sell his stash, but also turned up the heat on the fugitive. He told Maclean’s Magazine that he spent the last of his money in early 1957 during a final two-week binge in Florida and Cuba before returning to Canada to find work.
Almost immediately upon his return to mining work, this time in Eastern Canada, the RCMP were hot on Gregson’s heels and he was eventually named one of Canada’s most wanted criminals. In February 1957, Gregson stowed away on a ship leaving Montreal and intended to stay hidden until safely out of Canadian waters via the St. Lawrence River. After four days without food or water, he pounded on the hatch and was discovered by a ship’s officer and was nearly thrown off the ship at stops in Curaçao and Panama, but local authorities forbade the ship’s captain from doing so. He would be along for the ride until their final destination, Australia.
Unfortunately for Gregson, Australia police services were able to share information with their Canadian counterparts, including fingerprint data of convicted criminals. Within 20 minutes of docking in Brisbane, Gregson was arrested and on June 14, 1957, nearly three days to the day, police asked if he had been wanted for a crime in Yellowknife, Canada. Upon his return to Canada, knowing that his time on the run was up, Anthony Gregson pled guilty to the gold theft and even the prosecution urged leniency in sentencing, with Justice John Sissons handing down a mere 30 months.
No one was ever charged in the purchase of Gregson’s gold, as the majority of it was sold outside of Canadian jurisdiction and it was widely believed to have been spent before police caught up to the thief.
Note: The mint value of Gregson’s gold was estimated to be approximately $54,000 in 1954. In 2020, that is approximately $522,383.21.