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The "Flying Bandit" and Canada's Largest Gold Heist

For the week of Monday, December 12, 2016

On December 14, 1979, Ken Leishman disappeared while piloting a medivac flight in northern Ontario. Leishman was famous for his multiple thefts and prison breaks, and for being the mastermind behind the largest gold heist in Canadian history. Today, he continues to be a Canadian criminal folk hero for his determined and ingenious law breaking.

Kenneth Leishman, April 18, 1958
© Winnipeg Tribune Personalities Collection, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections - Winnipeg Tribune fonds (PC 18, A.81-12)

Leishman was born in Holland, Manitoba, on July 20, 1931. In 1957, he planned a series of Toronto bank heists while living in Winnipeg. In the first, he managed to steal $10,000. In his second attempt, he was caught outside the bank, sentenced to 12 years in prison, but released after three and a half years for good behaviour.

In 1966, Leishman planned his biggest heist. Knowing that cargo bound for the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa regularly stopped in Winnipeg, Leishman and four accomplices stole an Air Canada van while disguised in home-made ground crew uniforms. Showing forged paperwork, two legitimate crew members helped move 12 boxes of gold worth $400,000 into the van. However, a blizzard thwarted Leishman’s plans to hide his loot. The police quickly found the stolen vehicle, complete with a fingerprint, and Leishman was apprehended.

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Ken Leishman (second from left) is returned to Winnipeg after the Headingley Escape, September 9, 1966
© Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection: Crime Escaping Custody, University of Manitoba Archives, call number PC 18/1794/18-1794-118

While awaiting trial for conspiracy and robbery, Leishman masterminded the escape of 12 prisoners, including himself, from Headingley Jail, just outside of Winnipeg. The prisoners overpowered the guards, took weapons and a car, and fled. Leishman made it to Steinbach, Manitoba, where he stole a small plane, earning him the moniker “Flying Bandit.” He flew to Gary, Indiana, but was soon recognized and returned to custody.

Undaunted, Leishman amazingly escaped captivity again using a cloth and wire loop to open the padlock of his cell, then stealing the guard’s keys, and jumping a fence. Upon recapture, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but was released in 1974, after eight years in jail.

In 1977, Leishman moved to Red Lake, Ontario, where he opened a tourist store and worked as a pilot in Northern Ontario. He also served as the president of the Chamber of Commerce and ran for mayor, losing by only 75 votes. On December 14, 1979, his plane disappeared during a medivac flight. Canadian Forces later found his plane along with the bodies of the patient and the medical assistant. Leishman’s body was never recovered.

The Establishment of the Commercial Bush-Flying Industry in Canada is a national historic event and the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa, Ontario, is a national historic site. To learn about the Mint, see Royal Canadian Mint in the This Week in History archives. To learn more about pilots in Canada’s north, read Pioneer in Bush Aviation, Canada’s Sky Explorer, and The Daring Aviators of the Far North!

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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