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Canada’s largest gold heist like a ‘Netflix series’

April 21, 2024

By Ray Sanchez, CNN

(CNN) — The largest gold heist in Canadian history was carried out with remarkable ease: A fraudulent shipping document for a load of farm-raised Scottish salmon was used to brazenly snatch $14.5 million in gold bars and nearly $2 million in bank notes.

The precious cargo arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport from Zurich, Switzerland, a year ago last Wednesday. It was hauled nearby to a secure Air Canada cargo warehouse, where, hours later, a hulking white box truck backed into a loading dock.

The truck driver wore dark clothing, a high-visibility vest and a face mask. He stepped out with a clipboard holding a duplicate of a consignment bill for a seafood shipment picked up the previous day.

A forklift loaded a tightly sealed container into the back of the five-ton truck, where the driver nudged the load with his body to make sure it was secure. He pulled down the rear door and drove away.

“This story is a sensational one,” Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah said Wednesday in announcing charges against nine suspects in the heist. “One which we jokingly say belongs in a Netflix series.”

The heist actually was a sophisticated caper allegedly involving Air Canada insiders. It morphed into an international operation that, in the words of one official, worked a kind of reverse alchemy to turn gold into guns trafficked from the US intended for use by criminals on the streets of Canada.

“This isn’t just about gold. This is about how gold becomes guns,” said the official, Nando Iannicca, head of the Peel regional government, which is responsible for the airport. “It turns into people who are harmed or killed.”

In September, the man who allegedly drove the truck in the gold theft was arrested following a traffic stop in Pennsylvania with a cache of 65 guns – purchased in Florida and Georgia with proceeds from gold melted down after the heist – that he allegedly intended to smuggle into Canada.

Keeping those guns off the streets of Canada “saved lives without a doubt,” Duraiappah said. “This is a dotted line to people’s well being anywhere in this country wherever those firearms ended up.”

Details of the heist were gleaned from statements and interviews with Canadian and US law enforcement officials, court documents and surveillance footage and images released by police.

Theft rivals Canada’s great maple syrup heist

In the annals of Canadian crime, only the great maple syrup heist of 2012 – in which millions of dollars worth of the sweet stuff were stolen from a warehouse holding Quebec’s strategic syrup reserves – garnered as much attention around the world. That heist was the subject of an episode on a Netflix series.

The gold heist is “almost out of an ‘Ocean’s 11’ movie or ‘CSI,’ ” Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, a city near Toronto Pearson International Airport, said as he stood with a group of police officers and other elected officials in front of the truck used in last year’s heist.

At 3:56 p.m. on April 17, 2023, a plane from Zurich landed in Toronto with a shipment of 6,600 gold bars weighing nearly 900 pounds and about $1.9 million in bank notes.

The gold bars from a precious metals refining company in Switzerland were destined for a bank in Toronto. The bank notes were headed to the Vancouver Bullion & Currency Exchange.

At 6:32 p.m., the suspect in the white box truck arrived at the Air Canada warehouse with a copy of an airway bill that had been printed out earlier at the same facility.

The document said the shipment came from a seafood company in the United Kingdom that – according to the company website – specializes in the finest Atlantic salmon. It’s destination was one of Canada’s largest seafood distribution companies, which caters to luxury hotels and restaurants as well as chain and independent retailers.

Instead of a load of farm-raised seafood, the truck driver pulled away from the loading dock with loot.

“They needed people inside Air Canada to facilitate this theft,” Peel Regional Police Det. Sgt. Mike Mavity said.

“Anyone that worked at that business … would likely have known that it was a high value commodity and not obviously just seafood,” Mavity told CNN, referring to the way the shipment was wrapped and labeled.

At about 9:30 p.m., a Brink’s security company armored truck arrived with the actual waybill for the shipment of pure gold and bank notes. Air Canada employees couldn’t find the container and an internal investigation was started. The theft was reported to Peel police at 2:43 a.m.

Investigators tracked the truck on video

For weeks after the heist, investigators leading what police dubbed “Project 24 karat” painstakingly went over surveillance video from more than 200 businesses and residences along the side roads and highway route the truck had taken.

“We’re trying to find businesses that their video cameras obviously are focused on the highway, but capture the highway in the background. And we could perhaps sometimes see just a little snippet of the truck passingby and then we just kept following it,” Mavity said.

“Every time the highway would meet a major intersection, we’d have to go to video of that intersection and see if the truck got off. If it didn’t we keep leapfrogging along. So it was very, very time consuming. These sort of investigations, it’s not like TV at all.”

Investigators were able to track the truck on separate snippets of video for about 20 miles before it vanished as the vehicle wound up way into rural Canada.

“I think they must have definitely thought they got away with it,” Mavity said in an interview.

Early in the investigation, days after the theft, a 31-year-old former Air Canada manager who police later identified as one of two alleged inside men in the heist led officers on a tour of the warehouse. He appeared stressed. The ex-manager resigned last summer, traveled to Dubai and is now believed to be in India.

“We didn’t understand what the cargo warehouse looked like. And we had a lot of questions on how the goods came in, and then moved through there and went out,” Mavity recalled.

“An officer actually noticed that he was sweating profusely and thought it was kind of strange but didn’t think anything of it,” Mavity said of the former manager. “We had our suspicions at the time but, as far as our investigation, we weren’t in a position to act on those suspicions yet.”

Last year Brink’s sued Air Canada over the theft, claiming millions of dollars in damages after an “unidentified individual” presented a “fraudulent” waybill at the warehouse and “absconded with the cargo,” according to the statement of claim.

“No security protocols or features were in place to monitor, restrict or otherwise regulate the unidentified individual’s access to the facilities,” said the statement, adding Air Canada accepted the fraudulent document “without verifying its authenticity in any way.”

Air Canada, in a statement, confirmed two employees charged in the theft worked at the warehouse. One was suspended, the other resigned. In its legal response to the Brink’s lawsuit, Air Canada has denied it was “careless” and its security lax.

“As this is now before the courts, we are limited in our ability to comment further,” the statement said.

In a statement, the Brink’s company thanked Peel Regional Police and said, “We will continue to cooperate with them as this investigation continues to unfold.”

‘Something that you don’t see everyday’

A big break in the case came on September 2, 2023, when the 25-year-old man who allegedly drove the truck in the gold heist was arrested in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Canadian police had identified him as the truck driver early in the investigation but had not been able to locate him.

A Pennsylvania state trooper stopped a rental car for a minor traffic violation. The driver bolted on foot and, after he was caught, troopers found 65 guns – including two fully automatic handguns converted to machine guns – in the car. The man has been charged with conspiracy to illegally traffic firearms into Canada.

Authorities contacted police in Canada after finding the driver’s name in a law enforcement database.

“That kind of set everything in motion in terms of his whereabouts, what his activity was at least in the states, which then led to some cooperation with the Canadian law enforcement agency,” said Eric DeGree, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Obviously 65 firearms is something that you don’t see every day… So that’s kind of how they got us involved.”

Eleven of the firearms were stolen, one had an obliterated serial number and five were ghost guns, which are assembled to make homemade weapons.

“Had he not been stopped by that Pennsylvania state trooper I don’t know if he would have been intercepted at the border,” Mavity said of the man arrested in Pennsylvania.

Each illegal handgun, purchased for a few hundred dollars in the US, can be sold on the streets of Canada for up to $6,000.

“The buyers could be anyone from a street gang or drug traffickers all the way to more coordinated individuals,” Duraiappah said. “They’re not just the typical type of firearms that are used at … a pharmacy robbery or a carjacking. Without a doubt, you know, not knowing where they would have ended up in Canada, one or all of them would have been used in the facilitation of another crime.”

Canadian Investigators learned a Toronto jeweler charged in the heist allegedly helped melt down the gold bars, which had serial numbers, in smelting pots seized by the police. The gold was then sold to buy guns across the border. Only six crude bangle bracelets made of pure gold and worth about $65,000 remained of the 6,600 gold bars.

Less than a week after the gold heist, the truck driver was using an encrypted messenger app to arrange with another suspect his illegal entry into the US to buy firearms, according to an indictment filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The exchanges included travel arrangements and accommodations and photos of large amounts of Canadian currency wrapped in rubber bands, with the message,“Just picked up the change for you going… to exchange the change to USD,” the indictment said.

Another exchange in August 2023 had the truck driver discussing the purchase of several firearms for “3500,” with one suspect responding: “Get it…Good to go.” There were photos of firearms and large amounts of cash.

That same month, a text message from the driver talked about the acquisition of “45 stick,” presumably referring to firearms. Another suspect expressed concern about the truck driver “getting pulled,” the indictment said.

US law enforcement officials are still trying to identify the source of the stolen guns.

Of the nine heist suspects – who Canadian investigators said had been enjoying a lavish lifestyle, including trips to Dubai and India – five were arrested and released because they could not be held on bail on the theft charges. They were ordered to appear in court at a later date.

On August 30 and 31, the indictment said, surveillance footage from a U-Haul storage facility in Atlanta captured the truck driver carrying a backpack. Two days later, on September 2, the same backpack was found in the truck of his rental car with more than 30 firearms inside.

“This investigation isn’t done,” Peel Deputy Police Chief Nick Milinovich said.

Still, Duraiappah said, his investigators in recent days have been joking about what actors would play them in a Netflix series.

CNN’s Paula Newton and Fabiana Chaparro contributed to this report.

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