The Strange Life and Times of The Stopwatch Gang

April 27, 2024

stopwatch money

The Stopwatch Gang was a group of three Canadian bank robbers in the 1970s known for their speed and precision in completing their robberies across Canada and the United States. Their lives revolved around heists, serving time, and escaping from the authorities.

The gang comprised Canadians Lionel Wright, Paddy Mitchell, and Stephen Reid. During their criminal exploits in the 1970s and early 1980s, they robbed around 100 banks and made off with around $15 million. They got their nickname from the FBI because Reid sometimes wore an oversized stopwatch to time their efficient robberies. Some robberies took only a few minutes, while others were done in less than a minute, and they liked to wear presidential Halloween masks to hide their identities.

The gang had a series of robberies before getting their notorious nickname. Their story starts in 1973 when the gang began stealing goods from delivery trucks, and later that year, they got a tip about gold being shipped by Air Canada to the Ottawa International Airport. They pulled off the heist in 1974 and stole five wooden boxes with six gold bars worth $750,000, which they eventually sold to mobsters in California.

After Reid left for the United States temporarily, Wright and Mitchell began running an airport drug smuggling ring, but they were later arrested and eventually tied to the gold theft. Mitchell and Wright got 17 years for smuggling cocaine, with Mitchell receiving three more years for possession of the stolen gold. Reid was arrested after he returned to Canada because he had earlier escaped police custody and had ten years added for the airport robbery.

Wright quickly escaped police custody and disappeared, and Reid and Mitchell, who were both in a maximum-security prison, conned their way out by getting more privileges for good behavior after a few years. Reid escaped while out on a pass with a policeman, and Mitchell faked a heart attack by poisoning himself and escaping from the hospital. Reid and Wright, who were posing as hospital attendants, picked him up at the hospital.

The gang next traveled to Florida and began robbing banks. When law enforcement started to close in, they went to California. This was when they became known as the Stopwatch Gang. One man would hold the place up with a gun, another man would steal the money, and the third would drive the getaway car. They always wore masks, and one carried a stopwatch around his neck. The Stopwatch Gang finished their robberies in under two minutes.

The trio was finally stopped after they robbed a bank in San Diego. Wright threw the empty money bags, their wigs, and stolen license plates into a nearby dumpster. The items were later found and reported to police, who found a partial fingerprint on one of the money bags. They also discovered a copy of a fake car license that had belonged to Wright.

The gang held up in Sedona, Arizona, even inserting themselves into the community, but the FBI was waiting. The fingerprint was confirmed as Wright’s, and an arrest warrant was issued. Wright was arrested in October 1980, followed by Reid, who was picked up as he drove to the local airport (he wasn’t trying to escape but taking flying lessons at the time). Mitchell escaped custody as he happened to be out of town by chance.

Wright and Reid pled guilty to the robbery of the San Diego bank and received 20-year federal sentences, which were later reduced to 10. Both men were later transferred to Canada to finish their sentences.

Mitchell continued to evade the authorities and ventured out on his own, robbing department stores and banks from Arizona to Florida. He became number seven on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The FBI finally caught Mitchell in Astatula, Florida, in 1983. He stood trial in San Diego for that bank robbery as well as one he had committed in Arizona.

Though it seemed like the Stopwatch Gang was done with their criminal careers, they were not. Mitchell began serving time in the Arizona State Penitentiary, but only four years later, he broke out with two other inmates through a ventilation shaft. Mitchell disappeared and fled to the Philippines, where he ended up getting married and having a son. However, he continued to make money to support himself and his new family by returning to the United States, robbing banks, and returning to the Philippines.

His criminal career finally came to an end in 1994 in Southaven, Mississippi, when he was careless during a bank robbery. He was sentenced to 30 years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Mitchell spent the rest of his years in prison and died due to cancer in 2006 in a prison hospital in North Carolina.

Reid and Wright engaged in a different activity while in prison. Reid began writing a semi-autobiographical book called Jackrabbit Parole, and Wright typed it up for him. The book caught the eye of a Canadian editor and poet named Susan Musgrave. The two began to communicate with each other, and a relationship developed. Reid and Musgrave ended up getting married in the prison chapel.

Reid was later moved to a prison in British Columbia, closer to Musgrave, and paroled in 1987. He began to lead a crime-free life on Vancouver Island for a while, even raising a family with Musgrave. Over time, the pull of his previous life must have been too great, however, because he robbed a Victoria, British Columbia bank in 1999 with an accomplice, stealing $93,000. Reid had been on drugs at the time. He was chased by police and fired shots at them before being apprehended. He received a sentence of 18 years for armed robbery and attempted murder.

Reid returned to prison, resumed writing, and published a series of essays in 2013. He was later released and continued his previous way of life with Musgrave. He died in 2018 at the age of 68.

Wright stayed in prison until 1994 and was released. He then disappeared without a trace, and his whereabouts are still unknown.

Sources: The Historical Society of Ottawa, The Atavist Magazine, Time, Ottawa Citizen

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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