Axes of Evil


Axes of Evil

Four days, two murders, and one poplar tree that almost ignited World War III.

By Josh Dean

The Atavist Magazine, No. 81

Josh Dean is a correspondent for Outside, a frequent contributor to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, GQ, and Popular Science, and the author of The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar

Published in July 2018. Design updated in 2021.


The poplar was a problem. One of the few survivors from a deciduous forest bombed into oblivion during the Korean War, the tree towered 40 feet over a stripped, scrubby landscape; in the summer, its leaves formed a thick green crown. A stranger to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the skinny belt of no-man’s-land that has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953, might have seen this as evidence of nature’s resilience. To the U.S. soldiers patrolling the area, however, it represented a conspicuous security risk.

That’s why, at 1030 on August 18, 1976, a 2.5-ton truck—a deuce and a half, in U.S. Army lingo—rolled up to the poplar and parked in its shadow. Out climbed a crew of five civilian maintenance workers, all of them Korean, and a ten-man security platoon led by Lieutenant Mark Barrett, a South Carolinian who’d been in Korea only a few weeks. Barrett’s boss was there, too. Captain Arthur Bonifas had arrived in a jeep and now stood to the side as the workers ascended the tree with axes and clippers and began to cut the branches.

A cheerful, devoutly Christian native of Newburgh, New York, and a father of three, Bonifas was in the final days of his deployment to Korea. The 33-year-old West Point graduate was known among his men for being very smart—he’d once taught math at his alma mater—and impeccably polite. Soon he’d be off to a new post, in Georgia, where he’d be promoted and placed in command of an artillery unit. In fact, Bonifas had already ordered the uniforms and shoulder boards that would reflect his new rank as an Army major.

The job in Georgia would be less unpredictable than the one that had brought Bonifas to the foot of the tree in Korea. Here he was second-in-command of a complex military entity known as the Joint Security Force (JSF), comprised of three platoons of American and South Korean soldiers who served as guards in the Joint Security Area (JSA). Situated in the heart of the DMZ, the JSA was also called Panmunjom, after a tiny settlement that once stood in the same spot, or simply the truce village, because it’s where the armistice that froze the Korean War was reached. Just under 900 yards across at its widest point, the JSA was supposedly neutral and the only place where soldiers from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Republic of Korea (ROK)—north and south, respectively—stood face-to-face, while keeping watch over various ornamented buildings frequented by tourists and government officials. In reality the plot of land, which on a map resembled a slightly squashed circle, was one of the tensest places on the planet.

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To monitor pressure in this geopolitical tinderbox—that is, to keep tabs on bad behavior exhibited by KPA guards—U.S. soldiers manned various checkpoints and guard posts. Everyone’s least favorite assignment was Checkpoint 3 (CP3), positioned at the foot of the so-called Bridge of No Return, which traversed the narrow Sachon River. Halfway across the concrete span was the North Korean border. Some U.S. guards feared being kidnapped and dragged across that invisible line, in which case they almost certainly would not be rescued, because Pyongyang would deem movement by U.S. forces into northern territory to retrieve prisoners an invasion. The North Koreans constantly harassed and intimidated the men stationed at CP3; they’d even erected two unauthorized checkpoints in close proximity just to impede access to what the Americans took to calling the loneliest outpost in the world.

Soldiers at CP3 took some comfort in knowing that, 600 yards up a nearby hill, their platoon mates at Observation Post 5 (OP5) had eyes on their position—except in summer, when the pesky poplar, in glorious bloom, blocked the sight line.

Almost anywhere else in the world, a military order to trim a tree for security reasons would have been considered uncontroversial. In the JSA, however, everything was disputed. The first attempt to tackle the poplar’s branches had been foiled by KPA guards who insisted that security officers from both sides of the JSA would need to approve any landscaping. A maintenance crew tried again on August 17, this time with a larger number of guards in tow, but the mission was rained out. On the third go, Bonifas decided to supervise, to ensure that the job got done. The operation would likely be his last in the JSA, and he wanted to be there in case the KPA caused trouble again. “Make sure you’re firm,” the JSF’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Vierra, told him.

Special activities in Panmunjom were always filmed in case of incident. As Bonifas’s crew got to work, Captain Larry Shaddix, the JSF’s logistics officer, took up a position on a platform outside OP5. Shaddix raised his 35-millimeter camera’s telephoto lens and began to shoot. For a few minutes, there wasn’t much to see. The work was going according to plan, until Bulldog arrived.

Bulldog was Lieutenant Pak Chul, a rabidly patriotic North Korean platoon leader notorious for his provocations in the JSA, like the time he kicked an American guard in the groin during a scuffle over photographs. Bulldog strutted around, trying to make small talk with Captain Kim Moon Hwan, Bonifas’s Korean translator and the ranking ROK officer at the scene, and offering unsolicited advice to the civilians in the tree, some of whom had been on the scene last time, when their work was halted by KPA guards, and so were unnerved by Bulldog’s arrival.

Then, for no obvious reason, Bulldog changed course. He ordered the civilians to stop cutting—and threatened to force the issue, even shoot the workers, if they didn’t obey him.

Bonifas had seen enough. He strode forward and announced that the work would continue, period. The trimming was a legal, peaceful matter—a “routine action,” a Pentagon report later stated—that had been announced in advance. Besides, it would be over soon. Bulldog responded by muttering something to one of his guards, who ran off across the bridge and came back a few minutes later in a truck with reinforcements, bringing the number of KPA soldiers at the tree to at least 30. The North Koreans now outnumbered Bonifas’s men three to one.

Bonifas wasn’t about to be intimidated. Aware of the power a gesture can wield, he turned his back to Bulldog. That’s why he didn’t see the KPA leader calmly remove his watch, wrap it in a handkerchief, and put it in his pocket. Another North Korean officer rolled up his sleeves like a Mafia heavy preparing for a fistfight. Then Bulldog attacked Bonifas from behind, screaming an order to his men as he hit the base of the American’s skull with an open hand. The command meant, Attack the enemy and kill them!

On any other morning, Mark Luttrull would’ve been at Bonifas’s side. The , who was on his second tour in the Army after a brief, unsuccessful stint in college, had served as the captain’s personal driver for the better part of a year. Luttrull adored his boss, in no small part because the first duty Bonifas had given him was to escort Miss Rhode Island into the JSA as part of a USO tour. Luttrull especially liked driving Bonifas to security meetings in Panmunjom. The captain would ask Luttrull to drive fast while he rode in silence, studying his notes.

On August 18, however, Bonifas had asked Luttrull to stay behind at Camp Kitty Hawk, the JSF’s home base about a mile south of Panmunjom, to prepare his field gear to be turned in at the end of his deployment. Luttrull was sitting in the camp’s administrative office when he saw Kim, Bonifas’s translator, stumbling up a hill from the direction of the JSA, covered in blood and mumbling something that Luttrull couldn’t make out until the ROK captain was a few feet away.

As soon as he understood Kim’s words—“Captain Bonifas! Captain Bonifas!”—Luttrull ran for a radio and paged his boss. Then, as his call echoed from the camp’s tinny loudspeakers, a piercing siren began to wail.

U.S. military bases along the DMZ had two sirens: one for exercises and one for actual emergencies. This was the latter. It signaled for every man, from the infantry to the cooking staff, to drop what he was doing, throw on fatigues, a flak jacket, and a steel-pot helmet, and run to the armory for weapons and ammunition. Luttrull did exactly that.

John Pinadella, a 20-year-old private from New Jersey, had just come off a rotation in the JSA. Shifts in the zone were 24 hours each, from 0800 to 0800, and Pinadella’s last task before leaving Panmunjom that morning had been to open CP3 for the day. He’d thought it odd when three soldiers, instead of the usual two, showed up for the shift. Why did the checkpoint need reinforcing? But no matter—Pinadella had his sights on a little R&R. After a daylong stint with the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), the first-response team for incidents in the JSA, he’d get 24 hours off.

QRF duty was usually boring. The men sat around cleaning weapons, reading pulpy novels, bragging about their Korean girlfriends, and thinking about the leisure time that lay ahead: a full day of pickling themselves with booze in the nearest town, then sleeping it off before the whole cycle started over again. Pinadella was also crossing boxes off his calendar. He was the “shortest” guy in his platoon, the one with the least time remaining in Korea. He had just 98 days and a wake-up left before he went back to the United States.

Pinadella was reading mail on a cot in the unit’s Quonset hut when his platoon leader barged in, alarmed. Something had happened in the JSA. The lieutenant ordered Pinadella and the other men to gear up and get ready to go back, possibly into danger. “Get on the trucks!” he barked.

Half of the troops in the QRF, including Pinadella, were loaded into the open bed of a truck. These men were riot control, under orders to stop whatever was happening in the JSA, and they carried pickax handles. According to the terms of the armistice, soldiers on both sides could wield only batons and sidearms in Panmunjom, and U.S. commanders insisted that their troops stick to these options—unless there was an extraordinary escalation of violence. If Pinadella’s group couldn’t quell a crisis, or if the situation went truly, terribly sideways, then the other half of the QRF would be sent in. Those men would have M16s.

Just accessing Panmunjom, however, posed a problem. The moment the QRF entered, the United States would technically be in violation of the armistice. No more than 35 armed soldiers—30 enlisted men and five officers—from each side of the DMZ could be in the JSA at a given time, and that day’s rotation of Americans and South Koreans was already in place. Only the commanding officer on the scene was authorized to call in additional manpower. That was Bonifas, and no one could reach him.

Frustration built as the men of the QRF sat in their trucks waiting for information. They moved forward, as far as Checkpoint 2, just outside the gate to the JSA, and were sitting there as fellow soldiers on duty in Panmunjom began to straggle out. The men looked dazed; some were bleeding. There’d been a fight, they said, a bad one.

The exiting soldiers who weren’t hurt were asked to regroup and serve as backup for the QRF. Two of them refused, and Pinadella was stunned. Whatever had happened inside the JSA was so horrible that members of an elite U.S. force couldn’t face the scene again.

Finally, orders came down from Lieutenant Colonel Vierra to deploy the riot squad. As his truck rolled through the gate, Pinadella didn’t know that Bonifas had already been evacuated to the medic’s station at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Luttrull, his stomach in knots, was awaiting news. The medic on duty sought out the specialist, whom he’d heard was looking for Bonifas. Luttrull demanded to know what had happened to his boss.

“I tried to save him,” the medic stammered. “It was too late.” Bonifas was dead of catastrophic blunt-force wounds, including one that had split his helmet, and his eyeglasses, in half.

Map of the Joint Security Area. (Wikimedia Commons)
Map of the Joint Security Area. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaddix, the logistics officer with the camera, had captured the murder in still frames. After Bulldog struck Bonifas on the back of the head with a karate-style chop, the captain fell to the ground and never got up again. At least five KPA guards immediately set upon him, kicking and hitting his head and body.

“Jesus Christ!” another American at OP5 yelled. “They’re killing him!”

Around the poplar, all hell broke loose. The civilian workers leapt out of the tree and ran, dropping their clippers and axes, which became weapons as North Korean soldiers snatched them up, encircled the guards who’d come to protect the tree trimmers, and commenced swinging and hacking. Shaddix’s photos would show outnumbered U.S. and ROK soldiers trying to fend off the attacks without resorting to firearms. An after-action assessment found that the men “reacted to a surprise, unprovoked attack with restraint and self-discipline.” Not one of them ever drew a gun.

The fight was brief, no longer than a few minutes, but furious. “There wasn’t time to be scared,” one of the U.S. soldiers later observed. “I was just trying to survive.” When Pinadella and the riot squad arrived, less than 30 minutes after Bulldog had initiated his assault, the scene was eerily calm. The North Koreans had retreated across the bridge or gone back to their stations inside the JSA. With no fight left to join, the QRF evacuated the men at OP5, including a rattled Shaddix. Inside the truck, someone pulled a fire extinguisher from its mount, and Shaddix gripped the canister tightly, ready to use it as a weapon if any North Koreans tried to stop the vehicle.

When the Americans and South Koreans regrouped outside the JSA for a head count, Bonifas wasn’t the only officer missing. There was no sign of Lieutenant Barrett, the man in charge of the security team at the tree, either. The last time anyone could remember seeing him was behind a retaining wall above a ditch near the poplar, where he’d apparently run to help a soldier who’d  been surrounded by KPA guards.

The QRF’s riot-control team piled into their truck for the second time and drove back through the JSA gate. The vehicle went straight to the tree, and as soon as it screeched to a halt, the men scrambled out and began to search for Barrett. Pinadella jumped over the retaining wall and down into the ditch, where he found the lieutenant lying on his back, covered in mud and blood. Ax wounds riddled the young officer’s body from head to toe, and Pinadella was afraid to touch him, lest he make the lieutenant’s condition worse. He reached down tentatively to check for a pulse. Oh, my God, Pinadella thought when he felt a faint beating. He’s alive!

The young soldier choked back a wave of nausea and put his minimal training in field medicine to work. He screamed for help and cleared Barrett’s airway with his fingers, which allowed the injured man to cough and breathe a little better. When another private slid into the swampy depression and saw Barrett, he unleashed a primal scream; he seemed ready to charge up the hill at the nearest KPA checkpoint and attack whoever was there. Pinadella told the private to channel his adrenaline into getting Barrett out. Together with two other soldiers, they carefully lifted the lieutenant out of the mud, carried him to their truck, and gently laid his body down in the bed.

The men assessed Barrett’s injuries as the unit sped out of the JSA. There were deep blade wounds in the lieutenant’s chest, and blood was pouring from them. It pooled and quickly congealed in the thick August heat, causing boots to stick to the vehicle’s floor. One soldier attempted mouth-to-mouth, but it seemed futile; more air was exiting the wounds on Barrett’s head and neck than was reaching his lungs.

Barrett was transported to a helicopter that would carry him and several wounded ROK soldiers to a hospital in Seoul. As the chopper rose into the sky and shrunk out of sight, Pinadella made his way back to barracks. He changed out of his blood-soaked fatigues into a clean uniform, then he grabbed as many clips for his .45 semiautomatic pistol as he could carry. If there was about to be a battle with the North Koreans, he wanted to be ready.

That afternoon, all U.S. soldiers were ordered to convene in the mess hall at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Vierra, their gruff, square-shouldered commanding officer, addressed them. By then word of Barrett’s fate had arrived: Despite the efforts of Army medics aboard the helicopter, the young lieutenant had succumbed to his wounds before reaching Seoul.

Vierra assured his men that retaliatory action would be taken, and soon. He was awaiting orders.

“We’re going to feed you now,” the colonel told Pinadella, Luttrull, Shaddix, and the other confused, angry soldiers, “because we don’t know when you’re going to be able to eat again.”

The trimming of the poplar tree on August 18, 1976. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)


A U.S. soldier stationed in Panmunjom hadn’t been killed in almost a decade. The last was in April 1968, when North Korean guards ambushed a truck en route to the JSA, leaving two Americans and two South Koreans dead. “About 20 bullet holes could be seen in the shattered front windshield of the truck,” the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported. “Both headlights were blasted out. Three of the tires were punctured, and at least 40 rounds had ripped through the truck’s rear canvas cover.” An observer commented, “I don’t see how anybody survived this.”

In the years that followed, the JSA reverted to its norm: an uncomfortable state of high alert and suspicion. “The combination of physical, psychological, political, diplomatic, and military stresses,” George Chobany, the officer who led the QRF on the day of the ax murders, later wrote, “made duty in the JSA unlike duty just about anywhere else in the world.” Only certain men were chosen for the job. Members of the ROK contingent, known as the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, tended to come from influential South Korean families and performed well on English tests. On the American side, recruits had to score more than 110 on the Army’s General Technical exam, an academic-aptitude test, and ideally have no black marks on their disciplinary record. They also had to be at least six feet tall—for maximal intimidation factor—and have a mellow temperament.

When men arrived on deployment in Seoul, an Army representative referred to as the turtle catcher sought out the tallest among them who met other basic requirements and asked if they’d like to volunteer for special duty. Those who said yes were taken north for further interviews and tests—for instance, soldiers screaming at them suddenly and for no apparent reason. The idea was to see how they might handle being cursed at and spit on in the JSA, because that would absolutely happen. North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.

North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.

Much of the resulting gamesmanship was childish. Technically, the JSF fell under what was called the United Nations Command—another bureaucratic by-product of the armistice—and when leadership put floodlights on the exterior of the UNC headquarters, North Korea responded by erecting bigger, brighter lights at its main station. KPA guards sometimes taunted African American soldiers with racist gestures and placed boards covered with nails, pointed ends up, along the routes of UNC vehicle patrols. A stranded jeep was an opportunity for harassment, so if tires punctured, drivers were told to continue driving on flats.

U.S. soldiers weren’t innocent of mischief. They liked to play hopscotch on their half of the Bridge of No Return, drop their pants to moon guards on the other side, and sneak up on the KPA barracks in the middle of the night to pound on the walls until everyone inside was awake. On winter nights, they sometimes poured water on the steps of North Korean checkpoint buildings, so that the guards who arrived the next morning would slip on the ice.

By 1976, however, fatuous competition and pranks were giving way to renewed KPA aggression. In June of the previous year, a North Korean journalist spat on U.S. Army major W.D. Henderson as the two men sat on a bench arguing. When Henderson struck the man, KPA guards surrounded the major, stomped on him, and crushed his larynx, necessitating his evacuation from Korea. Several months later, a JSF guard on jeep patrol, Michael Brouillette, was assaulted when he took a detour near the Panmungak pavilion, North Korea’s main building in the JSA. Brouillette’s arm was broken, and he was later awarded a Purple Heart.

Keeping cool in the face of violence was a matter of U.S. policy, but that didn’t mean that the Americans simply turned the other cheek. In early 1976, at the suggestion of a soldier in , led by Lieutenant David Zilka, night patrols began carrying larger clubs—ax handles instead of riot batons—for protection. At the next joint security meeting, the North Koreans ranted about “Zilka’s Mad Dogs, who patrol the JSA at night and carry big sticks!” Second Platoon proudly adopted the Mad Dogs nickname.

Major General John Singlaub was in a staff meeting of the Eighth Army Command in Yongsan, a garrison in Seoul that served as the U.S. military headquarters on the Korean peninsula, when he got word by phone that two Americans had been killed in the JSA. Singlaub, who’d cut his teeth parachuting behind enemy lines during World War II and now wore two stars on his uniform, knew that nearly every U.S. official required to initiate a response to the murders was currently out of the country. General Richard Stilwell, the commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, was in Japan, making his last official visit before retiring from the Army after 38 years and three wars. Stilwell’s deputy, Air Force lieutenant general John Burns, was logging his monthly flight hours. And the American ambassador, Richard Sneider, was on holiday in the United States. “I was the man on the spot,” Singlaub later wrote in a memoir.

Singlaub sent a jet to Japan to retrieve Stilwell, then called the general to let him know that a plane was en route. “Sir, I think you should return to Seoul immediately,” Singlaub said. Stilwell considered the minimal amount of information he was able to receive over the unsecure line and asked his chief of staff to do two things while he flew back to Seoul. The first was to request an urgent security meeting for the following day, so that he could deliver a message to Pyongyang that its aggression would have swift, severe repercussions. The second was to prepare all units in Korea for a shift to Defcon-3, should the order come from Washington. Defcon, short for defense readiness condition, ranges from 5 (normal) to 1 (nukes are flying). Defcon-3 would involve American forces gearing up for possible combat.

The North Koreans were already broadcasting their version of events via Radio Pyongyang. “Around 10:45 a.m. today,” a bulletin announced, “the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut down the tree on their own accord, although such work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons, and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation.”

Barely five hours after the killings, North Korea showed its cards to the world. Pyongyang had sent a delegation to a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement—a collection of countries that never officially chose a side in the Cold War—which was being held at the time in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The North Koreans distributed a document to the gathered representatives describing the fight in the JSA in terms similar to those used by Radio Pyongyang, then introduced a resolution calling on the conference to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. It passed easily.

To American leaders, the timing was hardly coincidental. Singlaub considered the response from Pyongyang to be “clear confirmation that the murders had been part of a carefully planned campaign designed to force American troops out of Korea.” A memo prepared for the deputy national security adviser suggested that the highest levels of the North Korean regime had likely approved the attack at the poplar tree. The goal, the memo stated, may have been to provoke American troops to “over-react with firearms,” creating an international incident that could influence world opinion and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which was less than three months away. A CIA report titled “DMZ Incident,” delivered by the agency’s director, George H. W. Bush, to secretary of state Henry Kissinger, described North Korea’s endgame: “If U.S. forces withdraw, if U.S. resolve appears seriously weakened, we believe the North might well act on its overriding goal of unification and seize the opportunity to achieve it militarily.”

The scary thing was that, given the opportunity, North Korea might well succeed. In 1970, a U.S. intelligence assessment had found “general parity” between North and South Korea’s military forces. But four years later, analysts noticed that North Korea was diverting concrete and steel into new, unknown military developments—a worrying development that, with the Pentagon’s attention focused on Vietnam, had gone largely unnoticed. Further review of satellite imagery led to a “horrifying” revelation, as the officer at the National Security Agency assigned to solve the mystery put it. Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.

Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.

Every line item stunned the Pentagon. North Korea’s armored divisions were 80 percent larger than those described in the 1970 assessment, and the country didn’t have 21 divisions of 10,000 combat troops each; it had 41. The intense, increasingly aggressive Kim had at least 2,000 modern tanks and 12,400 artillery pieces, most of them deployed to fortifications along the DMZ, within easy firing range of U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as fighters and bombers parked in hangars constructed inside mountains and reinforced with all that concrete and steel—save the portion used to build an extensive series of tunnels under the DMZ itself, including one big enough to accommodate a full combat division, with artillery.

According to Singlaub, the United States was forced to accept the “troubling, seemingly unbelievable conclusion” that “Kim Il Sung was poised to invade South Korea,” perhaps by engineering a false-flag attack. Kim may have been telegraphing this fact when he told a Japanese journalist five months before the ax murders that his country planned to “stir up world opinion more vigorously” by publicizing America’s “criminal barbarities.” The CIA believed Pyongyang would use the publicity around the JSA fight to garner allies and sour the American public’s view of the country’s military presence in Korea, to the point that U.S. forces would leave, clearing a path for the north to invade the south. There was reason for Pyongyang to think that possible: The long, bloody slog of Vietnam had worn thin Americans’ patience for war, and on the presidential campaign trail, a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was agitating to withdraw American soldiers from Korea.

General Richard Stilwell (U.S. Government)
General Richard Stilwell (U.S. Government)

When Stilwell landed at Kimpo Airport in Seoul, Singlaub met his boss and briefed him in the car on the way to Yongsan. The two had known each other for 25 years, since Stilwell ran the Far Asia division of the CIA and Singlaub served under him. When Stilwell got his fourth star and was given the prestigious Eighth Army Command, he picked his old friend to be his chief of staff. Now the men sped toward base, discussing how to respond to the murders. As Stilwell saw it, there were relatively few options—three, really. The United States could do nothing, but that would be seen as weak. It could launch a massive retaliatory response, with bombs and rockets, but that might start World War III. Or U.S. forces could do something “meaningful,” an action that sent a message but wouldn’t result in American casualties. Stilwell favored the third option, but what meaningful thing could U.S. forces do? And what if the North Koreans overreacted, igniting the very war Stilwell had hoped to avoid?

By the time Stilwell arrived at the newly designated war room, a concrete basement at Yongsan, it was 2040 on August 18, and he had a plan in mind. U.S. forces needed to reassert control before the situation in the JSA slipped further into chaos. Because the fight had started at the poplar tree, Stilwell reasoned, the response should be focused there, too. “That damned tree must come down,” he told Singlaub. Not only that, but the JSF needed to destroy the two checkpoints near CP3 that North Korea had installed without approval. They’d stood long enough.

The mission was a matter of both tactical necessity and principle, and in theory it could be done quickly and in a way that appeared to respect the parameters of the armistice. But there was a way to make a louder point, too. Chopping down the poplar would be a real threat if, in Singlaub’s words, it was accompanied by a “massing [of] American air, ground, and sea power to remind the North Koreans of the nature of their opponent.” Stilwell had the perfect name for the mission: Operation Paul Bunyan.


The security meeting that Stilwell had ordered Singlaub to organize was held the morning after the murders. It was a gathering of the Military Armistice Commission, comprised of North and South Koreans, Americans, and neutral-nation observers—Czechs, Poles, Swedes, and Swiss—who oversaw implementation of the peace agreement and mediated disputes in the JSA. The MAC headquarters, a narrow, single-story building with blue walls, parallel banks of windows, and well-worn office furniture, had seen its share of one-upmanship and sabotage. In the early days of the armistice, each side had attended MAC meetings with a progressively bigger flag to place before its delegation, until they could no longer fit comfortably in the room. More than once KPA soldiers were seen shining their boots with an American flag. Later the U.S. side assigned guards to protect its microphones, because the American delegates were concerned that the North Koreans would cut the cords.

The meeting on August 19 was different, because the stakes were unprecedented. Normally, a U.S. honor guard attended in Class A uniforms: white helmet, blue satin sash, polished boots. That day, members of the JSF had been on alert for nearly 24 hours. They were dirty and sweaty, wearing combat fatigues and scuffed boots, and they were seething at the deaths of Bonifas and Barrett. According to one observer, they “marched in with a force and purpose like never before,” forming a cordon as Rear Admiral Mark Frudden, the senior U.S. representative at the meeting, strutted from his car to the conference room in impeccable dress whites.

Press swarmed and flashes popped as Frudden and other officials arrived. A TV camera panned the tense scene, pausing for a moment on the exhausted face of John Pinadella, who was  a member of the honor guard. Later that night, when the footage played on the evening news across America, Pinadella’s father would relax for the first time since the announcement the previous day that two unnamed soldiers had been murdered in Korea. His son was not one of the dead men.

Frudden opened the meeting by delivering a written message from Stilwell. “The UN Command views this brutal, vicious act with gravity and concern and warns that such violent and belligerent acts cannot be tolerated,” Stilwell wrote. “North Korea must bear full responsibility for all consequences.” As expected, emissaries from Pyongyang pushed back. North Korea had fully denied the 1968 killings of the men in the truck, and this time, too, it claimed innocence. American soldiers provoked the violence, the country’s representatives said. This was often how it went at MAC meetings: The Americans complained about KPA aggression, and North Korean envoys pretended nothing had happened—or flipped the blame back on their adversaries.

This time, though, the Americans had evidence of murder: the photos that Shaddix had taken from OP5. Shaddix had used Ektachrome, a high-end Kodak color film, and because there wasn’t a single facility in South Korea that could process it, the Army had overnighted the film to Japan with orders that it be developed and returned by the following morning, in time for the MAC meeting. Now an aide spread the damning pictures out on the table as Frudden read more of Stilwell’s message. “Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses,” it said, “and turned them into instruments of death.”

“Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses and turned them into instruments of death.” 

South of the JSA, U.S. staff sergeant Charles Twardzicki of the Second Engineer Battalion was summoned for a special assignment. It was Twardzicki’s 25th birthday, and he was supposed to have the day off. Instead, he and a lieutenant would drive north, change into a uniform from one of the JSA’s neutral nations, and go on a recon mission in Panmunjom. Their task: to get a good look at the poplar and decide how to chop it down. There wouldn’t be enough time for measurements, so the men would have to suggest a plan after merely eyeballing the tree.

The lieutenant was supposed to brief various commanders, but he got caught up in another meeting, so Twardzicki, an enlisted man, was tasked with delivering the intel to a room twinkling with brass. The sergeant stood sweating as generals and admirals—“lots of stars and eagles,” he recalled—breezed past him into the meeting room, where they aired their opinions on how best to take down the poplar. “The Navy said, ‘We can come in close with a battleship and drop a round right in there,’” Twardzicki recalled. “The Air Force said they could smart-bomb it, and I think the Marines were of the mentality that, ‘We’ll low-crawl in and use our bayonets and whittle it to the ground.’”

Finally, attention turned to Twardzicki. What did the engineer think?

To sever the tree at its trunk, he replied, would require a large saw powered by air-compressors, which would mean transporting heavy equipment to and from the JSA. If Stilwell was looking for speed and stealth, though, the engineers could work the old-fashioned way: by climbing into the tree and using chainsaws to cut the branches where they forked until only the trunk remained. The job wouldn’t be pretty. Saws would break, but the engineers could bring extras.

What about a backup plan, the commanders wanted to know—how long would it take for the engineers to set charges on the tree and blow it to smithereens? Twardzicki, an explosives expert, said that he could prepare satchel charges and rig them in the crotch of the tree in about two minutes. The engineers wouldn’t have much time to exit the blast zone. “They’ll be pulling toothpicks out of their butts,” Twardzicki told the room. He felt as if he were spitballing—there was, he later said, a “pull-it-out-your-butt fudge factor” to the whole conversation.

Later that day, one of Twardzicki’s platoon mates, Bruce Simpson, was also called in for his opinion. Simpson was a 23-year-old specialist who had worked for a landscaper back home in Massachusetts, making him the only guy on the engineering squad with actual expertise in cutting trees.

“How long will it take?” an officer asked, referring to Twardzicki’s plan.

Simpson considered the question for a moment. There was driving and parking and setting up a ladder and climbing into the tree and starting the chainsaws and accounting for a few of them conking out. Then, once the branches fell, the men would have to cut them into pieces and drag them off the road, so that they didn’t give the North Koreans another reason to complain. Finally, the soldiers would have to drive out of the JSA.

“Probably 45 minutes,” Simpson answered.

Was he certain of this?

“Yep. I can guarantee it,” Simpson said, even though he couldn’t.

This was good enough for the brass.

At 1300, Kimpo International Airport was closed for an hour for a somber event: a memorial service for Bonifas and Barrett. Stilwell presided over a short ceremony, during which Bonifas was posthumously promoted to major and both men received Purple Hearts. Afterward the caskets containing the men’s remains were placed on a plane and sent home. Stilwell then flew north, where he presided over a second memorial service at the officers’ club at Camp Kitty Hawk. The general stood next to Bonifas’s and Barrett’s boots, which were on display in front of a small altar, and as he finished his remarks, he told the troops who packed the room that something big was going to happen—an important action, which they would lead. On that ambiguous note, he headed to the helicopter that took him back to Seoul, where the plans for Operation Paul Bunyan were quickly filling up a binder.

Singlaub wrote, “The key elements were surprise, speed of execution and withdrawal, and avoidance of direct engagement with North Korean troops.” The job of cutting down the tree would fall to a pair of eight-man teams from the Second Engineer Battalion, Twardzicki and Simpson’s unit, and they would be protected by two platoons of U.S. and ROK infantrymen and a contingent of South Korean special forces. Behind them, just beyond the JSA border, would be an ROK recon company reinforced with U.S. anti-tank missile teams. An infantry company of about 150 men would hover in 20 Huey helicopters, with 12 AH-1G Cobra gunships flying alongside them. Tank-busting F-4 Phantoms would fly in slightly higher orbit, and F-111 strategic bombers would orbit higher still, visible on North Korean radar.

Forces would mobilize on the ground, too. Three batteries of American 105-millimeter howitzers would move across the Freedom Bridge, the only permanent span over the Imjin River, which skirted the southern edge of the DMZ. Twardzicki and other engineers had already wired the bridge for destruction in the event of war. On the opposite side of the Imjin, three more batteries of ROK heavy artillery would be placed in clear view of North Korean positions. Lastly, at the moment the tree-trimming convoy rolled into the JSA, “a massive flight of B-52 bombers from Guam would be moving ominously north from the Yellow Sea on a vector directly to the North Korean capital,” Singlaub wrote, while the USS Midway carrier group, which would have moved to Korea from its base in Japan, “would launch 40 combat aircraft” to “vector north above international waters.”

Once the plan was complete, Stilwell needed Washington’s approval, but he was worried about D.C. officials’ penchant for micromanagement. He’d watched politicians muck up numerous operations in Vietnam, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Burns, had seen it first-hand in 1975, after Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia seized the container ship SS Mayaguez, prompting an infamous botched rescue mission. Burns was in Thailand, overseeing air support for a Marine assault on the island where the Mayaguez hostages were thought to be held, when the White House had intervened, using a command-override channel to reach the helicopters directly. According to Singlaub’s account, Air Force pilots were shocked to hear their controllers’ voices replaced by that of a civilian—specifically, Henry Kissinger, who had no direct authority over a military operation. Singlaub claimed in his memoir that Burns was about to order the Marines not to land on the island, where an ensuing battle and chopper crash killed 41 U.S. soldiers, but couldn’t because of the override. “Kissinger bypassed the entire local command structure and fouled up the operation,” Singlaub wrote. “We were determined this would not happen to us.”

Stilwell dictated the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan over a secure line to the Pentagon, and he chose his words carefully. This was not the starting point for a conversation—it was a final document that didn’t require further comment or conversation. He described the range of North Korea’s possible responses: It might do nothing, which he hoped would be the case; it might react with small-arms fire, which could be met with mortars and gunfire to cover an evacuation of U.S. and ROK forces; or Pyongyang could panic and stage a larger attack. “We would then have to be ready for more important actions,” Stilwell said. “In between the two extremes are a legion of possibilities which could make precise control of escalation difficult to manage. We will need good local communications, cool heads, and thorough understanding of the mission.”

Stilwell waited until late at night Korea time to send the message. He knew the Ford administration was eager to move quickly, and he wanted to limit the amount of time for possible meddling, so he requested a green light within 24 hours. Once he got it, the mission could launch at dawn on August 21.

When top national-security officials met at the White House to discuss the ax murders, Ford wasn’t there—the president was in Kansas City, Missouri, for the Republican National Convention, facing supporters of an ornery upstart challenger named Ronald Reagan. Ford wasn’t the only top decision-maker absent: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was also at the convention, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was traveling, forcing the deputies for both to take their seats at the table in the Situation Room.

Kissinger dominated the meeting, expressing frustration that the U.S. soldiers at the poplar hadn’t fought back. “If I had been one of those men and was being beaten to death,” he remarked, “I would have used a firearm.” Now he firmly supported retaliation. “If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon,” the secretary of state said. “There may be another incident, and then another.”

“If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon. There may be another incident, and then another.”

Some officials went so far as to suggest dropping smart bombs, staging B-52 attacks, and coordinating assaults by Airborne Rangers. The acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs floated a plan to use a submarine or Navy SEALs to blow up an “industrial site” at a North Korean harbor, but he backed off the idea after assessing that the chances of pulling it off without casualties was slim. Ultimately, none of the men wanted dead Americans on his conscience, nor did he want to be blamed for starting yet another war in Asia.

According to a declassified transcript of the meeting, the advisers decided to “seek presidential approval of a military action to cut down the tree and try to do it in such a way as to avoid confrontation.” This was the basic premise of Operation Paul Bunyan, and like Stilwell, the men in Washington wanted to do more than merely dispatch soldiers with hedge clippers—they, too, wanted to demonstrate military might. “It will be useful for us to generate enough activity so that the North Koreans begin to wonder what those crazy American bastards are doing or are capable of doing in this election year,” Kissinger said. Yet he was as wary of Stilwell as the general was of the secretary. “We are not going to let Stilwell run loose,” Kissinger warned.

While Washington spent the day reviewing the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan, armed forces in Korea were ordered to go to Defcon-3. It was the first time the U.S. military had raised its alert status in the region since the Korean War. Washington also launched a military mobilization of breathtaking scale. The Pentagon staged an “exercise” that routed B-52s armed with conventional and nuclear weapons uncomfortably close to Pyongyang. A squadron of F-4 fighters flew from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to Korea and was joined by a squadron of nuclear-capable F-111 fighter-bombers dispatched from Idaho. The USS Midway was sent toward the Korean peninsula from elsewhere in the Pacific, while RF-4D reconnaissance planes and Wild Weasel air-defense-suppression jets arrived from bases in Japan and the Philippines after flying within range of North Korean radar. Two infantry divisions, one American and one South Korean, were pushed forward from their bases south of the Imjin River to the DMZ, while conventional and nuclear artillery and missiles were moved into concrete bunkers built in preparation for precisely this kind of emergency scenario. Every military unit in Korea was abuzz with activity; cargo helicopters shuttled munitions and equipment out of Seoul, and truck convoys clogged the roads heading north.

The armed forces also planned for a worst-case scenario. SR-71 Blackbird surveillance jets took off from a base on Taiwan to take detailed photos of North Korean military movements and identify the coordinates of anti-aircraft radar, which lit up as the jets screamed past 80,000 feet in the air. Intelligence analysts would use the coordinates to pre-target Nike Hercules missiles and then, if necessary, launch them in advance of U.S. bombers raining fire north of the DMZ.

The Blackbird was, and still is, the fastest manned plane in history, so there was no reason to be secretive about its mission. The jet was too fast to shoot down—or do anything about, really, other than complain. That’s what the North Koreans did, issuing a proclamation over state radio about the “military provocation” and the drumbeats of war. “The U.S. imperialist aggressors should be clearly aware of the fact that they will never be able to avoid the grave consequences that might arise from such reckless provocations of violating the armistice in Korea,” Pyongyang warned. “They should act discreetly.”

The clock was ticking toward Stilwell’s deadline for a green light. The general was surprised when he received a communiqué asking if it would be possible to mount Operation Paul Bunyan sooner than he’d suggested; the Ford administration wanted it over and done with. Sure, Stilwell replied, he could do it, but the operation would be “ragged,” because he’d have less time to prep his men and move equipment. “We are aware of our solemn responsibility to accomplish the mission with minimum jeopardy to our forces,” he replied. Stilwell reiterated what he’d said in his memo: 0700 on August 21 was optimal. His men could roll in and, if Simpson’s guess was right, cut down the tree in 45 minutes, finishing before 0800, when KPA guards would drive across the Bridge of No Return to assume their positions in Panmunjom for the day.

On the night of August 19, Ford accepted the Republican nomination for reelection, telling the crowd in Kansas City that he was “proud to stand before this convention as the first incumbent president since Dwight D. Eisenhower who can tell the American people, ‘America is at peace.’” The line was written for cheers, and Ford paused to take in the applause of some 2,000 GOP delegates, none of whom had any idea that, halfway across the world, the United States was preparing for war.

Kissinger had flown to Kansas City to brief Ford in person, which he did in a back room of the convention center. The president was nervous about coming off as too aggressive, but he agreed that the United States needed to make a point.

On the morning of August 20, Washington dispatched the order to execute. The message reached Stilwell at 2345 his time, 15 minutes before the deadline. Just under the wire, Operation Paul Bunyan was a go, with only one addendum from Washington: Kissinger insisted that, should the tree mission draw North Korean fire, America would get revenge by destroying KPA barracks near the JSA. Stilwell didn’t like the idea—for one thing, the strikes would land uncomfortably close to the camp housing Swiss and Swede observers of Panmunjom—so he added a caveat: The bombing of the barracks could be executed only on his direct order.


Secrecy was paramount. The only way for Washington to monitor the mission in real time was by secure phone, and Stilwell, with the Mayaguez fiasco very much in mind, used this to his advantage. He allowed only two secure lines out of Korea, both connected to the Pentagon. One of them was at his desk in Yongsan, and the other was at his forward command post, where he’d relocate during the mission. From each of those locations was a secure line to the operation task force in the DMZ. In practice this meant that the only way for Washington to communicate with forces in the field was through one of Stilwell’s offices, and the only way to contact those offices was through phones located at the Pentagon. If Kissinger wanted to talk to someone in the DMZ, he’d have to go to the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. Stilwell exerted further control by directing Singlaub and the rest of his staff to leave the lines to the Pentagon off the hook. When his staff needed to speak to Washington, they would initiate the conversation, and when it was over, they would cover the mouthpiece with a Styrofoam coffee cup so that it sounded like they’d hung up.

Singlaub assumed the job of choking off Washington’s access with gusto. He informed his communications officer, a colonel charged with manning the phones in Korea and delivering messages to and from the Pentagon, that his “entire future in the U.S. Army” depended on following the order that “under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever” should he allow “any direct communication from a higher headquarters” to bypass Yongsan. “I don’t care,” Singlaub told the officer, “if President Ford himself is on the other line.” In the event of objections, which were inevitable, the colonel was to say that, unfortunately, the communications system in Korea was incompatible with the one back home, preventing him from patching calls through to the front. This was a lie, and technicians would likely know it, but Washington was half a world away, with no way to open additional lines to Korea. Officials might get mad, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

A half-hour after receiving this order, the colonel returned with a message. Washington wasn’t happy; it wanted a direct line to the front. The colonel returned again to report that officials in the U.S. capital wanted to know how old the tree was, a pointless question that boiled Singlaub’s blood, and then a third time to say that the lieutenant general in charge of worldwide military communications was personally demanding a secure line to the DMZ.

“I told [him] to talk to you, sir,” the colonel told Singlaub. “He was not exactly pleased.”

“Don’t worry, colonel,” Singlaub replied. “I’m your rating officer, not him.”

There would be no sleep that night, but there would be more bureaucratic conflict. Around 0400, Ambassador Sneider finally arrived in Yongsan, after a daylong flight from the United States. As Sneider entered the war room, Stilwell was on the phone with the commander of the task force. When Sneider realized who was on the line, he reached for the phone. The muscles in Stilwell’s arm clenched as the ambassador grabbed the receiver, and the two men engaged, according to Singlaub, in a “ludicrous tug of war” that the general ultimately won.

“Was there something you wanted me to ask?” Stilwell said politely, if smugly, after hanging up.

Sneider was miffed and reminded the general that he was President Ford’s personal representative in Korea. If Ford had questions for “my field commanders,” Stilwell replied, “I’ll be happy to relay any.”

Stilwell was on the very edge of retirement and so had little to risk in the way of his career by placing obstacles between Washington and the DMZ. His top priority was to not introduce any unnecessary risk into an already sensitive mission. When he met with South Korean president Park Chung Hee to discuss Operation Paul Bunyan, he agreed outwardly with Park’s optimism that the tree would come down and that Park’s hand-selected ROK commandos, who were masters of martial arts, could take on KPA soldiers if it came to that. In truth, Stilwell thought there was a strong chance the North Koreans would fight back—hard—and once the bullets were flying, it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to stop the fire from becoming an inferno.

In the war room, Singlaub was thinking about extreme measures. “It was my estimate, shared by many of the staff, that the operation stood a 50-50 chance of starting a war,” he later wrote. “We might be teetering on the brink of a holocaust. If North Korea did invade, we would have no choice but to request authorization for the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.”

Just before dawn, Singlaub took a moment to find a quiet corner and pray.

Members of Third Platoon. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)
Members of Third Platoon. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)

At 0500, members of the JSF were awoken and instructed to move “as quietly and expeditiously as possible” to a barracks. Once they were assembled, groggy-eyed, the briefing began. Before them stood their platoon leaders and captain Ed Shirron, who’d replaced Bonifas. Shirron announced a surgical mission into the JSA to cut down the poplar tree, backed up by tremendous force. “The way it was explained, it sounded like it was going to be the most carefully staged and concentrated display of power since D-Day in World War II,” then private Bill Ferguson recalled.

The mood was heavy, the room silent. After nearly 48 hours of wanting revenge but being allowed to do nothing—of wondering what was going to happen along one of the world’s most precarious military fault lines—the JSF was being asked to finish the job that had started the crisis. The plan was invigorating, and also terrifying. Every man who worked in the JSA knew the rumor that, by taking up his post, he was automatically known to the Army’s Graves Registration Service, which handled retrieval, transportation, and burial of soldiers killed in the line of duty; that way, if the North Koreans ever launched a fusillade and wiped Panmunjom from the map, the Pentagon would know who’d been killed without having to identify them. Now, with Operation Paul Bunyan, the Army was rolling the dice on the men’s lives. “My life expectancy if anything happened,” Ferguson said, “was extremely short.” After the briefing, he wrote letters to his family members, just in case.

The operation would begin at exactly 0700 and involve all three U.S. platoons in the JSF, plus select troops from the Second Infantry Division, the only other American unit based north of the Imjin River. The JSF guards were told that they could take only the most basic defensive gear, including flak jackets, ax handles, and their .45 handguns, which were meant for close range and would be virtually useless against an attacker more than ten yards away. With no idea of what lay ahead, the men snatched up whatever rudimentary weaponry they could hide in their boots and pockets: knives, shoestrings, socks stuffed with rocks. “If there was the slightest chance that we somehow survived,” Ferguson said, “we at least wanted some kind of fighting chance to not become prisoners.”

Twardzicki, Simpson, and the other engineers who would cut down the poplar gathered their chainsaws—about a dozen in all—and piled into two dump trucks to head north. Their commander briefed them one last time.

“If the North Koreans go to stop this thing,” he said, “you know what they’re going to shoot at.”

“The guy with all the stars, right?” Twardzicki replied.

“No, the guy with all the chainsaws.”

At 0648, as the sun was rising, 23 vehicles loaded with soldiers rolled toward the JSA. At the same time, the 20 Huey helicopters carrying the Army rifle company took off and began circling above the DMZ. Cobra gunships, armed with Gatling guns, Hydra rockets, and anti-tank missiles, joined them.

The soldiers sat quietly in the trucks. Ernest Bickley looked at the stitches in his right hand, which patched a wound he’d suffered in the fight that started this whole mess. He wasn’t a smoker, but when an ROK Marine offered him a cigarette, he took it and smoked for the first time. In another truck, two thoughts ran in a loop in Ferguson’s head, both of them from movies. One was a quote from the 1970 western Little Big Man: “Today is a good day to die.” The other was a song lyric from Paint Your Wagon, the Clint Eastwood musical: Where am I going, I don’t know / When will I get there, I ain’t certain / All I know is I am on my way.

Mark Luttrull, Bonifas’s former driver, was a late addition to the unit. He’d told Vierra that he wanted to be at the tree when it came down, and he’d been called to meet with Captain Shirron at 0300. “I’m looking for a radio operator,” Shirron told him. It had to be a volunteer, because the job was dangerous. In battle, the guy with the antenna standing next to an officer was always among a sniper’s first targets.

“You’ve got only a 50-50 chance of returning,” Shirron told him.

“I’ll take the job,” Luttrull replied. Now, in the back of a deuce and a half, he thought mostly of Bonifas, and he wasn’t afraid.

The last stop before the gate to the JSA was Checkpoint 2, where John Pinadella was waiting. Pinadella had a special job: Just before 0700, he was to walk into Panmunjom and observe KPA activity. What was the size of the North Korean force? Had any guards showed up early that day? Pinadella did as he was told and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to the checkpoint and used a field phone to call back to base.

“Go,” he said.

Then Pinadella opened the gate to let the trucks through. In the basement of his checkpoint were ten M16s and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Pinadella’s instructions were to use them to cover the trucks if they came streaming back in retreat. By then soldiers stationed at camp would be igniting fuel cans and explosives positioned at the door of every building. The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.

The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.

The first deuce and a half roared through Panmunjom’s gate, turned left, and headed for CP3, the loneliest outpost. It stopped at the poplar long enough for the guards in back to jump out and take up defensive positions around the tree, then the driver backed up onto the Bridge of No Return and parked, effectively blocking any KPA vehicles from crossing. A second truck arrived with a platoon of ROK commandos in civilian uniforms, and they spilled out into a half-circle around the tree. Finally, in a dump truck came the engineers, who immediately pulled out their ladders and saws and got to work.

The chainsaws weren’t prime specimens; they were Vietnam surplus and ran well only when held straight up and down or dead flat. Hold one at an angle and it got wonky. Twardzicki and Simpson prayed that the machines would work well enough. They didn’t want to deploy the backup plan of loading the tree with explosives and running like hell.

Twardzicki mounted a ladder and began sawing into one of the poplar’s three main limbs. He cut a wedge out of the far side, a trimmer’s trick to make sure the branch didn’t fall back on him, then commenced furiously sawing. He was too busy to wonder whether someone somewhere had a sniper rifle aimed at his head. Twardzicki knew that there were layers of security around the tree and up in the air, including the B-52s now circling the scene, their bellies loaded for bear with bombs.

It seemed like no time before the first branch came down. The mass of wood dropped with a thud onto the engineers’ truck, denting the hood. “I vividly remember the crash it made as it fell on the truck, and the cheers we all made—raising our ax handles and yelling,” Ferguson recalled. Engineers on the ground then cut the limb into smaller pieces and threw them into the ditch where three days earlier Pinadella had found Barrett on the brink of death.

By then the KPA had received a communiqué from the UNC, sent strategically—on Stilwell’s orders—at 0705, after the trucks were already in the JSA. It stated that a UNC work party would “enter JSA at 0700 in order to peacefully finish the work left unfinished by the UNC work detail which was attacked by your guards on 18 August.” As long as the KPA didn’t engage, the message said, there would be no violence.

Ferguson and his platoon mates near the tree gripped their ax handles, keeping one eye on the engineers’ trimming and the other on the activity across the bridge. At first the North Korean guards reacted as Stilwell hoped they might. The KPA closest to the bridge appeared confused, and when backup arrived, those soldiers also seemed like they didn’t have orders to follow.

But then a group of KPA guards ran from their barracks to an observation post built on a hill. They set up a machine-gun nest, with barrels aimed across the river. A few minutes later, a makeshift convoy of vehicles—trucks, buses, a clunky old East German sedan—arrived, and about 150 reinforcements with small arms jumped out, taking positions along the Sachon River.

The Americans were prepared for this. A second platoon of men, poised up a hill near OP5, moved forward to reinforce the guards near the poplar. Meanwhile, soldiers from the Second Infantry who’d been waiting near the gate to South Korea moved ahead, too. In full battle rattle, they fanned out along the JSA’s main road, clearly visible to the North Koreans.

The Americans were merely showing force in numbers. Several ROK soldiers, however, reacted differently to the sight of KPA guards taking attack positions. They ripped open their shirts to reveal Claymore anti-personnel mines strapped to their chests. Each man clutched a detonator in his hand and waved it in the direction of the KPA soldiers, yelling at them to cross the bridge and face certain death.

ROK men wearing explosives and howling at their enemies shocked forces on both sides of the river. Luttrull yelled to Captain Shirron, and the unit radioed Vierra at his command post outside the JSA: “Be advised that the ROK special forces have Claymore mines!”

Vierra was furious. This wasn’t just a violation of the armistice; it was a reckless action that put his men, and the entire operation, in jeopardy. To him it seemed that “they had their own plan—to cause the KPA to do something.” He wanted to scream into his command channel for someone to rein in the South Koreans immediately, but he knew that had to be careful with his words. He was already concerned that, if hostilities broke out, he might not be able to control the ROK. “I did not know whether they would follow my orders,” Vierra said. “I did not know their orders.” He held his tongue.

At the tree, Ferguson froze at the sight of the ROK soldiers. Time seemed to warp. “Some things appeared to be in slow motion,” he said, “and other things seemed to happen faster than my eyes and brain could register them.” Then he heard a faint rumble in the air—a thump, thump, thump coming from the south. He looked up. It was a gray day, with a low ceiling of clouds, but not so low that he couldn’t see the source of the sound: a phalanx of U.S. helicopters rising up over the horizon line and hanging there, “seeming to stretch for over a mile.”

Ferguson was suddenly hyperaware of his tenuous place in the world. “Nukes in the air, who knows how much artillery from both sides concentrated on our location, crazy guys with mines on their chests yelling at the North Koreans to come on over, the KPA less than 100 meters away with machine guns trained on us, and me and my buddies are standing around with ax handles and .45s,” he said.

Ferguson took a breath and waited for the rifle crack or puff of smoke that would signal the end. “All I’m thinking,” he recalled, “is that I hope I can take a couple [KPA] with me.”

Staff Sergeant Charles Twardzicki (right) at battalion headquarters. (Courtesy of Charles Twardzicki)

The engineers in the tree didn’t feel the gathering storm. They were busy wrestling their unwieldy chainsaws through gnarly wood, their arms burning with lactic acid, then trading off the job with other men. Twardzicki in particular was having problems. His chainsaw had stalled. He yanked on the starter once, twice, several times. It flooded. For four or five minutes passed, which felt like hours to everyone watching, Twardzicki fumbled with the machine. “What the hell is going on?” he heard someone ask. Finally, the saw wheezed and whirred back to life, and Twardzicki finished off the stubborn branch.

But there was still more to cut—one last big branch, high up the trunk and difficult to reach. Simpson was standing on top of the dump truck’s roof and leaning out as far as he could without toppling over so that his saw could reach the limb. He was visibly tired from the labor, but he had to keep going; the 45 minutes he’d promised were all the engineers needed would soon be up.

Just then an engineer named George Deason bounded over to the tree. A lieutenant, he’d been with the unit tasked with tearing down the KPA’s two illegal checkpoints. That work had been easy enough. The men had wrapped heavy chains around each structure’s gates and posts, attached the chains to a truck’s bumper, and given the driver a thumbs-up. Now Deason wanted to make his fresh arms useful at the tree. He hopped on top of the truck and took the saw from a weary Simpson. Standing on his toes, with fellow soldiers spotting him, Deason finished off the branch.

With that, the poplar was no more. Its foliage and limbs lay in chunks on the ground, and what remained standing was a sad, serrated trunk in the shape of a fork.

As soon as the final limb was cut into pieces, the engineers jumped back into their truck and drove away. His work finally done, Twardzicki took in the scene and was stunned by one particular sight: a group of ROK commandos, at least a platoon’s worth, emerging from near the Sachon River, where they’d apparently been hiding in dense brush since infiltrating the JSA the night before. They wore camouflage face paint and carried guns and grenades. “They were armed to the teeth,” Twardzicki said. Their covert placement was yet another decision the South Koreans had made without U.S. knowledge.

The first branch fell at 0718, and the last soldiers were leaving the JSA by 0745. Since the convoy had rolled in at 0702, after Pinadella opened the gate, Operation Paul Bunyan had technically lasted 43 minutes—two less than Simpson had predicted, making him look brilliant. When the engineers arrived back at camp, Twardzicki spotted Stilwell. He walked over and handed the mission’s architect the small wedge of wood he’d cut out of the first branch. It was the only piece of the poplar any of the men carried out of the JSA.


The North Koreans hadn’t reacted in real time. A U.S. intelligence analyst listening to KPA tactical radio channels later observed that the show of force “blew their minds.” There was no gunfire until 1015, when an overzealous KPA soldier took some pot shots at a U.S. helicopter circling the scene. That fire, Singlaub later wrote, “stopped abruptly when six Cobras banked line-abreast and swung into firing position, their twinkling laser sights directly on the enemy gun position.”

But the crisis wasn’t over. There was still a chance that Pyongyang was plotting a response—which could happen hours or even days later. In the meantime, the Americans had to go about business as usual in the JSA. After all, they’d told the KPA that the chopping of the tree was merely the completion of routine work. For the remainder of August 21, after the helicopters and planes and infantry brigades had pulled back, Pinadella and other guards were left on duty in checkpoints and observation posts, watching their KPA counterparts and analyzing every move. “Those were the scarier moments,” Pinadella said. “The task force was gone, and now we were just out there by ourselves listening to the North Korean tanks rumbling off in the distance.”

U.S. and South Korean officials held their breath waiting to hear what Pyongyang would say about Operation Paul Bunyan. There was mostly silence, even on propaganda channels. Then, around 1200, an urgent request arrived: The North Koreans wanted a meeting of the MAC.

The body convened late that afternoon, and because the meeting had been called so suddenly, there was less pomp than normal. According to U.S. embassy reports summarizing the event for Washington, the atmosphere was “calm and quiet.” The KPA delegation seemed “chastened,” as one diplomat put it. There was no bluster, no talk of imperialist aggressors or imminent war. In fact, the only people in the room who seemed peeved with the United States were the neutral-nation observers, who’d been given no advance warning of the operation. They “were cold and refused to acknowledge the U.S. rep’s salute,” a CIA report noted.

Pyongyang’s senior representative glumly read a message from Kim Il Sung. The note expressed “regret” over the August 18 incident and stated that it was Kim’s hope that both sides would make efforts to prevent anything like it from happening again.

Luttrull was on guard outside the windows of the conference room that afternoon and watched the exchange. He saw Pyongyang’s emissary, his head bowed in contrition, pass the note from the Supreme Leader across the table to Admiral Frudden, who shot back, “That is not enough!’” Luttrull felt the same way. Bonifas’s killing haunted him, and he regretted that he hadn’t been at the tree when Bulldog attacked. “I might’ve fired,” Luttrull said. “Even though I knew that was against the rules, and I could’ve started a war, I might’ve done it.”

Later that day, a press officer at the State Department echoed Frudden’s retort, telling a reporter that the message from Pyongyang didn’t go far enough to satisfy the United States. At the very least, Washington wanted a full public apology. But Kissinger, conscious of the president’s desire to end the crisis and move on to dealing with his reelection, quickly walked the statement back. “We consider this a positive step,” the State Department clarified.

Certainly, the North Korean response was unprecedented: It was the first time Pyongyang had expressed any responsibility for violence in the DMZ. The message from Kim was also the first that North Korea’s leader had personally sent to the UNC in its 23-year history of enforcing the armistice.

In the days that followed, stress in the JSA remained high. Every man was aware that the mission could have ended differently, with twitchy ROK commandos or KPA guards opening fire at their enemy. “The scuttlebutt was that they already had the telegrams printed to our parents and loved ones,” Pinadella said. Amplifying tension was the fact that American forces were still at Defcon-3. “They flew the B-52s for days afterward,” Pinadella recalled, and the JSF guards knew that the planes’ silhouettes, tens of thousands of feet in the air, preoccupied the KPA. “We’d be close to the North Koreans, like a couple of feet away, and we’d point up in the sky,” Pinadella said. “I used to point and do a whistle, like a bomb’s sound, and say, ‘Kaboom!’—North Korea gone!”

The next MAC meeting, on August 25, provided the balm that Panmunjom needed. This time the North Koreans proposed something historic: a permanent barrier, which neither army would be allowed to cross, to be erected along the international demarcation that cut through the JSA, ending almost a quarter-century of free movement. The UNC supported the idea, and it was formally adopted on September 6. Two days later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reverted troops to Defcon-4, and the USS Midway departed Korean waters for its base in Japan. There would be no World War III over a tree.

Private John Pinadella (top) in the remains of the tree. (Courtesy of John Pinadella)

Stilwell retired as scheduled, on November 1, 1976, and he always spoke in rote, soldierly terms about the dramatic mission to chop down the poplar. It “was a simple military operation performed with precision and discipline,” he once told an interviewer. Singlaub was more reflective. “The only reason Kim Il Sung finally backed down,” he wrote in his memoir, “was that we made him understand the danger he faced.” In the summer of 1976, North Korea’s leader was arguably bolder and more powerful than he’d ever been on the international stage, and he used the dispute over the tree to flex his newly honed military muscle. But Kim underestimated his adversary—in particular, its willingness to resist aggression with threats of its own.

The men who participated on the ground in Operation Paul Bunyan went back to their regular deployment duties, and later to their personal lives. Twardzicki saw a story in Stars and Stripes in which the wife of an F-4 pilot told the reporter how worried she’d been about her husband during the mission, flying 30,000 feet over Korea. Oh really? Twardzicki remembered thinking. How about the guy with the chainsaw? Looking back, he said, “that one event probably made my career—to be the guy who cut the tree down. I didn’t know whether they expected me to be expendable or important.” Pinadella, meanwhile, learned that his mother, a lifelong Democrat who’d been campaigning for Jimmy Carter in 1976, cast a vote for Ford that November “because he didn’t escalate” in Korea.

Ford lost the election, and in 1977, when Singlaub publicly opposed President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to remove troops from Korea, the general was relieved of his duties in Yongsan. Two years later, facing political pressure and intelligence reports of Pyongyang’s continued military strength, Carter relented on his plan, and U.S. soldiers stayed in place. By the 1990s, South Korea had assumed sole responsibility for defending its side of the DMZ. American guards remained close by to serve as reactive support if necessary. They are still there today, stationed at a base rechristened Camp Bonifas.

The concrete barrier requested by Pyongyang went up in the JSA in the fall of 1976. More than four decades later, it was at this divider, erected because of Operation Paul Bunyan, that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met to discuss bilateral relations and denuclearization. On April 27, 2018, the sworn enemies strode to the barrier, stood on either side, and shook hands. Then Moon invited Kim to step over the curb into South Korean territory—the first time a North Korean head of state had crossed the border since 1953.

The poplar tree is gone, even the trunk. Its former location is marked with a stone memorializing the deaths of Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett. The tree, though, never really went away. A week after Operation Paul Bunyan, Larry Shaddix took a crew into the JSA to retrieve the poplar’s dismantled branches, which were still lying untouched where the JSF had left them. The men secured the trees remains in a fenced lot that the Army used for storage; only Shaddix had a key. “The tree became very popular after the incident,” he said.

Pieces of the poplar ended up in various hands, but the chain of custody—exactly who got what, when, and where they took it—isn’t always clear. Several soldiers assigned to the JSA took thin slices, which they shellacked and mounted in offices and homes. Bruce Simpson’s hangs above his desk at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

The section given to Stilwell, who died in 1991, was hung on a wall at the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, alongside a plaque reading, “This wood was taken from a tree at Panmunjom. Beneath its branches two American officers were murdered by North Koreans. Around the world, the tree became a symbol of communist brutality and a challenge to national honor. On 21 August 1976, a group of free men rose up and cut it down.”

The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang

How a trio of Canadian bank robbers executed meticulous heists in the ’70s and ’80s.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 46

Josh Dean is a correspondent for Outside and a regular contributor toBloomberg BusinessWeek, Fast Company, GQ, and Popular Science. He’s a former deputy editor of Men’s Journal and was a founding editor of Play, the sports magazine of The New York Times. His first book, Show Dog, for which he embedded himself on the competitive dog-show circuit for a year, was published by HarperCollins in 2012. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Gillian Telling, a writer for People magazine, and their two sons.

Editors: Katia Bachko and Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Dave Mayerse
Audio Recording: Rebecca Hasse
Other Images: Alexander Waterhouse-Hayward, Farah Nosh, Guy Kimola, the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University, Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell, Ottawa Citizen

Published in March 2015. Design updated in 2021.


Stephen Reid shifted in his seat to avoid the sunlight slanting through the windows of the bar at Vancouver’s Sylvia Hotel. He sipped espresso and laid out the methodology behind a successful bank heist. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking.”

Reid’s face is softer now than it was some 40 years ago, when his mug shot appeared on front pages across Canada. He has the same mustache, the same thick hair, both now gray, but the scars across his right cheek have faded. He ordered a Cobb salad, no avocado; Canada’s most notorious living bank robber is 64 and watching his weight.

Throughout the late ’70s and into the very early ’80s, Reid and his partners, Paddy Mitchell and Lionel Wright, robbed dozens of banks, stole millions of dollars, and broke out of numerous prisons, fascinating the media while frustrating authorities in Canada and the United States. They lived in the public imagination as modern-day folk heroes: the Stopwatch Gang, a name given to them by the FBI because Reid sometimes wore an oversize stopwatch around his neck to time their ruthlessly efficient heists, often committed while wearing Halloween masks. “I can’t say I admire what they did, because it’s illegal,” one FBI agent who pursued the gang for years told me. “But I understood it. You have respect for the good ones, and the good ones treat you with respect.”

The reason so many robbers fail, Reid told me when I met him in Canada last December, is that they’re desperate people who’ve done little if any planning. On the other hand, if you’re careful and you do your homework, he said, a system’s flaws will reveal themselves. “Something always breaks loose.”

It seemed to pain him a little to say this. When we met, Reid was living at a halfway house, the final stage of an 18-year sentence that started in a maximum-security prison—the longest by far of his many stints behind bars. Reid was always the brash one in the gang, the fearless street tough, but he’s quiet now, contemplative. The halfway house is in Victoria, the provincial capital, a two-hour ferry ride away. He had signed out on a day pass to travel to Vancouver to work on a play he wrote, called Heroin Elvis, that a young director he’d met hoped to stage in the near future. Reid wasn’t sure if he told his parole office that he was also meeting a journalist. “They don’t like me to do media,” he said, “but I guess it’s the antiestablishment streak in me.”

He pushed his salad aside and popped a piece of Nicorette. “I haven’t had a cigarette in two years,” he said, his final vice cast aside. His voice was soft, barely audible at times, especially when discussing his gang’s heyday. “Honestly, these stories bore me,” he said. What he wanted to talk about instead was how it all went to hell.

Stephen Reid, left, and Paddy Mitchell at the Millhaven Institution, in Ontario, in the mid-1970s. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell
Stephen Reid, left, and Paddy Mitchell at the Millhaven Institution, in Ontario, in the mid-1970s. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell


Stephen Reid grew up with nine siblings in Massey, Ontario, a rural town of 1,200 at the junction of the Spanish and Aux Sables Rivers. According to Reid, his father was a “hard-working, hard-drinking northern Ontario man” who did the best he could to provide for his family. Money was tight, but Reid has warm memories of snaring rabbits, swimming in the rivers, and playing in the forests around town. “I was well loved, well scrubbed, and well fed,” he said. He was a good student and a promising hockey player.

Then he fell into drugs, and his life took a dark turn. At 13, Reid ran away for the first time, to Vancouver, some 2,000 miles west. He vanished into the city’s gritty East End, homeless and broke. Whatever money he had, he spent on heroin.

Reid eventually returned home and reenrolled in high school, only to flee again. At 15, he wound up in jail for the first time, after selling a dime bag of hash to a female cop. A year later, he was arrested again for drug possession and spent Christmas Eve in solitary confinement, “the hole,” at Oakalla Prison, in Burnaby. “I began crying and promised God if he let me out I would never, never, ever again go near drugs or do anything illegal,” Reid said. “He didn’t release me.”

On the streets of London, Ontario, Reid discovered methamphetamine, and at 17, “wired to the yin-yang on a $500-a-day habit,” he bought a gun and robbed his first bank. It was the very definition of a desperate job, but he got away, and over the next three years he robbed several more banks to pay for his drug habit. Eventually he was arrested after someone tipped off the cops. “I was loose with my tongue and always had big rolls of money,” he said. 

This time, Reid was sentenced to ten years at Kingston Penitentiary, a prison even scarier than Oakalla. When the sheriffs delivered him into the yard and unlocked his chains, a steel I-beam that secured the pen’s towering gate fell into place with a deafening clang. “The echoes in that chamber have stayed with me my entire life,” he said.

Two years into his term, the 23-year-old Reid slipped away from a counselor while eating lunch on a day pass. “It wasn’t hard,” he said. “I just went to the bathroom and climbed out the window.”

He fled to Ottawa and was hiding out in a basement apartment when a prison buddy suggested he meet Paddy Mitchell, whom Reid later described as “the unofficial mayor of the local underworld.”

Mitchell, a swaggering figure with “Pat Boone hair” and wide-collar shirts, ran a thriving robbery operation while maintaining a front as an aluminum-siding salesman. Reid liked him immediately. “I wasn’t in awe, but I was taken with him,” Reid said. When they met, Reid complimented Mitchell on his “beautiful suede jacket,” and a day later his new friend showed up at the Ottawa apartment with the same jacket in Reid’s size.

Mitchell was one of seven children in a working-class Catholic family and grew up on Preston Street, in a rough section of Ottawa’s Little Italy. As his older brother Pinky, a champion Golden Gloves boxer, liked to say, “The further you went down Preston Street, the tougher it got. We lived in the last house in the basement.” Paddy was attracted to petty crime as a kid and developed a reputation as a fighter. At 14, he was convicted of assault for his role in a brawl that led to the accidental death of another kid. He was confined to a juvenile-detention facility until he turned 18, and when he got out, Mitchell picked up where he’d left off, working with his older brother Bobby and “a loosely knit band of thieves.” 

Paddy Mitchell as a boy. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell
Paddy Mitchell as a boy. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell

In 1961, Mitchell fell in love with a woman who worked for the Canadian government. They got married two months before his 20th birthday and, less than a year later, had a son, whom they named Kevin. Mitchell spent the better part of ten years driving a delivery truck for the Pure Spring soda company, which is how he met Lionel Wright, a short, skinny introvert, just shy of 30, with fake teeth, jug ears, and a receding hairline. 

In his self-published autobiography, handwritten years later while he sat in a prison cell, Mitchell wrote that meeting Lionel Wright was “where I made that left turn instead of a right and my life has never been the same.” 

Wright lived at home with his mother. He didn’t drink or smoke and spent most nights watching television or reading about ancient history. He was a man of routines who excelled at clerical work and wore the same outfit every day: dark pants, white shirt, black shoes, blue vinyl jacket.

He liked pornography and bought his magazines from a smoke shop on Mitchell’s delivery route. The two got to talking and over time struck up a friendship. Mitchell saw Wright regularly until the fall of 1971, when he was fired from the trucking job for joining (and eventually leading) a drivers’ strike. 

A few months after Mitchell lost his job, Wright called him at home, out of the blue. He wanted to know if Mitchell still enjoyed Seagram’s VO rye whiskey. It was an odd reason to call, but Wright was an odd character who paid close attention to details, and he’d remembered Mitchell mentioning his love of Seagram’s. Wright worked as a night clerk at a trucking company, and he said he had two cases of the stuff that wouldn’t be missed. 

When Mitchell went to the warehouse to pick up the whiskey, he saw a vast, unsecured space, connected to a yard that contained hundreds of trailers filled with cigarettes and candy and clothing and paper products, everything you could imagine being sold. Mitchell could take whatever he wanted, Wright explained; he would simply alter the paperwork to make it look like someone else’s mistake. 

Over the next few years, Wright stole anything and everything from the warehouse, and Mitchell sold the goods on the black market. To cover his tracks and deceive his wife, Mitchell got the aluminum-siding gig, but he never sold any siding. He’d get up, put on a suit and tie, and drive into the city to find a buyer for whatever it was that Wright had stolen. 

The thefts escalated from boxes to entire trailer loads. Ultimately, the company came to suspect that Wright was part of the ongoing robberies and fired him. “We went in search of other enterprises,” Mitchell wrote. “I could never go back to a regular 9 to 5 job. I had expensive habits now.”

It was around this time that Mitchell was invited to the basement apartment where Reid was hiding out. He quickly liked the intelligent, muscular 23-year-old with “nerves of steel” and a set of scars that had been slashed into his right cheek with a straight razor in a Toronto street fight.  

For the next year, Reid, Mitchell, and Wright preyed on Ottawa’s delivery networks, making more and more money to feed their respective appetites for racehorses (Mitchell), drugs (Reid), and prostitutes (Wright). It was not unusual for the gang to split $20,000 to $30,000 for a single day’s work. “Nothing in town was safe from us,” Mitchell later wrote.


A few minutes before midnight on April 14, 1974, the phone rang in a warehouse used for special cargo at the Ottawa International Airport. It had been an uneventful shift for the guard on duty, 24-year-old David Braham, who had been called in to watch over five boxes stacked inside a locked cage within the warehouse.

The boxes, sealed with red wax, were on their way from the Red Lake Gold Mines in western Ontario to the Royal Canadian Mint. Four of them contained single bars of solid gold about the size of loaves of bread; the fifth held two smaller bars made up from remnants scraped out of the smelters. The total weight was more than 5,100 ounces.

When Braham answered the phone, an angry voice on the other end demanded, “Has my man arrived there yet?” The caller told Braham that he’d sent a worker over to the freight shed to pick up some urgently needed deicing fluid. Without it, flights would be delayed.

Braham said that he hadn’t seen anyone, eliciting a stream of profanity from the man on the other end, who made it clear that his delinquent employee was about to cause serious problems.

Just then there was a knock at the door, and Braham opened it for a guy in a blue Air Canada parka, with thick blond hair and a set of scars on his cheek. Your boss is looking for you, he told the man, and he’s really pissed.

Stephen Reid walked to the phone and picked it up, pretending to be nervous. “I’m sorry, I got held up,” he said. He hung up and turned to Braham, pulling a revolver from his waistband. “This is a robbery. If you don’t do everything I tell you, I’ll have to kill you,” he said.

Reid handcuffed Braham to the outside of the cage with the guard’s own cuffs and asked him which key opened the lock on the cage. On a wall behind him, a sign read: AIR CARGO IS YOUR JOB. PROTECT IT. CARGO SECURITY DEPENDS ON YOU.

Braham answered that he didn’t have the key; it was stored in the main terminal. Reid cursed, grabbed an empty cardboard box, and placed it over Braham’s head. He walked across the room into an adjacent workshop and returned with some tools.

Alternating between a hacksaw and a heavy wrench, Reid banged and sawed at the lock until it fell off. He stacked the boxes onto a cart and wheeled them out to the loading dock, where Lionel Wright was waiting to help load them into a car. The whole thing took nearly 20 minutes, and Braham sat there, locked to the cage with a box on his head, for another half-hour until a cleaning crew arrived. Police immediately scrambled to set up a roadblock, but by then the men were long gone.

By morning the theft was national news. The Ottawa Citizen reported: “Airport bandits escape with $165,000 in gold,” using the insured value of the shipment and not its actual worth, which turned out to be more than $750,000 in 1974 dollars. It was the largest gold theft in Canadian history.

Courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen
Courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen

The score had begun with an encounter at a pool hall where Mitchell and Reid liked to spend their afternoons, an alternative to getting drunk in bars. There they met an Air Canada baggage handler named Gary Coutanche, who was selling expensive calculators that he’d stolen from his day job. Mitchell saw an opportunity and befriended the petty thief, and his instincts paid off when Coutanche told him that every month a shipment of gold came through the airport en route to the national mint. Mitchell offered him $100,000 in exchange for a tip the next time a load came through.

Coutanche spent conspicuously after the robbery, buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a giant diamond ring that he wore on his pinky. Ottawa police had suspected an inside job, and when they went looking for the culprit, he wasn’t hard to find.

In exchange for his freedom, Coutanche agreed to roll over. It helped that Paddy Mitchell had only paid him a portion of the $100,000. Mitchell had promised to pay Coutanche after the gold was fenced, but Coutanche kept calling to ask about the money, and that made Mitchell mad. According to Mitchell’s book, he handed over $10,000 of his own money, in exchange for a promise that Coutanche “wouldn’t do anything with it to attract attention.”

Detectives had long considered Mitchell to be a person of interest—though he’d never been convicted of anything, his involvement in crime was an open secret in Ottawa—but they needed more than Coutanche’s word to arrest him. They bided their time for nearly a year, until February 1975, when Coutanche told authorities that Mitchell had asked him to let a suitcase slip through customs. When the police intercepted the bag, it was stuffed with cocaine.

On March 3, Ottawa police arrested Mitchell and Wright for drug smuggling. Each got 17 years, with Mitchell receiving an extra three for possession of the stolen gold, after he’d been caught on a wiretap arranging to sell five of the six bars.  

Reid wasn’t involved in the cocaine smuggling. He had left Ottawa shortly after the gold robbery, heading first to Miami with a girlfriend, then to Arizona. When he ran out of money, he returned to Canada and ended up in Kingston, Ontario, where he started using heroin and meth again and talked too loosely about his role in the gold heist. After someone tipped off the police, Reid was arrested; he would receive ten years for armed robbery on top of the time he still owed from his original term. 

Pending assignment to a prison, the three men were sent to Ottawa’s regional detention center. “Escapes out of that place were imminent,” Reid said. “It was just a box,” surrounded by a fence and ringed with woods. “It could be had.”

In October 1976, Wright happened to be walking in the prison yard when a man emerged from the woods and approached the fence carrying a large bag. He pulled out a gun, ordered the lone guard on watch to drop his weapon, and threw the bag over the fence. A group of inmates descended upon it, grabbed the wire cutters inside, and cut an opening in the fence.

Seeing an opportunity he couldn’t let pass, Wright followed the escapees through the hole, across some fields, into the woods, and out to a road, where all the felons, including Wright, jumped into a getaway car.

It wasn’t until the car was on the move that one of the other convicts noticed the strange face in the backseat. He promptly kicked the tagalong out of the car. A day later, the other escapees were all arrested. Wright, meanwhile, made his way to Dundee, Florida, where an Ottawan rounder who ran a place called the Shamrock Motel offered him a job and a place to stay. Newspaper stories about Wright’s escape picked up on his longtime nickname, the Ghost. “Lionel could be somewhere all night and people wouldn’t notice,” Reid says. “He was always just part of the wallpaper.”

Millhaven Institution, 1975. Photo: Getty Images


Mitchell and Reid were sent to Millhaven Institution, Canada’s most secure prison. Millhaven was an especially violent place—on their first day inside, an inmate was bludgeoned to death in the yard with a metal pipe—and the two men immediately began plotting their escape. They jogged five miles a day and did dozens of pull-ups to build strength for climbing fences, preparing themselves for whatever plan they would ultimately put in place. 

Inmates routinely attempted escape from Millhaven, and Reid and Mitchell joined several unsuccessful plots. They were part of a group that planned to scale the fence after dark, thinking that the area was unguarded at night. But that guard tower was manned after all, and a stick-up guy from Quebec was shot dead on the fence when he decided to go for it anyway. Their most ambitious attempt took months to prepare. Reid and Mitchell and a group of other prisoners broke into an old shack in the yard, where they began to dig a tunnel using pilfered garden spades and their bare hands. It was slow going, made slower because they had to bring the soil out in bags hidden under their jackets and disperse it around the yard.

The tunnel got within a dozen yards of the fence when a brutal heat wave descended upon Ontario. One afternoon the blacktop on the yard’s tennis court began to buckle, as if a giant gopher were burrowing underneath, and then a long line of ground collapsed, revealing the entire tunnel they’d been digging for months.

Reid decided that their only way out was through good behavior. If he and Mitchell became model prisoners, they would be transferred to a less secure facility, where an escape would be easier. Reid decided to take up hairstyling, figuring that if he showed interest in a potential post-prison career, the warden might eventually send him elsewhere to get further training. The plan actually worked, and in the fall of 1978, Reid was sent to Joyceville, a medium-security prison in Kingston, for additional instruction in hairstyling.

Due to his “exemplary behavior and participation in social programs,” as one warden wrote, Mitchell arrived six months later. He found Reid thriving, the star of the prison hockey team and one of the favored inmates of the warden. Reid knew he’d get the chance to run first, and he promised Mitchell he’d come back for him. On August 15, 1979, Reid got his opening when the warden allowed him to take a day trip in the company of a single guard to a hair salon in downtown Kingston. 

After spending the morning at the salon, the two stopped for Chinese. Reid ordered, excused himself to use the bathroom and—for the second time in his life—climbed out a restaurant window to freedom. He ran five blocks across town to a Holiday Inn, where he had arranged to meet his getaway driver. 

Reid reached the parking lot, then stopped to gather himself so that he wouldn’t walk into the hotel panting and sweaty. He’d been gone nearly ten minutes, and he knew the guard would have alerted others that he’d escaped.

As he approached the hotel entrance, Reid noticed a large white banner that read: Welcome Ontario detectives! The Holiday Inn where he had arranged to meet his getaway driver was hosting a police convention. “This is the stuff you can’t make up,” he told me. 

He entered a lobby filled with men in ill-fitting khakis and off-the-rack suits, any one of whom could have worked his cases or at least seen his face in a police report or newspaper story. Reid headed for the table where his driver was having coffee. They sat for a minute, then rose calmly and walked out to the car, certain with every step that someone would stop them before they could pull out of the lot. 

Reid made his way back to Ottawa, found a cheap gun—“a beat-up .32 with a missing handle”—and “went to work” robbing banks to raise money so he could spring Mitchell. 


Back at Joyceville, Mitchell began to worry that Reid was never coming for him. Maybe he’d decided it was too risky, or he’d been arrested again, or maybe he’d fallen back down the hole of his heroin addiction. But on November 15, 1979, three months after Reid’s escape through the window of the Chinese restaurant, Mitchell’s brother Bobby came to visit with a message. “Today’s the day,” he whispered.

After dinner that night, Mitchell went for a five-mile run around the yard, as he often did, returned to his cell, and chugged a glass of water in which he’d been steeping a thick wad of tobacco. He knew that the acrid-tasting tea was likely to induce a kind of false cardiac arrest, but he had no idea how much to drink or how sick it would make him. In his final moments of lucidity, Mitchell had one last thought: You stupid bastard! You’ve killed yourself!

A few months before Reid’s escape, he and Mitchell had observed a sick inmate being transported out of the prison to a local hospital in the company of a single guard. This, they realized, was the weak link in the system, and Reid told Mitchell that if and when he successfully escaped, Mitchell needed to come up with a plan to get himself into an ambulance bound for the hospital.

“But you have to realize what this means,” Reid remembered saying. “You’re the one with the wife and kids. I’ll come for you, but that’s it—our life from that point on will be on the run.” 

The two discussed and rejected various ideas for self-induced hospitalization. Mitchell needed to injure himself seriously enough to require care that couldn’t be provided at the prison, but not so seriously that Reid wouldn’t be able to fix him up later. That ruled out broken legs and arms, as well as accidents with the woodshop table saw, which would be too serious to treat. Eventually, they heard a story about an inmate whose nicotine overdose convinced prison staff that he was having a heart attack. Cigarettes were easy to come by, and they figured the condition would resolve itself over time.

Prior to his brother’s visit, Mitchell had been setting up the play for weeks, complaining about chest pains and visiting the prison nurse several times. Now, having finished the entire glass of nicotine water, he walked into the prison’s common area and collapsed into a trash can. He’d later recall that he began “flopping around in the swill like a fish out of water,” heart pounding and sweat dripping from his pores.

When a nurse determined that Mitchell was in distress, he was handcuffed to a gurney, put in leg irons, and loaded into an ambulance accompanied by two paramedics and two unarmed security guards. He was sick and hallucinating; later he described howling wolves and a man on a white horse, and imagined himself “drifting through snow white clouds.”

As the ambulance approached the hospital, the driver noticed a sign outside the ER stating that the main entrance was under repair and directing arrivals to a side door. Instead, he backed into a dimly lit drive and stopped next to a black van, where two men in green scrubs and surgical masks were waiting. One of the EMTs had begun relaying the patient’s vitals when he saw something that made him stop. The taller of the two men in scrubs was pointing a silver revolver directly at the prison guards.

“Just do as you’re told, or I’ll blow your fucking head off!” Stephen Reid barked. He ordered one guard to remove Mitchell’s handcuffs, and then used them to cuff both guards to the inside of the ambulance. Reid slung his delirious friend over his shoulder and carried him to the idling van. 

Reid had been avoiding Kingston since his escape, but he had hired someone to rent a basement apartment where he could take Mitchell, thinking it was wiser to stay close than to risk making a run out of town. He had given specific instructions about what he needed in this apartment: filet mignon, lobster tails, Seagram’s VO, and a case of Mouton Cadet wine, in addition to basic groceries and medical supplies.

The van’s driver, an old accomplice from Ottawa—Wright had offered to help, but Reid told him to stay put in Florida—followed a predetermined route from the hospital to the apartment building. By the time they arrived, Mitchell was nearly unconscious, unable to speak and drooling as Reid yelled into his face, asking how much poison he’d taken. 

He’s going to die, Reid remembered thinking. And if that happened, he would be stuck in the small apartment with his friend’s corpse. He glanced at the hacksaw he’d brought to remove Mitchell’s leg irons and thought that, if it came to that, he could cut up the body and smuggle it out in trash bags. 

Reid didn’t know what to do, but he felt like he needed to get something, anything, into Mitchell’s stomach. He laid Mitchell on the floor, grabbed a bottle of wine, forced the cork down into the bottle, and poured wine into his friend’s mouth. 

Reid sat back and stared at Mitchell’s body, his heart pounding so hard that he worried he might have a heart attack of his own. Then he heard a gurgle and a kind of choke, and Paddy Mitchell went from dead prone to bolt upright and vomited a ball of viscous black material onto the floor.

Within a few minutes, Mitchell was nearly himself. Reid used bolt cutters to remove the leg irons, and the two friends spent the night eating and drinking and listening to the police scanner as cops across the province set up roadblocks and chased leads in search of the famous Paddy Mitchell, widely assumed to be in the company of a former accomplice who had also recently escaped from custody.

Paddy Mitchell’s mug shot, distributed after his escape. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell
Paddy Mitchell’s mug shot, distributed after his escape. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell

When a reporter asked the spokesperson for Canadian Penitentiary Services why two famous criminal collaborators, one of whom had a history of escape, had been housed together at Joyceville, the spokesman explained that prison officials believed they could be watched more closely that way.

After a week, it seemed safe to venture outside the apartment. Reid put his new skills to work. He dyed Mitchell’s hair and gave him a perm, and then the two made their way to Montreal and, using fake IDs, boarded a train for Burlington, Vermont.

From Burlington, they flew to New York City and then on to Florida, where they reunited with Wright at the Shamrock Motel in Dundee. For three years, Wright had been working there and living in a small room behind the front desk. “He would have been a clerk forever, I think, if we hadn’t shown up,” Reid said.

St. Petersburg, Florida, 1978. Photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory


Florida was paradise after the penitentiary, especially for Mitchell. The gang established their base in a nice home with a yard and a garage in St. Petersburg near the beach. 

At first, Reid gave Mitchell space. He was excused from the early jobs—mostly quick smash-and-grab bank robberies, in which Reid would hold the room at bay while Wright and any one of several rotating accomplices leaped the counter to empty out drawers—so that Mitchell could readjust to life on the outside. He often spent his afternoons fishing under a bridge. But after a month, it was time for the entire gang to go to work.

They settled on a department store in downtown Tampa called Robinson’s, and called a meeting at the kitchen table of the rental house to discuss the particulars. Mitchell, a natural planner, started sketching out the job. He had been inside the store several times, and now he drew it from memory, putting Reid and Wright into position.

Reid looked over the sketch and asked, “Where are you, Paddy?” Mitchell stammered. He’d never done one of these jobs before, he said. “I found him, broke him out, brought him to Florida, and let him have his party,” Reid recalled; this was a “come-to-Jesus moment.” They were going to be a gang of equals. 

When Mitchell pleaded that he’d never used a gun, Reid handed him one and said, “I’m going to show you how.” 

While scouting the store, Reid and Mitchell had noticed that the employees in the second-floor cashiers’ office prepared early for the weekly arrival of the Brink’s guard. They would gather the bags of money from the vault and place them in a nearby office. When a designated cashier saw the guard coming down the hall, she’d retrieve the bags and, once he’d presented a yellow verification slip, hand over the money.

Wright found a jacket and pants at a uniform-supply shop and altered them to look enough like a Brink’s uniform that Reid could move freely through the store and up to the counter without arousing suspicion. He was, however, missing the final piece—the yellow verification slip—which meant that at the moment of handoff, Reid would have to pull his gun.

Mitchell’s job was to loiter among the shoppers until Reid’s bluff switched to “a strong-arm play,” at which point Mitchell would reveal himself. “I want to make sure that as soon as I get the bag, you have all those people on the floor so I can get out,” Reid told Mitchell. “That way I don’t have to watch for somebody coming behind me.”

They went over the plan in the car and again in the elevator, then parted ways on the second floor. Reid approached the cashier and pulled his gun, and she handed over the bags in shock. Seconds later, though, her fear changed to anger. She began to scream at him and tried to snatch back one of the bags. It was time to move. Reid whirled, expecting to see a room full of terrified people on the floor, but instead he saw a crowd of confused shoppers and Mitchell behind them, wide-eyed and fumbling at his waist. He’d tucked the gun—the first one he’d ever carried on a robbery—into his waistband, and when he’d tried to pull it out the trigger caught on the band of his underwear. “It was like a comedy sketch,” Reid recalled. “He gave himself a wedgie.”

In the elevator, Mitchell began pushing buttons, frantic to get out. Reid smacked his hand out of the way. “Get behind me,” he remembers telling Mitchell. “I have a gun and a Brink’s uniform. No one is going to think anything about it.” Reid walked fast, through the women’s department and out the back door to the car, where Wright saw Mitchell’s panic and took it to mean that his friends had just shot their way out of the place.

“I never took Paddy in again,” Reid said. From that point on, Mitchell would be the driver.

Paddy Mitchell in the late ’70s. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell

In the coming months, the gang shifted their focus to banks, and after several robberies they developed a routine. They would drive to a town at least a half-hour away, check into a motel, and research potential targets. Once they picked a bank, Wright would handle logistics, mapping escape routes, timing stoplights, studying intersections and traffic bottlenecks. If a garbage truck often caused delays on a particular road, Wright would know about it.

Meanwhile, Reid and Mitchell would open accounts and stop in frequently to make deposits and withdrawals. They would chat with tellers and note where the guards stood, when the manager took his break, whether there were times when the vault door was left open. They would rent safe-deposit boxes to gain entry to the vault. By asking a teller to change $1,000 worth of twenties into hundreds, they would learn if large bills were kept in individual drawers or if the tellers had to go elsewhere to retrieve them. Once they’d gathered their intelligence, the gang would leave town and go home for a while so that their faces wouldn’t be on recent surveillance footage, since one of the first things the FBI does after a bank robbery is pull the tape.

A few days before a robbery, Reid or Mitchell would steal a car, then swap out the plates with a set stolen from a similar model. They’d rent a hideout apartment, ideally with underground parking. Wright would pick up supplies—fake identification, guns, and disguises, which always included masks to cover their entire heads—and drive the escape routes in search of additional advantages, such as alleys, side exits from parking lots, or entries behind shopping centers that might be overlooked.

Once the robbery was over and the men were safe in the car, Mitchell would follow a predetermined route to the nearest freeway, then exit quickly and head to a remote parking lot—or, ideally, an underground garage—where a second car would be waiting. There they would unscrew the getaway car’s stolen plates, strip off their clothes, and split up: Mitchell, who liked to wear jogging gear under his disguise, would go for a run. Reid would drive the second car, the money, and the disguises back to the hideout. As for Wright—“Lionel usually took the bus,” Reid said.


Eventually, Florida got too hot, and the gang decided to head west. They chose a beachfront apartment complex in San Diego and rented two apartments there, as well as a third place across town to be used as a stash house for guns and radios and Kevlar vests, which they’d begun to wear as a hedge against the more serious firepower now being carried by armored-car guards.

California was a land of sprawl, which meant a land rich in bank branches. It was easy to venture north from San Diego. They hit a series of banks on a road trip through L.A., and later traveled up to the Bay Area.

But San Diego alone was a gold mine. Despite a general rule that it was bad to steal in their own backyard, the gang found the city’s environs just too fertile. In one seven-week spree, they took $21,270 from a Wells Fargo, $24,661.50 from a Solar Credit Union, $19,225 from a First Bank, and $8,210 from a Bank of America. When a witness reported that one of the men wore a large stopwatch around his neck, and appeared to be checking it over the course the robbery, the FBI began referring to them as the Stopwatch Gang. 

The bureau names serial robbers as part of a larger strategy: to get media attention and bring out tips from a public now on the lookout for identifying characteristics. “It generates more interest, and of course the agents love it,” said Norman Zigrossi, who ran the FBI’s San Diego bureau at the time. The Stopwatch Gang became a priority for Zigrossi, and he began to address the robberies publicly. A reward was offered for the gang’s capture—a rarity in those days, he said. 

Soon, the stress of so many heists in such a short time, combined with the intensity of the FBI’s investigation, began to take its toll, especially on Mitchell, who finally told his partners that he needed a break. 

The gang parted ways after the Bay Area heists. Mitchell went north, through California into Oregon and Washington, where he met a waitress and holed up in a cabin near Mount St. Helens. Once he was gone, Reid and Wright hopped on Interstate 80 and headed east. They drove over the Sierra Nevada range into Nevada and made their way down through the deserts of the Southwest until they landed in Sedona, Arizona, an eccentric little mountain town carved out of red rock canyons. 

Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, late ’70s. Photo: Courtesy of McMaster University


Reid and Wright loved Sedona. They rented a cedar and glass cabin along a stream in an area called Oak Creek Canyon and mixed well with the locals, telling everyone they were California transplants who owned a company that supplied lighting and equipment for rock concerts. Reid, aka Timothy Pfeiffer, was the company’s president. Wright, who’d made the business cards, was Stephen Kirkland, director of logistics.

Work didn’t stop in Mitchell’s absence. Reid merely called in an old friend and, along with Wright, hit two banks in Phoenix and another in Little Rock, Arkansas. He also continued to scout potential sites and had ten or so easy jobs ready to go by the time Mitchell returned in the fall of 1980.

For all the success they were having knocking off bank after bank, the three men had begun to worry that their luck might run out. They needed to do a big job, the kind of thing that would set them up for a while until they could figure out a more stable (if still illegal) line of work. What they needed was a branch where the weekend take was a substantial sum. Reid knew exactly the one he wanted to hit—a Bank of America branch at 912 Garnet Avenue, back in San Diego. They’d actually hit this bank once already, in a former location a few blocks away, but Reid liked it even better where it sat now.

It was a large and busy branch, and almost perfectly situated to meet their needs. Every Tuesday, Loomis guards arrived to carry out the bank’s excess cash—and by the size of the pickups Reid had observed, it was a lot of money.

While Reid studied the comings and goings of the Loomis guards, Wright focused on logistics. Using a fake Arizona license, he rented a dark blue Ford LTD at the San Diego airport. They outfitted the car with stolen tags, and then Mitchell slapped a huge red racing stripe down the side of it. The gang always read their own press coverage, and they’d picked up on something important: Witnesses tended to remember the most obvious details. So, to distract them from retaining anything that could be useful to police, the gang began to add outlandish flourishes to their cars and disguises. During several robberies, Reid had a banana sticking out of his pocket, and without fail witnesses recalled that detail. (“We could just as well have been the Banana Gang,” he said.) 

On the morning of September 23, Mitchell waited in the Ford outside a side entrance while Reid and Wright prepared to go inside. This robbery required them to blend in with the customers. Reid chose a royal blue three-piece suit, a fake beard, and large eyeglasses, plus a poufy black wig, while Wright wore a light gray suit with matching tie and a thick blond wig and goatee, giving him the appearance, Reid recalled, “of an anorexic Colonel Sanders.” Both applied heavy foundation to darken their faces and attached clear bandages to their thumbs and first two fingers to avoid leaving fingerprints.

From surveillance footage captured at a Bank of America in San Diego, California, on September 23, 1980 and later used on a police handout. 
From surveillance footage captured at a Bank of America in San Diego, California, on September 23, 1980 and later used on a police handout. 

The two men arrived separately, within about a minute of one another, and assumed their positions to wait for the truck’s arrival. Wright went to the counter used to fill out deposit slips; Reid, Uzi in his briefcase, sat at a couch where customers awaited appointments with financial planners. 

Five minutes went by and Reid squirmed in his seat, wondering what had happened to the armored truck. He’d watched the Loomis guards arrive at the branch at almost exactly the same time four weeks in a row, but today the truck was late. Five minutes became ten, and Wright began to sweat as he filled out and then crumpled slip after slip. He wiped his forehead and saw a smear of make-up on his hand.

Reid was also sweating, and the moisture caused the bandages on his fingers to come loose. At the 15-minute mark, Wright anxiously looked to Reid for the signal to abort, but Reid stayed put.

Finally, 28 minutes behind schedule, a red Loomis truck pulled up at the front entrance. The driver stayed in the cab while Harlen Lee Hudson, a six-foot, 220-pound guard with nine years on the job, walked into the bank wearing aviator sunglasses that he never removed. He flirted with tellers as he commenced his rounds, making two trips from the vault to the truck with bags of cash that sagged from their weight.

Reid figured these were full of coins, so he gave Wright the signal to stay put. They hadn’t waited a half-hour to steal a thousand dollars in quarters. On Hudson’s third trip, he emerged with a different-looking load on his cart. This was the cash.

Hudson was halfway to the door, just past the lobby couch, when Reid rose and poked the barrel of a .357 Magnum into the guard’s gut.

He gave him his standard line: “This is a robbery. Don’t be a hero or I’ll kill you.” The bandit’s voice, Hudson would later tell agents, was calm and professional. He was “almost polite.” Wright came up from behind and reached into Hudson’s holster, pulling out the guard’s pistol and tucking it into his belt. Reid told Hudson and everyone in the room to lie down as he and Wright each picked up two bags so stuffed with bricks of cash that they had become rectangular. Then they walked calmly out of the bank, unaware that a surveillance camera, activated when a clerk triggered the silent alarm, was snapping photos at five-second intervals.

By day’s end, those surveillance photos accompanied news stories about three men who committed the largest bank robbery in the history of San Diego, walking out in broad daylight with $283,000 in cash.

The next day, Mitchell and Reid left for Sedona, while Wright stayed behind to dispose of the disguises and other possible evidence. He was supposed to burn everything but instead decided to drop it in a dumpster that the crew had used before. Usually, Wright would wait nearby to make sure a garbage truck emptied the dumpster, but this time he got spooked by a cop eating lunch in the lot and took off.

Later that afternoon, an elderly couple on the hunt for aluminum cans looked in the dumpster and noticed a green bag with a wig sticking out, then opened the bag to find several wigs and beards, a bottle of CoverGirl makeup, two license plates, an empty pack of Winston Lights, and several Bank of America bags.

Nothing in the bag led police directly to a suspect, but they were able to lift a partial thumbprint from one of the cash bags. Also potentially useful: paperwork for a car rental, along with a copy of the fake license used to rent it, which had a very clear photo of a skinny man with jug ears and receding hair. 

An FBI evidence report of the Bank of America robbery at 912 Garnet Ave. in San Diego. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell
An FBI evidence report of the Bank of America robbery at 912 Garnet Ave. in San Diego. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell

With the money from the Bank of America job, the gang began to imagine a new way of life. Mitchell and Reid made plans to have any distinguishing marks removed and looked into the possibility of plastic surgery to further disguise their appearances. They were ready to retire from bank robbing, but they also knew that the money they had wouldn’t last forever.

One possible future that seemed promising was marijuana smuggling. Reid had earned a pilot’s license in Sedona, and he’d recently bought a plane, a silver Mooney 201, in cash. They began to research locations in Central America, looking in particular at Belize, with the idea that they could use the plane to slip in low across the border.

A few weeks after the robbery, Reid got word through some intermediaries that a friend was looking for him. Donny Hollingsworth—aka Big John—had had a successful career as a halfback for the Ottawa Rough Riders in the Canadian Football League before retiring into an even more successful life of crime. In Ottawa, he drove a Rolls Royce and was the envy of many young criminals, Stephen Reid included. Mitchell never entirely trusted the man, but he wasn’t so suspicious that he refused to work with him. In fact, Hollingsworth had helped them fence the stolen gold from the airport job. He and Reid remained friendly, and when they all met up again in California, Hollingsworth proved useful, helping Reid acquire guns and other supplies for the gang’s various robberies. 

Now Hollingsworth was in trouble. He’d gotten involved in a large crystal meth operation run out of a cabin 90 miles northeast of San Diego, which was raided after a man died while sampling their latest batch. A concerned citizen saw Hollingsworth dump the body from his car on the side of a road. Police located the car and the cabin, and Hollingsworth attempted to escape by leaping through a plate-glass window. He was apprehended and needed $80,000 to help cover his bail.

Hollingsworth promised to pay the loan back in 60 days with interest, and Reid decided to help out an old friend in trouble. It felt like the right thing to do, and also good karma, since he might need to call in a favor of his own someday. 


Reid liked to spend his days flying his new plane out over the mesas and canyons around Sedona. Afterward, he’d often stop for chips and margaritas at Maria’s, a Mexican restaurant near the airport, and that’s where he was one afternoon in October of 1980 when three men in trench coats walked in. Those look like cops, he thought. What are they doing here? When nothing happened, Reid decided he was just paranoid. He went home and forgot about them.

His initial instinct was right, though. The three men were FBI agents, sent to Sedona to track the Stopwatch Gang while waiting for arrest warrants to be issued. The agent in charge of intercepting America’s most-wanted bank robbers was Steve Chenoweth, head of the small Flagstaff field office. During his time in Arizona, Chenoweth had worked mostly on violent crimes, with a focus on bank-robbery investigations. That was a busy beat in Arizona; Chenoweth recalled that the state averaged more than 250 bank robberies a year. 

Chenoweth was cautious while he waited for the order to move on the Stopwatch Gang. Every cable he’d seen ended with two ominous stamps: armed and dangerous and escape risk. He knew where Reid and Wright were staying in Oak Creek Canyon, but the terrain was steep and rugged, and there was only a single point of entry. It was nearly impossible to go in undetected.

Chenoweth knew that the subjects, especially Reid, were popular in their community, so to prevent them from being tipped off, he told only a single sheriff’s deputy what was going on. That decision turned out to be wise when he later learned that one of Reid’s closest friends was another deputy he’d met at a local bar.

The bureau had been tracking the men but couldn’t confirm their identities, until a confidential informant revealed their names. This allowed the FBI to request their prints from the Canadian authorities, which matched the evidence agents had collected, including the partial print from the trash bag. On October 30, a judge issued arrest warrants for Stephen Reid, Patrick Mitchell, and Lionel Wright on charges of bank robbery and conspiracy.

Reid was pulled over on the morning of October 31 while driving his Camaro to the airport to go flying, and Wright was arrested at the house “without incident”—except for the fact that he was naked in bed when agents kicked in his door. Reid, an FBI report noted, “admitted his identity,” while Wright, in keeping with character, “would not admit his identity.” (Wright “is the only one of the three who never said a word to anyone about his activities,” Chenoweth told me.)

Both men were taken to San Diego and placed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal facility downtown. In light of the subjects’ history of escape, the judge set bail at $1.5 million. “The subjects are escapees from Canada with extraditable warrants against them … allegedly good for 30 bank robberies on the west coast,” the charging document said. 

On November 1, newspapers across Canada announced the arrest of Stephen Douglas Reid and Lionel Wright, as well as the unknown whereabouts of their famous partner. “Patrick ‘Paddy’ Mitchell . . . the duo’s partner in crimes and prison breaks which span more than a decade, managed to elude the manhunt,” reported the Ottawa Citizen.

The following April, Reid and Wright—who both pleaded guilty—were sentenced in Federal Court to 20 years in prison for the armed robbery of the Bank of America. The U.S. Attorney applauded the sentence, describing the pair as “extremely competent, dangerous bank robbers, who will continue to be so.”

The identity of the government’s informant was never revealed during the trial. After sentencing, Reid and Wright’s attorneys worked out a plea deal that involved returning some of the stolen money. When the arrangement collapsed, the men learned that the entire case hinged on Big John Hollingsworth. 

Following his arrest at the meth-lab, Hollingsworth told his attorney to offer the DEA a deal. If prosecutors would reduce his bond and consider a reduction in charges, his attorney said, Hollingsworth “would be able to identify and cause the apprehension of the individuals involved” in the Bank of America robbery. According to Mitchell’s FBI case file, Hollingsworth added some bluster. “They are described as real professionals with the ability of being killers,” his attorney told the FBI. “They usually wear flak jackets and carry automatic weapons.” 

Hollingsworth provided numerous details to prove the legitimacy of his claims. He knew, for instance, that the perpetrators had purchased wigs and beards at a movie-supply store in the San Fernando Valley and that the two main players were an “older more paternal type” and one who was “large of stature and a Wyatt Earp type personality.” Furthermore, Hollingsworth offered, these same men had recently robbed a large jewelry store—a job, he neglected to say, that he himself had set up—and were behind “other bank robberies” in San Diego.

“I know exactly who they are,” Hollingsworth told the agents. “And I know where they are.” 

Reid was furious about Hollingsworth’s deception, and he pointed something out to the court that put his entire case in a new light. The first person he called after his arrest was Hollingsworth, seeking a quick return on his recent favor. It was Hollingsworth, the man whose sealed testimony helped build the prosecution’s case, who hired Reid’s lawyer for him. And it was Hollingsworth, known in court only as Mr. X, who acted as Reid’s secret intermediary in the attempted return of the stolen money—money that went missing during the transfer.

The judge appointed Reid and Wright a new lawyer, who reached an agreement with prosecutors to reduce their sentences by half.

The Hollingsworth affair was something of an embarrassment for the FBI and the court. According to Reid, Hollingsworth’s immunity pertained only to his meth arrest, so when the money from the transfer disappeared, the prosecution ordered Reid and Wright to testify in a grand-jury hearing on some of Hollingsworth’s other criminal activities. They refused, even though they likely could have traded information for leniency; Hollingsworth was a free man. Instead, they were held in contempt and ordered to serve an additional 11 months on top of their sentences. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Reid told me. “I know straight people see not testifying as dumb,” he said, but there was a code of honor, he suggested, and that went beyond his hatred of the man who’d turned them in. 

Reid and Wright could have appealed their sentences but chose not to. “We didn’t have the money,” Reid said. And so his strategy was simple: serve his time, stay clean, then “go home in a prisoner-exchange treaty and escape again.”

Stephen Reid at the Kent Institution, in British Columbia. Photo: Alexander Waterhouse-Hayward


Not surprisingly, Reid and Wright were kept apart. Wright was sent to Leavenworth, a maximum-security prison in Kansas, while Reid, considered to be an extreme escape risk, got some unusual treatment. Shortly after his sentence, he was put on what he calls a “ghost chain.” For 11 months, Reid was bused around the country, from jail to jail, often every few days, with no notice of where he was going or how long his stay would be. One night he’d sleep in a county lockup in McAlester, Oklahoma; the next he’d be off to Lacuna, Texas.

The point was to make him disappear, to make his whereabouts impossible to track. After nearly a year, he landed at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the highest-security facility in the system. Marion was built to house the 500 most dangerous criminals in the prison system, and the initial population was made up mostly of transfers from Alcatraz. It is not a place for reform. Prisoners there aren’t allowed to work and spend much of their time in solitary confinement.  

Reid knew there was no chance of escape from Marion, so he worked diligently on earning a transfer back to Canada. He wrote letters and lobbied the consulate, calling in every possible favor from his old connections in Ottawa. Finally, on May 6, 1983, after two years at Marion, Reid was sent back home, to Millhaven, where he joined Wright, who had also been granted a transfer.

Back at Millhaven, Reid once again developed a reputation as both an inmate and an administration favorite. He ran the sports commission, which organized the prison hockey and baseball teams, as well as the illegal sports-gambling ring. He was a major player in the smuggling and distribution of hash, and he mediated disputes between guards and prisoners. “I was kinda known as the mayor of Millhaven,” he said.

In 1984, Millhaven was an even more violent place than it had been in 1977, when the grim conditions caused Reid and Mitchell to begin plotting their escapes. One winter, after a rash of stabbings, including the murder of the goalie of his prison hockey team, Reid’s spirit broke. He became angry and depressed. He quit all his prison jobs and scams and began to write, tearing through pages of a yellow legal pad in longhand. “At first it was just words on paper, then disjointed sentences, expressions of anger, bitterness, loss of hope, page after page, the pencil pushing right through the paper with the force of those words coming out of me,” Reid later wrote. “Then a story began to emerge.”

In a few months, he finished a draft of a novel about a gang of bank robbers led by Bobby, a character very much like Stephen Reid, and his sidekick Denny, a thinly veiled version of Lionel Wright. In an adjacent cell, Wright typed the pages as Reid wrote them, never commenting on the story itself. Toward the end of the book, Bobby kills Denny. After he handed the pages to Wright, Reid said, he sat and listened as the tapping of the keys slowed and then stopped. Minutes later, Wright appeared at his cell door. He was crestfallen, Reid said.

First draft of Jackrabbit Parole, 1984. Photo: Courtesy of McMaster Archives
First draft of Jackrabbit Parole, 1984. Photo: Courtesy of McMaster Archives

Reid didn’t know what to do with the manuscript. Around this time, a criminology professor from the University of Waterloo named Fred Desroches asked Reid to be interviewed for a book on Canada’s most infamous bank robbers. Reid initially balked, then said yes—with a caveat. He wanted the professor to read his manuscript. Desroches agreed and was intrigued enough by what he read to pass it on to Waterloo’s writer in residence, a poet and novelist of increasing renown named Susan Musgrave.

Musgrave loved the book. She wrote Reid a flurry of letters—three the first day—telling him she was “excited by the voice.” She chose an excerpt to publish in a literary quarterly, and Reid, acknowledged for something other than crime for the first time since childhood, was ecstatic. He replied to Musgrave with a package containing 13 letters, as well as the first of many poems: “Roses are red/Violets are dead/As will be you/If you don’t visit soon/P.S. Bring lots of drugs.”

Musgrave was in the middle of some turmoil of her own; her marriage (to a marijuana smuggler) had just fallen apart, after her husband was arrested and became a born-again Christian in prison. She began visiting Reid at Millhaven and helped shape the manuscript into a novel that she then took to her publisher, who bought the book based on the first 90 pages alone and signed Reid up to write two more.

Reid and Musgrave very quickly fell in love. “We exchanged hot-dog letters, and it was this fiery kind of romance,” Reid said. “It was very frustrating, physically.” When Musgrave’s residency at Waterloo ended, she returned to her home on Vancouver Island and began lobbying the regional prison director to get Reid transferred west, to a facility closer to her. She told me she was chastised by the prison director, who asked her why such an accomplished woman would want to waste time on a “thug” like Reid. Ultimately, though, he granted the request and urged Reid to use the chance to start over.

Reid was moved to the Kent Institution in British Columbia, where Musgrave visited every week. “We worked on his book, which grew to more than 400 pages,” Musgrave would later write. “We worked on our love affair, which grew into an epic.”

When Reid’s appeal for parole was denied, Musgrave suggested they get married so they would qualify for three-day “family visits” in a trailer on the prison grounds. In 1986, when Reid’s novel Jackrabbit Parole, was published, the two of them became instantly famous; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation filmed and aired scenes from their prison wedding. That year, Reid was again transferred, to the William Head Institution, a short drive from Musgrave’s home on Vancouver Island, and in May 1987, he was granted full parole. 

Stephen Reid and Susan Musgrave’s wedding at the Kent Institution, 1986. Photo: Alexander Waterhouse-Hayward

Lionel Wright, meanwhile, would spend another seven years in prison. He owed more time from his original sentence on the drug charges, and he was less willing than Reid to work the system in his favor. He applied for parole just once, and after he was denied he never tried again. To Reid that made a strange kind of sense. “Lionel is quiet. He doesn’t know how—or care enough—to woo his case-management people to think he’s reformed.” 

The last time Reid saw Wright was in Kingston, shortly after Wright’s release in 1994. For a while after that, every so often a card from Wright would arrive, and then, Reid said, “One day I noticed Lionel was gone. The letters stopped coming, much in the way that he just vanishes. You don’t even know he’s gone until someone asks, ‘Where’s Lionel?’ Good question. Where is Lionel?”

Paddy Mitchell, meanwhile, was still on the lam. From the day Reid and Wright were apprehended in Sedona, Mitchell had been running. He was out of town, visiting his girlfriend’s parents in Iowa, when his friends were arrested. After he learned that they were in custody, Mitchell flew back to Arizona and, certain that he too would be arrested, snatched the gang’s remaining $300,000 in cash from the gang’s safe-deposit box. Then he began his solo career.

Without his former partners, Mitchell became the accomplished armed robber he’d never been before. He started in Florida and headed west, knocking off several department stores, as well as a bank in Hot Springs, Arkansas, before he was arrested in, of all places, Arizona, after a botched department-store robbery in Phoenix. Mitchell was charged with armed robbery and brought to night court, where a judge, who had no idea that one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted criminals was standing before him, set bail at $16,500. Mitchell called their old friend from Dundee, who flew to Phoenix with $20,000 and handed the cash to a bail bondsman, setting Mitchell free again to resume robbing banks.

A year later, the FBI caught up to him, this time in Florida. He was flown to California, convicted, and sentenced to ten years for the Bank of America robbery in San Diego, 20 years for stealing $200,000 from a bank in Arkansas, and 18 years for the armed robbery of the department store in Phoenix. He still owed Canada 20 years for the gold heist. The Arizona state attorney nixed a deal that would have allowed Mitchell to serve his entire sentence in federal custody, where he’d have his best shot at a transfer back to Canada, and he was sent to the maximum-security penitentiary in Florence, Arizona.

No one had ever escaped from Florence, but Mitchell wasn’t going to waste away in another violent prison. Four years into his sentence, he scrambled up into the air ducts above the prison’s visiting room and crawled to freedom along with two other convicts, passing directly over the warden’s office on his way out. 

Mitchell eventually fled to the Philippines, assumed the identity of Gary Weber, a prosperous insurance investigator, then married a woman he met there and had a second son, Richard. He lived happily, in a large house in the mountains on Luzon, for five years, making occasional trips back to the U.S. to rob banks and subsidize his life. Then, in 1993, America’s Most Wanted reran a segment about him. A couple Mitchell had been friendly with in the Philippines caught the broadcast when they were vacationing in Hawaii, recognized him, and called the FBI.  By the time the agents located Mitchell’s home, he was gone again.

Flushed out of his comfortable exile, Mitchell fled back to the States and, in his final act as a free man, committed the sloppiest robbery of his life, in Southaven, Mississippi. His plan was to create a diversion by calling in several bomb threats, but local police didn’t fall for it and instead kept a closer watch on the town’s banks. When Mitchell fled one of them wearing ridiculous neon-colored tassels on his eyeglasses and carrying $160,000 in cash, he was quickly apprehended, and his long life of crime finally came to an end. At his trial, he was sentenced to 65 years at Leavenworth. 

Surveillance footage of Paddy Mitchell from a 1991 robbery. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell and McMasters University


In 1987, at the age of 36, Reid was released from prison and moved into Musgrave’s cottage—which the family calls the Treehouse, for the enormous Douglas fir that grows through the middle of the kitchen—in the coastal village of Sidney. He helped raise her young daughter, and in 1989, he and Musgrave had a daughter of their own. 

For ten years, they lived an idyllic life in this ivy-covered cottage behind a bamboo gate, looking out over Saanich Inlet, a small bay filled with butter clams and bufflehead ducks. The water there is clear, and on the night before a full moon, Reid would wade in and take a spirit bath, a cleansing ritual he picked up from some native friends while serving time at William Head.

Reid built furniture and tinkered around the house. He pulled weeds, planted flowers, and started building a home on a plot of land Musgrave bought in the Queen Charlotte Islands, installing a bank-vault door in a cheeky nod to his past. Jackrabbit Parole became a bestseller, and Reid and Musgrave were famous in Canadian literary circles as much for their unconventional marriage as for their literary successes. Reid wrote two plays, taught at a local college, and even played a Brink’s guard who foiled a robbery in the 1999 French-Canadian film Four Days. (When his ten-year-old daughter watched Reid’s character fire a gun at the robber, she said, “Dad shot the good guy!”) He was appointed to a Royal Commission, the Citizen’s Forum on National Unity, and Corrections Canada hired him to teach creative writing and advise prisoners on how to reclaim their lives. He was, quite literally, the national model of rehabilitation.

Reid and Musgrave socialized with the country’s top writers and academics, and Reid relished his role as the reformed bandit saved by literature. He wanted desperately to believe that he was a great writer and that he was sought after because of his work. As time went by, though, he began to question the attention, suspicious that people were more interested in his legend than in him. 

One evening, Reid recalled attending a party with Musgrave in a beautiful home owned by “old Toronto literary people.” There was elegant food and arranged seating, a cellist in the corner. As the night progressed, conversations turned from art to literature to politics, but Reid was included in none of them. He sat there like a cipher, until, at the end of the night, the wife of the host turned directly to him and said, “Now regale us with stories of prison life.” He felt like a clown, entertainment for a group of snobs, no more important than the cellist in the corner. Even worse, he didn’t object; he played, Reid said, and “titillated them with trash talk and stories of prison.”

The antidote to that feeling, of course, was to write more books. But 13 years went by and he didn’t publish a follow-up to Jackrabbit Parole. “I was chasing the idea of being famous but not producing stuff that makes you famous—the hard work of sitting alone in a room,” he told me. “I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want to write.”

Reid sank deeper into a depression, and on his 49th birthday, he was drinking coffee outside a café when he ran into an old acquaintance. Reid had just left an annual writers’ lunch, feeling like he didn’t belong, when the acquaintance came along and invited him back to his apartment, ostensibly to meet his girlfriend. Reid understood exactly what was happening. The man was obviously high on heroin, and Reid soon was, too. He vomited on the drive home, and when he stepped in the door, Musgrave immediately recognized his hollow eyes. “She retreated to our bedroom, closed the door, and wept,” Reid later wrote. “My birthday cake on the table, surrounded by presents, looked even lonelier.”

Within days he was back in that friend’s apartment, first smoking heroin, then snorting it, before finally settling into the familiar comfort of a needle prick in his arm. He soon began injecting cocaine and heroin together. The two drugs that make up a speedball complement each other, giving the user the ability to use vastly larger quantities, and Reid was soon completely consumed. Thanks to his old gangster connections back east, he had access to pure cocaine and high-grade heroin. He ordered drugs by the ounce and fronted all his junkie friends, always too high to care about collecting.

Huge debts rapidly accrued, and before long, Reid owed his dealers around $90,000. In the throes of addiction, he was too proud to ask for more time, instead resolving to clear his tab the only way he knew how: He would rob a bank.


On June 9, 1999, just before 9 a.m., Reid was perched on the toilet seat in a Shell station bathroom cooking up a speedball, which he then plunged into his left forearm. The rush of the drugs was almost immediate. Reid stumbled outside and slumped into the passenger seat of a stolen beater Chevy driven by a fellow junkie named Allan McCallum, with a “lint-ball hairdo and the wild eyes of an amateur,” Reid would later recall. 

It was six blocks from the Shell station to Cook Street Village, a small elm-shaded strip of shops and restaurants in a residential area of Victoria. Reid’s target, the Royal Bank of Canada, sat at one end. In theory it was a good choice, mostly because of its location. With just a few quick turns on quiet residential streets, they would be in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park, a 200-acre expanse of woods and rolling meadows, where they were unlikely to be spotted. From there they’d vanish into the city on the other side.

Reid pulled on a pair of saggy, ill-fitting gloves, pushing at the gaps between his fingers until they fit as well as they could. In the past, he would choose gloves based on whether or not he could pick up a dime while wearing them, but this time Reid hadn’t bothered with quality control. He yanked at the seams of a tear-away tracksuit to reveal his makeshift uniform—a blue varsity jacket, on which he’d formed the word POLICE in crooked letters made from yellow tape, and a fake SWAT baseball cap. In his duffel bag he carried a pistol-grip, pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, a long-barreled .22 pistol, and a .44 magnum that he tucked into a holster on his hip. Under a blanket in the back was the chase gun, the weapon of last resort—a Chinese-made AK-47 with a banana clip stuffed full of steel-jacketed rounds. 

McCallum parked in a small lot behind the bank while Reid pulled on a clear plastic mask with rouged cheeks and red painted lips. He hopped out, walked through the front door, and barked, “Everyone get on the floor. This is a robbery. I need someone to open the safe, bring out the night-deposit bags, and unlock the back door.”

A woman pushed herself up to her elbows and replied in a quiet, almost apologetic voice: “The safes can’t be opened for another hour, the night-deposit bags are already gone, and the key to the back door is in the middle office, first drawer on the right.”

The only cash in the bank was in the main teller drawer, she said, and Reid popped it open to reveal “a pitiful pile of fives and tens.” Reid stood deflated and desperate in the middle of the bank, and then he noticed a door, which he knew from casing so many banks would be the one leading to the room behind the ATM machine.

Reid ordered the bank manager to unlock the door and empty the machine’s cassettes into his duffel bag. Nearly five minutes had passed since he walked into the bank, but the drugs had warped his sense of time. As he walked out with $93,000 and tossed it into the trunk of McCallum’s car, Reid had no idea how slow he had been.

Before Reid got in on the passenger side, he noticed a female cop, in shorts, standing on the sidewalk. Her 9mm service pistol was pointed at his head.

“Go!” Reid yelled, jumping into the car, and McCallum floored the Chevy out of the lot and up a short street to an intersection, where he whipped a hard left and then, a few turns later, sped into the park. McCallum careened around a corner and then suddenly slammed on the brakes to avoid rear-ending a horse-drawn carriage full of tourists.

Reid’s head smacked the dashboard. The car bounced off the road, over a curb, and onto a bike path before stopping at a set of metal posts. Reid remembers McCallum sat behind the wheel, breathing heavily, looking like he’d given up. Reid, though, was desperate. A police cruiser was now close behind them, as well as a cop on a motorcycle.

Reid stretched his left leg toward the gas pedal and floored it. The Chevy clanged between the posts and took off again up the bike path. The maneuver was enough to ditch the cruiser, but the motorcycle cop was still in pursuit. 

Reid no longer cared about the money. He wanted only to get away. And so he did something he’d never done in his long criminal career—reached down onto the floor and grabbed a firearm with the full intention of using it. He pumped the shotgun, leaned out the open window, and fired, aiming high above the motorcycle’s flashing blue and red lights. The kickback knocked him back into the car, and the Chevy raced out of the park and into James Bay, a quiet neighborhood of small homes and apartment blocks.

The blast slowed the cop but didn’t stop him. Reid had been fortunate to rob so many banks without having to shoot at a cop in pursuit, but that didn’t mean the gang hadn’t planned for the eventuality. He knew how to stop a chase. He ordered McCallum to floor it onto a road with a long straightaway, then take a sharp right and stop the car.

McCallum did as directed, and Reid popped out and stood facing the corner, waiting for the bike to approach. Just as the cop began his turn, Reid fired—up high, he swears, not to hit the rider but to make him stop. The cop ditched his bike as it slid into the grass. A swarm of police cars closed in on them, and an officer returned fire. Reid jumped back into the car and told McCallum to drive. 

Reid realized they were trapped. He told McCallum to stop, then abandoned the car (and the money) and fled on foot. McCallum was apprehended within minutes, shivering behind a bush less than a hundred yards from the car. Reid ran across yards and through houses, and finally into an apartment building, where he burst into a third-floor apartment occupied by an elderly Serbian man and his wife.

Reid knew there was nowhere to run and that it was a matter of time. While the Victoria police chief assembled the largest and most heavily armed search operation in the city’s history, Reid settled in and listened to the Serb tell stories of his freedom-fighting days while he smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes. Eventually, Reid nodded off on a pull-out couch and the couple put on their coats and walked out the door. More than five hours later, the SWAT team moved in. They found Reid snoring.

Reid woke up on the floor of his cell, shaking violently from withdrawal. He could still feel the pepper spray in his nose, and his hands had been broken during the arrest. “That’s the first punishment,” he says. “If you bust a cap at a cop, you get your hands broken.” In the trial that followed, Reid was given an 18-year sentence; even with perfect behavior, he would have to serve at least 12 of them. His daughter was ten years old. 

Down in Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve Chenoweth got a call informing him that the Victoria police were looking for him. When he returned it, a Canadian detective told him they had Stephen Reid in custody for bank robbery. Chenoweth had seen Reid once since his release, and the agent had been impressed by what Reid had become. “He had some talent,” Chenoweth says. “He had good support. I thought, This guy has a good chance of making it.” When he was told that the man he’d arrested in Sedona nearly two decades prior had caused Victoria’s police department to discharge their weapons for the first time in 20 years, Chenoweth couldn’t believe it. “Boy, you could have knocked me over with a feather,” he told me. “I thought he was going to be OK.”

Susan Musgrave was well aware that her husband had fallen back into drug abuse, and in the weeks leading up to his arrest, she was preparing herself for something terrible—she just assumed it would be his death. “He overdosed three times in two weeks,” she told me. “He woke up on the bridge to Long Beach with a needle in his arm. I used to listen at the door to see if he was breathing.”

It never occurred to her that Reid would rob another bank. It also never occurred to her to walk out on him. “If I had any excuse to leave Stephen—if he’d been a jerk and abusive and ran around with other women—I would have,” she said. “But it felt like I would have been leaving someone who was sick. As soon as he wasn’t addicted anymore, he was the person I knew.” Musgrave hadn’t known any addicts before Reid, so she had never experienced the brutal truth that addiction is never over. “What I’ve learned,” she told me, “is that you never know anything about anyone you’re close to.”

Back in prison, Reid was as low as he’d ever been, but in his despair was a chance at salvation. One condition of his sentence as a violent offender was mandatory counseling, and in those sessions he began to confront his past in a way he never had before.

Those who knew about the Stopwatch Gang, who’d read the books and the press coverage and seen the television reports, knew only this version of the Stephen Reid story: Young addict runs away from home and robs banks to support his habit. He meets two fellow criminals straight out of central casting, Paddy Mitchell and Lionel Wright, and together the three gentlemen bandits perfect the art of bank robbery, stealing with panache and never harming a soul. For Reid, the story goes, robbery becomes his addiction—he’s compelled to commit more crimes. But this addiction makes him larger than life. There’s plenty of truth in there. “During a bank robbery, you’re totally alive, in a very ancient way,” Reid told me. 

In his sessions with the prison psychologist, though, a darker, more nuanced story of his past began to take shape. Once his parents passed away, Reid decided to share that story with the public. “That’s when I felt free enough to write,” he told me. “They would have taken that on as a failure on their part. I think they’d had enough hurt from me.” Reid published a collection of essays called A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, in which he described meeting a local doctor named Paul, who wooed Reid, then 11 years old, with rides in a convertible Thunderbird and visits to his comparatively luxurious home. “He had red shag carpets and a fridge full of things like wine and cheese,” Reid told me. “He went to Acapulco.” Paul began giving Reid alcohol, then morphine, first in pill form and later via injections. He also began to sexually abuse the young boy.  

Reid soon became addicted, and he relied on Paul to provide the drugs. “I still lived at home, shared a bed with my brother, and ate my porridge with brown sugar every morning at the crowded kitchen table,” Reid wrote. “Mine is more than the story of a boy interrupted. It is not what Paul took from me, it is what I kept: the lie that the key to the gates of paradise was a filled syringe. In all the thousands of syringes I’ve emptied into my arm since then, the only gates that ever opened led to the penitentiary.”

When Reid hit puberty, Paul rejected him in favor of younger boys. Reid was a full-blown addict by that point and spurned by the man who was his source. The rest of his life—leaving home, stealing to buy drugs, all that followed, can be traced to this moment.

“I blamed myself for years,” Reid told me during one of our several visits. “Thinking back as if I was an adult making the decision to have a relationship with this guy.” 

Musgrave knew almost nothing about the abuse until after Reid’s arrest, and even then he told her only haltingly, portioning out information in half-truths before he finally leveled with her. “I imagine every story has its own horror,” Musgrave told me. “Sometimes it’s bad choices, but not always. I suppose it’s a bad choice to get in the car with a guy”—but in this, the formative experience of Reid’s life, he was, like so many hardened criminals and addicts, a victim before becoming a perpetrator. 

Reid refuses to recast his life with himself as a victim. What Paul did to him, he said, was “monstrous,” but he can’t blame the man for everything that came after. “I’m sure it didn’t help me, but I’ve always believed we live in the arena of choices, and I made a lot of choices that led me to right now,” he said. He suspects chances are good that he would have taken to drugs anyway. “I got to loving drugs for the hedonistic side of it, and I made a lot of choices based on that. The most self-centered person in the world is a drug addict. I grew up in a narcissistic age and became all of those things.”


In early 2014, Reid was released from the William Head Institution and placed on day parole for the final stretch of his incarceration. He was free to come and go, so long as he made it back to the halfway house by 10 p.m. There, in a stately but downtrodden old doctor’s mansion overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Reid occupied a room with bare walls and bay windows facing the harbor. He slept in a single bed and staved off boredom on idle days by making drums, using a traditional method he learned from native inmates in prison.

When I met him, Reid was expecting to be fully released sometime in the spring, most likely by mid-March. He had actually been granted day parole once before, in 2008, and was transitioning back into his old life when he made a dumb mistake, ordering a beer to go along with his cheeseburger on a hot May afternoon. His waitress, who once worked in a prison laundry, knew that abstaining from alcohol was a standard condition of parole. She reported the violation to Reid’s parole officer, and Reid served an additional 47 months at William Head for violating his agreement. “Now I order a Diet Coke with my burger,” he said. 

These days, Reid rises early each day and heads to the Treehouse, where his stepdaughter, Charlotte Musgrave, lives with her twin girls. Reid babysits and helps keep the place up; he takes his elderly mother-in-law, who lives nearby, to the grocery store. Every few weeks, Reid’s parole officer grants him permission to travel to Vancouver to work on his play, and on holidays he gets longer passes to catch a ferry up to the islands, to stay with his wife. Most days, though, are spent here in Victoria, trying to put together a new life while surrounded by reminders of the old one. 

“I pull out every morning and go right by the corner where that guy was,” Reid said, referring to the motorcycle cop he shot at in his desperate attempt to get away. “It makes me think of it often.”

That botched robbery was the result of a series of mistakes, none of which Reid would have made in his right mind. I suggested that, to me, it mostly seemed like a product of bad luck—bad luck that a cop happened to walk past the branch on foot patrol right as he was robbing it, bad luck that another cruiser was right around the corner, and bad luck that his preferred escape route was blocked by a horse carriage. But Reid knew that each of those things could have been anticipated with more meticulous preparation. “You don’t just have bad luck in most things,” he said. “You make it.”

He still wishes he had hired a woman to sit in a large car around the corner from the bank, with instructions to pull into the middle of the road once the getaway car sped past. When the cops came running, she would shout “Oh, my God! They went that way!” and point in the opposite direction.

His mind often returns to the dozen or so bullets he fired at the police officer on the motorcycle, a 28-year veteran named Bill Trudeau who had been on traffic duty when he got the call about the robbery. He swears that he meant no harm, that he aimed up, a good ten feet over the cop’s helmet. “I just wanted them to stop chasing me,” Reid said. “I knew what I was doing, even that butchered. I just didn’t want to get caught.” 

In his prison cells, Reid would often wonder if he hadn’t planned to fail. “I destroyed both of my lives at the same time,” he said—both person and persona: Stephen Reid, the rehabilitated husband, as well as Stephen Reid, the legendary bank robber. 

On the first afternoon we met, Reid and I walked along a driftwood-strewn beach at the edge of Vancouver’s English Bay. The winter wind was strong, and Reid pulled a white silk scarf covered in small black skulls and crowns around his neck. Over lunch he’d been happy to relive the glory days with me, but now he seemed to want to set the record straight. In the many years since the Stopwatch Gang was actually out there robbing banks, he said, the story of the group’s exploits had become myth. 

Factually speaking, there are portions of the Stopwatch Gang’s story that will always be fuzzy. Triangulating versions from interviews with Reid, descriptions in Mitchell’s book, and various reported accounts sometimes resulted in more questions than answers. And the one man who could help clear up the inconsistencies, Lionel Wright, was nowhere to be found. Since his release in 1994, Wright has not spoken to reporters. His friends have lost track of him, and I wasn’t even able to determine what country he’s living in.

But the thing that was bothering Reid had less to do with the details of the past and more to do with the way it had all been framed. “What I find is that there’s facts and there’s truths, and they’re often two very different animals,” Reid said. “We did quite a number of banks—not as many as the FBI holds us accountable for. In my more bravado moments, I’ll admit to more than we probably did. It’s not as wide as anyone suggests it was, but we did cut a swath. We lived like rock stars, and we had a great time.”

The notion that they were harmless, though, is something that Reid can’t abide any longer. Paddy Mitchell is often remembered as a folk hero, “the gentleman bandit” with the unloaded gun. Mitchell liked to tell reporters that the gang always went into a robbery without a round in the chamber of their weapons, so that no one could snatch a gun and use it against them. The story was picked up as proof of their innate benevolence. And while it’s true that none of the three men ever intended to shoot anyone, Reid told me, the empty-chamber thing is “bullshit.” “We would definitely have shot someone if we had to. Thankfully, we never had to.”

But there’s also a kind of psychological harm that Reid seemed troubled by. It felt as if he was fumbling around a little, trying to unburden himself. “I used to console myself, when I read the statements from witnesses, hearing they felt very safe in our hands,” he said. “But how do you feel safe when someone points a gun at you?”

To think otherwise, as Reid used to, is to avoid the truth of who you are and what you’re doing. “It’s a denial thing. You go in and put a bunch of people—sometimes it’s women and children—on the ground, and you can’t pretend you’re some romantic figure. We’re not grabbing all that money and giving scholarships to the poor. We’re taking it to Vegas and spending it on hookers and cocaine!”

For years, Reid cultivated the mythology of the Stopwatch Gang. He helped perpetuate the idea that robbing banks is a victimless one, because banks are insured. The story of a famous bank robber who eluded two national police forces and lived the high life on stolen cash for the better part of a decade was irresistible to many people, Reid said, and he traded on that. “I played along with this stupid fucking narrative of the bank robber who planned meticulously so that people wouldn’t get hurt. It was a romantic idea, but we did it so we could get a lot of money. We didn’t want to work for it.”

“It’s a mythology that I began to hate,” Reid continued. “I lost myself in it and eventually became very lonely and separate from the world.”

Mitchell and Reid corresponded regularly through the years, even when Mitchell was on the run. Inspired by his old friend, Mitchell also started writing behind bars. “I need you, pal,” he wrote to Reid in 1996. “The only thing that will get me out of here and back to Canada and eventually reunited with loved ones is something spectacular! And the only thing I can think about is a book. I’ll work my ass off but I need your help.”

During a rare phone call from Lionel Wright, Mitchell shared news of what he was doing. Wright’s reaction was surprise—he wondered, Mitchell wrote in a letter to Reid, “why I would want to drag up all that past stuff.” The answer was easy. “I don’t know about anything else than what I lived—and that’s sex, drugs, bank robbery and rock and roll.” 

When he’d finished, Mitchell mailed an excerpt of the autobiography to Reid, who said he’d publish part of it in a literary journal he was editing. When he suggested some changes, though, Mitchell resisted, and the piece was never published. Reid has still never read the complete book. “He was my best friend in the world, and he knows it,” Reid told me. “I knew him in a way that nobody else did, in a very naked way. I think probably I get angry with him for not being real—and maybe he was later. He lived to the age that I am now.”

Locked up with little hope, Mitchell focused on health. He ran more than ever. And he loved to brag about it to his old friend, now free and thriving. “We can live another 50 years and not be a burden on anyone if we take care of ourselves,” Mitchell wrote to Reid in 1996. “Now! Change your habits. Healthy living is where it’s at.” 

In early 2006, Mitchell noticed a lump under his ribs. He brought it to the attention of prison medical staff and was told not to worry. When the lump grew, Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer and sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, where very sick prisoners are housed. His last letter to Reid arrived around Christmas. It was short and nearly illegible, written on a half-sheet of yellow paper. Its last line: “We’ve had a life, haven’t we?” He died on January 14, 2007, at the age of 64.

Mitchell’s death behind bars affected Reid deeply. “I longed for his letters of old, those 15 and 20-page raves on anything from ‘the amazing salad bar here at Leavenworth’ to the joys of ‘running an eight-minute mile! Before chow line!’” Reid wrote in his essay “The Art of Dying in Prison.” Mitchell was a grandfather by the time he was finally caught. His son Kevin had two boys, and Mitchell—with the written support of many people, Stephen Reid included—pleaded with the U.S. government to transfer him back to Canada, so that at least they could visit and get to know him. Five times he was denied.

“Pat and I shared a life so intertwined that his death seemed to open a way for me to reconcile with the inevitability of my own dying,” Reid wrote. “It became possible for me to hold my gaze on the end of life.” Reid has grappled with his mortality for years. He has survived multiple overdoses and, in 2009, underwent quintuple bypass surgery, spending 14 hours on a surgeon’s table. He’ll turn 65 on March 13.

Reid swore to me that he wouldn’t screw up this time. “I’m an integral part in my family’s life now,” he said. “People who want and need me in their lives.” There was a note of amazement in his voice, a hint of awareness that he should have lost everything, but somehow, miraculously, he hadn’t. He’d been given another chance when his luck should have run out, and he knew it. “A lot of people express remorse and think that by doing that they’re a decent person at the core,” Reid said. “It’s about a lot more than expressing or feeling remorse. It’s about picking up whatever pieces are left and moving on. So, that’s what I’ve done.”

Stephen Reid at his home in Victoria, British Columbia, 2014. Photo: Farah Nosh