Another story from Kevin Mitchell, son of Paddy Mitchell leader of the Stopwatch Gang.
Surveillance footage of Paddy Mitchell from a 1991 robbery. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Mitchell and McMasters University
In 1976 there was a rash of breakouts, riots and demonstrations at the Ottawa Carleton Regional Detention Centre. In January of that same year there was a serious hostage taking and things went from bad to worse. During one of the riots prisoners took over the institution and guards were held at knife point. The inmates threatened there would be a slaughter if their demands were not met.
Stopwatch Gang leader Paddy Mitchell who was a ‘patron’ in the detention centre at the time was called in to negotiate a truce between prisoners and guards. Within hours the riot was disbanded thus saving many lives thanks to Paddy. To this day nothing has ever been written in the press, but that was one reason Paddy had a lot of respect throughout his “questionable years” with some of the law enforcement.
“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.”
Mitchell is survived by his son Kevin from Carleton Place, his son in the Philippines, and two grandsons: Joey and Jacob.
Paddy always said, “There have been many stories told and written, but nobody’s got the story right yet.” This Bank Robber’s Life is Paddy’s version of one incredible story. It’ll have you laughing, crying and always on the edge of your seat. There is also another book you will want to buy for your collection that Paddy wrote called: The Great Plane Robbery that you can buy on the same site.
These days if you Google the name Paddy Mitchell you will be bombarded with photos of Paddy Mitchell, current young heart throb model, of Abercrombie & Fitch. However, the original Patrick (Paddy) Mitchell of Ottawa, was no fashion model, but the leader of a notorious bunch of bank robbers, The Stopwatch Gang .
Paddy died of cancer January 15, 2007 in a U.S. prison hospital at age 64. The news of Mitchell’s death at the Federal Medical Centre in Butner, N.C., while serving a 65-year sentence, was posted on his original blog by his son Kevin Mitchell.
“This brings the end to North America’s most famous, most successful and, especially, most likeable bank robber of our time,” Kevin Mitchell wrote. Who is Kevin Mitchell? First of all he is a good friend of mine and when he told me the story I almost fell off the chair.LOL
Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell was born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1942, in a working-class Catholic family. Of Irish descent, Mitchell grew up in Preston Street, part of a rough section of Ottawa’s Little Italy. A child delinquent, he became popular as a bon vivant, being always “well-dressed, well-heeled, and soft-spoken”, according to Reid. Mitchell debuted in the criminal underworld as a sort of jack-of-all-trades, and a “brain”, helping people who came to him by figuring out ways to commit crimes, although never directly exposing himself. Throughout this period, he essentially lived a double life: he lived with his family, his wife Joan and their young son Kevin, in the suburbs, pretending to be a salesman while, in actuality, he spent all his daytime hanging out at the Belle Claire Tavern, where he would later met with Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright. Mitchell would usually act as the getaway driver during the trio’s heists, this because of an incident, occurred soon after the gang escaped from prison, in which he panicked during a robbery at a department store in Tampa, Florida.
Stephen Reid was born in Massey, Ontario, in 1950. He started going to jail at sixteen, being involved in both petty crimes and drugs, and being a drug addict. At about eighteen-nineteen, according to himself, he became a “professional”, and started committing bank robberies in Toronto and Ontario, for which he was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. In 1973, on a day pass from Kingston Penitentiary, he managed to elude his counsellor by crawling out of a restaurant’s bathroom window. Reid fled to Ottawa, where he met Wright and Mitchell, whom he would later describe as “the unofficial mayor of the local underworld”, because of his charismatic attitude.
Lionel Wright was born and raised in Ottawa. A shy, quiet, and introverted student who lived with his mother, he was working as a night clerk at a trucking firm when he first met Mitchell (who at the time worked as a truck driver), with whom he set up a partnership in which Wright routinely pilfered cigarettes, alcohol, candy and other goods from his work, covering his tracks with doctored papers, while Mitchell fenced the stolen property. He was the “details guy”, being described by Reid as very brilliant, dependable, and with an amazing memory. He acted as the “caretaker” of his two accomplices’ careless and flamboyant lives.
Robberies, Arrests, and Aftermath
The Ottawa Airport Gold Heist
Mitchell, Reid, and Wright embarked on a year-long crime spree, consisting mostly of petty thefts, before meeting Gary Coutanche, an Air Canada baggage handler who sold electronic calculators he stole from work. At the Bell Claire Tavern, Gary and the trio came up with the plan to commit one of the biggest robberies in Canada’s history. Coutanche told Mitchell of gold shipments which monthly passed through the Ottawa airport on their way to the mint, and of how security was relaxed. He also accepted to let Mitchell know when the next shipping was scheduled to arrive in exchange for money. On April 17, 1974, the gold would have arrived from the Red Lake mines to the airport. In order to enter the guarded warehouse where the gold was being kept, the gang employed a ruse in which Reid pretended to be an Air Canada employee. As soon as the security guard, David Braham, opened the door, Reid held him at gunpoint and brought with him the gold, worth $750.000 (the equivalent, today, of about $5.000.000).
The authorities, however, immediately thought of an inside job, and focused on Coutanche because he was already suspected of theft and was involved with Mitchell. In return for leniency, Coutanche accepted to wear a wire in order to aid the investigators build a case against the gang. In March 1975, Mitchell and Wright were arrested for the robbery and for cocaine trafficking, which they also conducted with help from Coutanche. Reid followed shortly thereafter. Mitchell and Wright were both sentenced to seventeen years for trafficking (Mitchell’s sentence was increased by three years for possession of the stolen gold). Reid was sentenced to ten years for the robbery, along with all the time he still owed.
Prison Escapes and Later Crimes in the U.S.–
In October 1976, Wright escaped from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and fled to Florida, United States. Reid and Mitchell, who, after several unsuccessfull escape attempts, had acted like model prisoners and had been transferred to a less secure facility, followed in 1979: Reid was able to again walk out of a restaurant’s bathroom window while on a day pass, and immediately resumed committing robberies. Mitchell went as far as to simulate a heart attack by drinking a self-made nicotine concoction (almost killing himself), being later brought away from the hospital by Reid, disguised as an orderly, who handcuffed the guards together in the ambulance.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, the trio began their lives as fugitives, embarking on a string of bank robberies both in Florida and in California. This time, in order to avoid getting caught again, they meticulously planned every heist, down to how many steps it was from the curb to the bank to the teller to the vault. They also precisely timed every robbery, spending no more than two minutes or less inside the banks. Because of the stopwatch they employed during their crimes (most of the times worn by Reid around his neck), they became known by the FBI as “The Stopwatch Gang”, while it was for their habit of wearing full masks of deceased former presidents (Richard Nixon, Donald Reagan…) that they came to be also known as “The Presidential Robbers”. During the course of their spree, the gang did routinely one or two hundred thousand dollars per score, which they mainly spent at Las Vegas casinos. According to the Bureau, they approximately committed up to 140 robberies in total, during the course of which not a single civilian, bank staff member, or security guard was hurt.
While the rest of the trio, when they were not robbing banks, spent a rather ordinary and domestic lifestyle, Paddy was more of a party animal, getting high on drugs, and having fun creating stories about himself with people he knew, which attracted attention and didn’t like to Reid and Wright. Looking for a place where they could retire some day, the latters rented a house in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona, which became their hideout, while Mitchell parted ways with them for a while, going north, to Washington. Reid and Wright committed two more bank robberies, one in Phoenix and another in Little Rock, Arkansas, with help from another accomplice. The pair enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, also, quite ironically, becoming very good friends with local sheriff’s deputies. The gang, now again including Mitchell, committed their last big score on September 23, 1980, at a San Diego Bank of America branch, leaving with $283.000 ($1 million dollars today) just dropped from an armored truck. At the time, that was the largest bank robbery ever committed in California, and the most fruitful for the trio.
Arrests and Later Years
Discarded money bags from the San Diego heist were eventually recovered by an elderly couple looking for aluminium cans in a dumpster, who brought them to the authorities hoping to get a reward. Police was able to obtain a partial fingerprint from the bags. On top of that, Donny Hollingsworth, a Canadian former halfback who had helped the gang since the 1974 gold heist, and was now being held for running a crystal meth operation outside San Diego, which had caused the death of at least one man, accepted to give the FBI the Stopwatch Gang in exchange for leniency. On October 31, 1980, both Reid and Wright were arrested at the Arizona hideout, while Mitchell, who was elsewhere at that time, went on the lam. He kept committing bank robberies by himself, in Florida and Arkansas, until he was finally caught in Arizona, before again escaping prison and fleeing to the Philippines, where he remarried and had a son. In 1993, his neighbours, who had seen an America’s Most Wanted show about him, alerted the FBI, at which point Mitchell returned to the U.S. and was again arrested, on February 22, 1994, after another robbery in Mississippi. He again unsuccessfully attempted to escape.
While in prison, Mitchell wrote his autobiography: The Bank Robber’s Life. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006, and eventually died on January 14, 2007, at 64, at the Federal Correction Complex in Butner, North Carolina. He ended his last letter to Reid, written around Christmas, with: “We’ve had a life, haven’t we?” Reid too, who was sentenced to twenty years along with Wright, turned to writing while in prison, publishing his first novel, Jackrabbit Parole, based on his life as a robber, in 1986, the same year in which he married poet Susan Musgrave, with whom he corresponded while behind bars. Released in 1987, he became addicted to cocaine and heroin and again committed a bank robbery in 1999. He was again released in February 2014, dying in 2018 of natural causes. Wright was released in 1994, eventually deciding to remain in the prison system, working as a clerk. A book by author Greg Weston, titled The Stopwatch Gang, and detailing Mitchell, Reid, and Wright’s careers, was published in 1992. Read more here..
Paddy Mitchell grew up on Ottawa’s Preston Street where everything was happening in those days. Who knew that those innocent young times would give him the knowledge to become leader of the Stopwatch Gang. That gang was not like any other, and it earned Paddy a place on the FBI’s most-wanted list . Joined by fellow Canadians: Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright, they stole about $15 million, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, from more than 140 banks and other sites across Canada and the United States.
Mitchell ended up serving time in a number of prisons in Canada and the United States for crimes. For the airport gold robbery caper Mitchell pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property, but the gold was never recovered. Like the mystery of Oak Island people still ask to this day if it is buried somewhere.
Paddy escaped from prison three times, and moved to the Philippines for a period of 15 years, where he re-married and had a son who shared his first name. Not content to just retire, he often flew back to the U.S. to “visit” banks.
Finally, in 1994, he was convicted for a solo robbery in Mississippi and put in prison for the last time to serve a 65-year sentence. In the end it wasn’t a stray bullet that killed him, but cancer when Mitchell was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. His condition was so serious all he wanted was to be transferred to Kingston Penitentiary to be near one of his sons, Kevin, and his two grandchildren, who lived in the Carleton Place area. He tried everything to get transferred to a Canadian prison before his death, but ended up dying at 64 January 15, 2007 in a U.S. prison hospital. Paddy Mitchell has attained a place as a bandit outlaw in folklore that few do.
Mitchell is survived by his son Kevin from Carleton Place, his son in the Philippines, and two grandsons: Joey and Jacob.
Paddy always said, “There have been many stories told and written, but nobody’s got the story right yet.” This Bank Robber’s Life is Paddy’s version of this incredible story. It’ll have you laughing, crying and always on the edge of your seat. There is also another book called: Paddy’s novel, The Great Plane Robbery.!