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The Globe and Mail

Bandit: A Portrait of Ken Leishman, by Wayne Tefs

On March 1, 1966, Ken Leishman, a convicted bank robber and erstwhile travelling salesman, masterminded the largest theft of gold bullion in Canada's history - 10 ingots weighing roughly 75 pounds each - from Winnipeg Airport in the middle of a snowstorm. The $400,000 shipment ($16-million in today's market) was in transit from the gold refinery at Red Lake, Ont., to the Mint in Ottawa.

In Bandit: A Portrait of Ken Leishman, Wayne Tefs, a master storyteller who grew up in Red Lake before becoming a Winnipegger and one of Western Canada's most adventurous fiction writers of the past quarter-century, draws inspiration from Norman Mailer and Truman Capote "non-fiction novels" to imaginatively recreate the big dreamer and small-time crook behind this heist and Leishman's even more audacious "Flying Bandit" jailbreak. Seven months after the theft, he orchestrated the capture of the staff of Headingley Jail, released all the prisoners from their cells, and then manoeuvred a stolen plane (at tree-top height to avoid radar) toward Cuba before being captured in Gary, Ind.

Bandit has a faux Andy Warhol cover of six varieties of Leishman - a fitting tribute to the ways in which he became who he was and, in death, an iconic hero to the people of Red Lake and the closest thing Canada has to a rock star in the annals of criminal ineptitude. Leishman could plan and execute "perfect" robberies but badly bungled the "getaways."

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Well known to Winnipeg police and the RCMP, Leishman became the prime suspect as soon as the gold theft was reported. Who else would plan a robbery so carefully that it would succeed without anyone being harmed? Who else would be so careless in choosing accomplices who left so many clues behind? Who else would be so utterly clueless about what to do with the gold once he had it in his hands?

Arrested in Vancouver on a parole violation almost as soon as he arrived by train, he told the whole story of the robbery and his screwball plans for disposing of the gold to his cellmate (an RCMP undercover officer). While serving four years for two earlier Toronto bank robberies, Leishman had drawn too much attention to the people he was likely to associate with and the crimes he was most likely to commit once released. He was (and Tefs captures this in bravura stream-of-consciousness monologues) a "big talker."

What makes Ken Leishman unforgettable was his sense of himself as a movie character come to life, a Clark Gable look-alike playing a Bogart or Cagney role. I met him when I was a small boy and never forgot the encounter: Leishman owned an Aeronca single-engine airplane and barnstormed farm to farm, town to town, hawking cookware to housewives and selling 15-minute plane rides. I carefully saved the price of a ticket, but panicked as soon as I was strapped into my seat. He was understanding about my nerves because he had trouble controlling his own: A bundle of restless energy, he paced back and forth fidgeting with his mustache, tie and fedora all the time he talked to me. But his voice was smooth, soothing. To teach me a lesson, he kept my money but bought me a cola and whiled away the 15 minutes I'd "wasted" talking about movies. Had I seen The Asphalt Jungle? I had. Once. He'd seen it a dozen times but after the first time, he always walked out before Doc, its master criminal, gets caught while pausing to watch a girl dance.

Reading Bandit does more than revive a lot of large headlines and any personal memories readers might have: Tefs's compelling portrait of Leishman (a faithful married man and father of seven) raises awkward questions about the misjudgments anyone can make in pursuit of the Canadian Dream, but few do with such spectacular results, including dying in much odder circumstances than you'd expect from such a life.

Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof played truant to hide out in movie theatres without ever walking out on any gangster's final scene. His most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.

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