Bank robberies have been comparatively rare in Wellington County’s history. Accounts of several of them have appeared in this column over the years.
Robbers showed a preference for rural branches – banks in Morriston and Hillsburgh were hit twice. In May 1947 a gang attempted to rob the Royal Bank in Grand Valley, but on that occasion they failed to get their hands on any loot.
The robbers, a gang of five, had planned the robbery for some time, but they showed themselves to be inept bunglers. They were in the Grand Valley area at least a week before the robbery attempt. Police believed they were the same men who had robbed a bank at Bathurst and College in downtown Toronto of some $250,000 in securities, barely evading the police as they made their getaway. It was a large haul, but the men seemed not to realize that the securities were not negotiable.
Assuming this gang at Grand Valley had the same men, it seems members decided to switch their activities to a small centre, where they would be less likely to encounter police.
Shortly after 10pm on the night of May 18, a Sunday, two of the men barged into the apartment above the Grand Valley bank, startling the residents, Bob Kennedy and his wife. The couple were preparing to turn in for the night, and they thought that some friends were making a late call when the door opened. They were astonished to see two strangers, wearing disguises, stride into their home. The men tied up the pair, blindfolded them, and then gagged them when they continued to grumble and complain.
Trying to act calm, the robbers tried chatting with their victims. Mrs. Kennedy complained of the tightness of the tape used to tie them, and that the tape would ruin her new nylon stockings. One of the men gave her money for a new pair, and the other applied gags to silence them. Then the pair went to work, cutting a whole through a locked and bolted door into the bank office. They gained entry to the bank, and started to work on the vault door.
Outside, Mervyn Wheeler, a 19-year-old youth, walked down the alley beside the bank. He had been out with a girlfriend, and had just seen her home. Wheeler had been out on a double date with his friend Pat Dickson and Dickson’s girlfriend, who were waiting in the car.
Wheeler did not see or hear the robbers, but his actions frightened one of them who was standing guard in the shadows of the building. The man panicked. He lunged at Wheeler with a lead pipe, trying to strike him over the head. His aim was poor, and the youth escaped.
Two members of the gang gave chase to the fleeing Wheeler, who jumped into Dickson’s car. He told his friend to “step on it,” and Dickson’s accelerated his Buick out of town at high speed. The robbers gave chase in their own car, or rather, a car they had stolen in Toronto. It was a pre-war 16-cylinder Cadillac limousine that belonged to Mayor Saunders of the Queen City. The mayor and his chauffeur had left it in a parking lot while they attended a Salvation Army concert. Police forces all over the province were looking for it.
The bandits, who were armed with pistols, fired shots at Dickson’s car as they followed in hot pursuit, heading south out of town. Dickson pulled over, and the bandits passed him, but then stopped the big Cadillac in front of his car.
The bandits jumped from their car, and forced Dickson and his passengers to the floor. One of the them struck Wheeler on the head with the butt of his pistol. The bandit took over the wheel of the car, and continued driving up and down several roads east of Grand Valley.
Eventually the bandit driving Dickson’s car stopped somewhere east of Grand Valley, and forced the three young people out and into the ditch beside the road. The bandit returned to the driver’s seat, and took off with a roar. Another of the gang in the big Cadillac tried to follow, but managed to back the car into the ditch when turning around. He left the vehicle, along with an assortment of tools, and hopped into the other car.
The two then dashed off in the direction off to the south, leaving the rest of the gang to their own wits and fate. The young people were rattled but unhurt, and shakily began a late night walk to their homes.
The other robbers, meanwhile, had abandoned their work in trying to open the bank when their comrades had encountered Wheeler in the alley. They waited for a while, becoming increasingly nervous when their cohorts did not return. They stole a parked car, a 1936 Ford belonging to Austin Colbeck, and headed out of town, leaving their tools scattered around the bank’s floor.
Those tools also had a story. Earlier that afternoon, the men had been in the Arthur area. They stopped at Albert Cormack’s farm, where the Drury Construction Company had set up headquarters for a dredging contract.
Two local men noticed that there were people around the site, an unusual situation for a Sunday. Realizing they were being watched, the robbers quickly cleared out, but the men, Ken Shaw and Don McQueen, thought it very suspicious and they advised the police. Company officials examined the site, and stated that an acetylene torch, crowbars, sledge hammers, and other items were missing.
The company notified the provincial police. Constable Morley Wright of the OPP sent a report of the incident to detachments in the area, with the advice that a robbery seemed to be planned, and to be alert for suspicious activity.
Later that evening Constable Wright received a report from Grand Valley informing him that the robbers had come and gone. Sundays those days were normally quiet in Grand Valley. The flurry of activity startled residents, and accounts of the events that night are contradictory to some extent.
It appears that the robbers made a clean escape. The stolen cars were found after a few hours, abandoned with no clue to the identity of the robbers or how they had continued their escape.
That the would-be robbers were able to get away was remarkable. Police officers throughout the area were alert to anyone who might be considered a suspicious character. They had reports of the stolen cars, and descriptions, if somewhat vague ones, of the criminals. Police gave credit to young Merv Wheeler, who, unknown to himself, had foiled a bank robbery by walking past the bank and lingering outside for a moment.
The story of the failed robbery received wide publicity, including front-page banner headlines in the Toronto dailies the following day. The Telegram played up the excitement with a banner headline, Wild West Holdup Fails. Admittedly, it was a good story: a comedy of errors on the part of the robbers, a spectacular chase, and police who were just a step or two behind the perpetrators. There were reports that the gang had a rendezvous in the Acton area, but police found no solid evidence.
Perhaps this gang decided to disband and pursue careers that paid off better than bank robbery.