He was a literary outlaw in every sense of the term.
Author and bank robber Stephen Reid has died at the age of 68.
The turbulent but fascinating arc of Reid’s life gave Canada both one of its most notorious crime stories and intriguing literary careers.
In a statement, his wife, the poet Susan Musgrave, said Reid died Tuesday afternoon in Masset hospital in Haida Gwaii. He was admitted last Friday with a lung infection and heart failure.
“The day he was admitted to the hospital, seven killer whales came in to the inlet,” Musgrave’s statement said.
“The Haida First Nations belief is is that when a killer whale is seen in the inlet it means someone is going to die. On Friday, there were seven.”
From robber to writer
As a criminal, Reid first earned headlines in the 1970s and 1980s as a member of the so-called Stopwatch Gang.
The trio of robbers were named for a stopwatch Reid wore as they stole millions from banks across Canada and the United States.
In one of their best known heists, they stole $700,000 in gold bars from the Ottawa airport in 1974.
The gang was known for its meticulous planning, lightning-quick speed and politeness to victims.
Reid ultimately got a 20-year jail sentence for his role in those crimes, which is where he came into an unlikely second career as a writer.
According to Musgrave’s website, she was writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo while Reid was serving time at Millhaven penitentiary. Reid sent her the manuscript for his novel, Jack Rabbit Parole.
“She read the manuscript, fell in love with the protagonist and married the author on October 12, 1986, while he was still in prison,” Musgrave’s website says.
And on his release on full parole in 1987, Reid and Musgrave embarked on a life on Vancouver Island as a literary couple.
‘Prison really is … it’s like war’
But Reid had long been haunted by the demons of a youth spent in and out of custody.
At some point in the late 1990s, he fell back into addiction to heroin and cocaine, a path that would lead him to an attempted bank robbery in Victoria in June 1999.
The spectacularly failed heist unfolded in full daylight to the amazement and horror of bystanders.
Reid was convicted of attempting to murder a police officer, although he testified at trial that he wasn’t trying to kill anyone when he fired a series of shots during an attempt at a getaway.
He also pleaded guilty at the time to charges of robbery and unlawful confinement.
“Prison really is … it’s like war. It’s a young man’s game,” he said at the time.
“And my limitations were so obvious at that point, in that situation, it just brought me up flat faced against it,” he said at the time.”
Reid was first granted day parole in 2008 but saw it revoked after an infraction in 2010. He was again released on day parole in 2014.
He also resumed his writing career, publishing a collection of essays called A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison in 2013. He won the Butler Prize for that book.
“Stephen Reid was many things: notorious robber, addict and long-serving prisoner,” said Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC’s The Next Chapter,
“But I hope that as we look back at his life, his writing will be acknowledged, as well.”
In a statement, Reid’s publisher, Thistledown Press, said Reid “demystified the life of a celebrity criminal.”
“What those who love notoriety sometime forget is that Stephen Reid grew old in prisons and saw more than his share of their solitude, their vicious cycles, and their subculture relationships,” the publisher said.
“He participated in the economics contraband, the incredible escapes, the intimacies of their torture. He understood the miscarriages of justice and witnessed the innocent souls whose childhood destinies doomed them to prison life. He met those people. He cared for them.”