How Canadian gun smugglers pulled off the biggest gold heist in years

Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah speaking in front of the truck used in last year’s Toronto airport gold heist. REUTERS
Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah speaking in front of the truck used in last year’s Toronto airport gold heist. REUTERS

Summary

A man driving a truck pulled up at Toronto’s airport with fake documents and drove off with $14.5 million in gold bars.

TORONTO—One of the biggest gold heists in years was remarkably simple.

A shipment of 6,600 gold bars and millions of dollars in foreign cash landed last April at Toronto’s airport, where it was sent to a warehouse. Soon after, a man drove up in a white truck and presented fake documents. In a few minutes, the gold and cash were in the truck, and the man drove away with $14.5 million in stolen gold and almost $2 million in cash.

The theft was discovered three hours later, setting off a yearlong search by Canadian police, who uncovered what is alleged to be an inside job involving employees at Air Canada and an international arms-trafficking operation that was foiled by Pennsylvania State Police in September.

“It’s almost out of an Ocean’s 11 movie," said Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, a Canadian city near Toronto Pearson International Airport. He was standing, along with an array of police officers and other elected officials, in front of the 5-ton white truck used in the heist.

The Toronto heist is one in a line of thefts from airports in recent years. Eight armed men stole roughly $30 million of gold and other precious metals from São Paulo’s airport in 2019, the same year that armed robbers in Albania rushed onto the tarmac at Tirana International Airport and stole millions of euros worth of gold and cash. In 2013, masked robbers stole more than $50 million worth of diamonds from a plane at Brussels Airport.

Airports around the world are struggling with an increase in cargo thefts, many of which are organized by criminal gangs, said Andy Blackwell, senior risk adviser and security adviser with the London-based security firm ISARR.

The Toronto heist, with its connection to arms smuggling, was likely a sophisticated plot that exploited insiders’ knowledge of the systems to pull off the theft, he said. “This was a high level of organized crime."

According to the Canadian police, the plot at Pearson involved at least two employees of Air Canada and one jeweler.

“Certainly the position of the people that were involved in it made it easier," said Nick Milinovich, a deputy chief for Peel Regional Police, which is responsible for Toronto’s airport.

The six other alleged conspirators included the truck’s driver, Durante King-Mclean, who was arrested in Pennsylvania in September with a cache of 65 guns he allegedly intended to smuggle into Canada. Law-enforcement officials allege that King-Mclean bought the guns in Florida and Georgia with proceeds from the heist.

According to a U.S. grand jury indictment that was filed in Pennsylvania last week, the Canadians were working with a Florida resident who has been charged as an accessory to King-Mclean’s gun-smuggling attempts. The police have video footage of King-Mclean leaving a U-Haul facility in Atlanta, carrying a backpack that was found to contain 30 handguns when he was arrested.

Of the 65 guns seized by police, one had its serial number obliterated, while 11 of them were reported stolen, according to court filings.

Canadian police had identified King-Mclean as the truck driver early on in their investigation, but they lost him over the summer. It wasn’t until he was stopped in Pennsylvania, for what a law-enforcement official described as “minor motor vehicle violations," that he was found again, said Det. Sgt. Mike Mavity, who was leading the investigation for Peel police.

Until that arrest, Canadian officials had been treating the heist as a simple, although sensational, property crime, said Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah. “Investigators did not know that arms trafficking was going to be an associated activity until [King-Mclean] was arrested," he said.

It is unclear when the thieves in Toronto heard about the gold shipments, but according to a lawsuit filed by security company Brink’s, which is suing Air Canada over the theft, the Swiss refiner, Valcambi, arranged in April 2023 to send the gold bars to Toronto Dominion Bank, while Swiss bank Raiffeisen Schweiz, in a separate transaction, had arranged to transport $1.9 million worth of bank notes to Toronto.

The cargo arrived in Toronto on April 17 and was taken to a secure warehouse close to the airport. Less than three hours after it arrived, the merchandise had been stolen.

Video footage released by police on Wednesday shows a forklift loading the gold and money into the back of a truck. King-Mclean, dressed in blue and wearing a face mask, appears to make sure the load is secure.

Brink’s, which had been hired to ship the valuables, came to collect its shipments roughly three hours after the theft, which is when it was discovered.

“No security protocols or features were in place to monitor, restrict or otherwise regulate the unidentified individuals’ access to the facilities," Brink’s said in its lawsuit, which was filed in Canadian federal court in October.

An Air Canada spokesman in an emailed statement confirmed that two of the employees had worked at their warehouse. One was suspended, while the other resigned. In response to Brink’s allegations, Canada disputed that its security was lax.

As part of the arrests, police found $312,000 worth of Canadian cash, which is believed to be profit from the sale of the gold, said Det. Sgt. Mike Mavity, who was leading the investigation. The investigators also found smelting pots, casts and molds in a Toronto jewelry shop that they believe were used to melt down and sell the gold to buy guns, said Mavity. All that remained of the precious metal were six crude bracelets made of pure gold worth about $65,000.

The police put together a team of 17 investigators to hunt for the thieves. They combed through hundreds of hours of security and traffic footage, issued 37 search warrants and interviewed 50 people.

Some of the details of the investigation verge on the comical. One of the suspects, Simran Preet Panesar, was working with Air Canada during the investigation and gave the police a tour of the facilities. The officers became suspicious because Panesar was unusually stressed out during the tour, said Duraiappah, the police chief. Soon after, the officers realized he was one of the people at the warehouse who would have handled the fake waybill, or had the capacity and means to get the proper codes to make the waybill seem legitimate. Their suspicions grew when police learned that Panesar was quitting his job later that summer. He has since disappeared.

According to a U.S. grand jury indictment filed in Pennsylvania last week, one of the alleged thieves was plotting less than a week after the theft to get King-Mclean, the alleged truck driver, into the U.S. and buy guns and smuggle them back into Canada.

King-Mclean was stopped by Pennsylvania State Police in September. The police said they found handguns, many of them stolen, in his rental car. King-Mclean was listed in police databases, which led U.S. officials to contact Peel police.

U.S. officials are still looking to identify the source of the stolen guns, said Eric DeGree, a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “I’m proud to say that we successfully put an international gun-trafficking operation out of business," he said.

Canadian police started making arrests over a three-day period earlier this month, said the police chief. The suspects had been living lavishly in the interim, having taken trips to Dubai and the U.K., he said. One of them even bought a luxury car.

Parmpal Sidhu, one of the alleged thieves, who worked at Air Canada until he was suspended earlier this week, said in an interview that he was arrested at a traffic stop by Peel Police on April 5. “We’ll see where it goes," he said. “It’s innocent until proven guilty."

Sidhu and the other arrested men have been released by the Canadian court to await trial. They won’t enter their pleas until a court date is set, which could happen in May, Sidhu said.

Write to Vipal Monga at vipal.monga@wsj.com

How Canadian Gun Smugglers Pulled Off the Biggest Gold Heist in Years
View Full Image
How Canadian Gun Smugglers Pulled Off the Biggest Gold Heist in Years
Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

MINT SPECIALS