Stephen Reid, a member of the notorious Stopwatch Gang that pulled off a high-profile string of robberies in the 1970s – including the 1974 theft of $785,000 in gold bullion from the Ottawa airport – died on June 12 at the age of 68. Reid was also known to readers as the bestselling author of Jackrabbit Parole, a 1986 novel written in prison and loosely based on the Stopwatch Gang’s exploits.
The manuscript for that novel fell into the hands of B.C. poet Susan Musgrave, who at the time was doing a stint as writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo. Musgrave served as editor on the manuscript and the two married in 1986, while Reid was still serving time for the Ottawa heist.
In a statement issued through literary agent Denise Bukowski, Musgrave says that the cause of Reid’s death was combined pulmonary edema and third-degree heart block.
According to Musgrave, Reid was admitted to hospital on Haida Gwaii, where the couple lived, on June 8 and diagnosed with “a lung infection and heart failure.” By the time the doctors determined that Reid needed to be transported to a larger, better-equipped facility it was June 11 and no air ambulances were immediately available to reach the remote B.C. area. “By the time the plane arrived Tuesday morning, June 12,” Musgrave says in her statement, “Stephen was in third-stage heart block. Despite the best attempts by the Masset medical staff and Vancouver paramedics to save him, he is gone.”
Reid, who was of mixed Irish and Ojibwa descent, struggled with addiction throughout his life; after being released on parole in 1987, he relapsed and was arrested in 1999 for robbing a Victoria bank while high on a mixture of heroin and cocaine. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, though he was granted day parole in 2014. An obituary in the Ottawa Citizen quotes a passage from Reid’s 2013 essay collection, A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison, which won the Butler Book Prize: “My life was mostly defined by ex’s these days, ex-smoker, ex-con, ex-bank robber, ex-addict. But there was always one shadow I could never seem to turn into an ex – a sense that I am as separate from this world as a switchblade knife.”
In her statement, Musgrave says that the day Reid was admitted to hospital in Haida Gwaii, seven killer whales appeared in the area’s inlet. “The Haida First Nations belief is that when a killer whale is seen in the inlet, it means that someone is going to die,” Musgrave says. “On Friday there were seven.”