POLITICS

Stopwatch Gang bank robber and author Stephen Reid denied full parole

03/03/2015 05:15 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT
VICTORIA - Stephen Reid says he's transformed his life from a drug-addled bank robber who was once on the FBI's most wanted list into a clean and sober grey-haired grandfather who writes screenplays and finds solace in aboriginal drum making.

But Reid, who part of the notorious Stopwatch Gang as it pulled off more than 100 heists in Canada and the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, was unable to convince the National Parole Board, which rejected his application for full parole Tuesday.

Instead, the 64-year-old will remain on day parole and continue living in a Victoria-area halfway house where he has been since February 2014. His current sentence relates to a 1999 bank robbery in Victoria.

"We find your risk on full day parole at this time would be undue," parole board member Alex Dantzer told Reid after a two-hour hearing in Victoria. "We have to look at the big picture in your case. And the big picture is that nature and gravity of what you did. (People) could have died."

Dantzer said the risks of releasing Reid outweigh the positive strides he's made in recent years.

Reid was sentenced to 18 years in prison for armed robbery and attempted murder following the robbery in June 1999, when he walked into a bank in Victoria with a loaded shotgun and made off with $93,000. He fled with an accomplice and shot at police during the ensuing chase.

That robbery came more than a decade after he was released from prison for his days in the Stopwatch Gang, whose crimes included stealing $785,000 worth of gold bullion from Ottawa's airport in 1974.

Reid said he's a changed man — no longer a risk to re-offend, deceive and return to drug use.

"I am the things I say I'm doing today," he told the parole board. "By asking for this, I really feel the community is absolutely safe with me."

After the hearing, Reid said he was disappointed with the board's decision to deny him full parole. He said it delays his plans to spend more time on Haida Gwaii with his wife, Susan Musgrave, a well-known Canadian poet.

"They just want to maintain a little stronger oversight on me for a little while longer," he said in an interview. "I just have a huge, long criminal history to overcome."

He will be eligible for statutory release in August.

Reid provided a harrowing account of the Victoria bank robbery that led to his current sentence, saying he was living in a fantasy world fuelled by heroin and cocaine in which he saw himself as a drug lord looking to pull off a huge heist to pay mounting debts.

"I needed $100,000," he said. "I went in there brandishing a shotgun, yelling, 'Everybody get on the floor!' There was a very frightened woman in front of me. I actually didn't know what I was doing. I refer to my state as fantasy. I was the mythical bank robber."

Reid said he originally planned to walk into the bank carrying a boom box in one hand and a shotgun in the other. He said he wanted to play to Pearl Jam song "Last Kiss," a top hit at the time, at full blast, but he changed his mind.

The parole board reminded Reid that the judge who sentenced him in 1999 said the heist was "an attempt to terrorize people."

The board said Reid threatened people in the bank and later fired multiple shotgun rounds at a pursuing police officer and fired a single pistol shot that nearly hit a woman working near the B.C. legislature.

"I was desperate to get away," said Reid.

Reid, whose criminal record dates back to 1972, was arrested during an FBI raid in Arizona in 1980. At the time, the FBI wanted Reid for 31 robberies in the western U.S. He was later returned to Canada to serve a sentence related to a gold bullion robbery at Ottawa's airport.

In 1986, Reid published "Jackrabbit Parole," a semi-autobiographical novel about a gang of bank robbers. The book, which received widespread literary praise, was edited by Musgrave. Reid was released on parole in 1987.

In October 2013, Reid was Victoria's Butler Book Prize for a collection of essays titled "A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison."