Randy Young, 29 years old and a sales manager at Transparent Paper Products, was standing in the doorway of his office when, as he would say later, Santa Claus appeared before him.
It was Dec. 14, 1962, a slippery, snowy morning in Montreal.
“Santa Claus had his back to me,” Mr. Young would recount. “And he was carrying a rifle.”
It was actually a machine gun.
It had been a busy morning inside the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at 6007 Côte de Liesse, a small branch in an area of industry and business in Ville Saint-Laurent, just west of Montreal. It was Friday, the last payday before Christmas, and a decorated, slightly scraggly evergreen shimmered beside the door. About a dozen customers waited in line for a spot at the long counter, which was dotted with black pens and thick glass ashtrays. The date on the calendar had not been changed for the day, and still read 13.
Garland Sheridan had just finished cashing a cheque and was walking out when suddenly, in the doorway of the vestibule, there was Santa. He wore the full suit and hat and boots and beard, along with a pair of smoked clip-on sunglasses, of the kind Mr. Sheridan himself wore attached to his spectacles. There were two men with Santa who appeared to have stockings covering their faces, but even without the disguises Mr. Sheridan would have noticed little about their appearances, so transfixed was he by Santa Claus.
“This is a holdup!” Santa said.
Santa carried a Belgian FN assault rifle that was popular with military forces around the world, and which had recently begun to circulate in Montreal after a series of thefts at army surplus stores in the province. He ordered everyone to the floor, and the bank’s staff and customers scrambled to get down.
Then he headed toward the vault.
Santa called out for the bank manager, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Robert Holmes stood and identified himself.
“Do you want to die?” Santa asked.
Mr. Holmes did not.
Santa made it clear he wasn’t messing around. He knew it was payday and that the bank would be stocked with money, and he wanted it all. Santa swore and cursed. He spoke in English, but to Mr. Holmes and others lying on the bank floor, his accent sounded unmistakably French.
To guard against thefts, even bank managers didn’t have the complete safe combinations, and so Robert Wishart, another bank employee, approached nervously to add his numbers. It was Mr. Wishart’s fifth stickup in three years, and they’d left him rattled. The Côte de Liesse branch had been robbed just two months earlier, and on another occasion just a few months before that.
At the vault, Mr. Wishart noticed Santa’s tanned skin and dark eyes, and how his face was long, the fake beard riding up his bottom lip. When Santa wasn’t looking, Mr. Wishart surreptitiously pressed the silent alarm.
The banker loaded the spoils of the vault into a pillowcase. With the money from the tellers’ cages, there was $78,850 in savings bonds, $57,470 in travellers’ cheques and $6,646 in cash – including a pile of “dummy bills,” fake currency numbered sequentially from one to 100.
Lying on the floor, the customer Mr. Sheridan, an engineer, looked down at his watch. It was 11:12 a.m. When another patron in the bank lifted their head up, Santa warned that anyone who did that again would be killed. And so Mr. Sheridan lay still and stared at his watch, noticing the time passing away, seconds moving so slowly into minutes.
City of Saint-Laurent police constables Denis Brabant and Claude Marineau were out driving around in a new police ambulance when a dispatch about a bank robbery came over the radio.
Constable Marineau was supposed to be off work, getting ready for Christmas with his wife and their children, but plans had changed and he’d taken the shift. It was his daughter Lise’s 10th birthday the next day.
At 34, Constable Marineau had been with the force 15 years. Constable Brabant, who was 30, had been an officer for eight. Both had three children.
The constables were road-testing the new vehicle, and another police car had already been dispatched, but they were close to Côte de Liesse when the call came in. Constable Marineau was from that area – had been born on almost that very patch of land, in fact, long before the current development – and maybe there was something about it that called him home.
It had been a hot year for holdups. Two bandits had been killed and a policeman wounded in a robbery in Montreal in May, and two more stickup men were killed during a bank heist at a shopping centre in July. But while there had been a lot of real bank robberies, there was an exponentially higher number of false alarms – 50 fakes for every holdup, one police statistic said – which meant that every call didn’t seem so dire. The vast majority were nothing at all.
Constable Marineau got on the radio and volunteered to take the call. The police ambulance was a crisp black and white Plymouth wagon with a broad chrome grill, and room in the bank for transporting patients. The force’s crest was painted on the doors, and a single cherry siren light sparkled on top.
One of the robbers saw the vehicle approaching, and yelled out to the others. Santa left the vault and bounded toward the door. Constable Marineau pulled his revolver from its holster.
It all happened so fast.
A young mother, en route to see about a job at a factory, was picking her way across the icy street from the bus stop when a man dressed as Santa Claus caught her attention. She heard shots, bullets rattling against metal. She saw an officer’s head rise from the police car, then fall out of view.
Santa disappeared back into the bank, then returned, he and the lookout man heading to a stolen white Oldsmobile they had waiting.
Though the officers were already mortally wounded, Santa fired on them again. Seventeen shots exploding so quickly it seemed like they came all at once.
Constable Marineau had gotten off four shots. Jack Ennis, a guard at another business in the building, also drew his gun and emptied his clip in the direction of the bandits. The back window of the getaway car blew out in a spray of glass.
With the road blocked by an approaching police car, the robbers sped off into a field then careered back onto the highway and were gone.
On the floor inside the bank, the manager Mr. Holmes had heard the robbers leave and whispered to Mr. Wishart that they should lock the door, but before they could move, they heard the shots outside.
With two of the suspects having fled in the getaway car, the third ran back through the bank, looking for a way out. With no other exit, he smashed a window in the lunchroom with the butt of his rifle, then dragged himself through a tangle of Venetian blinds, jumping out to the frozen ground and running off through a field.
And then, for a moment, it was quiet.
Inside the bank, Mr. Sheridan’s watch read 11:19.
The two officers who’d originally been dispatched to the call arrived to find Constable Brabant facedown on the ground, Constable Marineau propped up against the rear wheel of the vehicle. The ground was littered with shells, red with blood. A cluster of bullet holes pierced the front corner panel of the police ambulance, and there were two holes in the windshield, the glass crackling around them like broken ice.
Outside, the young mother grasped onto a car to steady herself, everything going black until a man rubbed snow on her forehead to revive her.
Within minutes, there were police roadblocks around the area, alerts going out to train stations, the airport and bus terminals. Television crews and newspaper reporters were arriving, talking to witnesses about the surreal and chaotic scene.
Montreal Police Director J. Adrien Robert was clearly upset when he addressed reporters at a press conference late that night, telling them police were united in working “to rid our society of these desperate criminals who have proved they will hesitate at nothing to carry on their career of crime.”
He said he warned officers they were dealing with the “arch enemies of society,” and ordered his men to shoot on sight.
By the time Constables Brabant and Martineau were laid to rest with full honours in a sombre civic ceremony early the next week, the manhunt was in full swing. The story of the ruthless Santa bandit and his gang was front-page news around the country, and people were now captivated by the search for suspects. Municipal, provincial and federal police had combined forces, with either 1,000 or 2,000 officers involved, depending which news reports you believed. Either way, it was one of the biggest manhunts in Quebec’s history.
Police conducted a series of raids at various “underworld hangouts” in Montreal, and a steady stream of characters were being hauled in for questioning. Among the suspects were a former police officer and a man known as “Mad Dog,” who Quebec Provincial Police Chief Inspector Gérard Houle speculated was “the type of person who would have done exactly as Santa Claus behaved when he butchered those two police officers.” Then again, as a confidential source observed to the The Gazette, police seemed to “suspect every known criminal on the loose for those killings.”
The getaway car had been found abandoned in the Town of Mount Royal, with the red Santa suit and $79,000 in stolen savings bonds inside. The bonds were traceable and therefore worthless on the streets, as were the stolen travellers’ cheques, whose identification numbers had already been disseminated around the continent.
Police released a photograph of an officer wearing the Santa Claus suit and brandishing a gun similar to the one the robber had carried. Insp. Houle, who was co-ordinating the manhunt, asked anyone who rented or sold Santa costumes to pay special attention in case the outfit could have come from their stock.
“Since the Santa Claus suit seemed to fit the bandit extremely well, we are naturally interested in finding out who Santa’s tailor is,” he said.
While the identities of the Santa bandit and the robber he left with were a mystery, the suspect who fled through the back window of the bank had doffed his disguise during the escape and been well observed by a receptionist at the Town and Country Motel – where he had burst in with his pant legs covered in snow to the knees and asked to use the phone – and then by the driver of a delivery truck with whom he had hitched a ride.
A police sketch showed a slender-faced man with deep-set eyes, thin lips and protruding, slightly uneven ears. The rifle he had been carrying was found in a pile of pipes and debris in the field between the bank and the motel.
Newspaper ads announced a reward of $25,000 for information that led to the capture of the suspects. A fund for the officers’ families quickly swelled toward the same amount.
As Maclean’s reporter Tim Burke would note in a feature for the magazine later that year, police particularly focused on an area from the waterfront up into the heart of Montreal, which he described as a “gaudy strip of cheap theatres, night clubs, taverns” and pool rooms, harbouring “the biggest concentration of criminals in the nation.”
Mr. Burke wrote that hundreds of spots had been raided or “visited” in the search, meaning the exits were blocked and the washrooms checked, while police rounded up mobsters, gangsters, delinquents, drunks, people high on “goof balls,” and anyone else even remotely suspected of being involved in the heist. Mr. Burke wrote that 2,500 men were called in for questioning.
“Some people are saying we wouldn’t be trying so hard to catch the Santa Claus gang if their victims hadn’t been policemen,” he quoted Montreal Police Chief Inspector William Fitzpatrick as saying, as the manhunt raged on in the final days of December. “It goes deeper than that. The Saint-Laurent case was the most savage act I have ever encountered. After they were hit, the officers were not impeding their escape. The bank robbers had nothing against them personally, yet one of them went back and kept firing at them until he was satisfied they were dead.
“If they get away with it, the city becomes a jungle.”
Late on the night of Dec. 21, Jules Reeves, a resident of a rooming house at 3421 Hochelaga St. in Montreal’s east end, collapsed and was rushed to hospital in a very bad state.
The 30-year-old Mr. Reeves – who in his criminal history had been both the suspect in a double homicide, and wounded in an attempt on his life that police believed was part of a criminal beef – arrived at Notre-Dame Hospital unconscious. Upon waking, he couldn’t speak or communicate and was paralyzed on his right side, having apparently suffered a stroke.
There was $1,297 in cash in Mr. Reeves’s pockets, along with some pillow feathers. It was an unusually large sum of money, and when a man claiming to be Mr. Reeves’s brother attempted to claim his personal effects – and in particular, the cash – a nurse called police.
Twenty-nine of the bills in his pocket were numbered bills from the Côte de Liesse robbery.
At a press conference in Montreal on Jan. 14, 1963, exactly one month after the stickup, Insp. Houle named Mr. Reeves as one of the suspects, along with two other known robbers, Jean-Paul Fournel and Georges Marcotte.
While the dummy cash had initially drawn police attention to Mr. Reeves, he remained uncommunicative, barely able to respond to basic commands never mind submit to an interrogation or identify his confreres. Instead, it was an outside informant who implicated the three men, telling police they’d attempted to recruit him to take part in the robbery scheme.
Though investigators initially believed there were at least four people involved – three robbers and a getaway driver – they now appeared confident they had all the suspects.
“The case is pretty well finished now,” Insp. Houle said. “And police have an idea who Santa Claus is.”
In their 30s, Georges Marcotte and Jean-Paul Fournel each had long criminal histories, and had met while serving lengthy bits in the penitentiary for armed robbery. Mr. Marcotte had been in police custody since late December after being picked up on an unrelated firearms charge, but he was known by police to be a “revolver man” and was not initially a suspect in the machine-gun killings.
After the holdup, Mr. Fournel had fled to Edmonton and then Saskatoon, but he was arrested at gunpoint by police who laid in wait in his darkened apartment when he returned to Montreal in January. He had a gun but did not resist.
Of the three men, it was only Mr. Fournel’s involvement that was beyond question. He’d been seen clearly by the receptionist at the Town and Country Motel and by the delivery-truck driver. The police sketch released during the manhunt looked almost exactly like him.
In a garage near his home, police found multiple guns, a bag of ammunition and a thick log spiked with metal rods and fashioned into a battering ram.
While no one could conclusively identify the man in the Santa suit, Mr. Fournel quickly aligned himself with the prosecution, identifying Georges Marcotte as both the Santa and the killer of the two policemen.
“He was making Santa Claus ‘ho-ho-ho’ sounds all the way to the bank,” Mr. Fournel testified to the coroner’s jury.
The jury deliberated less than three minutes before committing Georges Marcotte to stand trial for capital murder.
The trial began in February, right around Mr. Marcotte’s 33rd birthday. He was a striking man, with black hair that, when styled, rose above his forehead like a wave. He wore thick-framed eyeglasses, and a thin, sculpted moustache hung perfectly below his nose like a tiny wooden coat hanger.
He had a number of aliases and was said to be known to some as “Wrong Way Tremblay” because of a time he was captured driving down a one-way street, fleeing a previous bank robbery with $14,000 in cash in the car. His first conviction dated back to 1947, when, as a teenager, he’d robbed a Sherbrooke Street garage and was sentenced to eight years for armed robbery.
Mr. Reeves continued to be unresponsive after his stroke and Mr. Fournel, as a key witness for the prosecution, had had his own trial deferred. Mr. Marcotte would be tried alone, and only for the murder of Constable Marineau at first. It was a big case and prosecutors were taking no chances.
If convicted with no recommendation for mercy, the penalty would be death.
The trial was held mostly in French, with translation for English-speaking witnesses. Though not one of the Crown witnesses could identify Mr. Marcotte as having taken part in the robbery, that was little protection against the evidence of Mr. Fournel.
Mr. Fournel freely admitted his own long criminal history to the court – he had been previously convicted of seven armed holdups and sentenced to 21 years, serving only about nine – and he told the court he’d robbed the same bank branch earlier that year, as part of a plot with a defence lawyer to raise money to buy a bankrupt restaurant.
But while he went as far as admitting to firing his own gun at the police during the December heist, he maintained Georges Marcotte had been the Santa Claus, and was wholly responsible for the deaths of the two officers. Mr. Fournel’s sister-in-law, Paqueline, backed up his account, saying Mr. Marcotte had confessed to her, “I have just killed two policemen.”
When he testified, Mr. Marcotte said his father dropped him off at Mr. Fournel’s apartment around noon on the day of the robbery, and that Mr. Fournel and his brother, Réal, arrived later with a suitcase and a shopping bag – inside which Mr. Marcotte said he glimpsed a piece of black plastic, like the belt of a Santa suit.
Defence lawyer Yves Mayrand argued Mr. Fournel and his family were trying to frame Mr. Marcotte to save themselves and their maternity dress business. He grilled witnesses on their recollections of Santa’s height, suggesting Santa may actually have been Réal, and stressing to the court Jean-Paul’s criminal history and considerable incentives to lie.
The trial lasted 12 days.
Mr. Marcotte visibly stiffened and clenched his jaw as the verdict came down.
“Nous trouvons l’accusé coupable,” foreman Roger Gagnon said. We find the accused guilty. Each juror repeated his finding in turn. “Coupable.”
The jury made no recommendations for mercy.
Asked if he had anything to say, Mr. Marcotte said: “Je maintiens mon innocence.”
Justice Roger Ouimet wore a black hat and black gloves, as was required when imposing a death sentence. Without any gloves of his own suitable for the occasion, he borrowed a pair from his wife, who would never wear them again.
He said he was satisfied with the jury’s verdict, and sentenced Mr. Marcotte to the gallows.
“In death row, life becomes a kind of ritual, which only a man condemned to hang can develop,” Mr. Marcotte wrote, in a short story called Death Watch. “It is an experience shared only by the rare individuals who know in advance the exact date, to the last hour and minute, of their death.”
The execution was initially set for 12:01 a.m. on May 31, 1963, three months after his conviction. But an appeal was underway and his lawyer was ill, so the date came and went.
Awaiting his fate in a cell at Bordeaux Prison, about a dozen kilometres away from the scene of the robbery, Mr. Marcotte drew and painted landscapes, and penned short stories about day-to-day life in the death cells. At one point a gallery showed and sold his art, offering to give 10 per cent of the proceeds to the officers’ families. They refused.
Mr. Marcotte was denied a new trial the next January, and his execution set for July 3, 1964. In June, Mr. Fournel pleaded guilty to two counts of non-capital murder, and – given his testimony during Mr. Marcotte’s trial – was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison.
Hours before the trap was set to drop in July, Mr. Marcotte’s defence lawyer Mr. Mayrand flew to Ottawa with what he said was significant new evidence: A deposition from a woman reporters described as a “pretty, blonde Hungarian-speaking witness,” Helen Dallos.
While crossing the street from the bus stop, Ms. Dallos had witnessed the entire shooting, and appeared to be the only one who observed it start to finish. Fearful of any involvement in the case and its criminal elements, she had relocated with her family from Montreal to Hamilton, where she was tracked down by Phillip Michaels, a self-described “research expert” and former managing editor of the sensational Montreal tabloid Midnight.
Mr. Michaels – described in The Globe and Mail at the time as “a short, stocky man, his crumpled suit sodden with sweat” – told reporters he spent 35 to 40 days tracking Ms. Dallos down for the defence because he wanted to help prove that Mr. Marcotte, who he’d met on a couple of occasions, wasn’t a killer.
In a sworn statement translated from Hungarian, Ms. Dallos described seeing the three robbers and a burst of gunfire but she was unable to say exactly who fired, which the defence argued introduced uncertainty about the identity of the shooter. She said she’d talked to two police detectives that night, but that they’d told her to keep quiet and not talk to anyone else about the case.
It was enough to win a last-minute reprieve and the execution was delayed one week.
In Manitoba, Mr. Fournel, who was beginning his life sentence with a reputation as a snitch and a rat, was knifed in the back five times with a letter opener at Stony Mountain penitentiary, where he’d been moved for his safety.
The Santa bandit robbery was a disturbing case, the murders of the two officers roundly considered an abominable offence. But yet the public appetite to execute Mr. Marcotte was flagging.
The most recent executions in Canada had taken place in the form of a double hanging at the Don Jail in Toronto on Dec. 11, 1962 – three days before the Côte de Liesse robbery – and had been the subject of considerable consternation and protest. One of the condemned, Ronald Turpin, was described by psychiatrists as being mentally ill. The other, Arthur Lucas, professed his innocence up until the final moments, and the evidence against him was indeed far from certain.
The 1956 hanging of Wilbert Coffin at Bordeaux Prison for the murder of three hunters was so suspect that a Royal Commission had been called in 1963 to re-examine the case, and consider whether Mr. Coffin had been executed for a crime he did not commit. That case loomed large in considerations of Mr. Marcotte’s fate.
An editorial in The Globe on July 4, 1964, the day after Mr. Marcotte was set to be hanged, described capital punishment in Canada as being in its twilight state and argued: “Surely the Marcotte case is argument enough that we should pack the scaffold into the dark past where it belongs.”
The execution was delayed again to the end of September, and then, finally, to Dec. 4.
Again, Mr. Mayrand flew to Ottawa hours before the trap was set to drop. This time he had a letter from Mr. Fournel, which he said would either prove Mr. Marcotte was not the killer or show how easily Mr. Fournel would change his testimony for money – either of which was problematic for a confident and clear-cut hanging.
Cabinet initially refused to interfere with the execution, but after a flurry of phone calls and heated discussions, the politicians reversed course. A secret ballot was put to the ministers late that night, with each asked to vote for or against the hanging of Mr. Marcotte.
Based on that vote, Mr. Marcotte’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, and the Liberal government under Lester Pearson committed to putting the abolition of capital punishment to a free vote.
The decision to spare Mr. Marcotte’s life was not roundly popular. MP Ralph Cowan told the press he would have hanged Mr. Marcotte “on the anniversary of his murder and in his Santa Claus suit.” Claude Wagner, who prosecuted the Marcotte case and by December, 1964, had become the country’s Attorney-General, called the idea of abolishing the death penalty a “sad thing” and a blow to justice, which would “make policemen sitting ducks for the bullets of criminals.”
But they were not in the majority. As one news story noted, “cabinet’s decision to spare the life of convicted killer Georges Marcotte may be the spark that will bring an end to capital punishment in Canada.”
And it was.
Mr. Marcotte did well in prison. Armed robbery was a well-regarded crime among inmates at the time, and he generally got along with other prisoners and didn’t cause problems for the guards. He founded a sports program for disabled children, and worked on his carpentry and art. He served just less than 20 years before being granted day parole.
On the outside, he met a woman and had a son, worked various jobs and, in his time off, dedicated himself to quiet things like spending time with his family and baking pies, which he sometimes sold for money. But still he could not move on.
The Santa bandit case remained well-known even decades later. (One man, who had been assaulted by Mr. Marcotte in the course of a business deal in the early 1980s, said he knew Mr. Marcotte was serving a life sentence but didn’t know he was dealing with “the notorious Santa Claus bandit from Montreal.”)
Public memory was further refreshed by the release of the 1978 movie The Silent Partner, which was filmed in Toronto and centred around a bank heist perpetrated by a psychopathic Santa. The movie – starring Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer, and featuring some sensational scenes of a gun-wielding Santa – was based on a 1968 Danish novel, and – rightly or wrongly – broadly assumed to have been inspired by the events in Montreal.
And while Mr. Marcotte told the parole board he changed his name and moved to Toronto to escape the notoriety of being the Santa Claus bandit, he appeared to be drawn back to it, too.
Throughout the 1990s, he was in and out of custody, on and off parole, primarily for robberies and robbery plots. Once, he and an accomplice were picked up casing a North York Shoppers Drug Mart, and were found with a gun, walkie talkies, a police scanner and binoculars. On another occasion, he and two other men held up a National Trust Bank and fled with $2,600 after passing the teller a note that read, “This is a holdup. Give me all your hundreds, fifties, and tens and no one will get hurt.”
In a 2002 decision, the parole board noted it was unusual for Mr. Marcotte to still have been committing armed robberies into his late 50s, long past the point when most men burn out on the criminal lifestyle. By then in his early 70s, and suffering serious health problems, he was finally granted full parole. His file was permanently closed a couple years ago, after his death.
He was the last of the suspects from the Côte de Liesse heist. Mr. Reeves died in hospital in 1973, having never recovered enough to be tried for his role in the robbery. Mr. Fournel was released on full parole in 1979 and died in the early 1990s.
On Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, the families of Constable Brabant and Constable Marineau held a memorial at the Saint-Laurent Church. It was the same church where the officers’ funerals had been held, the same streets where thousands of people had once gathered in wet and heavy snow to observe the procession and pay their respects.
“It’s very hard to accept,” Alain Marineau told a reporter then. He was the youngest in his family, and had been just three years old when his father was killed. “I would say it’s taken me 50 years to accept.”
“After that, Christmas was never the same,” said one of Constable Brabant’s daughters, Marie-Claude. “Santa Claus was never in our family.”