Dec '14/Jan '15

The Elsa silver heist

A daring mining theft in a small Yukon town

By Alicia Priest

Stealing gold-bearing ore is relatively easy and common. You can hide a rock with high-grade gold in the palm of your hand. But theft of silver ore is almost unheard of: How do you hide boulders of the stuff? Because that is what you would need to make its theft worthwhile. In the early 1960s, circumstances converged for a group of miners in a sleepy Yukon mining town to make such a proposition irresistible. What resulted was one of the most audacious Canadian mining thefts in history.

At the time, United Keno Hill Mines Ltd. (UKHM) operated a profitable silver mine in Elsa, Yukon, an isolated company-built town of about 600 souls. The mine was renowned for its rich silver veins including one called the Bonanza Stope that yielded 4.5 million ounces of silver over the course of the roughly three years it was mined. Some geological goblin had saved the vein’s best for last: a 2,500-short ton peach that produced astonishing assays of up to 7,500 ounces of silver per ton.

In 1961, over the course of several weeks, two miners began making nightly excursions into the stope during the four “dead” hours between the day and night shifts. Soon, they had squirreled away in a dark recess of the mine close to 70 tons of ore worth $2 million at today’s silver prices.

Later, joined by my father, Gerald Priest, they raced to move the ore to a roadside ditch obscured by willow scrub on the opposite side of a hill near the mine after word spread that regular mining operations were to resume near the cached ore.

Then the hard mental work of how to sell the pilfered rock began. My dad, UKHM’s chief assayer, and Anthony Bobcik, an underground miner turned assay office worker, hatched a plan. Dad got a local prospector to sell him the rights to mine silver and other precious metals in an area northeast of Elsa known as the Moon mineral claims. Bobcik, meanwhile, registered a new company called Alpine Gold and Silver Ltd.

Soon thereafter, Dad bought a snowmobile and began regular trips “hauling ore” between his distant Moon claims and the roadside cache. Of course, the ore was already in place and the snowmobile was all for show.

In early June 1963, three White Pass and Yukon Route transport trucks arrived to haul the ore to Whitehorse where it would then travel by rail to Skagway, container ship to Vancouver, and rail again to a smelter in Helena, Montana.

One truck driver bumbled the getaway. Instead of skirting Elsa on a side road, he stopped in town for cigarettes, coffee and directions, where UKHM mine manager Al Pike spotted the loaded truck.

Pike’s sighting triggered a costly police investigation and the longest preliminary hearing in Yukon history. It also resulted in two trials, during which Dad and Bobcik stood accused of attempting to sell ore they could not prove was theirs. It was an odd charge, requiring the accused to prove their innocence rather than the Crown proving their guilt. The charge would later be stricken from Canada’s criminal code for violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At the first trial, the Crown failed to obtain all but one conviction. At the second trial, both men were convicted on all counts. The jury rejected Dad’s story that he had hand-mined the ore on the Moon claims. It did not matter that the Crown failed to prove it came from the Elsa mine.

Following his release from jail in November 1966 after serving 15 months of a four-year prison sentence, Dad exacted a measure of revenge. He initiated a civil suit before U.S. courts. The United States Court of Appeal was not impressed that the smelter had processed the disputed ore and sent UKHM a cheque before my father had even been tried let alone convicted. The court was even less impressed with a Canadian law that flipped on its head the sacred legal tenet of innocent until proven guilty.

UKHM executives, eyeing potentially months of escalating legal costs, decided enough was enough. They paid a settlement of $80,000 to the man they had accused of stealing ore from under their noses.

Alicia Priest is an award-winning writer with more than 25 years experience. Her work has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, CBC Radio and the Canadian Medical Association Journal. This article is adapted from A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist (Harbour Publishing), Alicia’s first book. It is part memoir of an idyllic northern childhood, a history of Yukon silver mining, and an account of one of Canada’s most daring silver heists.

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