Melvin Mingo was the mastermind of what is considered the largest holdup in Canadian history — a $68.5-million bond and securities heist in downtown Montreal in 1984.
Melvin Mingo loves it when he sits around an RV park and fellow retirees get to talking about what they used to do for a living.
“I am a retired bank robber,” Mingo, 67, says to a round of chuckles.
Pressed a little further, he might add, “I’m a retired unsuccessful entrepreneur.”
The affable man loves to joke but he’s telling the truth.
Mingo was the mastermind of what is considered the largest holdup in Canadian history — a $68.5-million bond and securities heist at the Merrill Lynch Canada Inc. headquarters in downtown Montreal in 1984.
His eyes light up when asked about the caper that landed him almost a decade in some of Canada’s toughest prisons.
“It was such a beautiful score,” he says. “That was like everyone’s big dream. The big last one.”
Some $5.75 million of that loot has never been recovered. Mingo has a stock answer when asked where it went.
“That’s a story for another time,” Mingo told the Star, with a smile, during a stopover last month with his wife Susie at the Glen Rouge Campground in Scarborough.
He is happy to talk about how, with the advent of online money transfers, his record will likely never be broken.
He definitely didn’t spend it on his RV, which is circa 1986.
And RV culture is a far cry from Mingo’s bank robbery days. Growing up in Montreal among criminals, drugs and schemes, he says it was the heist he always dreamed of.
“If you hang around with thieves, what will you be? An artist? A plumber? A pizza delivery guy?”
Mingo’s friends included members of Montreal’s Irish mob, called the West End Gang. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, they were a force to be reckoned with in the world of truck hijackings, extortion and armed robbery. They later moved into drug trafficking, which, Mingo says, ruined everything.
Mingo’s circle included the late Theodore (Bootsie) Orben, who worked with mobster Frank Cotroni to try to tunnel into the City and District Savings Bank in Montreal in 1967.
Asked how they got caught, Orben told Mingo: “(I) told one person too many.”
There was also the late John (Jackie) McLaughlin, a debt collector and scary figure even by West End Gang standards.
“He would kill you and not think twice,” Mingo says of McLaughlin, who was killed alongside his pit bull in 1984.
Another hit man Mingo became friendly with was Dickie Lavoie, who could do 1,000 pushups at a time. He died of natural causes in the 1980s.
“I used to like him but he was a hit man,” Mingo says. “There is not too many people I don’t like.”
But when it came time for his ultimate caper, he kept it secret from these nefarious associates.
The idea for the Merrill Lynch heist came to Melvin Mingo when he was sitting in a bar that the West End Gang frequented on Crescent Street in downtown Montreal in the fall of 1984. A man who worked in the corporation’s office was trying to impress a woman from their group by telling her how much money he handled.
Mingo’s ears perked up when he heard that millions of dollars in securities were taken by couriers up and down the elevators of the office tower on Dorchester Blvd. W. from a main floor bank.
He didn’t tell anyone, but spent the next month scoping out the site near the Queen Elizabeth Hotel Across from Place Ville Marie.
He did his spying from a bus stop, where there were plenty of passersby, and sometimes dressed as a courier.
Other times, he carried a brief case and looked like an office worker on his way to work.
He’d spend about half an hour at the bus stop each morning.
“I’m a good blender inner. People do not pay attention.”
He noticed that there were eight elevators in the office tower, but only one went all the way down to the basement.
He also noted that Merrill Lynch couriers didn’t carry guns as they rode up and down the elevator.
He cultivated a contact inside Merrill Lynch as he hatched his plan.
“I had somebody inside,” Melvin Mingo says. “They used to trade every day. I watched for about four weeks.”
He was particularly interested in the varied habits of the couriers who worked in the building.
“There were two that I found particularly lazy.”
Those two couriers always took the same elevator to the bank as it meant less walking. That was the elevator where the heist would have to take place.
As Mingo hatched his plan, he strove to keep things as simple as possible so that fewer things could go wrong. While he likes the Oceans Eleven movies, he says their plots are far too convoluted for the real world.
“To me, it would never happen. It’s too complicated. Too many things can go wrong. It’s nice to watch but you’ve always got to have a little reality.”
Mingo also studied a guard who sat outside the bank near the elevator.
“He got distracted — a woman with cleavage. I knew what we had to do with him.
Finally, on Dec. 21, 1984, Mingo and his crew were ready to roll.
Mingo parked his station wagon nearby on University Street. His accomplices arrived separately. One of them was a woman with pronounced cleavage, whose only job was to distract the guard outside the bank.
Mingo was dressed as a courier and pushed a dolly as he entered the building.
As usual, he blended in. His silver semi-automatic pistol was tucked out of sight.
His contact at Merrill Lynch had agreed to page him as soon as the crew of targeted couriers left the office for the bank.
The plan was to ride the elevator with them, taking the securities and locking them in a basement washroom for maintenance workers.
It should have been quick and simple but something went wrong.
Mingo’s contact buzzed him.
“We all made a move.”
A husky member of his crew rode the elevator with him.
Soon their prey would be getting on, too — they hoped.
Mingo rode the elevator all the way up to the 24th floor and all the way back down.
The couriers should have been on board but they weren’t.
“I was sweating. I couldn’t figure what was holding these guys up.”
Mingo had no idea that Brinks couriers had priority over all others and a Brinks team had jumped the line, making the Merrill Lynch couriers wait.
Finally, about 10 minutes behind schedule, the door opened and the Merrill Lynch couriers finally appeared.
“Come on in,” Mingo told them. “We’ve got plenty of room.”
Once they were inside and the door was securely closed, Mingo pressed his pistol into the side of one of them and gestured towards his partner, “You’re just going to follow me and that person in front.”
“He saw the chrome of the gun,” Mingo said.
They rode all the way back up to the 24th floor, and then began heading down to the basement.
“I told them, ‘Just keep your eyes down.’ ”
The elevator seemed to stop 10 times as they headed for the basement. Whenever someone got on, Mingo tensed up.
“I thought, ‘I hope you get off somewhere because you’ll have a bad weekend if you don’t.’”
Finally, they reached the basement and the two couriers were left in a darkened maintenance washroom.
Mingo and his associate tried to give them the impression that one of their crew was watching them, somewhere in the dark.
Mingo said he didn’t dwell on the feelings of the terrified guards.
“I’m not going to lie. I didn’t feel bad. I was pretty pumped up myself.”
Three of his crew left in separate cars, driving slowly. The other left the scene on public transit.
Fifteen minutes later, someone went into the maintenance washroom and freed the guards.
The hunt for Mingo was on.
Twenty-five minutes later, Mingo and his crew met at a pre-arranged spot — his house on Gouin Blvd.
“It’s just a matter of stashing and counting.”
They counted $40.4-million in negotiable securities and $28.1-million in non-negotiable items.
Mingo found it interesting that some of the personal bonds belonged to Olympic speedskating hero Gaétan Boucher.
Their next move was to do and say nothing.
They just sat tight for a month, careful not to attract any attention.
“It was all over the news,” Mingo says. “For a month I was totally quiet.”
The heist was the talk of the town, especially in Mingo’s circles. “I said, ‘It had to be an out-of-towner.’ ” He felt the lie was necessary. “If I stole it, who’s to say they wouldn’t steal it from me? It’s only common sense.”
Mingo had already thought out what to do with the bonds.
“We’re not going to sit with them and never sell them and make wallpaper.”
The problem was that some of the securities had identification numbers and there was the danger they could be traced or cancelled.
In addition to the police, private detectives had been dispatched from the Merrill Lynch main office in New York City to locate the loot.
Mingo’s plan was to sell the securities to an offshore banker, who would pay 10 per cent of their face value.
That would net Mingo some $1.25 million U.S. for his share of the job.
Moving the securities would be the banker’s challenge.
40 days after the robbery he took a trip to Toronto to meet the banker at the Harbour Castle Hilton.
All of the bonds fit into two suitcases.
“They were simple cheap suitcases. The contents were nice.”
The banker seemed impressed when Mingo opened them up but now there was another switch in plans.
The banker said he needed time get his money together.
They would have to meet again once he had the cash.
Mingo still wonders if he should have done something different at this point. Perhaps it would have been best to stash the securities in Toronto.
Again, he was worried about being robbed himself.
“It all comes back to paranoia.”
Twelve days after the Harbour Castle meeting, Mingo sat in a car outside the Dorval train station in suburban Montreal. He was heading back to Toronto to finally close the deal with the banker.
Another member of his crew was driving to Toronto. Two more were taking a plane.
If all went according to plan, soon they would all be millionaires.
He smoked a joint to calm his nerves and noted a bellhop passed in front of the car twice.
“Get out of the car!,” someone yelled.
They were ordered to lie on their bellies on the dirty snow and the slush by police tactical officers with machine-guns.
“Mel, what’s going on?” Bobby asked.
“I don’t know,” Mingo recalls replying. “Maybe parking tickets.”
The police looked in the trunk of the car.
Nothing was there.
“The biggest thing was they wanted the loot. They wanted the loot big time.”
Mingo said he feels oddly grateful, even though he got a nine-year-prison term for robbery and forcible confinement instead of the $1.25 million.
“Could’ve been a big party. Blew it in two years. I say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Mingo says he has been out of the crime world for 30 years. He had an epiphany of sorts when he had his parole taken away for trying to bribe a police officer at a speed trap while leaving a party for since-murdered mobster Frank Cotroni Jr.
Melvin Mingo says he gave up drinking, cocaine and crime when he connected with Susie shortly after his final release.
He credits her with saving his life, as well as enriching it.
“I made a choice in the ’80s and left all that world behind.”
Nowadays, his scheming is mostly concerned with how to get to a big tractor pull with Susie.
“This is such a nice life. No one judges you.”
Melvin Mingo, the man with the moustache whose face is not whited out, in a police lineup after the bank robbery.