Notorious bank robber, B.C. writer wins book award for work of non-fiction

VICTORIA – Grappling with addiction, the pain associated with prison and the separation from friends and family have earned one of the country’s most notorious bank robbers a literary prize worth $5,000.

Stephen Reid was a member of the so-called Stopwatch Gang, which hauled in $15 million while robbing about 100 banks in Canada and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

He is currently serving an 18-year sentence at the William Head Institution on southern Vancouver Island for a separate 1999 bank robbery and shootout with police in Victoria.

The spotlight focused on Reid, once again, Wednesday night, when the incarcerated writer won the 2013 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize for his work, “A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden:Writing from Prison.”

“It goes beyond the intent of prison memoir and exploitation and Hollywood movie kind off stuff,” said Al Forrie, owner of the Saskatchewan-based company, Thistledown Press, that published the book.

“I mean this is a book of deepness, of darkness, of kind of an unbalanced grace, and very few people could have written this, except somebody who has this experience, and has the skills set to be able to transfer it.”

Forrie, who accepted the award for Reid, said the writer is a keen observer of the human condition who had the language set and vision to produce the work of essays.

The three-panel jury also spoke words of praise, calling the work a “prison ethnography taut with wit and humanity.”

Yet the announcement should come as no surprise, as Reid is no literary freshman. He wrote the semi-autobiographical novel, Jack Rabbit Parole.

Reid has also written articles and essays, and according to a statement from the City of Victoria, taught creative writing, worked as a youth counsellor and served on several boards, including the John Howard Society.

He is married to acclaimed Canadian writer Susan Musgrave.

This past March, the Parole Board of Canada granted Reid day parole, allowing him to attend a substance-abuse program.

While a member of the Stopwatch Gang, so named because they used stopwatches to time their robberies to ensure they wouldn’t take longer than 90 seconds, Reid was on the FBI’s most wanted list in the 1970s.

The FBI arrested him in Arizona in 1980, and he was later returned to Canada to serve his sentence for an Ottawa gold robbery worth $750,000.

Reid was paroled in 1987, but he was back behind bars on an 18-year-sentence for the 1999 Victoria bank robbery.

Wearing a police uniform, Reid and an accomplice walked into a Victoria bank. Reid pointed a loaded shotgun at employees and customers, and the pair fled with $97,000.

The police pursued him, but he used a .44 Magnum handgun to fire several shots at them, including shots at a pursuing officer on a motorcycle.

He also fired at an innocent woman bystander, knocking a paint tray from her hand, in an attempt to create a diversion.

Reid was granted day parole in January 2008 but it was revoked Nov. 6, 2010, after he was caught driving an uninsured vehicle with 18 clear plastic bags containing contraband U.S. cigarettes.

“This is a man who has lived an extraordinarily, spectacularly dangerous life, and he’s been looking at the darkness for so long,” said Forrie.

“I mean most of his life has been inside of prisons, and yet he hasn’t been consumer by it. He has found something within himself to keep himself from just being absorbed by it all and giving it up.”

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