To Catch a Thief

Written by Harold McNeill on January 21st, 2011. Posted in Police Notebook


Find out how an old friend managed to nail the thieves who were stealing gas from the company fuel storage tank.

Stealing Gas From Tank

The following incident happened in the early 2000s, was written in 2005 and posted in 2011 when this blog was first opened.  The man at the centre of the story, about eighty at the time, was a short and stocky and, along with his deep, gravelly, no-nonsense voice, these combined features lent an air of command and sincerity that drew people to him.  Before the story was published, Jack gave permission to use his name along with photos of he and his wife and their family home on a thirty-acre piece of property north of Victoria, British Columbia.

For over 50 years, Jack earned a good living blasting and building roads to mines and logging facilities over the length and breadth of Vancouver Island. He was an honest, hard-working man who would give his last dollar to someone in need but, steal or try to steal something from Jack and he could get his dander up in a hurry.

1. To Catch a Thief 

At 4:00 am it was overcast and pitch-black at the home of Start home when the driveway alarm Jack had linked to their doorbell roused him from his slumber.  He jumped from the bed and slipped on his boots while telling Ruthie, to just stay put as he would be back shortly. He grabbed his shotgun and while still in his pyjamas opened the door knowing no one would be standing there.

Jack was almost certain tonight was the night he would catch himself a thief. He wasn’t angry, hell, he wasn’t even nervous as he walked to his truck and climbed in, he was a man on a mission. Even though he had just turned eighty, he was still not willing to let those thieving bastards continue to drive Start Homeaway with his gas. If the RCMP could not catch them, come hell or high water, Jack would do the job for them. He started the engine, jammed this heavier work truck in gear and set out heading up his along winding driveway towards the shop area.

The Start home (photo left) was situated on an isolated acreage overlooking Brentwood Bay, a half kilometre below the Malahat Drive section of the Trans Canada about three kilometres northeast of Goldstream Park. Nestled in a grove of tall evergreens and surrounded by manicured lawns, the home was perched on the edge of a cliff that dropped 150 meters to the dark, cold waters of Brentwood  Bay.

Photo (personal files):  Looking down the winding driveway towards the Start home.  The fuel storage area and workshop was located in a secluded area about 100 meters further up the slope. The truck in the driveway is his general use pick-up, not his heavier work truck with a winch on the front.

When looking out their living room window at night, the glow of light filtering into the clouds and mist above Greater Victoria, some 20 kilometres due south, added to the sense peacefulness of the area. The silence was only interrupted by the occasional sounds of traffic moving along the Malahat.

In the 1960’s Jack and Ruth selected this thirty-acre property to build their dream home as much for the spectacular view as for the abundant wildlife that Jack and Ruth nurtured with loving care. On any given day when travelling down the long winding driveway, it was evident the deer and all manner of other animals and birds loved this location as Jack made twice-weekly trips to Victoria to pick discarded vegetables and fruit at Thrifty Foods in Broadmead.

However, life on the property was not always as peaceful as Jack and Ruth had hoped. Over the years and particularly in the last several months, thieves had been making regular night-time visits to Jack’s workshop and fuel area about 300 meters up his driveway towards the Malahat.  He had never installed gates or fences as he wanted the wild life to have free range of the property.

Of interest to the thieves was the thousand gallon fuel tank that was easy to access and required only a pry bar to break the lock.  Jack lodged several complaints Jack and Ruth Startwith the Colwood RCMP, but after many months the police had no success in stopping the thievery. Jack was not so much upset by the theft of a few tankfuls of gas – hell he had enough money to keep that tank full for the rest of his life – no, for Jack it was a matter of principle.

He had worked hard his entire life and had earned a comfortable living for himself and his family, yet sneak thieves seemed to think it was OK to just take another mans property.  Hell, if they needed help or a few gallons of gas, he would gladly give it to them. He’d even give them an extra $10.00 for a meal if they needed it. No, instead, they had to sneak in under the cover of darkness to steal what they wanted. In Jack’s mind, that just wasn’t right.

After arriving at the shop area one morning, he discovered thieves had again pried the lock off and stolen more gas, Before going to Thrifty’s for his regular pick-up, Jack drove to the RCMP Office in Colwood and spoke to one of the young Constables.

After being giving him the usual line about a lack of police resources, the need to “prioritize” calls and other excuses designed to pacify a persistent complainant, Jack stated:  “Ok young man, seeing as how you folks can’t find the time to catch these guys, how about I catch them for you then give you a call to pick them up?”   The young Constable smiled in a patronizing manner and told Jack he had best leave catching criminals to the police as they didn’t want to see him get hurt.

Ever the gentleman, Jack thanked the officer and left – he was now a man on a mission and there was no doubt in his mind he could catch the little bastards. As a young man, Jack had spent five years during World War II as an Army Dispatch Rider in England, France, Belgium and Holland and, other than losing a good part of his hearing to the “those big guns”, had returned unscathed. As he then spent forty years building a company that drilled and blasted rock to build roads to mines and logging camps across much of Vancouver Island, he reasoned – how difficult could it be to catch a simple-minded gas thief?  Probably not all that difficult!

Before taking things into his own hands, Jack called me and asked if he would be within his right to try and catch these guys? I told him “certainly”, but that he could not use any more force than necessary if he was going to try and catch them, then hold them for the police. As with the Colwood members, I warned him to take things cautiously and to keep a cool head.  As I had come to know Jack pretty well, I felt he would go about this task with a cool, methodical manner.  I also read Jack the Criminal Code Section on the right to protect his home and property. I knew that probably wasn’t necessary as Jack a level-headed fellow and I wasn’t all that worried he would fly off the handle, do something stupid, as we often read in news stories about vigilantes, or that he would get himself hurt.

I heard no more about it but later learned that Jack had gone about rigging up a rudimentary, but effective alarm system several meters above his gas storage area.  He ran a line from the device to the house and attached it to the doorbell (much like the lines they used to alert gas station attendants someone was at the pump. Jack felt his system would alert him to cars entering the driveway during late-night hours.  Was he afraid of confronting the thieves? Not in the least.  Although he was getting on in age, his stocky, muscular build, deep voice and abundance of confidence would make a man half his age think twice about tackling this particular old guy.

A Thief Rings the bell

One morning, after the doorbell sounded, Jack jumped out of bed in his nightclothes, grabbed his shotgun and headed to his truck, a one-ton, 4-wheel drive, with a heavy steel grill and winch welded on the front. He slipped it in 4-wheel drive and sped 300 meters up the hill to his service area.  Although he had assured Ruth it would be OK, she had a bad feeling about Jack chasing some intruders with his shotgun even though Ruth knew Jack was an extremely peaceful man.

TR6As Jack rounded the corner into the service area, his headlights encased two young men standing at the back of a shiny sports car with the hose from Jack’s gas tank stuck in cars filler. Jack never missed a beat as he dropped the truck into first gear, put the gas peddle to the floor and in less time than it took to whisper ‘Jack Sprat” he crossed the ten meters that separated him from that brand new sports car.

The two men jumped back as the heavy winch drilled into the driver’s door and seat. The truck barely flinched as it continued to push the sports car sideways across the gravel compound. On the far side, a large tree stopped the car from being propelled over the bank and down towards Brentwood Bay.  T-boned from both sides, the car was mangled mass of bent metal.

As the two men looked at the remnants of their TR6, Jack then reversed across the parking lot blocking the entrance and calmly climbed out.  The two twenty-something men stood frozen, gaping in disbelief as Jack climbed out. When they recovered from the initial shock, one man, probably the owner of the car, began hurling insults and threats at Jack who calmly stated in his deep, resonant voice, “Ok guys, you may as well settle down as I’m going to call the police and they can take it from here.”

The owner of the car started walking towards Jack screaming:  “You crazy son-of-a-bitch, you just wrecked my fu….. car, you’re going to f…. pay big time. Now move out of the way asshole.” The man continued toward Jack in a threatening manner.

As Jack backed away towards the open driver’s door of his truck, he reached inside and brought out a shiny twelve gauge pump action Remmington shotgun. As Jack calmly racked a shell, the young man froze. Having just watched the old guy destroy his prized TR6, he seemed unsure as to what the guy might do next.

However, once again, he overcame his initial shock at seeing the gun, he again advanced in a threatening manner as he continued to swear. Jack calmly raised the shotgun and pulled the trigger.  The immediate flash and following blast from that 12 gauge reverberated throughout the valley causing the young man to drop to his knees in the gravel thinking he had just been shot.

The second man, who began backing away after Jack pulled out the shotgun, suddenly turned, bolted past the mangled sports car and disappeared over the bank leading down to Brentwood Bay. When the young man kneeling in the gravel recovered his bearings, Jack ordered him to stand up and start walking. Jack stated had no intention of shooting anyone, he stated he just fired the gun over their heads to get their attention.  That he did.

As he started walking towards the house the young man was still uttering expletives and at one point stopped and said to Jack, “f…-off old man, I’m not going any further.” To regain man’s attention, Jack racked another round and lifted the gun. The man then kept walking. At the house Jack made him sit on the porch and covered him with the shotgun while Ruthie was standing at the door.

She told Jack she had already called the police when she heard the shot and had told them her husband might need some help as he had gone to catch some gas thieves and that she had just heard a shot. Not more than 10 minutes later the sound of sirens could be heard in the distance and shortly after two patrol cars and a dog master made their way down the winding driveway. When they passed a point near the entry to the service area, the doorbell rang three more times. It seems that adding Ruth adding a report of “shots fired” to her call about someone stealing gas caused the call to be prioritized at a higher level.

Everyone goes to Jail

As the young man sitting on the porch continued to complain about Jack and his shotgun, Jack was ordered to put down the gun as the young man was placed in handcuffs and taken to one of the patrol car. After Jack explained how he had managed to capture one of the thieving bastards, but the other one had escaped, the police now faced a dilemma. They could not be at all certain, even after Jack’s quiet assurances that he “hadn’t shot anyone, just put a scare into them.”, that the second man was OK. They had no choice but to take Jack into custody until the other man was found.

They immediately put out an APB (All Points Bulletin) based on Jack’s sketchy description and, as well, the Dog Master was dispatched to see if he could pick up the trail of the missing man. Of course with a 150 drop to Brentwood Bay and heavy going in the dark, that was pretty much mission impossible. The police were left with no recourse, so took Jack back to the Detachment Office while other officers who arrive sealed off the scene and began a search for the missing man.

It was not until late morning that the second men, who had now been identified by his partner in crime, was located at his home in Colwood. While the man was badly scratched and bruised from having scrambled through the heavy undergrowth as he made his way back to the Trans Canada Highway he was otherwise unharmed.

After he was taken into custody he told police he had been on the highway by 7:00 am and had seen a few police cars as he was hitching a ride back to Colwood. Even in his dishevelled condition and an APB out, not one stopped to check him out. With the second man was located unharmed, Jack was released pending further investigation.

The two thieves were later charged with Theft Under $1000, and released on a Promise to Appear at some later date.  At trial, they claimed to have run out of gas while driving up the Malahat Drive and had coasted down into Jack’s driveway in their search for some fuel.  By chance, they came upon Jack’s service and fuel storage area and intended to only “borrow” enough gas to get to a service station. The whole thing was just a big mistake and they fully intended to return later and pay for the gas.

The Judge did not buy the explanation and convicted both, then sentenced them to three months probation. Jack was not charged with any offence as the police obviously concluded that while the force he used was significant, it was no more than necessary to protect himself and to hold the one suspect until the police arrived to take him into custody. Perhaps they also rightly understood that a charge against an eighty-year-old would be unlikely to succeed as he had long been complaining about people stealing his gas for months and the two men certainly presented some danger after they were confronted. Individuals such as Jack have a right to protect themselves and their property as long as the force used is not excessive in the circumstance There is a full discussion of the law in a footer along with several examples of how things can go sideways when citizens take on the task of arresting a suspect.

As for the damage to the TR6, as the incident happened wholly on private property, Jack never heard anything more about the matter. It seems certain the insurance company would not pay any damage claim as the TR6 was being used to commit a criminal office at the time it was demolished.

Following this episode, Jack and Ruth never experienced any more thefts of gas. If others were involved besides the two Jack caught, it seems word spread that Jack’s gas tank was probably not a good bet for a tank of ‘free’ gas.

Harold McNeill
Victoria, November 2005

Citizens Arrest

Over the years media outlets often report on Citizen Arrests including a few where serious injury was caused to either to the person suspected of having committed a crime or to someone attempting to affect an arrest.  Often there is considerable controversy when a citizen who has effected a ‘citizens arrest’ has been taken to task for using excessive force, perhaps even charged with assault or some other serious Criminal Office offence such as Criminal Negligence.  The Criminal Code is pretty clear on when a citizen can effect an arrest:

Section 494 of the Criminal Code:

(1) ARREST WITHOUT WARRANT BY ANY PERSON
Anyone may arrest without a warrant
(a) a person whom he finds committing an indictable offence; or
(b) a person who, on reasonable grounds, he believes
• (i) has committed a criminal offence, and
• (ii) is escaping from and freshly pursued by persons who have lawful authority to arrest that person

(2) ARREST BY OWNER OF A PROPERTY
Anyone who is
(a) the owner or a person in lawful possession of property, or
(b) a person authorized by the owner or by a person in lawful possession of property may arrest without warrant a person whom he finds committing a criminal offence on or in relation to that property.

(3) DELIVERY TO PEACE OFFICER
Any one other than a peace officer who arrests a person without warrant shall forthwith deliver the person to a peace officer.

The powers contained in this section are not much different from that afforded to police officers, however police officers are also allowed to arrest any person they have reasonable and probable grounds to believe has committed a criminal offence.

Recent Cases of Interest in Canada:

May 2009    Toronto, Ontario

Many will have read the story of the travails of Toronto Grocery Store owner, David Chen, and two employees who were charged with assault and unlawful confinement. The case arose after Mr Chen and his workmates chased down and hog-tied a drug user who had been a ‘regular’ shoplifter at their store.

David ChenPolice, who took more than an hour to attend following the initial call, took custody of a suspect they found tied up in the back of a panel truck.

They decided, apparently on the advice of counsel, that it would be in the public interest to charge Mr Chen and his workmates.  Personally, I think there was a fair bit of overreach with the charge but I only have the news reports upon which to base my opinion.

The case became a cause célèbre in the Chinese community (and for many others across Canada) as the storekeepers in this particular area had been fighting a losing battle against shoplifters. The Police seemed incapable of dealing with the epidemic in part because calls of “higher priority” took precedence. Shoplifting complaints simply stagnated on the call list for several hours sometimes days.  In this case, it turned out the store owner and his employees were not in fresh pursuit of a shoplifter. Sometime during the day, they had observed him steal an item from the store but had lost him in the crowds.  About an hour later they saw him return and this time was able to chase him down and tie him up for the police.

The key element in the Chen charge had to do with “found committing” as outlined in Section 294 (1)(b)(ii).  The Judge took the broad view that the offence was continuing and gave the three accused the benefit of any doubt.  They were acquitted.

The Judge could just as easily have held the one-hour time lapse between the original shoplifting and return of the culprit to get more ‘flowers’ could have precluded the protection afforded by Section (1)(b)(ii).

Ian ThompsonJanuary 21, 2011, Pt. Corbourn, Ontario

The lead story in the National Post reported a homeowner, Ian Thompson, was charged with a Criminal Offence while protecting his home from attack.  It was reported that Thompson fired a handgun to chase away the masked attackers who were throwing firebombs at his property.  See the full story at:

http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/01/20/man-faces-jail-after-protecting-home-from-masked-attackers/

March 2010  Medicine Hat, Alberta

There was a further interesting case of an Alberta man, Brian Russell Knight and his friends, who chased down three suspects who had stolen an ATV from the man’s rural property.

Brian KnightSometime during the chase, and while one of the theft suspects was attempting to flee on foot, shots were fired and the suspect was hit.

Police were eventually called and three men were charged with stealing the ATV and the property owner was charged with Criminal Negligence and a variety of other charges.  The property owner eventually plead guilty to Criminal Negligence.

This case is not a good precedent in support of a “Citizen’s Right” to make an arrest or to detain a person as provided in the Criminal Code. The circumstances suggest excessive force was used and might be better described as vigilante justice rather than a reasonable citizen trying to protect his property. Even a police officer would likely have been charged had they shot and injured a person under similar circumstances.

Conclusions

The first two cases, that of David Chen along with his associates, as well as that of Ian Thompson seem to have been an abuse of police and prosecutorial power, but not that of the man in the Medicine Hat man, Brian Knight.  Knight clearly crossed a line in which even a police officer would likely be charged for having shot an individual under the circumstances in the case.

hdmc

Epilogue

Lynn and I had met Jack and Ruth in the mid-1980s through a chance phone call Jack had made to the Brentwood Bay Marina where Lynn and I, along with our family, were fishing trip Ruth and Jack Startwith Lynn’s brother Barrie and his family. Jack was looking for someone to help can some salmon and as the Marina Operator did know anyone, I asked if I might speak to the man. I introduced myself and said that my wife and I enjoyed canning salmon and, perhaps, we could help.

That call was the beginning of a long friendship with this “salt of the earth” couple. To understand a bit about the personalities you need only view the ‘master bedroom’ of their home. As noted in the story, the house sat on a rock bluff facing south overlooking Brentwood Bay. The bedroom was about 15 X 20 feet and the unique feature – it had no wall on the bay view side.

Year-round when Jack and Ruth retired for the evening, they did do so in the great outdoors. They had a roof over their head to keep dry, but beyond that, the bedroom was open to the elements. When those heavy winds blew, as they often did down Brentwood Bay, Ruth would sweep out the leaves and twigs in the morning. She and Jack always enjoyed the fresh, salt air of the bay.

Over the years, we periodically visited Jack and Ruth and continued to can their salmon well into the late 1990s. Ruth’s sight continued to fail until she was totally blind but Jack was always there to help ease her way. They finally sold their Brentwood home and moved to Broadmead not far from where Lynn and I live.  Then, one day a few years back, we met Jack at the Broadmead Shopping Centre and learned his wife of more than fifty years had passed away.  With softness in his gruff, gravelly voice and a caring smile on his face, he talked about “Ruthie”. As he did, tears formed in his eyes in remembrance of Ruthie and those bygone days. He was and continues to be an honest, caring man who adds immensely to the value of our world.

Jack then related a story of his latest encounter with the police.  After having completed the sale of his million dollars plus home and property, Jack was visited by members of an RCMP Special Squad (not known which squad). The RCMP were interested in the background of the purchase as it was made by way of a large amount of cash (the total sale). Jack them the matter had all been handled by his lawyer. He never heard anything further.   Further to this Jack was sad to learn his home and outbuildings had all been demolished and several trees cut down to make way for a large, modern, structure that Jack felt detracted from the natural beauty of the property.

October 30, 2010

As Lynn and I have been out of the country a fair amount over the past several years we had not talked Jack.  I gave him a call this past Saturday and then biked over for a coffee. He is now 88 and in a caring relationship, but still speaks with great fondness of Ruthie. He is still the same lively character we knew back in the 1980s.  He chuckles when talking about catching those ‘thieving bastards’. I have no doubt that today, at eighty-eight, he would take exactly the same action if the circumstances warranted.  When writing this story he just wanted to make sure I understood he would never have hurt these guys although he “did not mind busting up their little car.” He chuckled in his mischievous manner. We finished our coffee.

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Comments

  • Harold McNeill

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email: Harold@mcneillifestories.com)

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read you article on Pibroch excellent. My Dad was Searle Grain company agent we move there in 1942/3 live in town by the hall for 5 years than moved one mile east to the farm on the corner where the Pibroch road meets Hwy 44. Brother Don still lives there. I went to school with you and Louise.