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Why the $20M Pearson airport gold heist was likely an inside job

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Why the M Pearson airport gold heist was likely an inside job

Brinks was coordinating the shipment of the stash worth $20 million that was taken from an Air Canada cargo holding facility

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The air freight container stuffed with more than $20 million in gold and other valuables was unloaded directly from an Air Canada jet arriving at Toronto’s Pearson airport onto a Brink’s security truck while on the airport tarmac.

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The valuable stash, the size of a desk, was then driven through a tunnel underneath the runways to an Air Canada cargo holding facility on the other side of the airport, known as Cargo West, off Britannia Road East, National Post has learned.

It then disappeared, in the early evening of April 17.

The RCMP called it a “gold heist.” Peel Regional Police, in charge of the investigation, said it was “removed by illegal means.”

Nothing suggests it was a stick-em-up robbery or strong-arm heist.

Everything suggests it was an inside job, at least partially.

No balaclavas and guns. Rather, sources and well-placed analysts say, likely theft by subterfuge, deception, or corruption.

Maybe all three.

“Somebody had to have a fair bit of inside knowledge. Somebody would need to know what exactly was in that box. This wasn’t by happenstance,” said Paul Thorne, who was once the officer in charge of Peel Regional Police’s Airport Division, which polices the airport.

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Somebody would need to know what exactly was in that box

If the Pearson gold heist happened in 2016, it would be Thorne leading the investigation. He now watches from the sidelines as president of ProFound Corporation, a security and safety consultancy.

“They are tremendously, tremendously rare,” he said of high-value scores.

“This is definitely an interesting case, but I don’t think it’s unsolvable.”

Brink’s, a famous U.S.-based private security company, acknowledges it was involved in the gold transport.

“Brink’s was coordinating the shipment,” said Dana Callahan, vice president of communications at The Brink’s Company. “We continue to work with law enforcement officials on their investigation.”

Callahan declined to say at what points in the journey Brink’s had the shipment under its care and control. “At this point, I don’t have a comment to offer beyond our statement,” she said.

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The afternoon flight to Toronto from Zurich, a Swiss financial centre, lands each day around 4 p.m.

On Monday, April 17, it arrived nine minutes early. This is believed to be the source of the shipment. It was destined for TD Bank, according to the Toronto Sun. TD declined to comment.

The plane taxied to an arrivals gate at Terminal 1. If that’s where the Brink’s truck collected the shipment, it would then drive it through a 560-metre long tunnel beneath the runways, that the public has no access to, to reach the Cargo West facility.

Cargo West facility
Air Canada’s cargo holding facility known as Cargo West, off Britannia Road East, in Mississauga, Ont. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Cargo facilities are the inflection point in a shipment’s journey, and seems the key crime scene in this score.

It’s the red line between the secure area of the airport and the public area, as far as cargo is concerned.

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When passengers fly, they can freely wander into the airport. But once passengers go through a security check to board a plane, they shift from the public side to what’s called “the air side.” That’s the high-security zone. Staff need clearance from Transport Canada to be there; passengers need a ticket, ID, and passage through a security checkpoint to reach it.

When passengers arrive at their destination, the process works in reverse. They start in the secure zone, collect their bags, pass through customs, and return to the public side to leave.

A similar process is used for cargo. Instead of passenger security gates, however, cargo moves from the air side to the public side at cargo holding facilities on airport property. Arriving international cargo enters at one side and, once cleared by customs, is released to whoever is collecting it on the other.

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In between those points, unlike for passengers, there is an intermediary space. It moves from the red zone of airport security into a corporate space, leased, managed, and secured by an airline, even though it is still on airport property. In a statement, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Pearson airport, confirmed that “thieves accessed the public side of a warehouse that is leased to a third party, outside of our primary security line.”

The dozens of loading docks at Cargo West, an immense facility open 24 hours a day, is like the luggage carousel of cargo — except it isn’t supposed to be a grab and go. Goods are signed in and out, manifests and bills of lading — legal documents describing what’s being shipped between a shipper and a logistics company — checked.

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It is from the cargo facility the gold shipment was stolen, police said.

Canada Border Services Agency declined to say whether the shipment had been cleared through customs.

Armoured car companies pick up shipments from the public side, although its loading bays are typically filled by transport trucks, rental vans and personal vehicles.

Brink’s reluctance to detail its timing and role could be to avoid interfering with the police investigation. It could also be because it is an extremely sensitive subject. If Brink’s was in control of the shipment when it was stolen, it is on the hook to pay for it, Callahan said.

“At Brink’s, if assets are lost at any point during transfer, we reimburse our customers in accordance with our contract terms,” she said.

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But if Brink’s is secretive, Air Canada is a void.

Neither police nor the airline have confirmed the corporate stripes of the plane or the cargo facility, although it has been identified by sources and nobody has denied it. Air Canada declined to provide any comment or information. Calls to the cargo facility were directed to Air Canada spokespeople.

It all leads to many questions.

It stinks of an inside job

“I’m dumbfounded something that valuable could be so easily taken off airport property,” said Todd Moore, who worked on organized crime probes and at the Airport Detachment before retiring from Peel police. He is now a vice-president at FocusPoint International, a critical event management firm, and is on the board of directors for the International Supply Chain Protection Organization.

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“It stinks of an inside job,” he said.

Moore said mob investigations periodically uncovered relationships between people working at the airport and gangsters.

“There have been corrupt airport employees who know the system inside out,” he said. They’re called “doors,” meaning they could provide a secret entry or exit, usually for drugs. Moore said there is security on the public side of cargo facilities — “but nothing to the extreme as on the secure side,” where passenger and flight safety are critical.

Thorne has a lot of questions.

“Was it left on the dock? Who was checking invoices or was it lifted literally off the dock because nobody had eyes on it,” Thorne said.

“I would not expect parcels like that to be brought onto the loading dock until a secure vehicle and guards were there. Was there a fake Brink’s truck there and fake Brink’s guards removing it? Was it a pea-under-the cup game where they grabbed a different box.”

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And what about the gold now?

“Are they melting it down? Has it been dispersed? Is it being held somewhere?” Metals can be melted down within hours if you have connections. Stolen goods can be driven straight to a shipping container and loaded onto a ship heading out of the country.

Both Thorne and Moore said police can crack it.

“I have a lot of faith in the organization and the investigators,” said Thorne. “These guys are good at what they do.”

Peel police declined to answer specific questions about the gold theft.

“This is an active investigation and we are exploring all avenues,” said Const. Mandeep Khatra.

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