(One of several interviews I conducted with paroled bank robber Richard Atkinson for the following story was done by Skype and recorded – watch the interview after the jump. Atkinson talks about the exploits he is documenting in an autobiography he is completing.)
Five-year-old Ricky Atkinson was excited when he found the shiny .38-calibre revolver hidden in his father’s bedroom. Sonny Atkinson managed a bar in a rough-and-tumble downtown Toronto neighbourhood and he often brought the nightly earnings home. The boy took the loaded gun and his four-year-old brother out into the back yard. “I got my younger brother Dwane to stand against the wall with an apple on his head,” recalls Atkinson, now 56. “The whole William Tell thing and I attempted to shoot the apple.”
He tugged on the trigger but it wouldn’t budge. He slapped the weapon against his thigh and he bashed it on the ground. His mother spied the mischief from a kitchen window and stormed into the yard before the would-be marksman discovered that the gun’s safety was engaged.
“That’s my first memory of doing something really, really bad,” says Atkinson.
In the four decades that followed, he evolved from juvenile miscreant into a thief, radical and criminal mastermind of the Dirty Tricks Gang.
He amassed a prison sentence of nearly 47 years by the time he was in his early 40s and he had earned a place in history as one of Canada’s most notorious and most proficient bank robbers. He orchestrated more than 100 heists by a crew of young black men who eluded police with cunning for roughly a decade.
Atkinson offers memories with no hint of pride or arrogance.
“It’s all failure,” says the slightly paunchy grandfather who has been mostly absent from the upbringing of his three children. “How can you call yourself a successful criminal if you’ve done as much time as I’ve done?
“How can you call yourself a successful human being if you’ve hurt as many people as I’ve hurt emotionally through all the years?”
The gang did not kill anyone, though a jewelry shop owner was bashed on the hand during one robbery. Police shot one member of the gang to death in 1981 outside a bank in York.
Seven years ago, Atkinson was shipped to a prison in British Columbia to cut him off from former criminal associates in Ontario. In February, he was granted full parole after a hearing in Vancouver. He no longer has to live in a halfway house under nightly supervision and he can seek permission to leave B.C. It is the most freedom he’s had in 15 years.
“I know I’m not going to commit a crime,” declares Atkinson, who has a job in the hospitality industry, at a large facility in Vancouver, where he does manual labour. He says it’s hard, honest work.
“I should have been doing this years ago because though it’s harder to be a square John than a criminal, it’s more peaceful,” he says.
He hopes to move back to Toronto.
“I could make more money in Toronto,” he says. “I’m more connected legally and legitimately.”
Bert Novis believes that Atkinson will return to crime.
“I think he’ll go back and do something again,” says the retired 78-year-old Toronto police officer who was Atkinson’s nemesis for two decades. “It’s in his blood.”
Novis was a beat cop in the 60s in the Kensington Market district when he first busted Atkinson, then 10, for stealing bicycles. Novis moved into the holdup squad at the same time that the Dirty Tricks Gang coalesced. He continued to hunt Atkinson.
“They had roofing shingles cut in pieces and they put nails in the shingles and if they were chased or followed by the police, they’d throw them on the road, so that’s how they got the name Dirty Tricks,” recalls Novis.
The gang sometimes positioned burning, stolen cars along getaway routes. They bought expensive scanners to monitor police radios and they conducted counter-surveillance. Atkinson, who rarely went into the banks, would scout the target on the day of the robbery, sometimes from rooftops, to look for police and to check escape routes. The gang members communicated by walkie talkies. The inside men wore elaborate disguises that Atkinson applied using theatrical makeup.
“They were good,” says Novis, who spent many long days in phony repair trucks, an Uzi submachine gun at his side, staking out banks. “They got away with a lot.”
Atkinson was just 16, embittered by the racism his family had endured – his black father grew up in a segregated community in Nova Scotia and his white mother was the child of Ukrainian immigrants – when he met the man who taught him the ‘tricks.’
Warren Hart was a Canadian organizer for the Black Panthers, a revolutionary political movement that began in the United States. Atkinson and his pals joined Hart’s cell in Toronto. They didn’t know that Hart was an operative working for the RCMP to infiltrate and expose radicals.
“The nails on the street, that was his idea,” Atkinson says. “He used to give us books on military tactics and stuff like that. He taught us demolition and police avoidance and surveillance.”
Atkinson says his first armed robbery, the holdup of a bakery in 1972 with three accomplices, was organized by Hart. The loot was earmarked for the Panther movement in the U.S. The four inexperienced young bandits were caught. Atkinson, just 17, was sentenced to four years in prison. When he emerged from behind bars, Hart was gone, but his lessons were not forgotten.
“We just said, ‘Screw the government, this is an easy way to make money,’ ” Atkinson says. “Let’s take from the white man all that we can because he’s taken from us for 400 years.” (Click here for the complete, final report of a royal commission, the McDonald Commission, into RCMP activities, including Hart’s work – the analysis of Hart’s undercover work begins on p. 483, chapter 11)
The Dirty Tricks Gang was crushed in 1986, after a covert probe culminated in a police ambush outside a Toronto-Dominion bank that the gang robbed in the west end.
Atkinson was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
He acquired new skills behind bars. For several years, he helped to produce and host a remarkable cable television program. Convicts wielded cameras and microphones and interviewed their peers, without any restrictions from prison bosses. The program was broadcast in Kingston for six years.
Atkinson’s eloquence, charisma and good looks made him a natural in front of the camera. Now he hopes to turn those skills and his own insight about decades wasted chasing a hollow gangster’s dream into a career as a motivational speaker. He’s done more than half a dozen gigs already, organized through a John Howard Society program. He has spoken to jailed young criminals and to high school law classes. He tells teens that gang life was miserable.
“I explain to them how it sucks, and how the money’s not good, even if you have the bling, your eye is always on the rearview mirror,” Atkinson says. “Even when you’re at the top of the game, you have to worry about police arrest, assassination from your own gang members and assassination from other gangs so it’s never a peaceful, enjoyable life.”
This is an aged bank robber’s last chance at redemption before authorities lock him up and throw away the key.
“Oh yeah, obviously because then they would say, ‘You lied to us again and how can we ever trust you again?’ ” he acknowledges.
‘Again’ is a reference to 1996, when Atkinson was paroled to Toronto. He pledged publicly that he was a changed man. He opened a boxing club, a tip to his early days as a successful semi-pro who won heavyweight titles across Canada. But he could not shake his “addiction to crime,” as he calls it.
His parole was revoked a year later, after an undercover sting revealed he was scheming to smuggle 100 kilograms of cocaine into Canada. He got another 20 years.
He will be on parole until 2033.
“Will I live unhappily until 2033?” Atkinson considers. “No, because the worst day on the street free from prison is better than all the days combined of happiness in prison.”
(this story appeared first in the National Post)
Additional photos of Atkinson: