An employee of the Royal Canadian Mint allegedly smuggled about $180,000 in gold from the fortress-like facility, possibly evading multiple levels of detection with a time-honoured prison trick.
Hiding the precious metal up his bum.
The case against Leston Lawrence, 35, of Barrhaven concluded in an Ottawa courtroom Tuesday. Justice Peter Doody reserved decision until Nov. 9 on a number of smuggling-for-cash charges, including theft, laundering the proceeds of crime, possession of stolen property and breach of trust.
The Uck! factor aside, the case was also an illuminating look at security measures inside the Mint, the building on Sussex Drive that produces hundreds of millions of gold coins annually for the federal Crown corporation.
“Appalling,” was the conclusion of defence lawyer Gary Barnes, who described the Crown’s case as an underwhelming collection of circumstantial evidence.
“This is the Royal Canadian Mint, your Honour, and one would think they should have the highest security measures imaginable,” Barnes said in his closing submission.
“And here the gold is left sitting around in open buckets.”
Indeed, it was not even the Mint that discovered the alleged theft but an alert bank teller.
Court was told that, on multiple occasions, Lawrence took small circular chunks of gold — a cookie-sized nugget called a “puck” — to Ottawa Gold Buyers in the Westgate Shopping Centre on Carling Avenue.
Typically, the pucks weighed about 210 grams, or 7.4 ounces, for which he was given cheques in the $6,800 range, depending on fluctuating gold prices, court heard. He then deposited the cheques at the Royal Bank in the same mall.
One day a teller became suspicious at the size and number of Ottawa Gold Buyers cheques being deposited and Lawrence’s request to wire money out of the country. She then noticed on his account profile that he worked at the Mint. The first red flag was up.
Bank security was alerted, then the RCMP, which began to investigate. Eventually, a search warrant was obtained and four Mint-style pucks were found in Lawrence’s safety deposit box, court heard.
Records revealed 18 pucks had been sold between Nov. 27, 2014 and March 12, 2015. Together with dozens of gold coins that were redeemed, the total value of the suspected theft was conservatively estimated at $179,015.
But the defence countered with a couple of important points. The Crown was not able to prove conclusively that the gold in Lawrence’s possession actually came from inside the Mint. It had no markings nor, apparently, had any gold been reported missing internally.
The Crown was able to show the pucks precisely fit the Mint’s custom “dipping spoon” made in-house — not available commercially — that is used to scoop molten gold during the production process.
Lawrence, who has since been terminated, was an operator in the refinery section. Among his duties was to scoop gold from buckets so it could be tested for purity, as the Mint prides itself on gold coins above the 99 per cent level.
The great mystery that went unanswered at trial, however, was this: how did the gold get out of the Mint?
Court was told Lawrence set off the metal detector at an exit from the “secure area” with more frequency than any other employee — save those with metal medical implants. When that happened, the procedure was to do a manual search with a hand-held wand, a search that he always passed.
(It was not uncommon for employees to set off the detector, court heard.)
Investigators also found a container of vaseline in his locker and the trial was presented with the prospect that a puck could be concealed in an anal cavity and not be detected by the wand. In preparation for these proceedings, in fact, a security employee actually tested the idea, Barnes said.
Lawrence did not take the stand — as is his legal right — and the Crown was not able to definitively establish how the gold pucks made their way out of the facility.
“We do have compelling evidence,” countered Crown attorney David Friesen, of someone “secreting (gold) on his person and taking it out of the Mint.”
Barnes implied there were many ways Lawrence could have legitimately obtained the gold — he could have bought the coins, for instance — and said he made no efforts to be devious with the gold buyers or the bank. Further, Barnes said, the Mint isn’t even sure a theft took place.
“In fact, I would submit the Mint doesn’t even know if anything is missing.”
In an emailed statement Tuesday evening, a Mint spokeswoman said several security measures had been upgraded, including high definition security cameras in all areas, improved ability to track, balance and reconcile precious metal, and the use of “trend analysis technology.”