After 60 Years, a Bank Robber Returns to the Crime Scene. This Time, Just for a Drink.
When a dapper young bank teller in Ottawa made off with hundreds of thousands of Canadian dollars and slipped across the border in 1958, he instigated an international manhunt.
A wanted poster circulated by the authorities showed a young man, grinning in a white tuxedo and black bow tie. The description included his height, weight and personality: “neat dresser, nightclub habitué, a champagne drinker, enjoys female companionship.”
Sixty years later, the bank teller, Boyne Lester Johnston, known by some as the “champagne kid,” returned to the scene of the crime. Mr. Johnston is now in his 80s, and the old bank is now a hip downtown restaurant, Riviera.
During a lunch at Riviera, on Aug. 10, Mr. Johnston drank Champagne cocktails and visited the wine cellar, which was formerly the bank vault, said Alex McMahon, the restaurant’s wine director.
“The atmosphere we’ve set up here really is reminiscent of that time and era,” Mr. McMahon said. “To have the guy come back and share the stories with us, it was such a cool cinematic experience.”
Riviera posted a photo of the visit on Instagram, stirring a sense of nostalgia in some and leading others to question the celebration of a man who once stole 260,000 Canadian dollars, which today would be worth about $1.7 million in United States currency.
Mr. Johnston eventually returned the money, served time in prison and appears to have long ago put the heist behind him. He could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
His friend Mait Ainsaar, who accompanied him to the restaurant, said the visit was simply supposed to be a “bucket list moment” for Mr. Johnston, a chance for an older man to reminisce about an exhilarating, if fleeting, time in his life.
The attention, Mr. Ainsaar said, has been unexpected and overwhelming. But he said he thought he understood why people were intrigued by the decades-old theft, which would be nearly impossible to pull off in today’s digital world.
“Who wouldn’t want to pretend, say ‘I don’t care,’ just go nuts and have a blast?” Mr. Ainsaar said. “It’s sort of everyone’s secret dream to do something like that.”
In 1958, a 25-year-old Mr. Johnston was working as a chief teller at Imperial Bank of Canada in Ottawa when he stole 260,000 Canadian dollars from the bank, according to newspaper reports at the time.
He put aside the money in a canvas bag on a Friday, and returned for it later that night with his personal key, he told The Ottawa Citizen in 2013. He took his wife and mother out for dinner on Saturday night, and by Sunday, he was gone, the newspaper reported.
He enjoyed a two-week jaunt until the wanted poster advertising his flamboyant style and a reward of 10,000 dollars did him in. Someone told the police that a man fitting Mr. Johnston’s description had been drinking Champagne at a Denver nightclub, where the police arrested him, according to a 1958 Associated Press article.
“I wondered what it would be like to have all that money,” Mr. Johnston told the authorities at the time. “Now I know.”
The authorities recovered about 200,000 Canadian dollars. Mr. Johnston, his father and other family members paid back the missing money, according to newspaper reports at the time.
He was sentenced to four years in prison but was released early on parole in 1960, according to The Citizen. After that, the newspaper reported, he got another job — in the financial industry.
Today he is retired and lives in Renfrew, a small town about an hour west of Ottawa, where he has said people still offer to buy him beers because of his brief moment of fame. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” Mr. Johnston told The Citizen in 2013, adding, “Who likes banks?”
Recently, Mr. Johnston mentioned that he wanted to go back to the site of the bank, Mr. Ainsaar said. While making an online reservation for Riviera, Mr. Ainsaar noted that he planned to bring his friend, who had absconded from the bank long ago.
Mr. McMahon, the wine director, thought: “Oh my God, it’s got to be the guy.”
When Mr. Johnston came in for lunch with a small group of friends and family, the restaurant offered them special cocktails that it called “The Bank Job,” Mr. Ainsaar said. They were invited to the wine cellar, where Mr. Johnston sipped Champagne and told old stories.
“I did ask him at one point, ‘Was it worth it? Would you do it again?’” Mr. McMahon said.
Mr. Johnston told the group that he was glad he had done the crime — so that he could do the time.
“He said, ‘There’s nothing that makes you appreciate your life and freedom more than having that freedom taken away,’” Mr. McMahon recalled.
When Mr. Johnston left the bank 60 years ago, he took much with him. This time, he left something behind: On the brick cellar wall, he scribbled his name — and his prisoner number.
Follow Sarah Mervosh on Twitter: @smervosh.