(This piece was written in January 2007, shortly before Paddy’s death, by Jeffrey Bell, a friend of Paddy’s at Butner Medical Centre.)
“THE REAL THING: PADDY MITCHELL”
By: JEFFREY S. BELL
In prison, you meet a lot of bank robbers – at least you meet a lot of guys who claim to be bank robbers. Some may have committed less glamorous crimes so they become bank robbers to impress their fellow inmates; after all, it’s all about image in prison.
Others may have technically robbed a bank, but when you hear their story, you discover that bank robbing wasn’t their livelihood. Perhaps they needed money to buy their next fix – these guys aren’t bank robbers, they’re drug addicts. I once met a guy who robbed a bank to get money to buy medication for his seriously ill son. He wasn’t a bank robber; he was a loving father without health insurance who felt he had no other options.
Then there’s Patrick ‘Paddy’ Mitchell. He’s the real thing, who by his count, robbed more than forty-five banks and many more department stores over a fifteen year span. Paddy’s a throwback to the 30’s, to the glory days of bank robbers, when they moved from town to town holding up banks, their exploits splashed across the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast. People have always been fascinated by bank robbers. Maybe it’s an extension of our greed, our love of money. Or possibly we just enjoy seeing banks – with their myriad of service fees and vaults stacked high with money – getting ripped off. Whatever the reason, we have made bank robbers the rock stars of the criminal world; and Paddy Mitchell combines the artistry and showmanship of David Bowie, the intelligence and sensitivity of John Lennon, and the decadence and hedonism of Mick Jagger.
When I first met Paddy, he was reading The New Yorker and watching the U.S. Open Golf tournament. Since most inmates would more likely be reading Maxim and watching Ultimate Fighting Champion on Spike TV, I knew this guy was different. I figured he had something to do with banking, maybe a vice-president or a high-powered international banker who lived in a brick Tudor out in Connecticut and commuted to Manhattan each morning. Little did I know.
We talked about golf and our favorite cities. Somewhere along the line the conversation turned to religion and old cathedrals. Paddy was Catholic I discovered. “Yeah, I’d go to mass on Sunday, then go out and rob a bank on Monday.” Paddy peered out through his oversized, prison-issue, horned-rim glasses (these make us all look like sinister Larry Kings) sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders.
Mitchell, one of Ottawa’s favorite sons and perhaps North America’s most prolific and stylish bank robber embarked on his life of crime in the early 70’s by fencing stolen property. The work was easy and the money good. Soon he was holding court in the restaurant of a popular Ottawa hotel with mobsters, politicians and wealthy businessmen.
It was during this time that he hooked up with the two guys who would become his partners in crime, Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright, and together they first captured headlines by making off with 365 pounds of gold bars worth over one million dollars from the Ottawa Airport. They became known as “The Stopwatch Gang” because one of them always timed their bank jobs – they would only grab as much money as they could in 90 seconds – with a stopwatch dangling from around his neck. Paddy enjoyed the life a criminal. “You know, I just wanted a certain lifestyle: to be able to wake up in the morning, maybe go for a run, have a late breakfast while reading the paper. Maybe go to a movie in the afternoon, then take my girlfriend out to dinner at night. I wanted to be a criminal.”
Eventually, the gang was nabbed, and the legend of Paddy Mitchell grew when he orchestrated a spectacular and dangerous escape from Joyceville Prison. With Lionel and Stephen already on the outside (Lionel stumbled into a successful escape in progress and Stephen walked away while on an escorted leave from the prison), Paddy induced cardiac arrest by running a couple of miles, then drinking a potion laced with nicotine.
“My heart began to beat so fast that I feared it might burst through my sterum.” The nurse on duty immediately called an ambulance, but thought it was too late to save Paddy. “I was dead, my heart stopped.”
As the ambulance raced to the hospital, Paddy had an out-of-body experience ending up at the gates of heaven where he tried to cut a deal with St. Peter in order to avoid 10,000 years in purgatory.
At the hospital, Stephen and Lionel diverted the ambulance to a back entrance; locked the driver, paramedic and two prison guards in the vehicle and quickly whisked Mitchell to an apartment where he spent a few days recuperating. Several days later, the gang crossed over into the United States and settled in Florida.
They honed their craft there for awhile before moving on to California and Arizona where they continued their spree with much style. They’d don fake beards or mustaches, combined masks and sometimes masks of American presidents. (Remember the movie “Point Break” with Keeanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze? That’s based on the “Stopwatch Gang”.
But once more, they ended up in prison – Stephen and Lionel first, and eventually Paddy. While Stephen and Lionel ended up in a Canadian prison via a prisoner exchange, Paddy was denied that route and sent to the Arizona State Penitentiary. But, he wasn’t there long. This time he and two fellow inmates made their way out through duct work in the ceiling. (His two prison escapes made him the only man ever to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List twice.) This was in 1986. Paddy remained on the loose, robbing banks until 1994.
Much of these later years were spent in the Philippines. On the run, Paddy decided to head overseas and landed in the Philippines. There he settled into as domestic of a life as he could live. He married his current wife Imelda and they had his second son, Richard. (His son by his first wife, Kevin, still lives in Ottawa.) He bought a compound up in the mountains. “It was a beautiful home. I spent my days raising my son, it was all very nice.”
But the lure of easy money still beckoned Paddy. Every so often, he would go back to the United States, on what his family and friends thought were business trips. Paddy would fly into Mexico City, enter the United States, rob a bank or two and return home via Mexico. It was on one of these business trips on which he was finally captured for good.
During those roughly fifteen years, Paddy Mitchell lived the life he had always wanted. “I couldn’t have done the things I did any other way. Robbing banks allowed me to do those things. I wasn’t smart enough and was too lazy to do it any other way.”
There was, of course the money, lots of money, and plush condos on beaches and in mountains, and lots of booze and drugs – he even briefly operated a marijuana farm in Florida. There were fancy cars and fancy restaurants. And there were the women – plenty of women. “It had to be the alpha male thing or something. I could walk into a club and women would just approach me. I didn’t have to do anything. I guess they could sense danger.” Across North America is a string of ‘Mitchell girls’: Janet, Candy, Lynn, Chrissy, Becky, Yuko to name just a few. “Of course, they didn’t know who I was, they only knew my alias. To them I was an auditor, a claims adjustor or a wealthy businessman. Then I’d suddenly be gone, it was hard sometimes leaving like that. Some, I would have married and lived happily ever after with had I not been on the Ten Most Wanted List.”
It wasn’t all sex, drugs, and robbing banks though. You don’t just go into a bank and stick it up; you’ve got to have a plan and Mitchell was meticulous planner. Done correctly, robbing banks is a science. “I enjoyed the planning more than anything. I loved going into a bank dressed in a suit and tie and making conversation with an employee about CD’s and interest rates. Then figuring out the best time to hit it and the best escape route.”
Paddy would move into a town and spend months developing a new identity and scoping out the right bank to hit. He’d become a member of the community: renting a condo, buying a car, attending church. Paddy’s religion is very important to him – he still attends mass weekly and is confident he will indeed end up in heaven. “Oh, I’ve done some bad things, but I’ve never committed a mortal sin, just a bunch of venial sins. I don’t think God considers robbing banks a mortal sin.”
In one city, as he spent weeks preparing for a job, Mitchell regularly attended mass at the same church, each Sunday leaving a $100 bill in the collection plate. Since the same usher always collected the plate, he soon realized that Paddy was the generous one.
On the Sunday before he planned to hit the bank, Paddy thought it might be a good idea to shake hands with the priest – it might be good luck – so after mass he waited in line to shake hands with the priest. “Well, the usher had apparently told the priest about me, cause when I got up there and we shook hands, he held my hand and wouldn’t let go, smiled and said ‘Who are you?’. Geez, I didn’t want to lie to a priest on the eve of a bank robbery, so I said ‘Well, you really don’t need to know that Father.’ I thanked him for the sermon, grinned and walked away. As I left the church, I looked back and saw him looking at me as he talked to other parishioners. The next day I robbed the bank and Tuesday my picture was in the paper.”
Included in Mitchell’s adventures are numerous brushes with Mother Nature – he’s the Forest Gump of natural disasters. He’s been through a couple of hurricanes, killer typhoon, a 7.8 earthquake in the Philippines and he was holed up in a cabin near Mount St. Helens when it erupted in 1980. “I was with this girl and we kind of …um slept through the eruption. I got up around nine in the morning to take a leak and thought it was awfully dark out. Then she woke up, looked outside and screamed. I looked out and it looked like there was a couple of feet of snow out there. The car is covered with ash. We can’t even open the door there’s so much ash. But it’s okay – we have plenty of food and I’m with this gorgeous girl. After a few days, I finally made it back to the hotel where I was staying. They were so glad to see me – they thought I was killed in the eruption.”
Getting to know Mitchell – hearing his amazing stories full of self-deprecating humor – is like listening to the tales of the older brother who did everything you dreamed of doing: or hanging out with that crazy uncle who tells all the dirty jokes at the family reunion – the one your parents warned you to stay away from. Paddy has led a life many of us, at some point, fantasize about; he’s done things most of us will never do. I asked him once what it was like to rob a bank; to walk in with a gun (which Paddy never fired and normally didn’t even load or at most, loaded with one or two bullets, never in the first chamber) and yell ‘This is a stick up!’? “For me, it was the ultimate rush, better than drugs or sex. I’d be nervous going in cause I didn’t know what to expect. But once I got in there and saw that everything was as it should be, I’d be okay. Everything would move so quick. “What a high! Then it was over and you’re ready to do it again.”
And he would do it again and again and again – all with style and class. When he talks of his career now, it’s as if he’s almost embarrassed by how fully he’s lived his life, by the things he’s done. You may mention something that prompts a memory for him and he’ll launch into a full story, “I was going through Hot Springs…” then he’ll lower his voice and roll his eyes, “…and I was planning on hitting a bank…” A glitter comes to his eyes, a smile to his face, “…I was in this club and up comes this pretty little redhead…”
These days Paddy Mitchell resides at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, where he’s been for nine months. Since being incarcerated in 1994, Mitchell has made the rounds in the United States Federal system: Atlanta, Leavenworth, Lewisburg.
It was in Lewisburg that Paddy first noticed a small lump on his chest. As the lump slowly grew in size, he had it checked by doctors, and was assured that it was just a cyst. Early in 2006, he started experiencing numbness in his right leg. Then in March, as he headed out to the recreation yard to run, his leg buckled and he felt lightheaded. A doctor on call that evening immediately scheduled x-rays and scans. “I told him about the lump on my chest, the numbness and lightheadedness. He put it all together and said it could be lung cancer that had metastasized to my brain. He had me in an outside hospital the next day. Three days later they performed surgery and removed a walnut sized tumor from my brain.”
Mitchell was airlifted to Butner and immediately began radiation treatment. He contracted a serious viral infection while undergoing chemo therapy which almost killed him. “I lost my memory, my strength; I thought it was all over.”
But, there was still much that Paddy wanted to get done before his time came. Slowly, he started his rehabilitation – reading and writing and strengthening his arms with elastic bands attached to his bed. Now, in the midst of his second round of chemo, he walks at least three miles a day, does several sets of pushups and climbs at least thirty flights of stairs each day. And his mind is as sharp as ever.
One of the things Paddy wants to accomplish is to get another book published or perhaps a screenplay produced. He’s already written and published his autobiography, “This Bank Robber’s Life: The Life and Fast Times of Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell, and written a novel, several short stories and two screenplays. In addition, he has a blog, www.paddymitchell.wordpress.com/ for which he writes regular updates on his condition, tells tales from his past and of prison life, and answers emails from friends and fans. Reading through his mail, you’ll see notes from old school mates; an email from a woman, whom as a young girl, Paddy rescued from a group of bullies at a skating rink. There’s even notes from the paramedic involved in Mitchell’s first prison escape more than twenty-five years ago. He keeps in touch and talks very fondly of Mitchell. And there’s the retired FBI agent who spent much of his career chasing down Mitchell. He writes occasionally and they exchange stories of the good ole days.
He’d also like to eventually get back to Canada; to be closer to family and friends. His attorney is currently working on a transfer under a treaty between the United States and Canada which allows for the exchange of prisoners. Due to his illness, his attorney is petitioning for a compassionate transfer. But, Mitchell holds no illusion about the process. “I don’t expect any compassion from these people.”
He’s also realistic about his prognosis. “This cancer will kill me, I have no doubt about that. But, there’s so much I want to write yet…I want to get another book out. And I’d like to get back home.”
One evening, as Paddy and I sat talking and reading the paper, I asked him about regrets – especially since he’s ended up here in prison with cancer. “Oh sure, I have regrets. I regret leaving my wife and son, how this affected them. I regret scaring all of those people, sticking a gun in their faces. But, you can’t go through life regretting everything you’ve done. I’ve had a full life, have done a lot. I’d do it all again, I’m a bank robber. A house in the suburbs and a 9 to 5 job isn’t for me.”
There’s a quote that Paddy keeps in a box with all of his writing materials that may best explain Paddy Mitchell’s life. It’s a quote by John Kennedy Jr., from an editorial in George magazine. Kennedy was writing of his family’s latest trials – a cousin accused of rape, another of having sex with a sixteen year-old babysitter; about people who live beyond the confines of normal society. Kennedy wrote:
“The more we live a life governed by conventional norms of proper behaviour, and the nicer and more responsible we force ourselves to be, the further we drift from the essence of our true self – one that’s ruled by passion and instinct. Give in to your deepest longings and become an outcast; conform utterly and endure a potentially dispiriting, suffocating life…”