Written by Naomi Nguyen, VPM Curatorial Assistant
During the collections rehousing project done this summer several police training notebooks from the 1940s and 1950s were unearthed from among the artifacts. One in particular caught my eye as I was flipping through on my way to depositing it in the archives. It was Sergeant Jack W. McKinnon’s training notebook for the Supervisor’s class from 1957.
What grabbed my attention were the comic like illustrations at the beginning of each section. At first I thought they were printed title pages, a part of every officer’s notes, but soon realized Sgt. McKinnon was a talented artist with some doodling time during class. But Sgt. McKinnon’s talents extend far beyond paper. His brilliant illustrations led to the rediscovery of a dynamic member of the force who won “wild gunfights” and was behind the wheel in the “Foster car chase” in the late 1930s – the days of the “Blue Sedan Bandits”.
Jack W. McKinnon was born in 1903 and joined the Vancouver Police Force as a constable in 1930. By 1935 he was acknowledged for his courage with the award of an engraved gold watch for “Conspicuous Gallantry” for his role in the car chase and capture of the Blue Sedan Bandits.
In the summer of 1935 Sgt. McKinnon (then Constable) was Chief Foster’s official driver. Together they spent their evenings out on prowler calls and patrolling the streets of Vancouver’s summer night life. Sergeant McKinnon had recalled that summer in a newspaper article from 1959 saying: “I worked 16 hours a day […] those were the days of the ‘Blue Sedan’ and ‘Silk Stocking’ bandits, when it was not uncommon to have 10 hold-ups a night”. The “Blue Sedan Bandits” or “Silk Stocking Gang”, so named for the type of car they favoured and stole as getaway vehicles and the silk stockings they used as masks, were an annoyance and embarrassment to the VPD. The gang had been preying on local shopkeepers all summer and managed to escape the VPD’s grasp every time. But on the evening of September 21st the Blue Sedan Bandits were finally busted.
A smoking police car riddled with shots and broken glass has stopped in the middle of the street as if from a screeching halt. In front of the police car an equally wrecked blue Sedan is piled up on the sidewalk with all four doors left swung open. Across the scene two policemen are in hot pursuit of four bandits running for their lives. One officer shoots and a bandit falls. The other three escape amid the chaos of their fallen member.
Reads like a scene from CSI: Miami doesn’t it? Imagine that street being 6th Avenue and Maple Street right by the railroad tracks and the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 178, a little up from Delamont Park and Kitsilano Community Garden. Imagine it being a cool Vancouver evening at around 10:30pm when the tail end of summer meets the beginning of fall.
What started as a regular patrol turned into a car chase and shootout when over the radio Sgt. Foster and Cst. McKinnon heard that the bandits had struck again at Mitchell’s Drug Store, close to their location. They were driving over the Granville Bridge when the call went out and they looked up to see the robber’s freshly stolen blue sedan coming toward them from the other side. Cst. McKinnon flipped the car around and the pursuit started.
They raced east down Broadway. The bandits were not giving up without a fight. They broke the back window of the sedan and men with silk stockings over their heads began shooting at Cst. McKinnon and Chief Foster through the smashed glass. The chase went on through Kitsilano for almost 4km with the bandits shooting at them with revolvers and a sawed-off shotgun. At Maple Street and 6th Avenue the bandits took the corner too quickly and smashed their getaway car into the sidewalk. All parties jumped out of their vehicles and the pursuit continued on foot.
It was Cst. McKinnon who brought down the first Blue Sedan Bandit. He fired his revolver and shot Elmer Almquist in the shoulder. Almquist was arrested but his accomplices managed to disappear into the darkness. Later that evening two more arrests were made when Almquist squealed on his fellow stocking-clad bandits, but the fourth man was never identified. They had finally caught the bandits.
From the Vancouver Sun article (October 21, 1935) of concluding court sentences for two of bandits the punishment was as follows:
“Almquist was sentenced to seven years on one charge of shooting with intent to kill; five years to run concurrently for robbery with violence in connection with the holdup of Mitchell’s drug store the same night. The 15 strokes of the paddle were ordered in connection with the holdup in which Mrs. Mitchell, wife of the store owner, was the victim, being in charge of the shop at the time. Gates received five years concurrently on each of three charges of robbery with violence and 15 strokes of the paddle for hold up of the Mitchell store.”
Sgt. McKinnon’s wild story is only one of the millions hiding in the Vancouver Police Museum’s collection and archives. I wonder what we’ll stumble upon next!
And here’s the man himself:
Written by Naomi Nguyen, VPM Curatorial Assistant.
The “Chameleon” was a beloved exhibit, on display at the Vancouver Police Museum since the 1980s. It was recently taken down to make room for our feature exhibit Bridging the Gap: Vancouver’s Youth & the Law, giving us an opportunity to give these artifacts a closer look.
This collection of artifacts opens up the world of an impostor’s tools of the trade. These artifacts are real evidence collected by the Vancouver Police Department in the conviction of two local men back in 1977 who were masters of identity theft. The assortment of ID cards, passports, driver’s licences, and passports highlight a time when paper, ink, an eye for detail, and an inclination for crime was all that was needed to create a mythical life.
One of the men, known as the “Chameleon” had fourteen names:
1. Kenneth Norman Bates
2. Reginald Edward Shaw
3. Barry Lyne Hanson
4. Paul Edward Moore
5. Robert William Barnes
6. Edward Lewis Allen
7. Robert Frank Allan
8. Edward John Wheeler
9. Fred Alfred Smolen
10. Donald James McQuade
11. David George Sprague
12. Edward Clarence Meier
13. Joseph Bellmore
14. William Brotherton
His place of birth could have been Montreal, Regina, or Detroit, depending on what day you found him. He could have been an Australian, Canadian, or American
depending on the year. He also appears to have had many, many wives (but if they were fictional or real-life accomplices we don’t know!). The passports he used are filled with stamps from around the world with stops in the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Philippines, and Portugal to name a few. Quite the globetrotter, he was also skilled at lock-picking and used this knowledge to add an extra level of luxury to his travels, helping himself to upgraded rooms and unattended safes.
The identities he took over were all real, albeit deceased, persons – “once a birth certificate is obtained, by whatever means, the others are relatively easy to get.” stated the original exhibit label.
Each of his personalities came with up to six pieces of tangible identification, the bulk of it often being government issued documents such as driver’s licences, birth certificates, passports, and social insurance cards. It is difficult to know which of these are authentic and which were created by him or for him, adding to its significance. In his briefcase he carried blank forms of birth certificates and driver’s licences from around the country, apparently always prepared to start a new life if need be.
He often used similar addresses and repeated personal information such as birth dates and photo ID which says a lot about the system he was swindling at the time. It seems impossible in today’s day and age to imagine someone getting away with fourteen different identities, especially in such a short amount of time. Today everything is connected with online records and microchipped ID cards and electronic passports.
The “Chameleon” definitely lucked out with the old system. For a while at least.
To look through more of the museum’s collection that is stored out of sight, visit our online collection, and share your stories: vpmcollection.ca