It’s hard to believe that Gerald Blanchard was capable of executing his many elaborate heists, considering that they all sound like something straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Known as the “most creative” criminal in modern history, Blanchard orchestrated several frauds across three continents. Blanchard’s early crimes took place in his home country of Canada, where he robbed several local banks and franchises. There was the time Blanchard stole millions of dollars worth of electronics from a nearby Radio Shack, eventually wiping the entire store clean. Another time, he managed to escape from police interrogation by hiding in the ceiling tiles. For Blanchard, engaging in crime was an “addiction” that ultimately pushed him to carry out his biggest — and most legendary — heist ever.
Blanchard’s felonious past is narrated in Hulu’s “The Jewel Thief,” an true-crime documentary that features Blanchard himself. Alongside Blanchard are his family members, close friends and accomplices along with the police officers and detectives who worked tirelessly to catch him. By the end of the documentary, viewers are left to decide whether they believe Blanchard, who claims he’s left behind his criminal antics for good, or his most ardent opposers, who all beg to differ.
“It’s tempting, but my feeling is the police know my MO, so if I were to do anything, I would have to change it up,” Blanchard recently told Rolling Stone about his heisting past. “I still have five or six different MOs I could easily do to off throw the banks. But I live this comfortable life now, and don’t need to worry about committing crimes. . . . [But] you can never say never. It’s a spur of the moment decision, [and] things are always there.”
Here are the six most shocking revelations from the documentary:
Blanchard was adopted when he was six years old and lived with his mother Carol Phegly and stepfather in “a nice house” in Canada. His living situation, however, quickly grew rough when his mother and stepfather broke up, forcing Phegly and Blanchard to move to Omaha, Nebraska.
“Omaha, Nebraska, is not the nicest place to live. It’s actually one of the worst, and only the strongest survive,” said Blanchard in the documentary. He recalled hearing his mother cry while on the phone with the bank, desperately asking them to not foreclose the house she lived in with Blanchard and his sister.
“So I’ve always had this grudge against the banks,” Blanchard continued. “We didn’t have milk for the cereal. And I’m not exaggerating, I used to use ginger ale for milk — that’s how bad it was. So I had to go steal milk from the neighbors.”
“Things weren’t good for us until I learned going to the store, I could steal food from the store, which got my addiction to my life of crime,” he added.
During the ’80s, Radio Shack was America’s hottest and most popular store ever, making it an attractive target for Blanchard and his friends.
“We literally took so much stuff from the store, millions of dollars every year. And what ended up happening was Easter Sunday, we actually cleared out the whole entire store,” said Blanchard. “We disconnected the alarm. We took everything out with a moving truck. I just became too confident.”
At age 15, Blanchard was charged with Grand Theft and released after just three months.
“I mean I didn’t know what to do,” said Phegly. “I was totally dumbfounded. I could not even fathom that my son was this person they were talking about. He ended up living a double life. So he kept that life away from his family, the people he cared about.”
In 2004, Blanchard carried out an astonishing robbery of a Winnipeg CIBC branch in which he stole $500,000 from the bank the day before its grand opening.
“This is a very sophisticated type break-and-enter; this is not something we saw every day – never saw it in 27 years of my career,” said Mitch McCormick, an officer with the Winnipeg Police Service. The robbery was so brazen that the Winnipeg Police Service launched Project Kite, a task force solely dedicated to catching Blanchard.
As for the execution of his “sophisticated” robbery, Blanchard said it all happened when he flew to Winnipeg to visit family. His grandmother had told him that her bank, the soon-to-be Winnipeg CIBC branch, was slated to close soon.
“She said they’re closing all the little smaller branches and putting seven or eight smaller branches into this one big mega branch,” explained Blanchard. “And that piqued my interest.”
Members of Project Kite explained that outside of the closed bank was a large sign that read, “Future Home of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.” At that time, the bank had no security or alarm systems.
To enter the bank, Blanchard posed as a construction worker. He said he went to Home Depot to buy a construction vest and a hard hat. He also bought a $50 baby monitor from ToysRUs, which he hid inside the bank and used to secretly monitor when the ATMs would be brought inside. Blanchard also found a way to bypass the safes in the bank.
“Gerald found a way to manipulate a very sophisticated, well-engineered lock by just manipulating some of the screws that held that lock in position,” said Larry Levasseur, a police officer with the Winnipeg Police Service. “It was ingenious. It was absolutely ingenious.”
Blanchard said his crimes quickly became an addiction, so much so that he felt compelled to rob every single ATM he came across in Canada. At the time, Blanchard became a person of interest. But he was also able to get away with his crimes due to his various aliases.
“He was interviewed and then released on what we call a promise to appear on paper,” explained McCormick. “And he used an alias, so his true identity never ever came out – until later, when we started running names and doing background.”
A few names that Blanchard went by included Evan C. Howland, James A. Gehman, Danny Anderson and Daniel Wall. It was revealed that Blanchard had at least 22 aliases. Blanchard and the Winnipeg Police soon fell into this cycle, where Blanchard would be caught and then released because the police department didn’t have records for his many false identities.
Also known as the Koechert Diamond Pearl, the famed Sisi Star was one of many jewel pins that Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria wore in her hair. At the time of the theft, the jewel was on display for a special exhibit at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. Although Blanchard initially planned on stealing a crown from the palace, he eventually settled on stealing the jewel, saying he “just thought it was pretty” and inconspicuous enough to easily snatch.
Blanchard claimed he had parachuted onto the roof of the palace, climbed down its side, entered through a window he unlocked while visiting the palace during the day, stole the jewel and replaced it with a gift shop replica. It took officials two to three weeks to realize that the diamond left behind was a fake.
Blanchard eventually pleaded guilty at the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba on Nov. 7, 2007 to 16 charges of robbery and fraud in Canada and additional countries. He had been sentenced in the U.S. and faced a maximum of 164 years in prison for the 16 charges. Ultimately, he was sentenced to just eight years in a Canadian prison.
Blanchard never disclosed who his accomplices were, so only Blanchard was the one to serve prison time. About five months after Blanchard’s arrest, Winnipeg police discovered the Sisi Star in Blanchard’s grandmother’s basement amid a raid of her house.
“In my experience, it’s my belief that reform has no place in Gerald Blanchard’s life,” said Sheilla Leinburd, a prosecuting attorney. “I don’t think he’s reformed. I don’t think he ever will be. I think he is the king of man who revels in this type of behavior. And I don’t think, frankly, he could live without this kind of behavior.”
On March 22, 2017, Blanchard and an accomplice were arrested for stealing Playstations from a Best Buy in Burlington, Ontario. Investigators were able to identify Blanchard as a suspect because a car at the scene was rented under his name.
“The Jewel Thief” is currently available for streaming on Hulu. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube:
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