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VANQUISHED BY THE ODDS: THE CASE OF DAVISON, DEROSIE AND MacARTHUR

It was a cool Saturday in December 1971, when four armed and masked robbers made off with $1.2 million in cash from the downtown Windsor branch of the Royal Bank. The money, property of the nearby Windsor Racetrack, had been delivered by armored car at 8:40 a.m. to be sorted and counted. One hour later, the thieves took just 12 minutes to corral 13 bank employees at gunpoint and stuff thousands of small denomination bills into two weighty duffel bags. The robbers wished their captives a Merry Christmas before slipping swiftly away.

The heist was the largest in Canadian history, but for Windsor police there was little evidence to work from. The robbers were disguised, making identification difficult, if not impossible. The bandits had a clear head start, minutes from an international border, and the precision with which the job was executed suggested those responsible knew their craft.

An early analysis of the crime scene raised suspicions the hold-up crew was privy to confidential information – alarm buttons had been tampered with and an intercom telephone had been rendered inoperative. Although Windsor Police Chief Gordon Preston declined “to cast any aspersions on the credibility of the people who were working in the bank,” there was an ongoing suspicion that the thieves benefited from inside information. One headline in The Windsor Star trumpeted: “Police suspect local brains, outside help."

Two days after the robbery, police burst into a hotel room in Mississauga, Ontario and arrested two men and a woman. Seized was a steamer trunk, said to be “so full of money, it would make your eyes pop.” Although police initially thought there was full recovery, it quickly became apparent this was not so. Of the $1.2 million stolen, less than $170,000 was eventually recovered, leaving unaccounted more than $1 million, cash.

Taken into custody were George Davison, William Ferguson and Edna Bulmer. In a separate raid, Edna Lefebvre and Jessie Delorme were arrested at a Mississauga home. A few days later, Donald Derosie would be arrested, George MacArthur of Montreal would be picked up, and in March 1972, the final suspect, Neil Garrington, would be arrested in Miami, Florida.

On October 3, 1972, each accused entered a plea of not guilty before Windsor Judge Bruce J.S. MacDonald and a jury of 12 men. Although the charges against Bulmer and Delorme had been dropped for lack of evidence, but the case centred on Davison, Derosie and MacArthur.

The fourth principal, Ferguson, failed to appear for trial, prompting MacDonald to quickly cancel bail for the remaining male defendants.

The Crown’s theory was that MacArthur acted as a lookout while Ferguson, Davison, Derosie and Garrington, using keys, gained access to the bank. Identifying the culprits was a critical issue. Six bank employees identified Derosie as the leader in the robbery. The eyewitnesses, most of them female, took notice of his “deep-set, dark eyes,” his “high cheekbones and full lips,” his “very prominent eyes, hazel in color.” However, in cross-examination none would say she was certain, and one eyewitness hesitated before identifying him in the prisoner’s dock.

Evidence was also tendered that Davison, Derosie, Ferguson and Lefebvre had spent the morning after the robbery at the Windsor Holiday Inn, reading a Detroit Free Press account of their own exploits. Although dramatic in nature, the identification evidence was of questionable legal value – several witnesses had been shown photographs of the suspects during the investigation.

More compelling, however, was evidence given by undercover Metropolitan Toronto police officers concerning their surveillance of the suspects shortly after the robbery. In particular, Davison was observed purchasing a large blue steamer truck, and an undercover Toronto detective discreetly marked the trunk with an “X”. The trunk was the one found at the Mississauga Holiday Inn, containing money traced to the bank.

Later, police would execute a search warrant in the work locker of Edna Lefebvre, Davison’s spouse. They would find two diagrams of an alarm system similar to the ones in use at the Windsor Raceway. Fingerprints of Davison and Ferguson were present on the diagrams. Further damaging evidence – two volumes of the Safeman’s Guide, seven issues of the Locksmith’s Ledger and a police band radio – were found at the Davison residence.

A second search warrant was executed at Mac Arthur’s Montreal home. Seized were key making and locksmithing tools. Telephone records would show the suspects were not strangers to one another, and $83,000 would be found in MacArthur’s safe deposit box.

Each of the principal accused – Davison, Derosie and MacArthur – would present evidence suggesting each was not in Windsor at the time of the offence. An alibi is, of course, a complete defence to any criminal charge, but it is a defence that has a very real risk: if the alibi is rejected by the jury, it can lead to an inference of guilt.

Davison told the court he and Lefebvre were at home is Mississauga the night prior to the robbery. The evidence was corroborated by their two children and additional evidence established Lefebvre worked an eight-hour shift ending the afternoon of December 17, the day of the robbery.

Davison told the court Ferguson had slept at his apartment December 19, and that he drove Ferguson to a downtown Toronto hotel the following day. There, Davison and Ferguson met Derosie, who owed Davison money. Davison then took Ferguson and Derosie back to his apartment, where Derosie left after 15 minutes, not having settled the debt.

Ferguson then asked Davison to purchase a large steamer trunk. “He didn’t explain what he wanted it for,” said Davison, “but I taught myself not to ask questions.” When Davison returned with the trunk, Ferguson, in a moment of generosity, gave him $15,000 cash -- $10,000 to cover Davison’s betting losses, and $5,000 to complete a deal for a horse.

Davison said Ferguson took this money from one of the bedrooms in the house and explained to Davison he had been lucky at the track. With Ferguson being absent from the trial – perhaps conveniently absent – it gave Davison and the other accused a target for blame.

As part of the defence effort to bolster Davison’s credibility, he admitted to having committed other offences for which he had not been caught or convicted. In one curious exchange with Crown attorney Bruce Affleck, he discussed his past as a safecracker, and admitted to “specializing” in robbing supermarkets.

Derosie gave evidence he flew to Montreal December 14 and stayed at the Diplomat Hotel. His purpose for the trip, he candidly told the court, was to cheat a Montreal man out of money in a game of cards. Derosie spend the week drinking and, the day of the robbery, returned to Toronto, saving his ticket. Derosie’s evidence as to his whereabouts was corroborated by nine witnesses, one of who testified he first heard of the robbery while driving Derosie to the Montreal airport.

Derosie told the court he went with Davison to see Ferguson at Davison’s apartment about money Ferguson owed him. Derosie said he stayed at Davison’s briefly, went Christmas shopping and met friends for a night of drinking. He stated his wife was upset when he came home, and that police, with firearms drawn, had “raided the home.”

Later that afternoon, Derosie was stopped by Toronto police and supposedly told them he knew of the robbery and that there were “Montreal guys involved,” When asked to “drop some names,” he replied: “I’d like to – I don’t want to do big time, but I can’t. They would kill me.” Derosie denied having made these comments and described the arresting detective as a “known liar.”

Although MacArthur did not testify, one witness stated she met MacArthur in a Montreal mall the day of the robbery, and MacArthur’s employee, Adam Low, admitted ownership of the locksmithing equipment found in MacArthur’s home. Low testified MacArthur had an extensive interest in race horses, both in breeding and in betting. Other evidence suggested the MacArthurs lived the “high life,” lending substantial quantities of cash to friends, and spending summers at vacation property in Northern Quebec.

Prior to charging the jury, MacDonald conceded there was no evidence upon which to convict Lefebvre, nor was there any direct evidence liking Garrington to Windsor during the relevant times, and directed acquittals.

Nothing is more the subject of speculation and intrigue to the defence lawyer than a jury’s deliberations. Generally, news of a quick verdict is a sign of acquittal. Having been told by the judge to weigh the evidence carefully, it appears an insult to the accused to quickly return a verdict of guilty, especially after a grueling eight-week trial, and where those accused face life imprisonment.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury returned verdicts of guilty against the four remaining defendants. As for MacArthur, Davison and Derosie, the press reports of the day indicated they “frowned but kept their emotions under control,” while Lefebvre “fought to restrain tears.”

Stiff sentences were called for, and Justice MacDonald had no hesitation in ordering a 20 year sentence for Davison and Derosie, 15 years for MacArthur, and 18 months for Lefebvre. Citing the “considerable skill, ingenuity and daring shown by the robbers to carry out a criminal conspiracy,” MacDonald pointed to deterrence as the primary sentencing consideration. In addition, he recommended no parole for the prisoners until the missing $1 million was recovered. “The accused will not have an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of this robbery,” the judge declared.

The case was vigorously appealed, but the convictions were affirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of Canada declined the hear a further appeal. As for Ferguson, he was arrested in Montreal in October 1971 and was later be convicted in a separate trial in Stratford, Ontario.

As a legal precedent, the case of Regina v. MacArthur, Davison and Derosie is frequently cited in legal circles as the definitive statement on the law of alibi. The fact that the case centred on alibi was truly its defining irony: for men such as these who were gamblers, they gambled with their own liberty, and they lost the biggest gamble they could have ever made.

Postscript: This article originally appeared in the Windsor Star, April 20, 1996. The case of MacArthur, Davison & Derosie is highly regarded in criminal law circles as a precedent. The Court of Appeal decision was written by Justice Arthur Martin, who was, before his retirement, generally considered to be one of Canada’s most respected jurists. In researching this case, there was a great deal of local flavour. Many of the counsel involved were prominent: Frank Montello, the founder of the Windsor Criminal Lawyers’ Association, was originally retained by one of the accused; David Humphrey, was also on for the defence, and he would later become a Supreme Court of Ontario Justice, as was the late Larry Morin, who was a junior on the case. Bruce Affleck, the prosecutor, had agreed to speak to me about the case, but unfortunately passed away before we could get together. The accused on appeal were represented by Clayton Ruby and Alan Gold, and the Crown was represented by Morris Manning—all prominent counsel. In one interesting twist, Justice Morin told me that while the accused were in custody at the Windsor Jail, he responded to an urgent call from his client—and on arrival was asked if he could get him a copy of Hoyle’s Rules, in order to settle an argument that arisen during one of the group’s many bridge games!


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