Police in Florida believe cold case heist killers are in Montreal

Police in Florida say they have identified suspects in a 36 year-old murder tied to a daring armoured car heist, and that they're likely connected to Montreal's notorious "West End Gang".

Brinks Guard Joseph Warner was gunned down 36 years ago in St. Petersburg

Armoured car driver Joseph Warner was shot and killed during a robbery in 1982 in St. Petersburg, Fla. (St. Petersburg Police)

Police in St. Petersburg, Fla., say they've identified suspects in a 36-year-old murder tied to a daring armoured car heist — and that they're likely connected to Montreal's notorious "West End Gang."

Joseph Warner, a 44-year-old Brinks armoured car driver and a father of five, was shot and killed during a robbery at a St. Petersburg shopping centre on Jan. 23, 1982.

For years the case languished and there were no leads. Last year, Brinks offered a $10,000 US reward for any information leading to an arrest, and St. Petersburg detectives took a fresh look at the case.

Det. Brian Bilbrey said new evidence has led them to believe the killers are in Montreal.

"We're at the preliminary stages of proving the case, but we do have a couple of suspects that we're looking at extremely closely," Bilbrey told CBC.

The Heist

The day of the robbery, Warner was making a scheduled delivery at the shopping mall.

"At least two suspects, dressed as elevator repairmen, were waiting for the delivery. When the driver was exiting the building they ambushed him, stole the messenger bag, and shot and killed him," Bilbrey said.
This van was used in the robbery. The suspects later fled in a rented boat and another unkown vehicle. (St. Petersburg police)

Bilbrey said the thieves had cased the shopping mall at least one before in the area where the Brinks van would have stopped.

"They had put some extensive planning into it," Bilbrey said.

The suspects fled the scene in a stolen van.

"They then went to the intercoastal waterway, where they had rented a boat. They dumped the boat 12 miles north, and then fled in a third unknown car," Bilbrey said.

The Montreal Connection 

It was the rented boat that first led investigators to a Montreal connection. The boat was rented using a Canadian drivers license as identification, he said.

Bilbrey said the name on the driver's licence was that of a Montreal police officer. Investigators later determined the licence was a fake, and that the officer in question wasn't involved.

They believe the robbers may have used that name as an inside joke.

In the end, the robbery didn't pay off for the thieves.

As they were fleeing on the boat, they opened the deposit bag. They found it contained no cash, only non-negotiable cheques they couldn't cash. They tossed the bag in the water.

The West End Gang

Bilbrey said detectives have uncovered new evidence over the last year.  They used DNA testing — which wasn't available in 1982 — to identify possible associates of the suspects. 

"We were able to talk with several people incarcerated that were part of a New England Irish gang.  We developed leads from some of them about people from Montreal who had come down here and had ties to the area," Bilbrey said.
Composite sketches of the two suspects in the 1982 robbery and murder as they would've looked at the time. Police believe these two men are connected to Montreal's notorious "West End Gang". (St. Petersburg police)

In Montreal, the most well-known criminal gang with Irish roots is the West End Gang, which has been operating for decades.

"The people that we are looking at have a history of doing these same type of crimes in Montreal in the '60s, '70s and '80s," Bilbrey said.

In the 1980's, Montreal was known as the bank robbery capitol of North America, and several West End Gang members were implicated in armoured truck holdups.

The Reward

Bilbrey said detectives believe they know who and where the suspects are, but they don't have enough evidence to make an arrest.

He appealed to the public for help.

"We're closer than we were 35 years ago, but we just need that one person to tell us some information about the case or that they have knowledge of the case," Bilbrey said.

In addition to the $10,000 US reward from Brinks, the local Crimestoppers in St. Petersburg is also offering a $3,000 US reward, which adds up to about $16,000 Cdn.

Bilbrey said anyone with information can contact the St. Petersburg police major crimes unit at 1 (727) 893-7164.