Nova Scotia

The man behind a huge small-town bank heist wants out of prison

Last month, a 68-year-old Nova Scotia man still behind bars for one of the largest bank-branch heists in Canadian history applied to the court for early release to care for his ailing mother. She has since died.

William Fenwick West, 68, challenging parole board decision in court

This handout photo shows William Fenwick West in 1998 (Police)

A 68-year-old Nova Scotia man still behind bars for one of the largest bank-branch heists in Canadian history can no longer rely on his chief argument in his bid to have a judge pave the way for his early release from prison.

William Fenwick West is serving a 19-year sentence for two bank robberies, including the 1998 holdup of a Bank of Montreal branch in Mahone Bay, N.S., a crime that netted more $440,000 and stunned the seaside tourist town.

Last month, West filed papers in Federal Court seeking a judicial review of the decision earlier this year to deny him full parole. In the Sept. 6 application, he said he should be released in order to "provide needed 'home care' for my 89-year-old widowed mother, the wife of a 'war veteran.'"

His mother, however, died a week later, according to an obituary. Her death is not yet mentioned in court records and West's case is continuing through the judicial process.

West said in his application that he's long maintained his innocence. He suggested that's one of the reasons he's been denied parole, and said he's not caused "physical violence" to anyone since he was a teenager.

But in its most recent decision denying West release, the Parole Board of Canada said corrections officials are worried about his "history of persistent violence" and "limited insight into your offence cycle." The parole's board appeal division, which reviewed his case, also found there was no evidence West was being "punished" for maintaining his innocence.

"Rather the board's analysis is grounded in reliable and persuasive information that you are guilty of the offences for which you are convicted," the appeal division said.

Tied up with tape

West, a three-times-married father of five adult children, was convicted in 2006 for the Mahone Bay robbery.

On Dec. 18, 1998, three employees were threatened with what later turned out to be a fake gun, ordered to open the vault, and then had their hands tied up with tape. West was arrested around noon the same day after his getaway car went off the road.

The next day he gave videotaped statements to the RCMP admitting to the robbery, describing key details and stating that he had hidden the cash under a boat, where it was later found by police. 

But at trial West claimed he did not commit the crime. Instead, he told what a judge would call an "unbelievable" story about a stranger named Jason who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him and later told him all the details of the robbery. 

DNA links 2nd robbery

West was subsequently linked through DNA evidence to a second robbery seven months earlier in Bass River, N.S., and was ultimately convicted in the crime.

The Crown's theory was that West somehow managed to cut a hole in the wall of the Bass River Credit Union, crawled through without setting off the alarm, and then lay in wait for employees to arrive before ordering them at gunpoint to open the vault. They, too, were tied up with duct tape.

West's criminal record dates back to 1967 and includes a 1981 bank robbery, the only crime he has admitted committing.

No dates have yet been set to hear West's application for a judicial review. In the court records, West said his mother, who he does not name, was diagnosed with cancer in June.

He wants a Federal Court judge to overturn a Parole Board of Canada appeal ruling that agreed he should not be released. He also wants the judge to order that he not be forced to live at a halfway house if he is freed later this year on statutory release.

Wants to draw building plans

In its February decision, the parole board said West was a moderate risk to reoffend. It did, however, note "very positive" reports about his work over the last 10 years in the prison's laundry facilities.

West would like to "reconnect with nature" if released and enjoy the company of family and friends. As for what he might do with his spare time, the parole board notes his interest in building design.

"While employment is not your main focus due to your age, you indicate possibly drawing building project plans or completing sets of building plans should the opportunity present itself."

About the Author

Richard Cuthbertson is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. He can be reached at richard.cuthbertson@cbc.ca.