Ottawa

Bank robber returns to the scene of his crime 60 years later — for lunch

In 1958, Boyne Johnston stole $260,000 from the Sparks Street bank in Ottawa where he worked as a teller. Six decades later, he dined at the restaurant now in its place.

Boyne Johnston stole $260K from a bank that's now one of Ottawa's hippest eateries

Alex McMahon is the wine director at Ottawa's Riviera restaurant on Sparks Street. Earlier this month, he got a unique perspective on the former bank's history when Boyne Johnston — who robbed it in the late 1950s — dropped by for a meal. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

For the folks at Ottawa's Riviera restaurant, it was a reservation request unlike any other.

Six decades ago, the fancy art deco-inspired eatery was home to the Sparks Street branch of the Imperial Bank of Canada — the site of one of the most brazen robberies the city had ever seen.

According to newspaper reports from the time, Boyne Johnston, a chief teller at the branch, walked out of the office on a Friday with roughly $260,000.

The Renfrew, Ont., native hightailed it for the U.S., where he went on a ritzy spending spree with his illicit gains. Wanted posters flagged him as a "night club habitué" and a "champagne drinker [who] enjoys female companionship." There was a $10,000 reward for his capture.

"It was a great little legend for us, but I don't think any of us knew that he was still alive," said Alex McMahon, Riviera's wine director, earlier this week.

"And then a reservation popped up. And in the notes, the guy had said, 'I'm bringing my friend back to the bank that he robbed.'"

Johnston robbed the Imperial Bank of Canada on Sparks Street — where the popular Riviera restaurant now stands — when he worked there as a teller in the late 1950s. This wanted poster was published in the Ottawa Citizen in 1958.

'Like something from a movie'

"I guess [Johnston] mentioned to his friend that he would love to come back and see the bank at some point in his life, and they found out that it was a restaurant now — so they just made a day trip," McMahon recalled.

"It seemed like he was home. He was pretty blown away."

After that lunch last Friday, McMahon offered to give Johnston a tour of the building. Johnston accepted but ended up being the one telling the lion's share of the stories.

"He [took] us through where everything was when it was the bank, and how he did it, how he pulled off the robbery," McMahon said.

They ended up sharing a glass of bubbly inside the former bank vault that now serves as Riviera's wine cellar.

Johnston's friends, along with McMahon and Riviera's head chef, were hanging on his every word — from stories of the champagne he drank and the company he kept while on the run, to the Corvette he bought with a portion of the pilfered cash.

"It was really cinematic," McMahon said. "It was totally like something from a movie."

An Instagram post made by Ottawa restaurant Riviera after former bank robber Boyne Johnston paid a visit on Aug. 10, 2018. Johnston worked as a teller at the former Imperial Bank of Canada branch where Riviera now stands. (Riviera)

Left his mark

Just like a movie, however, Johnston's profligate adventures following the robbery eventually came to an end.

According to newspaper reports, Johnston was arrested after 17 days on the lam, inside a nightclub in Denver. He was quoted at the time that he "knew all along [he'd] be caught" and that he was "glad it's over."

He was charged, found guilty and sentenced to four years at the former Kingston Penitentiary.

He said that every day after he got out of prison has been the best day of his life.- Alex McMahon, wine director at Riviera

Before leaving Riviera, Johnston signed the wall of the cellar with both his name and his prisoner number from his time behind bars.

McMahon said he had to ask Johnston if robbing the bank was worth it. Johnston replied it was — but for only one reason.

"He said the experience that he's the most grateful for is the experience of going to prison [and how] you'll never understand how amazing it is to get to live a free life until you've experienced that."

"He said that every day after he got out of prison has been the best day of his life."


After speaking to McMahon, CBC News reached out to Johnston to hear his reminiscences about the 1958 robbery and his unexpected return to the former bank. Stay tuned for that story on Monday. 

About the Author

Trevor Pritchard

CBC reporter

Trevor Pritchard is the weekend assignment producer at CBC Ottawa, but he occasionally fills in as a reporter. He's previously reported in Toronto, Saskatoon and Cornwall, Ont.