Toronto

From bank robbery to pottery: Richard Atkinson on his do-over

Richard Atkinson was once called "one of the most notorious bank robbers in Toronto history." He was in and out of jail for decades, starting in the 1970s. Today, Richard is crime-free. He teaches boxing, pottery, and talks to at-risk youth.

'Look at my story to see the tracks not to follow,' says a former bank robber in Toronto

Having spent 32 years of his life behind bars, Atkinson is free of crime and he teaches boxing and pottery to young people at Alexandra Park, a neighbourhood in Toronto. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

For Richard Atkinson, a former career criminal in Toronto, rock bottom came when three of his children visited him in a minimum security prison in Kingston, Ont., in 1998.

Atkinson has a photo of himself smiling in a prison yard at Frontenac Institution with two of the children, the third one having taken the photo.

Years later, he now has a handful of grandchildren and he says he loves to pose for photos with them. "Where was I in between?" he asks.

In 1998, Atkinson was serving a sentence for a number of offences, including bank robberies, instead of raising his children. He knew then that it was too high a price to pay for his life of stealing and robbing. He says he robbed about 100 banks in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Have you had a 'Do-Over' moment? Leave us a message at 416-205-5807 or email us at metromorning@cbc.ca.

Richard Atkinson, a former career criminal in Toronto, left a life of crime and turned to teaching boxing and pottery to young people at Alexandra Park. (Eric Fefferman)

'Gaps' in his life

"I realized I was creating a gap in my life by not being around," he says. "I was also creating gaps in the lives of those around me. It was at that juncture that I said: 'Enough was enough.'"

Now, having spent 32 years of his life behind bars, Atkinson is free of crime and he teaches boxing and pottery to young people at Alexandra Park, a neighbourhood in which he grew up in Toronto. 

He is also an author, having penned an autobiography, "The Life Crimes and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson," published in July 2017. 

Atkinson told Metro Morning on Tuesday that he talks to school children about not getting into crime because he realized he was never going to get the big score he was chasing. He said he doesn't want young people to seek out that same dream.

'Slippery slope to success'

Crime means police, jail, court, judges — not to mention handcuffs, fingerprints, steel mattresses, paddy wagons and prison cells. He says those are the "pitfalls."

"Look at my story to see the tracks not to follow," he said he tells young people.

Crime is a "slippery slope to success, to say the least," he said.

"I have a tenacious appetite for success. So over and over again, I tried to make it. The failure of most criminals is they want to do the last, most successful score. Therefore, they can retire and they can retire the way they want to," he said.

"One more heist. One more kick at the can. One more shot at the dice. That's the failure for most repeat offenders."

Ricky Atkinson says of crime: 'I supplanted it with music, with art and with helping people. That was the key for me.' (Supplied by Richard Atkinson)

No more 'dancing on razor blades'

Atkinson said he always tried to minimize the impact of his crimes on any victims through planning, enlisting help and using technology.  

Had a gangster told him early in life about what a life of crime is really like, he may have changed his ways, he said. He said he didn't listen to his father, social workers or police officers who told him to stop.

Now, he said the sooner that criminals start a new life free of crime, the better off they will be. A crime-free life is boring in some ways — because "you are not dancing on razor blades anymore" — but even crime becomes a job like any other, he said.

"It becomes addictive," he said. "I supplanted it with music, with art and with helping people. That was the key for me."

In 2004, while serving time at Mission Institution in B.C., he took a pottery class, he told a reporter after the interview.

"Through a lump of clay, I created something that a guard wanted to buy and I saw success in that."

It is possible to start anew, he said.

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This week, in honour of the new year, Metro Morning is bringing you stories of 'Do-Overs' — moments in which people decide to make profound changes to their lives. Have you had a 'Do-Over' moment? Leave us a message at 416-205-5807 or email us at metromorning@cbc.ca.

With files from Metro Morning

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