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Bad math and missing millions: Why the Toronto airport gold heist is far from solved

The theft of 400 kilograms of gold from Toronto's Pearson Airport in April 2023 played out like a Hollywood movie. But even after police charged 12 men in connection with the heist, tens of millions in gold is still missing, raising the question of whether investigators have really cracked the case.

Stolen bullion likely in India, and long gone, say experts

A close up of a replica of a 31.1 gram gold bar. Peel Police recently disclosed that the gold shipment stolen from Toronto's Pearson Airport in April 2023, consisted of 6,600 bars. Meaning most of them tiny.

The 400 kilograms of stolen gold disappeared from view on a country road outside Toronto, somewhere past a golf course and an apple orchard.

In the days after the brazen April 2023 robbery at Pearson Airport, Peel Police canvassed 225 homes and businesses, looking for security camera footage, hoping to trace the path of the white five-ton truck that had ferried away the palette of gold bars.

Investigators ultimately determined the truck travelled west from the Air Canada Cargo terminal, taking the 401 Highway, exiting about 30 minutes away in Milton, Ont. It headed north up the Niagara Escarpment, then disappeared into the twilight.

The Pearson Airport theft ranks as Canada's biggest-ever gold heist and the sixth-largest in modern global history. Yet for all the headlines and public interest, there has been remarkably little information shared about how it all went down.

Police remained mum for a full year, until they called a super-sized press conference on the first anniversary of the robbery to announce they had arrested nine men, and were seeking three more.

With the white truck serving as a backdrop, a procession of politicians, police chiefs and detectives came to the podium to laud their success, and hammer home a simple narrative.

"This isn't just about gold. This is about how gold becomes guns," Nando Iannicca, the chair of the Peel Police Services Board, proclaimed. "It always comes down to guns and organized crime."

To hear police tell it, "reverse alchemy" was at play. Tens of millions of dollars in gold transmuted into firearms, destined for Canadian streets.

"We believe that they've melted down the gold, and then the profits they got from the gold they use to help finance the firearm[s]," said Det. Sgt. Mike Mavity, the lead investigator.

The briefing lasted almost an hour, but was light on details. There was no explanation of the charges laid, or pending, against the 12 suspects. Nor was there any discussion of which organized crime group police believed was behind the theft. Exactly how the bars were melted down was never disclosed.

Although the most glaring plot hole could be seen that day in the empty cargo bay of the white truck.

Four hundred kilograms of gold are still missing. And even if police have the people who were responsible, the loot — or the cash it was converted into — appears to be long gone.

A trunk full of cheap guns

The biggest break in the gold heist investigation was the result of a routine traffic stop on a Pennsylvania highway in September 2023. State troopers pulled over a car because its windows were too darkly tinted. When the driver tried to flee on foot, they suspected something more was at play. They later found 65 guns secreted in the trunk.

The man behind the wheel, Durante King-McLean, was wanted in Canada. Peel Police allege he was the driver of the white truck that made off with the gold shipment.

A Pennsylvania indictment against King-McLean and three other individuals provides a detailed list of the 65 weapons seized during the traffic stop. Eleven of the handguns were reportedly stolen, and the serial number on another had been filed off.

But even if all had been legally purchased, they weren't worth very much.

CBC News compiled prices for the weapons from manufacturers' websites. Most retail for under $500 US. In total, all 65 could have been obtained for just over $34,000 US, or $47,000 Cdn.

"Four hundred kilos of gold is a lot of gold," said David Soud, head of research for security consultancy I.R. Consilium and an expert on how criminal organizations use gold to finance their activities. "That is an awful lot of guns, unless you are arming a militia, or unless you are planning to corner the market completely for guns in Canada."

Soud says criminal organizations gravitate toward gold because of its status as a universal currency, using it as a way to transfer their profits anywhere in the world, outside of controls and oversight.

But the idea that someone staged the Pearson Airport robbery to finance a gun-running scheme doesn't make sense to him.

"If you want to bring a large number of guns from the United States into Canada, there are better ways to do it than by staging a spectacular airport gold heist that's going to have multiple law enforcement agencies hunting for you very aggressively," said Soud.

How Peel Police settled on "reverse alchemy" as an explanation isn't clear. The force turned down an interview request from CBC News, and declined to provide answers to written questions, citing concern for court proceedings and their ongoing investigation.

Gold actually worth millions more

Guns aside, there's another number at the heart of the heist that doesn't add up: the value of the stolen gold.

Since the beginning of their investigation, police have pegged it at slightly more than $20 million Cdn. And they are not alone. A lawsuit filed against Air Canada by Brinks — the company entrusted with arranging transport of the gold from its Swiss refiner to the end customer, TD Bank — sets the value at 13.612 million Swiss francs, the equivalent of $20.288 million Cdn in April 2023.

But one of the things that makes gold so valuable is that it has one fixed global price. And on the day of the robbery, that worked out to $2,672.16 Cdn per troy ounce, or $85.91 per gram.

Which means that the stolen 400.19 kg of gold was actually worth $34.365 million in April 2023 — a value that has continued to rise with the gold market, approaching $41 million today.

WATCH | Why was the gold only valued at $20 million?

Size matters

12 hours ago

Duration 1:00

Peel Police recently revealed that the gold shipment in the Toronto Airport heist contained 6,600 gold bars of varying weights and sizes. Basic math gives us a better understanding of just how small most of the gold bars were. You may be surprised.

CBC News reached out to Brinks, TD Bank and Valcambi, the Swiss refiner, as well as Peel Police, to ask about the apparent discrepancy. No one would answer the question.

Other basic details about the stolen shipment are also lacking. At their April press conference, investigators disclosed, for the first time, that the shipment contained 6,600 bars of various weights and sizes. No breakdown was provided, but basic math says most of those bars must have been tiny, more like matchboxes than the bricks usually pictured in Hollywood heist films. (Valcambi makes cast and minted bars ranging in size from one gram to 12.4 kilograms.)

Size matters

Tiny bars would be easier to conceal and smuggle. Although melting down 6,600 of them would remain an awfully big job.

As part of their investigation, Peel Police charged Ali Raza, whom they describe as the owner of a Mississauga, Ont., jewelry store, with possession of property obtained by crime. No explanation was given, but police did refer to six crudely made gold bangles — worth $89,000 — that they had recovered. They also provided the media with photos of a welding torch and melting moulds that they say were used to help dispose of the gold.

Andrea Wenckebach, a goldsmith who teaches jewelry design at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., says melting down precious metals by hand is hard, and dirty, work.

"You're always hot because the torch is always on. The light is very bright. Obviously you need special glasses. We wear a canister mask because of the fumes. The torch handle is heavy, so that's constantly in your hand, so there's a lot of heat. It gets uncomfortable," she said.

WATCH | How gold is actually melted down:

Melting precious metals

12 hours ago

Duration 1:08

Peel Police say the gold from the Toronto airport heist was melted down in the basement of a jewellery store. CBC Investigative Reporter Jonathon Gatehouse visited the Jewellery Program at Georgian College in Barrie Ontario, and discovered that melting precious metals is a lot harder than you'd think.

Wenckebach demonstrated the process for CBC News, using a troy ounce of copper — which melts at 1,084 C, slightly higher than gold's 1,063 C — as a stand-in. Start to finish, it took close to 10 minutes. A process that would need to be repeated another 6,599 times for the stolen gold.

Wenckebach questions whether one person would be up to the task. Especially if they were in a hurry.

"That quantity … would take days and days to melt," she said, "unless that person was doing it day and night, didn't sleep at all."

Where's the gold?

In addition to the six gold bangles — collectively weighing somewhere around 850 grams — Peel Police have recovered $434,000 in cash. That leaves 399 kg of gold, or its cash equivalent, still unaccounted for, despite the arrests and celebratory press conference.

Which raises the $34-million question: what actually happened to all that gold?

Investigators have indicated they believe it's no longer in Canada, but won't discuss what region, or country, they think it might have travelled to.

Experts say that it's not hard to make an educated guess.

"Generally, all roads lead first to Dubai and then on to India," said Alan Martin, an Ottawa-based researcher who studies the flow of illegal gold. "I think India is a good market because it has one of the biggest jewelry manufacturing markets in the world and it has an incredibly huge domestic consumption of gold."

Martin authored a 2019 report that looked at the extensive worldwide grey and black markets for illicit gold. He says India's remain the largest, and most readily accessed.

"When I did research there a few years ago, between 25 and 30 per cent of the market was illicit and/or they didn't know where the material came from," said Martin. "The thing with India is you could literally hide a truckload of gold. Nobody would notice."

CBC News recently reported that one of the gold heist suspects is in India and planning to surrender to police. Another man was arrested when he returned home from India in early May. And police now say they believe the last at-large suspect is currently in Dubai.

Indian consumers have an almost insatiable appetite for gold, buying up almost 750 tonnes in 2023 alone. And not everyone is fussy about where it comes from.

"The cultural affinity we have towards gold makes gold a very, very attractive commodity for smuggling," said Najib Shah, who used to serve as India's director general of Revenue Intelligence, charged with overseeing anti-smuggling efforts, from his home in Bangalore.

WATCH | The gold heist still isn't solved:

Bad math and missing millions: Why the Toronto airport gold heist is far from solved

7 hours ago

Duration 8:55

Multiple charges have been laid more than a year after a heist at Toronto Pearson International Airport, but tens of millions of dollars of gold is still missing. CBC’s Jonathon Gatehouse investigates where it could have gone, and uncovers big holes in the case that police claim to have cracked.

The smuggling routes from Dubai — another epicentre for illicit gold — are well-established, and almost impossible to police, he says.

"India's coastal borders are extremely challenging. [The gold] comes into the land and it can get transported to the marketplaces almost instantaneously," said Shah.

More than 14 months have elapsed since the 400 kg of gold were stolen. And with each passing day, the prospects of ever locating it fade further.

"Gold is almost impossible to trace," said Martin. "Once it's gone to a refiner and been mixed with other stuff, you'll never find it."

"The odds of recovering that gold are slim to none," said Soud.

Which, if true, means somebody, somewhere made out like a bandit.

with files from Murali Krishnan and Jocelyn Shepel

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