Register Wednesday | September 27 | 2023
Highway Robbery Photography by Caton Hower Diab.

Highway Robbery

Will Johnson on how Canada's opioid crisis led to a bank heist and a high-speed chase in Nelson, BC.

He didn’t sound human. As the masked bank robber charged across the atrium of the Nelson & District Credit Union, he grunted and swore at the terrified bank tellers, thrusting a sawed-off twelve-gauge shotgun in their direction. The barrel—sleek, black, unforgiving—pointed in every direction as he waved the gun around wildly. Siobhan Emerson* remembers exactly how she felt in that moment. She had no way to guess if the faceless figure behind the gun was willing or capable of pulling the trigger.

Just that morning, Emerson and her coworkers had discussed a recent local robbery. Part of a Kootenay-wide crime spree that had lasted all winter, it had taken place just a few blocks down from their branch on Vernon Street, right in the middle of downtown. Nelson, an idyllic mountain refuge best known as the backdrop of the 1987 romcom Roxanne, was humming with panicked energy. Emerson thought her workplace was an unlikely target, as it was on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in town, right across the street from the courthouse and a stone’s throw from city hall. 

When the robber burst through the swinging glass doors, a local garlic farmer named Scott Miller was standing at the information desk, chatting with the receptionist. He caught a glimpse of a black-clad figure, hoodie pulled low over his masked face. Hey buddy, he thought, you can’t dress like that in a bank. Then he noticed the gun. The robber pushed past him, growling commands, and began to yank open drawers at random; he threw a fit when one drawer revealed nothing but candy. If the stakes weren’t so high, Miller thought, it would almost be comedic, like something out of a Coen brothers movie.

Frightened customers fled while the tellers lined up against the wall. According to Miller, a female teller helped the robber gather the cash as he gestured with his gun. Emerson tried to stay calm, tried not to cower; she was a strong-willed feminist who spent her free time working on her family farm. Later, she learned from a friend that she’d attended the same party as the robber a decade ago—in a town like Nelson, population ten thousand, everyone knows everyone. Usually, a basic accountability results from that, a sense that Kootenay residents’ best interests are intertwined. Looking back, Emerson wishes she’d slapped the robber, admonishing him and telling him to behave. Instead, she followed his directions. He made off with over $50,000 in cash stuffed into a black duffel bag.

Drug use is a deeply polarizing subject in the Kootenays, where the community can be neatly divided into two sub-sections: those who earn their livelihood in the marijuana industry, and those who don’t. A 2016 National Post article estimated the industry’s worth in Canada at somewhere between $2 and $7 billion, and police and industry insiders believe that 40 percent of the cannabis produced in Canada comes from BC. Locally, residents are guarded about the topic. Nelson’s mayor had to explicitly distance herself from the industry after she was endorsed by a marijuana advocacy group during her 2014 election campaign.

The tension between these two sides of the Nelson community is apparent at street level. Downtown, quaint tourist shops and murals celebrating the area’s rich history compete with a head shop selling Keep Nelson Weird! T-shirts, and a costume store in which you can purchase everything you need to attend the Shambhala Music Festival. Shambhala annually attracts fifteen thousand ravers to a remote Salmo ranch less than an hour outside of town, where they consume an ever-evolving list of drugs, including cocaine, GHB, ketamine, acid, MDMA and a plethora of lab-altered variations; though it’s a claim to fame for Nelson, it’s also deeply unpopular with a large, conservative segment of the town’s population. 

While it’s small town, Nelson acts as a hub for a number of surrounding rural communities—the Slocan Valley to the west, Salmo to the south and Kaslo to the north. Traffic numbers from the Big Orange Bridge, which spans Kootenay Lake on one side of town, suggest that the community’s population effectively doubles during the day—a statistic former Police Chief Wayne Holland used to justify his requests to hire additional police officers in 2014. His charges were being swamped with mental health crises that kept them mired in paperwork and waiting around in hospital corridors. During the robbery spree, Holland was campaigning for the introduction of a mental health patrol car similar to one first introduced in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. His officers were already being pushed to their limits, and now they had an armed robber on their hands. 

In the weeks before the robber burst into the credit union, then-Deputy Police Chief Paul Burkart had been reassuring panicked citizens daily. He was fielding phone calls from the parents of gas station employees and comforting bank tellers worried about going to work. Holland had made it clear to the whole force that this was easily the highest profile case they’d handled, and it was time to take the culprit down, hard, before anyone got hurt. 

When the robberies had begun in November 2013, it wasn’t immediately clear whether they were linked. But all of the crimes seemed to have been pulled off solo, narcotics and opiates were being stolen from pharmacies, a shotgun kept making an appearance, and, during the most recent robbery, it had been fired—once—into a door. By the following spring, a portrait of one main culprit had developed. Driven by addiction, he’d managed to escape capture at least five times. 

Though they can’t share the precise details or calculations, the cops had worked out just how long each haul would financially sustain the suspect’s estimated drug intake. From there, they correctly predicted his next armed robbery, down to the specific day: April 25, 2014. Burkart was fairly certain that one of Nelson’s banking institutions would be targeted next—all of them were within a few blocks of each other and boasted easy access to the highway. He figured that as long as he kept detectives within the highly concentrated downtown, the department response time would be near-immediate.

Sergeant Nate Holt had just finished lunch a block away from the credit union, in a restaurant called Jackson’s Hole that features a patio overlooking the Selkirk mountain range. He’d only driven a few blocks when his radio started to crackle and burp: “Robbery in progress.” His partner, Corey Hoy, was sitting in the passenger seat. The two exchanged a glance. They immediately U-turned their unmarked police vehicle and hit the accelerator, lights aswirl and sirens screaming. The small-town department had been preparing for the next robbery for weeks. Now that things were jumping into motion, it felt almost scripted. 

From where Holt parked the car near the intersection of Vernon and Ward Street, letting Hoy out to respond on foot, he could see people moving around inside the credit union. Outside, one man was filming the scene with an iPad, while others had gathered to watch in front of Touchstones Museum. As officers chattered back and forth on the radio, Holt moved his car to a spot where he could observe both of the robber’s potential escape routes. Burkart had told the officers their first priority was to protect public safety. Holt felt his consciousness narrow.

Interrupting his thoughts, a voice came over the radio that Holt knew well—it belonged to Fred Thomson, a local competitive curler and bylaw officer.

“In pursuit of suspect on a bike,” Thomson called.

What? thought Holt, scanning. He couldn’t see anything. Just beyond his sight line, the robber had jumped out the back door of the bank into the alley, making his way towards city hall with Thomson in pursuit. 

Burkart knew the bylaw officer wasn’t armed. He parked his car at city hall and sprinted to catch up with Thomson and the robber. The robber ditched his bicycle at the top of a short slope and ran towards the parking lot of a nearby grocery store, still carrying the black duffel bag. Burkart gripped his gun, watching Thomson gain ground on the robber. But before either Thomson or Burkart could interfere, the robber climbed into a dinged-up white car idling in the parking lot.

“The suspect is now in a vehicle,” Thomson reported over the radio. As the car tore out of the lot, engine roaring, Burkart jogged after it, realizing with a jolt that his car was parked way back at city hall—he didn’t have time to get it. Badge out, he flagged down a minivan coming out of a gas station.

“That’s a bank robber,” he told the guy behind the wheel. “We need to catch him.”

The surprised driver complied, quickly leashing his two dogs and offering the van to Burkart, who offered a sweaty thank you, hopped in, and hammered down on the gas. A few kilometres out of town, Nelson police roadblocks were being set up on the highway to Castlegar. Chief Wayne Holland himself was manning another roadblock at a bridge outside town that had been identified as a potential escape route. 

Meanwhile, Constable Jarrett Slomba, who had barely manœuvred his way out of a head-on collision early in the pursuit, was now tailing the getaway car out of town along Vernon Street with Holt and Hoy behind him. Burkart followed in the commandeered minivan. He didn’t notice the dog hair on his uniform until later. 

Neither Hoy nor Holt were wearing bulletproof vests. Hoy struggled to pull his on as Holt drove, putting into action the skills he’d developed years earlier in Vancouver, where he’d been involved in a number of high-speed chases. So far, Holt and Hoy had been able to keep Slomba’s police truck within sight as it barrelled into Nelson’s Railtown district and past the historic Canadian Pacific Railway station. Just ahead, the getaway car sped through a building supply store’s equipment-strewn yard and successfully re-emerged on the opposite side without hitting anything. The trio of vehicles headed one-by-one up a curving mountain road towards the highway to Castlegar. 

So far the chase hadn’t hit much traffic, but if the robber made it out to the highway, Holt knew things would get significantly more dangerous. In fact, according to the department’s protocols, they might have had to abandon the chase right then and there. But the suspect’s car blew past the highway, climbing up into the hills of Blewett, a rural area with sprawling farms and foliage-thick wilderness on all sides. Slomba kept close, Holt following, while Hoy yelled into the radio. They hurtled along the curving roads, flying downhill and then up again, careening left and right and left again. Later, they’d learn the pursuit spanned approximately twenty kilometres. Sometimes, they could see Kootenay Lake in the distance; other times, they were lost in the trees. Holt was pushing his car as hard as it could be pushed, stomping the brakes as needed—until he realized he’d overheated them. “Fuck, we don’t have brakes, Corey,” he told his partner. “I think we just lost the fucking brakes.”

Hoy was undeterred. “Keep going,” he said.

Holt was hanging back now, letting Slomba ride the white car’s tail, but he was keeping the vehicles mostly within sight, the chassis glinting in the sun through the trees. He knew they were approaching a bridge, down in a narrow canyon, that spans the Kootenay River. The bridge overlooks the west arm of the river, slightly upstream of a series of hydroelectric dams. Holt waited to see them speed across it, but they never did. 

Moments later, Holt squealed to a stop. He took a visual inventory: stopped in the middle of the bridge was Slomba’s police truck, and farther along, the robber’s car was pulled up to the railing with the passenger-side door open. Beyond that, Holt could see a cruiser blocking the other side of the bridge; RCMP officer Chuck Brind’Amour stood beside it with something in his hand. But it wasn’t a gun. Brind’Amour was holding a camera, documenting the scene. 

Holt didn’t see the suspect jump off the bridge, but the other cops did. When they described it to him later, they said the robber put too much trust in a young cedar near the guardrail. The suspect leapt out with his arms outstretched, like a skydiver, trying to find purchase in the tree’s boughs. Instead, he tumbled down its trunk, shredding the bark and crashing through the branches before landing on the rocks at its base, thirty or forty feet below. 

By the time they caught sight of him again, the robber was facedown, moaning on the shoreline. His bag was caught in the tree above him, torn open, and stolen cash fluttered down around him. Holt watched as a few bills alit on the Kootenay River and rode the current downstream. 

Holt couldn’t see whether anyone was in the white car, and as Hoy clambered out the side door of their patrol car, Holt went straight for the tool he’d chosen for this occasion: an AR-15 machine gun. Holt lugged it up to his shoulder, prepared to shoot if he had to. 

This is when Holt made a mistake: he didn’t check the getaway car. He’d been trained to always assume that if there’s one of something, there might be two—yet he forgot about the possibility of an accomplice. As he pointed the AR-15 in the robber’s direction, he watched as Hoy and Slomba tentatively approached the jumper’s slumped body and ignored the stopped car. It was Burkart, arriving somewhere in those moments, who rushed onto the bridge and hauled out a second suspect, guiding her to the ground where an RCMP officer handcuffed her. She’d been cowering in the car, too afraid to move, in the driver’s seat. 

The cops could see the now-legendary shotgun as they approached their target, who was lying on the rocks with his legs twisted underneath him. The officers handcuffed him, flipping him onto his back so they could see his face. The robber was a guy in his early thirties, his cheeks pockmarked with acne scars. He was grunting in pain with his eyes clenched. One of the officers grabbed him by the shirt and yelled in his face, “What’s your name?” He was in too much pain to tell them. After some cajoling, they learned it from the female suspect: Andrew Stevenson. 

Within two years of the 2014 credit union robbery, the number of Kootenay residents obtaining opiate replacement therapy through Dr. Joel Kailia, who runs one of the only clinics in the region that prescribes the life-saving treatment, had more than tripled. Fentanyl had flooded into town, and his clinic was overwhelmed with desperate residents trying to kick their addiction to prescription painkillers, among other drugs. As far as Kailia could tell, the fentanyl crisis spiked after oxycodone was taken off the market, creating a vacuum for synthetic fentanyl and illicit opioids to fill.  

In 2016, Burkart identified the fentanyl crisis as the department’s top priority, and called together a working group of community stakeholders to talk about the many issues surrounding it: public education, first-responder protocols, creating relationships with those most vulnerable. He invited the mayor, local school district representatives, street-outreach workers, doctors, nurses and church leaders. To address the issue, the community would need to bring a lot of people together—not to shame or punish drug users, but hopefully to save their lives. If he’s learned anything from the robberies and his day-to-day work as a police officer, Burkart says, it’s the real cost of addiction for a community. 

In January 2017, ANKORS, a local harm-reduction and outreach agency, made eight new recovery beds available for those struggling with mental health issues and addiction. The move was funded by Interior Health, as part of a province-wide initiative that made seventy-three new beds available throughout BC. The program, the first of its kind in the region, provides a substance-free setting where patients receive up to six months of support to transition back to outside life. The hope is that people like Stevenson can avoid being driven to similar acts of desperation before seeking out help.

Whether or not she was offered the time off, Emerson was intent on sitting in the Nelson courthouse—across Ward Street from the credit union—to watch every moment of Andrew Stevenson’s sentencing hearing. Though she’d continued on as an employee, she’d taken a break from her teller duties. She’d been suffering from debilitating anxiety attacks brought on by the robbery. 

Due to his injuries, which were the subject of an automatic internal police investigation that concluded with no suggestion of impropriety, Stevenson first appeared in court via video link. Stevenson’s lawyer, Ken Wyllie, entered his guilty plea. He and crown prosecutor Sunday Patola then presented a list of agreed-upon facts to Judge Richard Hewson. 

Biographical details about Stevenson painted a sympathetic picture: while he’d been raised in a supportive home in Castlegar, Stevenson began drinking alcohol and using marijuana at the age of thirteen, partially in an attempt to self-medicate his rheumatoid arthritis. He’d become a daily drinker by the time he was seventeen. He racked up impaired driving offences at nineteen and twenty-five, and underwent a hip replacement at age twenty-six. Stevenson started with prescriptions to oxycodone and then to long-acting morphine—but by the end of 2012, his consumption had outpaced his prescription, forcing him to buy medication off the street. At the height of his addiction, he was using about $300 worth of morphine per day. As a result of his drug intake, Stevenson claimed he was unable to recall the details of—or even remember—most of the robberies and break-and-enters he’d committed to sustain his habit. Patola advocated for an eleven-year prison sentence, while Wyllie was looking for eight.  

Emerson was there when the judge sentenced Stevenson to ten years in prison. Addiction was the driving force behind Stevenson’s actions, Wyllie argued, not greed—a point that Hewson agreed on. Finally, the judge asked Stevenson whether he had anything more to say for himself. From the prisoner’s box where he sat in leg irons, Stevenson, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, delivered a very brief statement. 

“I want to apologize to the victims,” he said. “I pray for their mental and emotional recovery.”

For her part in the robberies, Krista Kalmikoff, Stevenson’s getaway driver, initially received bail. After breaching her bail conditions, she was ultimately sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Kalmikoff claims she was duped into participating in Stevenson’s robberies. The sentencing judge acknowledged the role that Kalmikoff’s circumstances—“complex drug, mental health and psychosocial issues”—played in the decision-making processes surrounding her participation. 

Holt keeps the bullet he didn’t fire during Stevenson’s arrest in his desk, as a reminder. He’s glad he didn’t have to use it. Though he’s been involved in a number of violent altercations over the course of his career, he’s never shot his gun and he hopes he’ll never have to. It’s heartbreaking, Holt says, that Stevenson will spend the best years of his life in prison. When the judge handed down Stevenson’s sentence, Holt was there. That’s a lot of years, he thought. He thinks about Stevenson’s kids, about the pressure Stevenson was under to provide for his family. Holt also thinks about the time he was administered morphine, by Dr. Kailia, for a back injury sustained in the line of duty. He remembers how all his worldly concerns disappeared. 

There’s a song Holt listens to routinely, an old Jackson Browne tune called “Your Bright Baby Blues,” that makes him think of Andrew Stevenson. Sometimes he plays it on his office computer. 

“Everybody’s going somewhere, riding just as fast as they can ride,” Browne sings. “No matter how fast I run, I can never seem to get away from me.” 

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.