The nefarious tricks of the pickpocket

Pickpocket caught in the act in Xiamen, China (click for source)

Pickpocket caught in the act in Xiamen, China (click for source)

When Winnipeggers worry about crime, it tends to be about the in-your-face kinds of crime, such as muggings and armed robberies. Little thought is given to a more nefarious kind of crime, though, that can leave you having to hastily call your credit card company, replace lost identification and, in the interim, get by without cash — pickpocketing.

Winnipeg isn’t really known as a hotbed of pickpocketing. Nor, for that matter, is North America. In September, TripAdvisor released a list of what it considers the world’s 10 worst cities for pickpockets: eight of them were in Europe, one in South America and one in Asia:

1. Barcelona
2. Rome
3. Prague
4. Madrid
5. Paris
6. Florence
7. Buenos Aires
8. Amsterdam
9. Athens
10. Hanoi

But pickpocketing can happen here in Winnipeg — I caught one would-be pickpocket in the act of starting to open the zipper on my backpack, which in any case consisted of nothing more valuable to a thief than my gym gear. The best way to protect yourself, here at home or anywhere in the world, is to know their tricks.

Taking advantage of the fact that you don’t have eyes on the back of your head. Many pickpockets like to operate from behind, precisely because that’s where you have the fewest visual cues about what’s going on around you. Backpacks, back pockets and other items normally held behind the arms are favourite targets because they’re easy to fish things out of without being seen.

Getting your hands occupied. A person who has his or her hands full is a person whose hands aren’t obstructing or guarding their pockets. Thus, be more alert when you have both hands occupied. Some pickpockets have been known to hand unsuspecting passers-by petitions to sign, or a pen and clipboard with a request for a charitable donation on it. The more brazen have even tried thrusting babies (or dolls made to look like babies) into the arms of a total stranger. After all, what kind stranger would take a chance on dropping a baby?

Distracting you. There are all kinds of variations on this technique. Some people have reported being squirted with mustard or ketchup, only to have friendly locals — miraculously equipped with cloths or napkins at that very second — come rushing over to wipe the mess off; only later does the victim realize that he or she is not just wearing stained clothes, but also suddenly missing a wallet or passport. Others will start an argument in public, while accomplices get busy getting ahold of onlookers’ valuables. Yet others will drop valuables in front of you, or block your path in some way, to distract you from what’s going on behind you.

Several useful tips for avoiding being pickpocketed, courtesy of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police:

Tips for Men

  • The target areas are back trouser pockets, and suitcoat and sports jacket pockets, located both inside and out. A pickpocket generally avoids front trouser pockets, and especially buttoned or zippered pockets.
  • If you have to carry your wallet in an unbuttoned jacket, coat or pants pocket, be sure it holds only what you can afford to lose. Keep large sums of money, credit cards, IDs, in your front pocket or any buttoned or zippered pocket. Some people even place a rubber band around their wallet, because the rubber band creates friction and rubs against the fabric of your pocket if someone is attempting to remove it without your knowledge. The best place for keys is on a chain attached to your clothing.
  • Never pat your pocket to see if your wallet is there; this lets a criminal know the exact location of your valuables.
  • Larger-size “pocket secretaries” are particularly inviting to pickpockets, and relatively easy to steal.

Tips for Women

  • Do not carry your wallet in your purse. Conceal it in a buttoned or zippered pocket where it doesn’t show a bulge.
  • Use a purse that is difficult to open. A purse with a zipper or snaps is best.
  • If you are carrying a shoulder bag, place the strap(s) diagonally across your body, as opposed to carrying it on one shoulder. This keeps the purse in front of you, instead of at your side or behind you, which sometimes happens with purses with long straps. If you are carrying a hand bag, then make sure to hold it close to the front of your body, instead of holding it on your wrist or loosely in your hand.
  • Never leave your purse unattended on a store counter or in a grocery shopping cart.

Tips for Travelers

  • Pack a photocopy of your airline tickets, passport, credit cards and any other documents that would be impossible or inconvenient to replace if stolen.
  • Keep a list, separate from your wallet, of contact numbers to report lost credit cards.
  • Don’t wander into risky areas alone or at night, and try to avoid buses that are “standing room only.”
  • It’s always a good idea to carry your valuables in a money belt and leave your expensive jewelry at home.

Cops and Robbers on Google Earth

Google Earth and its Street View feature have plenty of uses. They can be used to find directions, check out a neighbourhood before moving in, or to familiarize yourself with an unfamiliar city prior to arrival.

While most people use Google Earth for completely lawful purposes, there are also those who have found the popular software a handy tool for planning crimes or even just having a grand old time at someone else’s expense:

  • The Austrian Independent reported on July 27 that police in the Salzburg area are looking for thieves who scour the local obituaries, knowing that the deceased’s relatives are unlikely to be home during the funeral. In planning their break-ins, they use Google Earth to scout out the neighbourhood around their targets.
  • In 2009, Humberside police in northeastern England received a rash of complaints that expensive fish were being stolen from well-to-do homes with backyard ponds, Britain’s The Telegraph reported. As many of these ponds were difficult or impossible to spot from more than a few feet away from the property, police believed that the culprits were using Google Earth as a search tool.
  • In 2008, British police warned people with backyard swimming pools to be vigilant after receiving reports that teenagers were using Google Earth and Facebook to organize pool parties — at total strangers’ homes. Web Pro News reported that some homeowners were woken up by complete strangers frolicking in their backyard pools, while others found empty beer cans strewn about when returning home.
  • Fresno, California had a slightly different problem in 2009. Teenagers there were using Google Earth to search for backyard swimming pools, according to a wire report published in an Australian newspaper. But they had no intention of going swimming. Rather, these teenagers were using the empty swimming pools in the yards of foreclosed homes as unofficial skate parks. “We have more pools than we know what to do with,”  one skateboarder said of the foreclosure-plagued Fresno area.
  • In 2010, Britain’s The Telegraph reported that the Church of England had filed 8,000 insurance claims worth £23 million ($36 million Cdn. at current exchange rates) over three years  after a rash of incidents where lead covering was being stolen right off its churches’ roofs. With lead selling for £1,530 per tonne in late 2010, crooks were using Google Earth to scout out lead-roofed churches far and wide.
  • In 2010, U.S. National Public Radio reported that California wineries were being plagued by solar panel thefts. While these panels capture the sun’s rays, it was also thought that their easy visibility on Google Earth made them ready targets for thieves.

But if the bad guys can use Google Earth, so can those responsible for preserving peace and order:

  • In 2009, Swiss police used Google Earth to look up the address of two farmers thought to be involved in the drug trade, The Telegraph reported. Their suspicions turned out to be justified. Police not only found their farm on Google Earth, but also a plot where more than a ton of marijuana was being grown, hidden in a corn field.
  • Greek tax collectors took in an even bigger haul when they started using helicopters and Google Earth to find unreported swimming pools. In Athens’ more affluent suburbs, there were only supposed to be 324 backyard swimming pools according to official records. In fact, this was just a mere two percent of the 16,974 swimming pools they counted from the sky, Germany’s Spiegel Online reported.

Semi-related, for your amusement: The street views Google wasn’t expecting you to see – in pictures

Did Carlton St. shooting prompt Air Canada to remove crews from downtown Winnipeg?

An interesting post from “Longhauler”, seemingly an Air Canada crew member, on the Civil Aviation discussion forum. The shooting he is likely referring to is the Sept. 19th shooting on Carlton Street, about 350 metres from the Radisson Hotel.

Air Canada recently announced that its crews would no longer be staying at the hotel for security reasons.

No this decision came from the Corporate Security department of the airline. This large department is always doing “risk assessment” everywhere Air Canada flies. Not just for aircrew safety when away from base, but also for passengers and aircraft.

 For example, a few years back, there was concern about Tel Aviv. As a result, aircraft and crew were laying over in Cyprus, then shuttling back and forth to pick up and drop off passengers. These types of risk assessments are continually done everywhere worldwide Air Canada flies.

 In the case of Winnipeg, if I understand correctly, the final straw was a murder in the parking lot of the hotel during daylight hours. Combined with continued concern from police reports, the risk was considered too high.

Thus, the decision to pull crews from downtown Winnipeg likely wasn’t driven by the availability of a better deal at the Sandman Hotel or to make some kind of point on the eve of a provincial election — just by the desire to protect the airline from lawsuits and operational problems.

Love or hate Air Canada’s crews and onboard service, you have to at least applaud their safety-first mindset, without which the airline wouldn’t have gone 28 years without a fatal accident. (The most recent fatal accident: the June 2, 1983 DC-9 fire in Cincinnati.)

* – See also Jean Leloup’s thoughtful post on Winnipeg’s pros and cons from a Calgarian’s point of view.

After 45 years, the mystery of Flight 21 still lingers

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”, a pilot’s voice cried out over the radio on the afternoon of Thursday, July 8, 1965.

Far below, a witness watched in horror as the tail of the passenger aircraft separated and the debris — which included tiny, falling dots which the witness learned were passengers sucked out of the decompressing cabin — fell to earth.

From far away, air traffic controllers watched helplessly as the aircraft disappeared from their radar screens.

Evidence would show that someone had set off a bomb in the plane’s rear lavatory.

It was not a crime that happened in a troubled Third World country, nor to an airline associated with a dictatorial regime, nor on a prestigious route on which a bombing would get maximum media attention.

It happened right here in Canada, on a domestic flight from Vancouver to Prince George, B.C.

At 2:42 p.m. on July 8, 1965, Canadian Pacific Air Lines Flight 21, a DC-6B nicknamed Empress of the City of Buenos Airesregistration CF-CUQ –took off from Vancouver International Airport with Capt. John Steele at the controls. Five other crew members and 46 passengers were aboard this flight.

It was supposed to be a routine milk run through a series of isolated northern towns. The first stop would be at Prince George, followed by stops at Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake before concluding the trip at Whitehorse, Yukon.

Nothing seemed amiss for most of the first leg of the journey. The plane followed its flight plan route for about 45 minutes before changing course slightly to minimize turbulence.

At about 3:40 p.m., nearly an hour after taking off from Vancouver, the routine pattern of air traffic control communications was broken by a voice calling out “Mayday!” three times.

At the same time, a witness watched from the ground as the aircraft disintegrated in midair and crashed in a sparsely populated area, inhabited mainly by loggers and ranchers, about 30 kilometres west of 100 Mile House, B.C. There were no survivors.

Two Winnipeg residents were among the victims, listed on the passenger manifest as a Mr. and Mrs. Covello of 866 Borebank St. in River Heights.

Investigators would later find traces of potassium nitrate and carbon — the ingredients of gunpowder and stumping power — in the wreckage in the vicinity of the airplane’s rear lavatory, and tiny bits of shrapnel buried everywhere. Evidence of pre-crash damage to pipes and a bulkhead, and of a hole in the side of the fuselage, left investigators certain that they were dealing with a case of mass murder, not an accident.

Who would do such a thing, and why?

To this day — 45 years later — no one knows for sure.

The investigation would focus on four people.

One was a 40-year-old unemployed man who purchased $125,000 worth of flight insurance ($864,000 in 2010 dollars) less than half an hour before departure, naming his wife, daughter, mother and neice as beneficiaries. He was reportedly on his way to Prince George to go to work at a pulp mill, but when RCMP visited all of the pulp mills in the area, no one knew of the man or of any job offer.

Another was a 54-year-old passenger who had extensive experience working with explosives and who had been charged with a 1958 Vancouver murder. His reason for being on the flight was at least known, however: he was travelling on business using a ticket purchased for him by a construction firm.

A 29-year-old was also on his way north to accept a job offer. The one thing that did stand out to investigators was that he owned a considerable amount of gunpowder, the substance that investigators believe was used to blow up Flight 21. Four 11-ounce tins from his collection couldn’t be accounted for.

Finally, the least likely passenger to come to investigators’ attention was an accountant who had recently been involved in an audit of a failed financial services firm. Rumours circulated that he had been murdered because of potential far-reaching implications of what he knew, but the RCMP later discounted this theory.

In 1965, it would have been easy to bring weapons and explosives on to a passenger airliner. Security checkpoints weren’t established in the nation’s airports until the early ’70s, when a rash of hijackings finally forced change on the industry.

At the time, passengers simply checked in, walked to the gate and boarded the flight uninspected. Anything that could be brought on board a transit bus could be just as easily brought aboard an airliner. Airports had a less visible security presence than a modern-day shopping centre. The perception that flying was only for the well-to-do reinforced the feeling of complacency.

Forty-five years later, the case remains not only unsolved, but also largely forgotten. The only Canadian-linked aviation bombings that most Canadians have ever heard of were the two bombings believed to have been carried out by Sikh extremists in 1985, of an Air India 747 en route from Canada to India via the U.K. and, on the same day, of a baggage handling area at Tokyo’s Narita Airport by a bomb hidden in a suitcase that had just been taken off a CP Air flight. The bag in question was supposed to be transfered to another Air India flight.

Few have ever heard of Canadian Pacific Flight 21, or of a Canadian Pacific C-47 which was bombed out of the skies over Quebec in 1949 by a man who wanted to kill his wife so that he could collect the insurance money and marry his mistress.

The wreckage of Flight 21 still sits in the B.C. woods, a little over a kilometre east of what appears to be an isolated logging road. One man who hadn’t forgotten ventured out to the site some time back, where he found momentos left at the site by family members, who also haven’t forgotten.

Pictures from his expedition can be found on Flickr.

After so many years, perhaps it is time — if DNA testing will permit — to finally resolve who brought down Flight 21.

Additional Sources:

Edmonton Journal, July 8, 1995

Reading Eagle, July 12, 1965

Ellensburg Daily Record, July 9, 1965

Winnipeg’s unsolved mysteries

If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, there’s a good chance that you will remember “Unsolved Mysteries”.

During its long run (1987-97 on NBC, resurfacing later on CBS and various cable networks), host Robert Stack would narrate a re-enactment of various unsolved mysteries, based on requests from viewers and police departments. Some of these were from cold-case homicide files. Others involved individuals who seemed to vanish from the face of the earth, people with what appeared to be psychic abilities, or more touching stories about lost loves, or parents looking for the children they put up for adoption decades earlier.

However, you don’t have to look far to find unsolved mysteries. Winnipeg has its own cold case files, some of which can be read about online. These include:

  • In the early morning hours of June 7, 1976, residents of an apartment block at 1080 Moncton Ave., not far from what is now Kildonan Crossing, were awaken by the sound of a woman screaming from the parking lot, followed by the sound of a car speeding away. When they investigated, they found 22-year-old Johanne Supleve suffering from stab wounds and a broken leg. Thirty-three years later, who killed her and why remains a mystery. The one clue police have: the killer might have been driving a blue, 1968-70 sloped-back car, possibly a Camaro.
  • On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 1996, local computer programmer Norman Krolman was seen withdrawing money from an ATM. No one has seen him since. A search of his apartment showed nothing amiss, and there was nothing to suggest that he disappeared to start a new life somewhere else.
  • On the afternoon of Oct. 28, 1983, the owner of a St. Vital daycare went to the apartment block at 21 Clayton Drive to check on the well-being of an employee, Margaret Greaves, who, uncharacteristically, had not shown up for work that day and had not called in sick. On arrival, she finds the young woman beaten and strangled to death. At the scene, police find signs that she was sleeping on her sofa when she was awoken by an intruder or someone banging on her door. When questioned, neighbours report having been woken up at about 4:30 a.m. that morning by a young man, possibly named Mark Smith, banging on their doors looking for a woman he just dropped off. Who was the young man? Who was the young woman he dropped off? And do they have any connection to the daycare worker found dead 12 hours later?
  • On the evening of Aug. 28, 1992, 35-year-old Janice Howe left her parents’ Fort Garry home driving her father’s car, intending to return. That was the last anyone saw of her. However, ten and a half hours after she was last seen, the Ontario Provincial Police found the car abandoned on the side of the road, more than 200 kilometres east of Winnipeg. What happened in the hours, and the 550 kilometres driven in total, in between?
  • On Nov. 15, 1979, real estate agent Irene Pearson went missing from a show home on Kinver Ave. in The Maples, leaving her purse and other personal belonging behind in the unlocked house. The next morning, a maintenance worker arrived at a vacant home nearby, at 114 Kinver, and found a gruesome murder scene in the basement. Who lured Pearson there — an intruder, or possibly someone she knew? The clues might be found in a series of indecent phone calls that the agent received — possibly from a man named “Carl” — in the preceding months, some of which were tape-recorded.

Each of these cases happened recently enough that there is a good chance that a perpetrator might still be alive.

However, all but one took place before the Internet came into common use. Perhaps someone out there in the community knows something they’ve kept secret all these years, but might feel safe enough disclosing from the anonymity of a computer at a public library or Internet cafe?

You can find these and other local “unsolved mysteries” at:

Web site allows citizens to hear about local crime, emergencies as they happen

This blog typically gets about 15 hits per day. So, when I recently wrote a post about crime — and then saw this blog get 49 hits on May 18 — I figured it was a sure sign that crime gets peoples’ attention.

There’s a web site that has a small but dedicated following, who’ve even set up their own Facebook group. It’s the Live Online Winnipeg Police Service Scanner — a live audio feed of what’s happening on police radio frequencies — which you can access by clicking the link.

You do have to register and follow the rules. But once you’re registered and tuned in, you can listen to all the action around town while reading a book or doing chores around the house. Sometimes you’ll even hear tomorrow’s big news story as it happens.

A closer look at crime statistics

I woke up this morning to a report on CJOB’s 8 a.m. newscast that shootings were up a dramatic 100 percent in Winnipeg, according to statistics released by the Winnipeg Police Service.

First, it wasn’t clear in what period of time this 100-percent increase took place over. And then, when they played a politician’s comments — those of senior Manitoba cabinet minister Vic Toews — I thought that I had better check this out.

So, I logged on to CrimeStat, the city’s crime information portal on the Internet, and looked at their figures.

Surprisingly, for the period Jan. 1, 2009 to May 16, 2009, CrimeStat showed shootings being down 25 percent from the same period in 2008. There were 28 shootings in the city between Jan. 1, 2008 and May 16, 2008. Between Jan. 1, 2009 and May 16, 2009, there were 21 shootings. These largely took place in the West End and North End, with outlying incidents reported in St. James, East Kildonan and Garden City.

When you’re dealing with such small numbers, it’s hard to say if this 25 percent decline represents a real improvement or is just based on pure chance.

While I had the stats there in front of me, I did a few calculations of my own to put things into perspective.

As the following table shows, shootings and homicides continue to be low-incidence crimes in Winnipeg. In the first four and a half months of 2009, there were 1.3 reported homicides per 100,000 people and 3.3 reported shootings  per 100,000 people.

Latest crime figures from CrimeStat. The calculations on the right are my own.Latest crime figures from CrimeStat. The calculations on the right are my own.

Winnipeggers are far more likely to be affected by residential break-ins (157.2 per 100,000) and attempted or actual motor vehicle thefts (141.9 and 126.8 per 100,000 respectively).

In terms of in-your-face crime, there were 81.5 non-commercial robberies per 100,000 people in the first four and a half months of the year. These were clustered mainly in the Downtown, West End and North End areas, with smaller clusters visible in the Elmwood, Polo Park and Osborne Village areas.  Commercial robberies were a bit less common (24.3 per 100,000), and were more widely dispersed aside from some clusters found in the West End, North End and St. Vital.

And among the quietest areas of the city in the first four and a half months of 2009 — the areas where CrimeStat shows no violent crimes (and some of these might surprise you):

  • The core of Wolseley, bounded by Walnut, Preston, Ruby and Wolseley.
  • Part of Minto between Ellice, Portage, Wall and Strathcona.
  • Substantial parts of St. James-Assiniboia well away from Portage, Ness and Cavalier. (The crime seems to follow the thoroughfares to some degree.)
  • A good part of The Maples, especially once you get west of Mandalay and north of Jefferson.
  • Most of East Kildonan and North Kildonan west of Henderson, as well as an area bounded by the city limits, Rothesay, Springfield and Gateway.
  • Newer areas of Transcona, east of Redonda, as well as sparsely populated South Transcona
  • Much of the area east of the Seine and south of Fermor, aside from an incident near Fermor and Lakewood. The stretch running from Novavista to the Perimeter and from Dakota to St. Anne’s was quiet as well, as was the River Road area.
  • Linden Woods, Whyte Ridge, Bridgwater Forest and Waverley Heights
  • River Heights between Corydon, Taylor, Waverley and the tracks just east of Kenaston; and the area south of Corydon and north of Grant, between Waverley and Pembina.
  • Tuxedo