Gerald H. Priest: His Life and Crime Against a ‘Company of Fools’

by Jane Gaffin

An ingeniously-plotted high-grade silver ore heist in the Yukon Territory has intrigued mining people, crime aficionados, lawyers, investigators, writers and others since a lengthy 1963 trial was staged in that northern, backwater, federally-controlled jurisdiction that most Canadians still can’t find on a map — a place the author of A Rock Fell on the Moon assesses as having milked the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush history “like a menopausal cow”.

It was a masterfully-crafted madcap scheme against what was once one of the richest silver camps in the world. The architects were two highly-intelligent co-conspirators who proved, however, there is honour among thieves.

Gerald Henry Priest, along with Anthony “Poncho” Bobcik, a big, jovial Czech, refused to tattle on a third party, a mine captain, believed instrumental in pulling off the ruse but his deeds went unproven.

Adding to the further frustration of baffled police investigators, United Keno Hill Mines (UKHM) workers remained mum on all counts, too. In solidarity, they refused to squeal on one of their own.

The 671 twill sacks full of high-grade ore were supposedly hand-mined legally by the two men from their Moon mineral claims and salted with a few allowable precipitates rejected from the mill.

If, on the other hand, the pair actually committed criminal sin, then the workers’ admiration escalated a thousandfold in a “good for them” attitude.

A large percentage of workers held a direct contempt for the mining company and maybe an indirect disdain for the Toronto-based, multi-national parent corporation, Falconbridge Nickel Ltd.

Much of this scorn would not have metastasized into such hostility except for the dictatorial UKHM general manager whose ghastly managerial practices were unprecedented. He didn’t seem to like the company he managed and definitely wasn’t a people-person. Maybe, as an inept manger, he should have been held indirectly responsible for causing the ruckus and did eventually receive his comeuppance in something akin to a storybook theme of “good trumps evil”.

Until Harbour Publishing released daughter Alicia Priest’s book A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist (peek inside at Kindle’s sample chapters) on the 2014 Christmas list, nobody except family members and maybe a few close friends had an insight into what made Gerald Henry Priest tick.

Some people viewed United Keno Hill Mines’ chief assayer as a friend; others saw him as moody and mercurial; Judge John Parker, responsible for sentencing, noted Priest to be “a strange bird” and condemned him for harbouring a grudge against society.

None got it quite right.

Priest had it all. Yet like Robert Service’s poem The Men Who Don’t Fit In”, which suits Priest to a T, he sadly wouldn’t admit his mistakes until he was robbed by that sneaky devil called time. His self-analysis came too late to pick up the fractured pieces and make amends.

He was a clever man. He had a flair for writing, could remember lyrics to tunes, accompanying himself on a guitar, and recite Robert Service poems by heart, the reason the author has opened each of 20 chapters plus the epilogue with appropriate lines lifted from a variety of the bard’s verses.

He was a great storyteller, spinning wild fables into plausible tales that turned skeptics into believers. He and his geologist cronies convinced a court in Round One that “in geology, anything is possible”.

How could six jurors, who wouldn’t have known a sulphide from the city limits, counter the experts? Maybe a rock really did fall on his Moon mining claims millions of years ago, and Priest simply took advantage of mining Mother Nature’s gift.

As the story unfolds, the reader constantly vacillates between his guilt or innocence.

Priest and his family lived in a company-owned Panabode house, reserved for Elsa’s upper echelon. Inside, the comfortable, cozy, varnished, log-style home was rich with music, books, a cat and much-loved Belgian shepherd, Caesar.

His home was his castle where he didn’t have to exert effort to boil a kettle or wash a sock. He had a well-paying job; a beautiful, affectionate wife; and two daughters, Vona and Alicia, born 360 days apart, who revered him as only little girls can.

Or, as the author inquires, did he perhaps see things differently? “Four female dependents, an ailing wife [heart problems] who couldn’t give him the son he deserved; a religiously fanatical mother-in-law, a tedious dead-end job for a company of fools and two daughters who revered him as only little girls can?”

Most people would want to keep their family skeletons stuffed permanently inside a locked closet, not to be whispered about ever. This memoir cum thriller doesn’t masquerade the warts and blemishes but uninhibitedly rattles the bones in an effort to dig out the truth.

It was way past time for half-truths and speculations written by others to be set aside and for the author to tackle the prickly job of fully disclosing her father’s good points, which is why she loved him, as well as his misdeeds, for which she couldn’t forgive him.

His frank, candid, resilient, loving daughter, Alicia, was the only person who could pull off the thorny assignment properly, coupled with invaluable assistance from her own “rock”, husband Ben Parfitt, a writer in his own rights.

As though Papa’s story doesn’t provide enough surprises when turning every corner, the reader is bolted over with an unexpected double dose of intense family history from the maternal side of the equation.

As a girl, Maria, or Omi as her loving granddaughters addressed her, had fallen from riches to rags, having begun life in a wealthy, Russian land-owning family who lost everything, including themselves, to revolution and anarchy.

With her birth family and her only living son, Peter, imprisoned somewhere in the Gulag, she suffered a lifelong survivor complex. While guilt was somewhat assuaged by strong Mennonite convictions, in her mind she was a sinner. “In the terror time, I did what I did to stay alive,” she was quoted as saying.

God only knows what sins she committed to survive and it’s best not to probe. Many Ukrainians refrained from discussing this awful past, although some did loosen their aging tongues so the next generation would have an inkling about Holodomor.

Josef Stalin’s man-made famine exterminated unknown millions through deliberate starvation in the 1930s. When the Soviet’s army confiscated the crops, not leaving a grain, much less a percentage of the harvest for the villagers’ winter food supply, residents resorted to eating cats, dogs, exhumed horses, leaves from trees, then each other.

Survivors were fortunate if they came through the terror with their memories blocked and sanity in tact.

An excerpt from a eulogy Alicia wrote in the Globe and Mail when her mother, who survived two husbands, died in 2011 hints at Helen’s tough-fiber: “If life is an obstacle course, Helen Young was a gazelle. Spirited, elegant and beautiful, she had a fragility and charm that masked her determination to clear one hurdle after another.”

Lolya, or Helen, was born November 24, 1924, in what was at the time southern Russia and is now the Ukraine. She was the second child and only daughter of Maria Reger and Abraham Friesen. Her younger brother Alexander died of diphtheria at 18 months.

Her family moved away from their large extended Mennonite clan in the Ukraine to Ebental, a small village in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. As a Mennonite, her mother tongue and heritage were German, the enemy of Stalin’s USSR, where their religious freedom was no longer tolerated.

In 1930, Helen’s mother, Maria, learned that her parents, sisters and brothers had been loaded in cattle cars and shipped to Siberia, two children dying along the way. The Soviet regime became their immediate enemy. Under a psychopathic Stalin, the Caucasus region was no safer than the Ukraine had been.

Three years later, Helen’s father collapsed and died at age 35, having learned his name was on Stalin’s personal list of who would live or die after rounded up and brought before his secret police for interrogation.

Within two years, Helen’s mother married another Mennonite, Heinrich Werle, a university-trained agronomist responsible for ensuring the late August harvest of the area’s wheat crop. The “progressive” state forbade the use of horses which were “replaced” with non-existent combines.

Caught in a life-and-death conundrum, Werle ordered farmers to hitch up the horses and bring in the harvest. The act was truly part of the Harvest of Sorrow. The crop secured, Werle was banished to a northeastern hard labour camp.

In 1940, Helen, of high school age, and her mother, Maria, moved to still a larger town, Stepnoye.

Helen’s older brother Peter, now 17, had stayed behind in Ebental to care for the family’s small house and few animals. The following year, he too was arrested and instantly disappeared to the Gulag, along with other relatives who were assumed to have all perished in that inhumane, Stalin-devised hellhole.

In 1941, the Nazis marched into the Caucasus. Due to their common language and common hatred, Maria saw them as liberators. When the Russian army launched its massive counter offensives in the winter of 1943-44, Helen and Maria were forced to escape by foot, horse-drawn cart and cattle car along with the Germans.

Nineteen-year-old Helen and her mother arrived in German-occupied Poland, ultimately making their way to Germany where they were greeted with mass terror as buildings were reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. Helen secured a respected job as a Russian-German translator for Kommission 28, a division of the German Reich.

In the fall of 1948, a Canadian Mennonite family put up $500 to sponsor the hard-working mother-daughter duo to resettle in Matsqui, British Columbia, where Abraham and Helene Rempel, who remained life-long friends, gave them a home and a community. After paying off their ship and train fares labouring in the fields, they were free to venture out on their own.

After crossing two continents and the Atlantic Ocean, Helen felt rejuvenated. What better way to cement her new self to her new nation where she finally felt safe than to marry a real Canadian?

Before marrying Gerald Priest, she had turned down a United Nations collection of suitors: a Russian, Pole, Italian, three Germans and an American as well as a dedicated Mennonite whose plans to work overseas as a missionary was not for her.

Neither was the Yukon’s jerkwater mining town of Elsa, where she sparkled like a jewel in a junkheap. “A cardinal in a town of sparrows”, as the author describes her exotic mother who loved the city life that suffocated her bush-minded husband.

She stitched her own chic wardrobe with help from a nimble-fingered mother and dressed the two girls in matching ensembles. She never owned a pair of jeans in this mining town of boardwalks, bladed lanes and unpaved roads, covered in either snow, ice, mud, dust, dirt or gravel, depending on the season.

I didn’t want A Rock Fell on the Moon to end. The writing style is crisp, fast-flowing and humourous, the sentences often loaded with fresh, witty similes and metaphors.

With pages nearly exhausted, I didn’t believe space remained to run headlong into any more jolting surprises around the next corner. While only a fool tries to out-judge a judge, the reader should never try to outguess how Alicia Priest would choose to present her true “whodunit”.

At this point, Gerald Priest didn’t have two plugged silver pesos to jangle together in his jean pocket. But he had chutzpah.

His blood boiled every time he thought about American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) in Helena, Montana, smelting his shipment of ore and sending the fat cheque for $125,322.17 to United Keno Hill Mines before the courts had determined who owned the ore and where the ore had originated.

This irrepressible guy took another jab at justice. His family, unravelling at the seams, was oblivious to his international escapades in which he convinced his new Stateside lawyer to take his civil case on contingency.

Priest provided a plausible explanation to Nelson Christensen, a young lawyer working for a large, prestigious Seattle firm. He had delivered a shipment of raw ore to ASARCO in June, 1963, he explained, then two years later he had been convicted of theft. Since the worth of the ore skyrocketed in Priest’s mind with each retelling, he pegged the value of ore this time at $200,000.

Long before he had been found guilty, he said, the smelter processed the disputed ore and cut UKHM a big cheque. “That’s violation of the contract I had with ASARCO, isn’t it?” Priest asked of Christensen.

“It was an audacious gambit but one that Dad’s new lawyer in Seattle felt was worth pursuing,” writes the author.

In 1967, notice was served on ASARCO that Gerald H. Priest was suing the smelter for breach of contract. Seattle lawyer Christensen argued that the smelter had breached the terms of the contract prior to Priest’s criminal conviction by smelting the ore before Canadian courts issued any ruling.

The filing of the claim against ASARCO set off a nuclear explosion at UKHM. Before ASARCO had paid UKHM, the smelter had required the company to agree that if Priest and/or his partner, Anthony Bobcik, or Bobcik’s company, Alpine Gold and Silver, or anybody else came out of the woodwork to recover funds from the smelter, UKHM would have to reimburse the smelter.

That problem was between the mining company and the smelter and had nothing to do with Priest, who sat back smirking. Revenge is sweet, even when served up cold.

If Priest earned nothing else from his current gamble for a cash settlement, he at least had the satisfaction of watching the Big Boys squirming.

This surprise aftermath that the author unloads at the eleventh hour is a long-obscured segment in the saga of the Moon claims. And, despite what Priest did, the reader wants to applaud this scenario that holds a bit of ironic twist against the Goliathan companies UKHM, ASARCO as well as the judiciary in Canada, who, as political bedfellows, had been beating up on a poor little David.

In fact, earlier in chronological events, the Yukon judiciary’s face turned red with rage — or more to the point, Judge Parker’s — due to a couple of other overlooked glitches: “It’s not what you know, but who you know” that counts and “Never underestimate the power of a woman” who just might be working on the “outside” in favour of securing the release of her husband who’s been helplessly incarcerated like a fly in a jar on the “inside”.

The author’s interesting website can be visited at www.aliciapriest.com where more can be learned about this courageous woman’s date with her “ultimate deadline”, ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

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