When restaurant Riviera moved into the building on Sparks Street that used to house a branch of the Imperial Bank of Canada, staff were aware that location had once been the scene of a high-profile bank robbery in the late 1950s.
But little did they know they’d get to meet the man who committed the crime: Boyne Lester Johnston.
“You see guys like this in movies,” said Alex McMahon, Riviera’s wine director, who met Johnston at the popular downtown eatery on Friday, Aug. 10. “He fits the archetype of that old bank robber to an absolute T.”
One Friday in October 1958, Johnston – then the branch’s chief teller – took about $260,000 from his safe inside the bank’s vault. The 25-year-old reportedly slipped the bag of money out the back door, skipped town and crossed the border into the U.S.
Johnston, a native of Renfrew, Ont., then spent a wild 17 days hopping across several states, evading police and dropping some of the stolen cash on sports cars, expensive booze and nightclub extravaganzas.
“Neat dresser, night club habitué, a champagne drinker, enjoys female companionship,” a wanted poster at the time described Johnston. It also offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who provided information leading to his arrest.
Johnston’s escapade was cut short in November at a nightclub in Denver, Colo., where police nabbed him after being tipped off by a waitress. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison – two of them spent in Kingston Penitentiary.
Just shy of 60 years later, the notorious, champagne-sipping robber walked back through the doors of 62 Sparks Street – this time, for lunch-time drinks with a group of friends and his grandson, McMahon said in an interview Friday.
A reservation note gave the restaurant a heads up that Johnston would be visiting.
When the group arrived last week, McMahon said staff first gave them space to enjoy their food and drinks – a champagne cocktail featured that day. As they finished up, they approached Johnston, now 85, and offered him a tour, which he “jumped on.”
But the Riviera employees hardly did any of the talking, McMahon said.
The walkabout ended in the restaurant’s wine cellar in the basement, which used to be the bank’s vault (and still features the original vault door). There, McMahon said they popped a bottle of Lelarge-Pugeot champagne and Johnston continued to tell stories “for the better part of an hour.”
Riviera later posted on social media a picture of Johnston smiling and holding his glass of champagne in the cellar.
The sommelier said he was particularly struck by Johnston’s charisma, “huge personality” and “incredible” storytelling.
“At one point, he was a bank robber so you don’t want to glorify it too much, but it’s really hard not to because he was incredibly charming,” McMahon said. “The whole time, I just kept thinking, ‘I’m so lucky I get to hear all this firsthand.'”
McMahon said he asked Johnston if it had been worth stealing all that money, worth roughly $2.3 million today, and going to jail for it. Johnston told him “yes” but only because his time in prison taught him the “value of freedom” – being able to eat when you want, walk where you want and spend time with friends and family.
McMahon asked Johnston to sign the wall of the cellar before leaving. The former bank robber obliged, signing his name, the date that Friday afternoon and his prisoner number from the Kingston jail.
After he retired, Johnston moved back to Renfrew – about an hour’s drive from downtown Ottawa. Asked whether the one-time lawbreaker indicated if he would return to Riviera in the future, McMahon said he got the impression Johnston wanted to leave it at that.
“He raised a glass at one point … and he said, ‘I haven’t felt a high like this since I made away with the money,'” McMahon repeated. “And I said, ‘You know, you’re welcome back anytime.’ And he replied: ‘I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to top this time.'”
McMahon said he agrees.
“It would be really cool to see him again but it would be pretty hard to top,” he said.
“In a way, I think we kind of went out on a high note.”