Picking up the pieces of Yukon’s great silver heist of 1963

A rock fell on the moon. That's how Gerald H. Priest explained away the 70 tonnes of silver ore that he was accused of stealing from United Keno Hill Mines in 1963.

A rock fell on the moon. That’s how Gerald H. Priest explained away the 70 tonnes of silver ore that he was accused of stealing from United Keno Hill Mines in 1963.

Gerry worked as the mine’s chief assayer at the time, and lived with his young family in the nearby company town of Elsa.

In Gerry’s telling, he had hand-picked the ore from the nearby Moon claims, which he had bought the year before.

But the rich ore matched nothing in the immediate area where Gerry claimed to have found it. Those high concentrations of silver match much more closely with finds from the mine’s Bonanza Stope, where ore measured on average 1,500 ounces of silver per tonne.

A very large boulder of rich ore could have, in the distant past, rolled down the mountain and landed on the Moon claims, resting there as surface ore, or “float,” reasoned Gerry.

It seemed as implausible an explanation to some, familiar with the area, than if he had claimed to have found the ore on the moon itself.

But Gerry’s confident and self-assured nature left the FBI agent who interviewed him in Montana with the impression that he was a man with nothing to hide.

And the Whitehorse jury who first heard Gerry’s case was left deciphering conflicting expert testimony about whether or not that rock could have landed on the Moon.

One geologist gave three theories on how that ore could have ended up where Gerry said he found it. It left the court with the impression that “in geology, anything is possible,” according to one of the investigators.

The longest, most expensive and most complex trial to that point in Yukon history ended with a hung jury, although Gerry went on to be convicted of the crime in a second trial, and ultimately did time in one of B.C.‘s roughest penitentiaries.

The story of Yukon’s great silver heist of 1963 had previously been recorded only in scattered accounts in a handful of history books, and in piecemeal records mostly lost to the basements of RCMP and courtroom storage rooms.

Now Alicia Priest, who knew Gerry as “Pappy,” ties the threads together in her newly-released book, A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist.

The book is partly a memoir of an idyllic Yukon childhood in the bygone era of the mining town, ripped apart at the seams by a father’s dreams of fortune.

It is also a true-crime story, telling a piece of Yukon history that could have been slowly lost along with the memories of those who lived through it.

Finally, it is an account of Alicia’s effort to piece together her own history, visit the places of her childhood and learn something of the man her endlessly adored father had been.

Alicia’s effort to tell her family’s story was indeed extraordinary. She was diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal neurological disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in 2012 and only starting writing the book after that.

“That’s when I received the ultimate deadline,” she says in the press kit for the book.

“If I was going to write the book, I had to start there and then while I could still talk, type, eat and walk somewhat normally.”

She finished the manuscript late last year.

“It was a long time coming, because it was becoming harder for her to write,” says her husband, Ben Parfitt, who is also a journalist.

“She has a lot more determination than I gave her credit for. I really felt at times that it was going to be too much for her to do what she did.

“I’m thrilled and she is thrilled beyond words that she was able to finish the manuscript.”

Ben and Alicia will be in Whitehorse next week to officially launch the book.

Alicia has been back to the Yukon a couple of times, and Ben has visited, too, but they have never come together. They plan to visit Atlin, B.C., for a night, if weather permits, a spot they both know and love.

“It’s a special trip for us,” says Ben.

What really happened on those evenings when Gerry Priest left the comforts of home and family and disappeared into the dark, frigid Elsa night?

Sometime in July 1961, two underground miners start to work under cover of night to squirrel away portions of the richest vein of silver ore in the mine’s history in abandoned tunnels.

In August one of them, nicknamed “Poncho,” is hired in the assay office where Gerry is boss.

In March, the mine announces that a previously deactivated section of the mine will be recommissioned. That’s when Gerry’s nighttime disappearances begin.

Later that year, he buys the remote Moon claims, and registers a company in his name.

And on June 21, 1963, three truckloads loaded with ore head out from Keno destined for a smelter in Montana.

The shipment may have escaped undetected if one of the driver’s had not gotten turned around and stopped for directions at the Elsa Cookhouse. It was spotted there by the mine’s general manager, who ordered samples of ore stolen from the truck.

Gerry admitted his role in the heist to his wife and later to Alicia’s sister, Vona, but never to Alicia.

“For years, I didn’t know the full story,” writes Alicia in the press kit.

“I believed he was innocent and wrongly convicted, and his subsequent humiliation was just too much to bear.”

In the book Alicia paints the portrait of a man so stuck in his stubborn pride that he can barely admit to himself his own lies.

Guilt and incarceration brought out her father’s worst traits, Alicia writes. “Bitter, cynical and emotionally twisted in some weird way.”

The family fell apart for good in 1969, and for more than two decades of her adult life Alicia was mostly estranged from her father, although she says she never stopped loving him.

He died at a nursing home in 2006, “toothless, penniless, diapered and demented,” the day after Alicia saw him for the last time.

She vowed then to “some day soon” delve into the true story, she writes.

“He broke our hearts. It took me decades to get over it”

But left among the wreckage Alicia found a story worth telling.

She hopes above all that readers find the book to be a pleasurable read, she writes.

“Also, I hope readers gain a glimpse of a lost world, an overlooked snippet of Canadian history, and perhaps a wee lesson about taking care who you marry.”

The launch for A Rock Fell on the Moon will take place Wednesday, October 8 at 6 p.m. at Baked Cafe in Whitehorse.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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