Gerry, right, and friend George Esterer at Wernecke Camp.
This story originally ran in the Winter 2014 (V8I4) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
"He was our father and could do no wrong,” writes Alicia Priest.
It was 1963. At the tender age of 10, she wanted to believe her father, Gerald, was an innocent, misunderstood man, but shortly after her family moved from the Yukon to East Vancouver, she knew something was wrong.
"... IT HAD BEEN SWEPT UNDER THE RUG EVEN THOUGH IT WAS AN IMPORTANT PART OF YUKON HISTORY."
“I didn’t understand what was really happening, but disruption, misery, shame, and constant worry now ruled our formally blissful lives.”
Alicia was born in Mayo, in 1953, and grew up in Elsa, a remote community roughly 700 kilometres north of Whitehorse. During the 1950s and ’60s, Elsa was home to one of the most lucrative silver-mining operations in the world. United Keno Hill Mines was the region’s heavy hitter and the company Gerald “Gerry” H. Priest worked for as chief assayer during the boom.
The Priest family lived a comfortable life. However, that comfort grew cold when the RCMP arrested Gerry in August 1963 on charges of stealing over $160,000 worth of silver ore.
That November, Gerry returned to Mayo for the most expensive preliminary hearing in Yukon history. The first trial began in Whitehorse, in 1964. Lasting more than five weeks, it was the longest proceeding in the territory at the time, ending with a hung jury.
During the second Whitehorse trial, in 1965, Gerry was found guilty of possessing stolen silver ore and silver-ore concentrates and of conspiracy to sell stolen goods. He began his four-year imprisonment at the notorious Oakalla penitentiary, in Burnaby, B.C., and later transferred to Agassiz minimum-security prison, in 1966.
“His crime haunted me for a number of years, and there is no better way to expunge ghosts than to expose them. I had many questions about how he and his accomplices exactly carried the feat out, and I hoped the answers were somewhere,” Alicia explains. “As well, while the case was infamous at the time, it had been swept under the rug even though it was an important part of Yukon history.”
The crime led Alicia back to the territory, in 2011. While she’d returned before—once with her sister to scatter their father’s ashes from the top of Galena Hill, just above the abandoned Elsa townsite—this time she came to gather material for a book.
This fall, Alicia released A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist through Harbour Publishing. The Victoria-based journalist was prepared to dive into the story, even if it was a hard one to tell.
“They say ‘write about what you know’ and a memoir is the epitome of that. It takes a delicate touch, though, to tiptoe the line between truth and invasion of privacy,” Alicia relates. “It’s much more than a memoir—it is also documented history and a true crime story.”
While her father said a lot about the ore, he never admitted guilt to Alicia. Instead, Gerry often fed her one fantastical tale after another.
“The ore came from a massive boulder that rolled down Keno Hill and onto his Moon claims, or a couple of sleigh loads of rich ore had tumbled down the hill from the Wernecke days in the early 1930s and had just been abandoned,” she recounts. “He claimed it was his taking of precipitates that really stuck in the company’s craw.”
Consulting news stories, letters, RCMP files, court documents, and a variety of people involved in the case, Alicia began uncovering what happened all those years ago. She even visited her father’s Moon mineral claims, where he said the ore came from.
“There’s good reason to believe that with the right lawyer my dad would never have been convicted if the trials were held now,” she says. “Although, I am absolutely convinced, having spent the time I did researching the story, that my dad was the mastermind behind the historic theft and that he came so close to getting away with it.”
Besides the haunting tale of theft, Alicia was motivated to write about what happened on an intensely personal level after she was diagnosed with ALS.
“It spurred me to write the story. It was the ultimate deadline,” she says. “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.”
Prior to Gerry’s conviction, life was good in Elsa. Alicia remembers the freedom of a carefree childhood and the magical beauty of nature, especially the winter nights lit by northern lights. “They don’t make towns like that anymore,” she reminisces in the book.
And while at its core A Rock Fell on the Moon delves into her father’s crime, it’s also meant to be a tribute to the Elsa of that era. As Alicia says, “A way of life long gone but unique and meaningful to many.”
A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist by Alicia Priest is available through Harbour Publishing. Y
EXCERPT FROM A ROCK FELL ON THE MOON
Dad was transferred to the minimum-security prison in Agassiz, where we visited him one memorable day—Saturday, October 22, 1966.
We packed a special lunch with his favourite foods, such as cold chicken, potato salad and pickles. Mom still couldn’t drive so Grandpa drove us out in his true red 1963 Ford Comet with a “three in the tree” gearshift. We motored through a valley so green and wet it courted neon. I recall the day so sharply because it is the first time we saw Dad in more than six months. I sat back balancing a coco-creamfilled chocolate cake on my lap as a fine mist soaked the world—we passed flooded fields, cows shivering under trees and a few shuttered houses rimmed by rusting hulks of trashed metal. This was the same broad valley Mom and Omi emigrated to from Russia via postwar Germany some seventeen years earlier.
We arrived at a high, wire-fenced, flat-roofed concrete building and were ushered into a large, overheated room with benches and plywood tables crowded with other prisoners and their visitors. Omi and Grandpa stayed in the car. There was Dad. His face surrendered into Mom’s shoulder for what seemed like forever and then he pulled back and hurriedly hugged and kissed us. But before we unpacked the feast, he recovered and began joking, ridiculing boyfriends we didn’t have, daring us to get straight As, reciting "The Cremation of Sam McGee" or stanza after stanza of "The Highwayman": “The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.” He was so clever, so witty—no matter what, we adored him.
After the meal, which he picked at, he rolled a cigarette and then brought out a surprise: three pieces of jewelry he had created in the prison workshop. My sister got a bracelet with glinting blue and green gems. I received a sparkly guitar-shaped brooch. Mom’s gift was the prettiest: a multi-spiked chrysanthemum ornament festooned with amber stones. We were agog. Not only was Dad a superior craftsman, but also he had access to jewels—in jail. The only explanation that made any sense was that he was treated special because people at the top knew he was innocent.