Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The making of the Yuletide Bandit

How he went from nervous thief to city's most-feared armed robber

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Michael Syrnyk began his life as a holdup man wearing a woman's wig, racing from a bank, scared and empty-handed. Eight years later, he was notorious as Winnipeg's Yuletide Bandit who wouldn't hesitate to shoot it out with armoured truck guards and police.

Yesterday, Syrnyk pleaded guilty to 35 charges. His sentencing hearing continues today and will include a letter from Syrnyk, obtained by the Free Press, in which he says: "I know people hate me and it's justified."

Here is the story of a bandit who seemed uncatchable. It comes from police investigations, which included extensive interviews with Syrnyk.

*     *     *

It was Aug. 20, 1994, and a hot summer was drawing to a close.

Michael Syrnyk, a fresh-faced 25-year-old from St. James with no criminal record, was looking for trouble.

Under the cover of darkness, Syrnyk went to the S.I.R. Warehouse on Ellice Avenue armed with a drill and a saw.

He left minutes later, carrying $12,000 worth of stolen goods, including 14 handguns, three shotguns, a rifle, night vision scopes and binoculars.

With a shrill alarm blaring in the background, Syrnyk dashed off into the night to celebrate.

Police arrived to find a drilled keyhole, a sliced deadbolt and plenty of empty shelves. And no suspect in sight.

Police were concerned about the number of weapons stolen and feared this was no routine break-and-enter.

They would spend the next eight years learning how right they were.

*     *     *

A year had passed since the weapons haul, and Michael Syrnyk was ready to make a frightening public debut.

Wearing a woman's auburn wig, a fake moustache and dark sunglasses, a nervous Syrnyk walked into the Bank of Montreal on Marion Street looking to make easy money.

It wasn't so easy. Syrnyk grew uneasy as several tellers and customers began staring. He quickly turned around and fled, looking constantly over his shoulder.

"I guess I realized people behind the counter knew it was gonna happen so I just left," Syrnyk recalled earlier this year to police about his first failed attempt at armed robbery.

Syrnyk didn't have to wait long for success. Only a few hours later, he walked into the Assiniboine Credit Union on St. Mary's Road wearing the same silly disguise.

Only this time, he told a teller he wanted $4,000 cash. He claimed he would make a "heck of a mess" if they didn't comply. Seconds later, he dashed out of the bank carrying $2,847, which had been placed in a brown envelope.

Although he was carrying a blank starter's pistol in his pocket, Syrnyk never produced the weapon.

His plan worked perfectly -- from the police scanner hooked to an earpiece to detect when the 911 call came in, to the stolen getaway cars he'd laid out ahead of time.

Syrnyk had got many of his ideas from reading books and watching true-crime television shows, court was told.

*     *     *

Weeks later, Syrnyk decided to send a message to authority.

Armed with one of his stolen 12-gauge shotguns, Syrnyk saw the perfect opportunity when a police cruiser car was parked outside a College Avenue home.

With the officers inside interviewing the occupants, Syrnyk opened fire. When he was done, nine bullet holes pierced the driver's side door. Police later recovered 36 pellets at the scene.

Syrnyk took aim later that September night when he spotted a supervisor's vehicle parked at the Pembina Highway police station. He blasted out the windows of the vehicle, then fled without being seen.

"I was just really angry. I just hated authority. I didn't want to hurt anybody. It was just another step in the evolution of becoming what I was becoming," Syrnyk would later tell police.

*     *     *

Syrnyk was battling a deep depression, and was having second thoughts about his newfound career. He dumped several of his stolen weapons in various city waterways.

In January 1998, Syrnyk decided it was time to reload. After business hours, Syrnyk broke into the Wal-Mart store on St. Mary's Road and stole six shotguns. He blasted a display case with a firearm he was carrying, then fled after triggering the alarm.

The incident would also trigger a change in Syrnyk, who decided it was time to get more aggressive.

*     *     *

Syrnyk put his new plan to work days later, when he stormed into the Crosstown Credit Union on Henderson Highway wearing a white mask and wielding a shotgun. He threatened a 22-year-old female teller, then grabbed more than $5,000 from her till. He fled the bank, leaving several frightened employees behind.

"That changed, that was like a switchover to a strongarm robbery," Syrnyk later told police.

He continued with his violent approach, holding up a Toronto-Dominion Bank, a CIBC, a Crosstown Credit Union, an Astra Credit Union and another Toronto-Dominion branch in similar fashion in the weeks to follow.

His final bank robbery occurred in April 1998, when Syrnyk burst into the Assiniboine Credit Union on St. Mary's Road and confronted nine employees and customers with a shotgun.

After fleeing the bank, Syrnyk decided he'd had enough.

"There were too many people in there and he didn't like confronting the female tellers," Crown attorney Brian Bell said yesterday.

Syrnyk decided to set his sights on men -- specifically, ones who drove armoured cars.

*     *     *

In August 1998, Syrnyk staked out a spot in some dense bush beside the CIBC branch at Stafford Street and Grosvenor Avenue and waited for his target to arrive. He knew the Loomis driver would arrive at any moment, thanks to several weeks of planning and mapping out their routes.

Syrnyk jumped out of the bush, pointed a shotgun at the stunned guard and demanded he drop his bag of cash. The man drew his own weapon, and Syrnyk opened fire.

The single shot missed, and the man dropped the bag and retreated. Syrnyk got away clean with nearly $4,000 cash and $2,600 in deposits.

Syrnyk reloaded again in October 1998 when he held up the Farmer's Supply store on Nairn Avenue, this time while it was occupied. He confronted nearly 20 staff and customers with a shotgun, and made off with two more firearms.

"Don't test me," he warned his victims.

*     *     *

Syrnyk's first Christmas-time robbery occurred in 1998, when he tried to capitalize on the busy shopping season by hitting an armoured car outside the Wal-Mart store at Grant Park.

Syrnyk stunned the guard in midday by flashing his gun, then grabbing a bag containing $50,000 cash. He fled through the mall.

Syrnyk didn't strike again until September 1999. This time, he got away with $100,000 by surprising another Loomis employee outside the Unicity Wal-Mart. He ordered the man to the ground at gunpoint, then stole sacks of money from the back of his truck, making a clean getaway.

Syrnyk returned to S.I.R. Warehouse later that month, but this time during store hours. He pointed a shotgun at a customer, and stole three rifles off the shelves before escaping.

Syrnyk also decided it was time to improve his own safety, and held up the Spy Shop on Edmonton Street, stealing a bullet-proof vest at gunpoint.

"I figured I could use it," he told police.

Days later, Syrnyk tried another Christmas-time caper, this time at the Unicity Shopping Centre. He fled empty-handed after he couldn't open the door of the Loomis truck.

But on Christmas eve, Syrnyk tried again at the Kenaston Boulevard Wal-Mart. He ordered the guard to hand over the money, but the man responded by pulling out his pistol. Syrnyk opened fire, striking the man in the left leg.

They exchanged gunfire in the parking lot, and a 16-year-old boy shopping with his dad was grazed in the elbow with a stray pellet.

Syrnyk decided to take a breather following the violent robbery.

"It's a fair amount of stress. It's hard on your nerves," he later told police.

*     *     *

Syrnyk reappeared in May 2000, when he held a Loomis guard at gunpoint outside the Mountain Avenue Safeway store. He grabbed the money when the guard complied with his demands.

He struck again in December 2000, in a case the Crown described yesterday as "mayhem."

Dozens of shots were fired during the midday holdup of a Securicor vehicle at Polo Park, sending shoppers ducking for cover, including several elderly women.

Syrnyk had slipped on ice, and the guard opened fire, hitting him in the leg. Syrnyk learned from his mistake, later installing screws in his shoes so he wouldn't fall again.

Several windows of the shopping mall were struck with bullets, and Syrnyk fled the scene in a stolen car, bleeding heavily. He recovered from his injuries, but bears a permanent scar.

*     *     *

Syrnyk took more than a year off to recover, but hit another Securicor vehicle last February outside the Lakewood Safety store. Once again, numerous shots were exchanged between the two men, but nobody was injured.

Syrnyk later told police he just missed getting hit in the face.

"It felt like it was on my cheek," he said.

*     *     *

Syrnyk committed two more armed robberies earlier this year, both with extreme violence, then went after another Securicor guard in April.

This time, he was in for the fight of his life.

Rick Long, the guard, opened fire on Syrnyk as Sunday shoppers were sent scurrying at the McPhillips Street Safeway. Both men emptied their weapons, and Long gave chase when Syrnyk tried to flee with $31,000 cash.

"I didn't think his big truck could go that fast," Syrnyk said later of Long's pursuit.

*     *     *

Syrnyk's drug addiction was increasing, and ultimately led to his undoing.

He got into an argument May 1 with a woman he'd met at a downtown massage parlour. Police were called, and Syrnyk immediately opened fire on the two officers who responded.

One was struck in the leg, the other hit with broken glass.

"My face was instantly burning. It was like a bomb went off," one of the officers said, court was told yesterday.

Syrnyk had told the woman about his criminal history, and briefly held her hostage before allowing her to leave. The woman told police who they were dealing with, prompting a 12-hour standoff which ended when Syrnyk eventually passed out after doing several lines of cocaine.

*     *     *

Following his arrest, Syrnyk told police he had written a letter which he planned to send to local security firms such as Securicor and Loomis. He planned to include pictures of his bullet-proof vest, along with a cryptic warning.

"I was going to tell them I wasn't fooling around, that this wasn't a game anymore, that there shouldn't be any shooting at me," said Syrnyk.

Police also found a cache of weapons in his home and a storage locker he'd rented, along with paramilitary literature.

"It looked like I was trying to wage a war on society," said Syrnyk.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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