Coming from a suburban neighbourhood in Ottawa, it was remarkable to see houses in remote areas around the Lower Mainland. When I see homes in the BC wilderness, I usually assume three things: it belongs to a retiree, it’s abandoned, or it’s a shack for some Walter White wannabe. While it’s fun to fantasize about the next drug kingpin residing in BC, there was a time when a remote cabin on Vancouver Island actually housed a shady operation.
In the spring of 1911, an abundance of counterfeit $10 American bills were reported throughout the United States. From California to New York, these bills were everywhere. The operation was virtually impossible to trace because the prints were coming from BC. One year before, Latvian immigrant Albert Leon arrived in BC from LA after fleeing from Russia for his anarchist beliefs. He was in his mid-twenties, slim, and looked like a mix of Bing Crosby and Lenny from The Simpsons. He’s probably the closest we’ve gotten to a real Walter White in BC.
He bought a place on Nootka Island, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island. What started as a bachelor pad turned into a frat house once his Russian buddies joined him. These included Fred Marneek, Rudolph Swanson, and Oscar Litchen. Upon arrival, he had a pleasant time meeting his neighbours, explaining that he was “setting up a colony of Russian anarchists.” Great introduction.
The team perfected a meticulous system for counterfeiting, and their banknotes travelled fast in America. At this time, the banks issued banknotes—it wasn’t until 1913 when the first Federal Reserve banknotes started circulating. While it seems Leon established his money-making factory in BC, he likely started in LA.
Victoria’s Daily Colonist reported that Leon had a section of land near Beaumont, LA, where the operation began. This estate was likely Baltic Farm and Orchard Association, a food co-op that had plans to buy land in southern California for growing fruit trees. The establishment had an advertisement in a Baptist periodical that listed several co-op directors, including Marneek and Litchen. Additionally, Leon bought five acres of land in Beaumont two years before relocating to BC for $700 USD. If you ask me, that’s pretty suspect.
The men’s time in BC was short, for Marneek and Swanson were found and arrested a year later in Chicago, and Leon was still at large.
The Victoria Daily Colonist soon reported that their operation had been halted. What’s interesting is where the hostility in the article is directed toward: “Vancouver Island has lost from among its residents of many diverse nationalities a genius whose ability to manufacture spurious currency has successfully been pitted against the shrewdest of American bank cashiers.”
Marneek and Swanson confessed that the counterfeit bills were an effort to raise funds for the Russian revolution and that ten other Russians were heading for Nootka Island. Clearly, they got the party invitation too late.
US secret service agent W.A. Glover went to Leon’s place in Nootka, but no one was there. He complimented their residence, reporting that Leon and his men made themselves a nice vacation spot with a cabin and a garden. The cabin had a DIY darkroom for processing photos which Glover described to be “almost perfect.” However, none of the equipment was in sight. Glover and his agents had to do a bit of scavenger hunting after finding a chart with a marking to a hidden area where, supposedly, the photo-processing equipment was buried. At this point, Leon was starting to look less like Walter White and more like The Riddler.
Glover couldn’t follow the instructions, so he and the other agents spent hours looking for the equipment. After accidentally pushing his cane into a pile of leaves, he discovered a hole beside a tree trunk with all the gear. The “genius” of Leon proclaimed by the Colonist was starting to lose credibility.
The US secret services concluded that the bills were photographed perfectly for mass-reproduction. I guess that custom-made darkroom wasn’t evident enough. However, there was a secret ingredient that made the counterfeits indiscernible from real banknotes: dog hair. It was reported that Leon and his minions used dog hair to achieve the threaded texture of the banknotes, making the counterfeits look more legitimate. Strangely, there were no traces of dogs around the premises. All this equipment was to be used as evidence in Leon’s trial.
Meanwhile, authorities back in New York were ahead of Glover when Marneek and Swanson gave them a tip to go to New York. They took a trip to The Big Apple and found Leon about to board a ship for British Guiana. Authorities took him in, and Leon lied to the police about being in Kansas City to buy goats. Authorities called bullshit and got ready to lock him up, but not before offering him a meal. He refused, stating he was “a vegetarian.” At least we know where the dogs didn’t go.
After chatting with authorities, Leon pleaded guilty to counterfeiting money. It seems Glover’s efforts became a waste of time, but at least he got to see the bears! Leon and Marneek were sentenced to ten years at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, while Swanson only got five years. Litchen was off scot-free for cooperating with authorities. Leon spent time in prison practicing a new artistic talent: painting. While his art was successful at the institution, his biggest accomplishment was probably discovering that he didn’t need dog hair to create a counterfeit masterpiece—bedsheets did the job just fine.