A Rock Fell on the Moon
Gerald H. Priest: His life and crime against a ‘company of fools’
By Jane Gaffin
An ingeniously-plotted high-grade silver ore heist in the Yukon Territory has intrigued mining people, crime aficionados, lawyers, investigators, writers and others since a lengthy 1963 trial was staged in that northern, backwater, federally-controlled jurisdiction that most Canadians still can’t find on a map — a place the author of A Rock Fell on the Moon assesses as having milked the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush history “like a menopausal cow”.
It was a masterfully-crafted madcap scheme against what was once one of the richest silver camps in the world. The architects were two highly-intelligent co-conspirators who proved, however, there is honour among thieves.
Gerald Henry Priest, along with Anthony “Poncho” Bobcik, a big, jovial Czech, refused to tattle on a third party, a mine captain, believed instrumental in pulling off the ruse but his deeds went unproven.
Adding to the further frustration of baffled police investigators, United Keno Hill Mines (UKHM) workers remained mum on all counts, too. In solidarity, they refused to squeal on one of their own.
The 671 twill sacks full of high-grade ore were supposedly hand-mined legally by the two men from their Moon mineral claims and salted with a few allowable precipitates rejected from the mill.
If, on the other hand, the pair actually committed criminal sin, then the workers’ admiration escalated a thousandfold in a “good for them” attitude.
A large percentage of workers held a direct contempt for the mining company and maybe an indirect disdain for the Toronto-based, multi-national parent corporation, Falconbridge Nickel Ltd.
Much of this scorn would not have metastasized into such hostility except for the dictatorial UKHM general manager whose ghastly managerial practices were unprecedented. He didn’t seem to like the company he managed and definitely wasn’t a people-person. Maybe, as an inept manger, he should have been held indirectly responsible for causing the ruckus and did eventually receive his comeuppance in something akin to a storybook theme of “good trumps evil”.
Until Harbour Publishing released daughter Alicia Priest’s book A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist (peek inside at Kindle’s sample chapters) on the 2014 Christmas list, nobody except family members and maybe a few close friends had an insight into what made Gerald Henry Priest tick.
Some people viewed United Keno Hill Mines’ chief assayer as a friend; others saw him as moody and mercurial; Judge John Parker, responsible for sentencing, noted Priest to be “a strange bird” and condemned him for harbouring a grudge against society.
None got it quite right.
Priest had it all. Yet like Robert Service’s poem “The Men Who Don’t Fit In“, which suits Priest to a T, he sadly wouldn’t admit his mistakes until he was robbed by that sneaky devil called time. His self-analysis came too late to pick up the fractured pieces and make amends.
He was a clever man. He had a flair for writing, could remember lyrics to tunes, accompanying himself on a guitar, and recite Robert Service poems by heart, the reason the author has opened each of 20 chapters plus the epilogue with appropriate lines lifted from a variety of the bard’s verses.
He was a great storyteller, spinning wild fables into plausible tales that turned skeptics into believers. He and his geologist cronies convinced a court in Round One that “in geology, anything is possible”.
How could six jurors, who wouldn’t have known a sulphide from the city limits, counter the experts? Maybe a rock really did fall on his Moon mining claims millions of years ago, and Priest simply took advantage of mining Mother Nature’s gift.
As the story unfolds, the reader constantly vacillates between his guilt or innocence.
Priest and his family lived in a company-owned Panabode house, reserved for Elsa’s upper echelon. Inside, the comfortable, cozy, varnished, log-style home was rich with music, books, a cat and much-loved Belgian shepherd, Caesar.
His home was his castle where he didn’t have to exert effort to boil a kettle or wash a sock. He had a well-paying job, a beautiful, affectionate wife; and two daughters, Vona and Alicia, born 360 days apart, who revered him as only little girls can.
Or, as the author inquires, did he perhaps see things differently? “Four female dependents, an ailing wife [heart problems] who couldn’t give him the son he deserved; a religiously fanatical mother-in-law, a tedious dead-end job for a company of fools and two daughters who revered him as only little girls can?”
Gerald Preist changed. Dramatically and sadly. But he never completely let go
of the his claim that a huge lump of silver fell on his Moon mining claims.
His family were affected disastricsllly. When Gerald was suspected of stealing high grade
silver ore from the United Keno Hill mine based in Elsa, he was fired. Hisfamily found
a new home in a small basement apartment in Vancouver. Their life never got back on
Helen’s mother, Maria, was a survor of the mass migration of German civilians racing on foot to get
to the West before being enveloped by the Red Army as it advanced relentlessly in1944 and 1945.
Helen Preist is much more difficult to present. Gerald Preist was easy. His early life and married life
was qite ordinary which makes the change he underwent quite striking. Helen, however, hd an extraordinary and
very terrifying life before she married Gerald. Helen and her mother Maria (Omi) were part of the German frantic
race to get to the Western border at the end of Work War II. They were German Mennonites whose ancestors had been
encouraged to migrate to the rich black soils of the Ukraine. Pacifists. People of the book. Believers that this life
was only s trial before the life after death. Farmers. Skilled craftsman. People who did not intermiz=x much with
the existing Ukrainian people.
Most people would want to keep their family skeletons stuffed permanently inside a locked closet, not to be whispered about ever. This memoir cum thriller doesn’t masquerade the warts and blemishes but uninhibitedly rattles the bones in an effort to dig out the truth.
It was way past time for half-truths and speculations written by others to be set aside and for the author to tackle the prickly job of fully disclosing her father’s good points, which is why she loved him, as well as his misdeeds, for which she couldn’t forgive him.
His frank, candid, resilient, loving daughter, Alicia, was the only person who could pull off the thorny assignment properly, coupled with invaluable assistance from her own “rock”, husband Ben Parfitt, a writer in his own rights.
As though Papa’s story doesn’t provide enough surprises when turning every corner, the reader is bolted over with an unexpected double dose of intense family history from the maternal side of the equation.
As a girl, Maria, or Omi as her loving granddaughters addressed her, had fallen from riches to rags, having begun life in a wealthy, Russian land-owning family who lost everything, including themselves, to revolution and anarchy.
With her birth family and her only living son, Peter, imprisoned somewhere in the Gulag, she suffered a lifelong survivor complex. While guilt was somewhat assuaged by strong Mennonite convictions, in her mind she was a sinner. “In the terror time, I did what I did to stay alive,” she was quoted as saying.
God only knows what sins she committed to survive and it’s best not to probe. Many Ukrainians refrained from discussing this awful past, although some did loosen their aging tongues so the next generation would have an inkling about Holodomor.
Josef Stalin’s man-made famine exterminated unknown millions through deliberate starvation in the 1930s. When the Soviet’s army confiscated the crops, not leaving a grain, much less a percentage of the harvest for the villagers’ winter food supply, residents resorted to eating cats, dogs, exhumed horses, leaves from trees, then each other.
Survivors were fortunate if they came through the terror with their memories blocked and sanity in tact.
An excerpt from a eulogy Alicia wrote in the Globe and Mail when her mother, who survived two husbands, died in 2011 hints at Helen’s tough-fiber: “If life is an obstacle course, Helen Young was a gazelle. Spirited, elegant and beautiful, she had a fragility and charm that masked her determination to clear one hurdle after another.”
Lolya, or Helen, was born November 24, 1924, in what was at the time southern Russia and is now the Ukraine. She was the second child and only daughter of Maria Reger and Abraham Friesen. Her younger brother Alexander died of diphtheria at 18 months.
Her family moved away from their large extended Mennonite clan in the Ukraine to Ebental, a small village in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, As a Mennonite, her mother tongue and heritage were German, the enemy of Stalin’s USSR, where their religious freedom was no longer tolerated.
In 1930, Helen’s mother, Maria, learned that her parents, sisters and brothers had been loaded in cattle cars and shipped to Siberia, two children dying along the way. The Soviet regime became their immediate enemy. Under a psychopathic Stalin, the Caucasus region was no safer than the Ukraine had been.
Three years later, Helen’s father collapsed and died at age 35, having learned his name was on Stalin’s personal list of who would live or die after rounded up and brought before his secret police for interrogation.
Within two years, Helen’s mother married another Mennonite, Heinrich Werle, a university-trained agronomist responsible for ensuring the late August harvest of the area’s wheat crop. The “progressive” state forbade the use of horses which were “replaced” with non-existent combines.
Caught in a life-and-death conundrum, Werle ordered farmers to hitch up the horses and bring in the harvest. The act was truly part of the Harvest of Sorrow. The crop secured, Werle was banished to a northeastern hard labour camp.
In 1940, Helen, of high school age, and her mother, Maria, moved to still a larger town, Stepnoye.
Helen’s older brother Peter, now 17, had stayed behind in Ebental to care for the family’s small house and few animals. The following year, he too was arrested and instantly disappeared to the Gulag, along with other relatives who were assumed to have all perished in that inhumane, Stalin-devised hellhole.
In 1941, the Nazis marched into the Caucasus. Due to their common language and common hatred, Maria saw them as liberators. When the Russian army launched its massive counter offensives in the winter of 1943-44, Helen and Maria were forced to escape by foot, horse-drawn cart and cattle car along with the Germans.
Nineteen-year-old Helen and her mother arrived in German-occupied Poland, ultimately making their way to Germany where they were greeted with mass terror as buildings were reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. Helen secured a respected job as a Russian-German translator for Kommission 28, a division of the German Reich.
In the fall of 1948, a Canadian Mennonite family put up $500 to sponsor the hard-working mother-daughter duo to resettle in Matsqui, British Columbia, where Abraham and Helene Rempel, who remained life-long friends, gave them a home and a community. After paying off their ship and train fares labouring in the fields, they were free to venture out on their own.
After crossing two continents and the Atlantic Ocean, Helen felt rejuvenated. What better way to cement her new self to her new nation where she finally felt safe than to marry a real Canadian?
Before marrying Gerald Priest, she had turned down a United Nations collection of suitors: a Russian, Pole, Italian, three Germans and an American as well as a dedicated Mennonite whose plans to work overseas as a missionary was not for her.
Neither was the Yukon’s jerkwater mining town of Elsa, where she sparkled like a jewel in a junkheap. “A cardinal in a town of sparrows”, as the author describes her exotic mother who loved the city life that suffocated her bush-minded husband.
She stitched her own chic wardrobe with help from a nimble-fingered mother and dressed the two girls in matching ensembles. She never owned a pair of jeans in this mining town of boardwalks, bladed lanes and unpaved roads, covered in either snow, ice, mud, dust, dirt or gravel, depending on the season.
I didn’t want A Rock Fell on the Moon to end. The writing style is crisp, fast-flowing, and humourous, the sentences often loaded with fresh, witty similes and metaphors.
With pages nearly exhausted, I didn’t believe space remained to run headlong into any more jolting surprises around the next corner. While only a fool tries to out-judge a judge, the reader should never try to outguess how Alicia Priest would choose to present her true “whodunit”.
At this point, Gerald Priest didn’t have two plugged silver pesos to jangle together in his jean pocket. But he had chutzpah.
His blood boiled every time he thought about American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) in Helena, Montana, smelting his shipment of ore and sending the fat cheque for $125,322.17 to United Keno Hill Mines before the courts had determined who owned the ore and where the ore had originated.
This irrepressible guy took another jab at justice. His family, unravelling at the seams, was oblivious to his international escapades in which he convinced his new Stateside lawyer to take his civil case on contingency.
Priest provided a plausible explanation to Nelson Christensen, a young lawyer working for a large, prestigious Seattle firm. He had delivered a shipment of raw ore to ASARCO in June, 1963, he explained, then two years later he had been convicted of theft. Since the worth of the ore skyrocketed in Priest’s mind with each retelling, he pegged the value of ore this time at $200,000.
Long before he had been found guilty, he said, the smelter processed the disputed ore and cut UKHM a big cheque. “That’s violation of the contract I had with ASARCO, isn’t it?” Priest asked of Christensen.
“It was an audacious gambit but one that Dad’s new lawyer in Seattle felt was worth pursuing,” writes the author.
In 1967, notice was served on ASARCO that Gerald H. Priest was suing the smelter for breach of contract. Seattle lawyer Christensen argued that the smelter had breached the terms of the contract prior to Priest’s criminal conviction by smelting the ore before Canadian courts issued any ruling.
The filing of the claim against ASARCO set off a nuclear explosion at UKHM. Before ASARCO had paid UKHM, the smelter had required the company to agree that if Priest and/or his partner, Anthony Bobcik, or Bobcik’s company, Alpine Gold and Silver, or anybody else came out of the woodwork to recover funds from the smelter, UKHM would have to reimburse the smelter.
That problem was between the mining company and the smelter and had nothing to do with Priest, who sat back smirking. Revenge is sweet, even when served up cold.
If Priest earned nothing else from his current gamble for a cash settlement, he at least had the satisfaction of watching the Big Boys squirming.
This surprise aftermath that the author unloads at the eleventh hour is a long-obscured segment in the saga of the Moon claims. And, despite what Priest did, the reader wants to applaud this scenario that holds a bit of ironic twist against the Goliathan companies UKHM, ASARCO as well as the judiciary in Canada, who, as political bedfellows, had been beating up on a poor little David.
In fact, earlier in chronological events, the Yukon judiciary’s face turned red with rage — or more to the point, Judge Parker’s — due to a couple of other overlooked glitches: “It’s not what you know, but who you know” that counts and “Never underestimate the power of a woman” who just might be working on the “outside” in favour of securing the release of her husband who’s been helplessly incarcerated like a fly in a jar on the “inside”.
The author’s interesting website can be visited at www.aliciapriest.com where more can be learned about this courageous woman’s date with her “ultimate deadline”, ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
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
Begin forwarded message:
From: ALAN SKEOCH <email@example.com>Subject: EPISODE 266 MAPLE SYRUP TIME PART TWO: GOOD TIMES AND PROLEMSDate: February 27, 2021 at 12:48:49 PM ESTTo: Alan Skeoch <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Marjorie Skeoch <email@example.com>, John Wardle <firstname.lastname@example.org>
EPISODE 266 MAPLE SYRUP TIME : PART TWO: GOOD TIMES AND PROBLEMSalan skeochFeb 2021Just having something constructive to do on March week ends was exhilarating. We were all outand about…whole family and Tara the Coonhound. The maple trees were at work…drip, drip, drip…pails filling but no overflows because I was able to get to the bush on week days just as duskwas settling. Alone on weekdays. Communicating with nature. Lugging the milk cans of sapfrom the bush to my truck. No easy task as 10 to 15 gallons of sap was heavy going. Especially asthe snow melted and the sleigh system was useless.Lugging the sap back to Mississauga where our outdoor boiling side was located. Our citylot is 400 feet deep with Mary Fix Creek meandering along the eastern edge. At one time thisarea was held by the Mississauga First Nations before they moved (or were forced to move) tothe New Credit reserve near Brantford. Lots of space here for converting sap to syrup.Or so we thought.THE FINISHING SITE: SAP TO SYRUPThe sap boiling system.1) Set up the sap pan high over the fire pit.2) Find a large supply of firewood.3) Get a fire going4) Pour in the sap5) Place a nice comfortable chair near the fire for warmth6) Keep a close eye lest too much evaporation occur andthe sap turns into burnt toffee at the bottom of the pan.7) Check regularly with the Maple Syrup thermometer….8) Clean the Crown sealers.Finding a large source of free firewood was not difficult. Each spring back in the1970’s huge piles of lumber would float down the Humber River, out into Lake Ontariothen back to Sunnyside Beach where the lumber was eventually cleared bythe Toronto City Parks people. Where this bonanza originated I never knew I got to thebeach before the city work crews. Loaded the truck with 2 x 6 and 2 x 4 and even 2 x 12 planks…some with nails but most of them nail free. Piles of them. Also 4 x4 and 6 x 6 timbers…and lumps ofmaple, oak and pine that had been dumped upriver somewhere. Enough lumber came downthe Humber each spring to boil my sap to syrup. Smoky of course because water soakedwood churns out one hell of a lot of water vapour. Which led to a problem as neighbourlytolerance of my fire pit led to problems. For the first year or two there was no problem untila neighbour with severe Athsma moved in two lots north of us. As it turned out the smokefrom my fire angled right to their back door. I never noticed. Smoke is smoke. Here now,gone tomorrow.I loved sitting beside my fire pit on those cool March evenings…right up to 11pm. andbed time. Safe fire, lots of space free of flammable materials. I could leave the fireburning as long as the supply of sap was ready to refill the pan..Neighbours thought we were a bit eccentric but some of them dropped around to see the sapboiling. Our kids and other kids liked to taste the stuff. Of course some kids and adults were alittle leery.Even Tara, our coonhound, had a fancy for maple sap.About the third year we tapped the maple trees we made an alarming discovery. Most of our sap pails wereillegal. not ever to be used for sap again. Why? Because they were put together with lead solder. Lead isa poison. POISON!Look closely at the sap pails above. Most are old lead soldered pails. A few are modern aluminum sappails. The safe kind.Since we had consumed most of our home made syrup it would be best to tell no one…the way Ifigured. I have one big bottle of our maple syrup at the farm in the fruit cellar. Told no one.Why keep it? I have no idea except it reminds me of those grand March maple sap days.“Dad, do the sap and syrup days have to end?”I wonder if there is some way to slow down the process of human growth so we could keep the boys as children.“Well, boys there are some good reasons we stopped boiling sap into syrup on coolMarch days. Some of the reasons make sense. Some of the reasons made no sense at all.REASONS WHY OUR SAP TO SYRUP PRJECT ENDED.1) Those lead soldered sap pails were unsafe. We could not give the sap away to friends.2) The neighbours had serious athsma and our smoke blew directly into their house.(They mentioned this nicely)3) The labour made no sense. Cheaper to buy maple syrup, far cheaper.4) The City Parks crew got the firewood faster than I could…and the supplybegan to dry up anyway.5) The last season some low life creep parked his truck beside our sap trees…cradled his rifle and shot holes in our sap pails just to watch the sap drain out.6) The boys, Kevin and Andrew, grew older…less interested. Amazing how children grow upso fast. When they are little kids their aging seems slow and then, in the twinkling ofan eye, they are adults.7) And finally, our Coonhound Tara got pregnant and had 11 puppies. Suddenly no onewanted to go to he sugar bush with me any more…including Tara.“Dad, suddenly it’s springtime.”“Alan, why don’t we make apple cider from all the windfalls in the orchard each fall?”“Good idea, no one will ever know those apples were wormy.”“Marjorie and Alan, I have news for you. I am pregnant and will not be running throughthe sugar bush this month.” (said Tara)NEXT STORY: HOW TO GET A COONHOUND PREGNANT…alan skeochFeb. 2021