Wednesday Weirdness: The Sweetest Crime in History

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Wednesday Weirdness: The Sweetest Crime in History

Ah, maple syrup. 

As Canadians, we at the MPC love the stuff. We put it on our pancakes, we make it into candies, we use it to glaze salmon - we even put it in our coffee sometimes when no one's looking. (Don't tell.)

But unlike one criminal collective, we don't love it enough to steal nearly $20 million worth.

Read on to learn about the most expensive - but sweetest - heist in Canadian history.

Delicious Tree-Water

If you're Canadian like us, you probably went on a school field trip as a child to a "sugarbush" - a grove of maple trees - in February or March. Temperatures rise just a little at this time of year, and the sap starts to run after being frozen all winter. Tappers hammer small hollow metal tubes into the trunks of sugar-maple trees and hang buckets beneath them to catch the watery sap as it drains from the tree. This doesn't harm the maple, as it has plenty of sap; rather, it's similar to donating blood. (Where "blood" is "sugary tree juice.")

The sap is boiled down for hours or days. Traditionally, Indigenous peoples in Canada, such as the Ojibway, caught the sap in tightly woven baskets; they heated rocks in the fire and placed them in the baskets with the sap, to evaporate the water and purify the sugar. Settlers, later, boiled the sap in iron pots over a fire or on a stove. Modern maple syrup production is much more industrialized, but the basic ingredients are the same: sugar-maple sap, fire, and vessels. 

Maple syrup has been an essential food for people in Canada for thousands of years - there's a reason why our flag is emblazoned with a maple leaf!

Which is why it was such a big deal when someone stole three thousand tons of it.

The Heist

Quebec, a vast French-speaking province in Canada that is nearly ten times the size of the United Kingdom, produces 77% of the world's supply of maple syrup.

Quebec's maple syrup industry is crucial to the province and to Canada overall, both as a domestic product and as an export. The syrup stored by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ) in warehouses across the province acts as a strategic reserve in case of shortages. Because, well... Canadians without maple syrup are sad Canadians indeed.

In late 2011, syrup began to go missing from one of these warehouses, in a small town called Saint-Louis-de-Blandford. The syrup thieves transported the plain white barrels to a remote sugar-shack in the forest, where they siphoned the syrup into smaller containers and replaced it with water.

No one noticed.

So the thieves became more brazen. They siphoned the syrup and left the barrels empty, stacking them up as if nothing had happened. They poured it into smaller vessels and sold it in bulk to unsuspecting wholesalers elsewhere in Canada and even south of the border in the United States. 

The syrup flowed, and no one was the wiser.

The Discovery

Once a year, an inspector from FPAQ visits each small-town syrup-storage warehouse. The inspector takes an inventory, checks on quality-control, and makes sure all is well. 

In Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, all was not well.

The majority of the syrup barrels were empty. The rest were mostly full of water. There was very little maple syrup in the strategic syrup warehouse. 

Over the course of almost a year, the thieves had stolen nearly three thousand tons of syrup - or enough for all 38 million Canadians to put maple syrup on a stack of pancakes every day for a week. 

The estimated market value of the syrup was $18.3 million.

It was, by a significant margin, the single biggest heist in Canadian history. 

The Aftermath

The theft did not go unpunished. The ringleader, Richard Vallières, was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison plus a fine of $9.4 million - approximately half of the value of the syrup he stole. There were other convictions for his accomplices, including one of the truck drivers who transported the ill-gotten syrup, one of the resellers, and one of the owners of the warehouse.

FPAQ has since stepped up its inspections to more than once a year.

And as for the syrup? Well... we're sure it was delicious.

Love heists, thieves and good old-fashioned crime fiction? Try our Post-Mortem series!

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