October 23, 2021
In the seconds after the bombs exploded, the bank vestibule would have been a slice of hell — a glass chamber filled with fire, shrapnel and smoke augmented by chili powder that was packed into the explosives to inflame the sinuses.
Disoriented, Daniel Evans and Harjinder Khaira struggled to their feet. The two worked as armoured car guards for GardaWorld, tasked with loading $130,000 into an ATM in a north Edmonton Scotiabank. Believing they were being shot at, Khaira drew her pistol and fled across the darkened parking lot. Evans dragged himself from the vestibule and knelt by the truck, blood pouring from wounds to his head.
A heavy-set man approached from the east, wearing a gas mask and carrying a Beretta semi-automatic rifle. The man struck Evans, leaving a smear of blood on the gun. He then entered the vestibule and collected the bag of cash.
In late 2018, armoured car crews in Edmonton were terrorized by a pair of bombings.
The mastermind of the plot, 41-year-old Justin David Byron, was sentenced Friday to 9 1/2 years in prison. Justice Tamara Friesen called the crimes “very rare and extremely dangerous.”
“Mr. Byron built a bomb that was designed to, and did, blow up in another human being’s face,” she said.
The case against Byron reveals a bizarre plot that criss-crossed Western Canada and sent shockwaves through the cash services industry.
A patchy work history
Byron claims he needed money to pay medical bills for his wife, brother and terminally ill mother. He maintains he spent part of the cash on naturopathic doctors, but police and prosecutors found no evidence to support the claim. Byron did, in fact, use $7,500 of the proceeds to buy a .50-calibre sniper rifle, which he added to the extensive firearms collection found in his family’s Salmon Arm, B.C., home. Around $118,000 is still missing.
Byron was born in Edmonton. His employment history is patchy, and reveals a man who changed jobs every few years. In 2010, he spent six months with G4S, an armoured car company that later became part of GardaWorld. He even claims to have worked as a security guard for Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz.
Court records do not say when Byron decided to rob banks in his hometown. According to a pre-sentence report, he and his wife spent their entire savings moving back to Canada from New Zealand, where they lived for a time with their infant child prior to Byron’s mother’s diagnosis. An agreed statement of facts, filed following Byron’s guilty plea in May, indicates that neither Byron nor his wife had legitimate sources of income at any time between the first bombing and his arrest.
In any event, in June 2018, Byron ordered a radio device used to detonate fireworks displays, shipping it to a parcel receiving service over the U.S. border in Sumas, Wash. That September, he flew from Victoria to Edmonton, where he began assembling his first bomb.
Around midnight on Sept. 18, 2018, Byron drove to an RBC at 2734 141 St. Wearing a hooded jacket, gloves and an “old man” mask, he placed the cardboard box atop the door to the ATM vestibule. He then walked to a nearby bus stop and waited. At 1:30 a.m., a GardaWorld truck arrived. Once the guards were inside, Byron activated the detonator.
Members of the Edmonton police bomb squad later created replicas of Byron’s three bombs. In court filings, detectives said the first device seemed to be designed to distract, not wound. Whatever Byron’s intent, the first bomb failed. It exploded, but both guards remained alert. Byron immediately fled to Calgary and boarded a flight back to Victoria.
The first bomb left behind important clues about its design, including pieces of a shipping tube and a shredded cardboard box. Police were able to trace both items to a south Edmonton Staples. Sales records showed an individual purchased the items with cash on Sept. 13 and 17, 2018. The store’s CCTV gave police a first glimpse of their suspect — a burly man with a shaved head and long beard, wearing a camouflage sweater, military style cargo pants and heavy boots.
Byron purchased additional ignition systems after the first bombing and shipped them to Sumas. On Dec. 5, 2018, he drove from Salmon Arm to Edmonton to scout targets. He settled on a Scotiabank at 8140 160 Ave.
The second and third bombs were significantly more powerful than the first. Disguised as ads for Scotiabank, Byron loaded one with chili powder to incapacitate victims. On Dec. 12, 2018, he again drove from Salmon Arm to Edmonton. Wearing a Santa mask and body armour, he affixed the IEDs to a glass wall in the bank’s entryway.
Khaira and Evans were inside the vestibule when the bombs exploded. The blasts ruptured Evans’s eardrum and peppered him with shrapnel, leaving him with scars on his head, face, and arms. He still finds metal and glass shards embedded in his scalp.
After the second bombing, police spotted Byron’s Toyota Tacoma in security camera footage. A search of the Alberta motor vehicle registry revealed a shortlist of people who owned that particular model. Investigators compared the list to data dumps from nearby cellphone towers, and Byron appeared on both lists. His driver’s licence photo matched the burly man captured on the Staples CCTV footage.
At first, police didn’t know where to find Byron. Eventually, they obtained cellphone records which showed frequent movements near Salmon Arm. In March 2019, detectives tailed him on a scouting trip to the northern Alberta hamlet of Grassland, and arrested him moments before he boarded a plane at Edmonton International Airport.
At first, Byron came clean. But after a night in cells, he changed stories, claiming a mysterious (and ultimately fictitious) character named Kelly McCormack put him up to the plot.
Meanwhile, RCMP and EPS officers searched the Salmon Arm property where Byron’s wife lived with their sons — one just weeks old. They found a host of incriminating material, including $11,520 in cash, detonators, a finished IED, masks and the blood-flecked rifle from the second robbery. The search revealed a variety of other rifles and shotguns, more than 100 boxes of ammunition in various calibres, illegal magazines and suppressors, and 52 “how-to” books covering assassination, explosives recipes, disguise methods, trap-building and survivalism.
The bombings shocked the armoured car industry. In a victim impact statement, a GardaWorld official said guards across the country are now required to sweep vestibules for IEDs before entering. Some left the industry altogether.
Bryon has been in jail since his arrest. He pleaded guilty to six crimes including robbery with a firearm, aggravated assault and causing an explosion to harm armoured car personnel — which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Defence lawyer Eric Crowther argued Byron should be released on time-served for alleged Charter breaches in the Edmonton Remand Centre. Crowther said his client had a difficult childhood and was under stress due to his family’s medical issues. He too insisted the bombs were designed to minimize injury.
Crown prosecutor Thomas O’Leary argued for 10 years in prison, saying Byron’s actions were motivated by “pure greed.” He said the majority of the cash was never recovered, undermining Byron’s claims of remorse.
Friesen, the judge, leaned toward the prosecution’s argument, firmly rejecting the idea that Byron “deserves some kind of credit” for building bombs intended to minimize injury.
She also disputed the idea that Byron had an unusually difficult life, or that his family’s medical issues justified his actions. She said thousands of Canadian families confront such realities every day without taking such drastic actions.
Friesen declined to issue a restitution order because Byron’s family has no income, but left the door open for civil proceedings. She said the sentence should send a message to those who might emulate Byron’s “escapades.”
“They need to know they will be caught and incarcerated for a long time.”
With credit for time in pre-trial custody — including enhanced credit for extended COVID-19-related lockups — Byron has just under five years to serve.