3 on trial in Yukon for alleged gold heist

Call it The Gold Heist on Horse Creek.

And no, it’s not an old Western pulp novel.

It’s a modern-day tale involving an old-time Yukon miner living rough on a remote claim, a hidden stash of gold and silver, and three people accused of conspiring to find and sell the treasure after the miner’s death.

The three accused — Robert Venables, his mother Joanne Louise Venables and his partner, Carrie Ann Russell, all from Whitehorse — were on trial last week in Yukon territorial court. The trial resumes Monday.

Robert Venables is charged with theft and possession of gold and silver exceeding $5,000, Russell is charged with possession of stolen property over $5,000 and another count of possession under $5,000, and Joanne Louise Venables is charged with possessing stolen property under $5,000.

According to court filings, the goods are alleged to be about $106,000 of gold and silver coins, gold nuggets and a silver bar taken to a Whitehorse gem shop to be sold off in September 2017.

Gold coins seized by Yukon RCMP in September 2017 from a Whitehorse gem shop, in connection with the case. (Yukon Territorial Court exhibit)

Prosecutors say the treasure belonged to Anthony Kopp — a 76-year-old miner who had died a few months earlier.

Court documents, filed by an RCMP investigator, describe Kopp as a “hoarder” who had been living for decades on his mining claims near Horse Creek, in the Lake Laberge area north of Whitehorse.

It’s alleged that after Kopp died in May 2017, the Venables and Russell conspired to ransack his home, steal what they found, and sell it for cash. 

Eventually the law came knocking.

Kopp diagnosed with dementia

Allegations against the three accused are laid out in an application filed to the court in July by an RCMP investigator. The officer was seeking banking records from Robert Venables, and government documents related to an undeclared income investigation into the Venables and Russell.

The application by Const. Craig Andrew Thur details the police investigation to that point. 

It tells of the months leading up to Kopp’s death, when he was in Whitehorse hospital and diagnosed with dementia. He came to hospital in January 2017, with his dog, after being found wandering on the highway north of Whitehorse “in a disoriented mental state,” and carrying $24,550 in cash.

Kopp stayed in hospital through that winter and into the spring. He reportedly had no family but he did have visitors.

Whitehorse General Hospital, where Kopp spent his final months. According to court filings, he had been diagnosed with dementia. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Testifying in court last week, social worker Rebeccca Miller said neighbours from the Lake Laberge area would come see Kopp, many of them concerned about his well-being.

It was different when Robert Venables and Russell came to visit, she told the court.

One time, Miller heard Venables ask Kopp for the location of a black box. Another time, she said Venables and Russell tried to get Kopp to sign a piece of paper. They told her they wanted permission to protect his property.

One neighbour, testifying in court last week, said it was common knowledge in the area that Kopp had a gold stash somewhere.

The workshop at Kopp’s mining claim and residence near Horse Creek. (Yukon Territorial Court exhibit)

Another witness, Shauna Clare from Yukon’s public guardians office (legal guardians of Kopp’s estate), testified that she visited the property near Horse Creek several times between August 2017 and October 2018 and each time, she noticed more things missing — chainsaws, dirt bikes and ATVs. 

On her first visit, she found 175 one-ounce silver coins hidden under some junk.

Thur also visited the property with Clare in October 2018, his court filing says.

“It was obvious to me that Anthony Kopp had been a hoarder of many things for many years,” he wrote, and the silver coins Clare found “had likely not been the only items of value hidden by Anthony Kopp on the property.”

A witness from Yukon’s public guardians office testified that she found 175 silver coins when she visited Kopp’s residence, a few months after he died. (Yukon Territorial Court exhibit)

Chunks of refined gold

Prosecutors at the trial are trying to establish that the accused found some of Kopp’s hidden treasure, and sold it.

Court heard that Robert Venables and Russell in September 2017 sold more than 30 troy ounces of gold, in chunks, to a B.C. buyer through an agent in Whitehorse. They told the agent that it came from Horse Creek.

The buyer testified in court that it wasn’t the sort of gold typically found and sold by Yukon placer miners — it was refined and pure, as if a gold bar or some coins had been melted down into nuggets.

Venables was paid just over $50,000 in two separate purchases, the court heard.

According to Thur’s court filing, the investigation began in September 2017 just days after Venables and Russell allegedly sold their gold and silver. An acquaintance of the accused had tipped off police. 

Silver and gold seized by Yukon RCMP in September 2017 from a Whitehorse gem shop, in connection with the case. (Yukon Territorial Court exhibit)

In a rambling video statement to police, recorded in late 2017 and played in court on Friday, Venables told officers he had found gold and silver a few kilometres away from Kopp’s claims sometime in the previous months. He told police he had tripped over a tube with gold and silver in it, and he took it after determining it was likely on public land.

In the video, Venables also said Kopp had asked for his help while in the hospital, and it was upsetting to be under suspicion.

“I’m an honest man. I’m not a thief,” he said.

“I loved the man … I never stole from the man.”

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