Edmonton Journal

LRT thief stole nearly $2.4 million, one coin at a time

Salim Kara lugged home $900 a day, built Whitemud Creek mansion

- dhenton@edmontonjo­urnal.com

This city has spawned many cunning and crafty con artists, but few were as colourful as Salim Kara.

It was 14 years ago that the Ugandan refugee made headlines, but his crime shocked an entire city.

Kara stole nearly $2.4 million from Edmontonia­ns — and he did it one coin at a time.

Hired in 1981 to repair light rail transit fare boxes, he began pilfering coins almost immediatel­y. When loonies were introduced in 1987, he must have thought he hit the jackpot, boosting his take to $900 a day.

For 13 years, he stole, and despite a couple of audits and an incriminat­ing videotape, he got away with it.

Neighbours wondered why a man who lived in a million dollar home in posh Whitemud Creek drove to work in a dilapidate­d 1977 Chev Malibu, a vehicle that was almost 17 years old when he was finally arrested in Sept. 27, 1994.

“I guess that’s why he kept driving that older car,” exclaimed one neighbour, whose children played with Kara’s two boys.

Kara, the son of wealthy entrepre- neurs, and his wife Almasbanu were among 45,000 Ugandans of East Indian descent expelled by dictator Idi Amin’s violent regime in 1972. The couple initially resided in England before moving to Canada in 1980. Kara quickly turned the $38,000-per year LRT job into a cash cow.

His technique was simple. He would remove the faceplate from the machines and use a magnet attached to a car radio antenna to reach into the fare box and extract the coins. He dumped them into a leather shaving kit bag and at day’s end he would transfer his ill-gotten gain from his company vehicle to the trunk of his own car. He almost always worked the night shift and he was almost always alone.

Staff at his bank let him use the back door to lug in his loot; heavy bags of rolled coins totalling $5,000 to $10,000 a week. They contemplat­ed expanding the vault to accommodat­e the sizable deposits he claimed were accumulate­d through his “vending machine business.” He opened a $1 million GIC account and began building his lavish million dollar home in 1992. The immaculate split-level 470-square-metre mansion on Osborne Crescent featured exterior gothic columns, light rose California stucco and cedar shakes. Inside it contained five bedrooms, five bathrooms, an indoor fountain, a steam room and a Jacuzzi room. There was also a four-car garage complete with its own car wash and heated driveway.

Over time, Kara invested in a house in Victoria and two other properties in Edmonton. Although he continued to drive the old Chevy to work, he bought a new Oldsmobile.

Neighbours described him as “hard-working” and “frugal.”

Just about everyone heard a different story about the source of his wealth. He told some he had a computer business in California; others he told he was involved in investment banking. He told one co-worker he worked in Vancouver on Fridays on a computer contract while he told another he was overseeing the constructi­on of a house in Riverbend for a friend. Still another co-worker was told he was doing marriage counsellin­g on the side.

City auditors estimated he was stealing nearly 20 per cent of the total LRT fare revenue. Two audits sent up red flags that the cash count was not matching the fare totals, but the discrepanc­y was initially dismissed as a software glitch.

One co-worker who recorded Kara on a video camera reaching into a fare box in an incriminat­ing fashion a year before his arrest later said he erased the video because he didn’t want to get involved.

“I did not want to be the one responsibl­e for pointing out to superiors or anything that there was anything wrong going on,” he testified. “The thing was I didn’t want to be involved in it.” He was later fired.

Private investigat­ors were eventually hired to spy on Kara following a 1993 audit. They watched him filling the shaving kit with coins from the ticket machines. Kara, then 42, was arrested and his assets frozen.

Granted bail on a $50,000 bond put up by friends, he disguised himself after one court appearance in a failed attempt to evade reporters and photograph­ers waiting for him. Dressed in a trench coat, large sunglasses and a wool cap pulled low on his brow, looking a little like Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau character in the Pink Panther movies, he denied he was Kara and claimed he was dressed the way he was to help “the other guy get away.”

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice A.H. Wachowich sentenced Kara in 1996 to four years in jail.

“You have been a millionair­e at the expense of the citizens of this good city — 13 years of calculated theft,” the judge said. “This is thievery at a most staggering level.”

But Wachowich recommende­d Kara, who suffered from colitis, be allowed to serve his sentence in provincial jail and receive early parole. He was eligible for full parole after just 16 months. The Crown had asked for a sentence between four and seven years given that Kara had settled with the city’s insurance company.

All told, he had stolen more than $2,327,890. The coins he hauled away would have weighed an estimated 37 tonnes.

Kara hinted he would one day tell his story, possibly in a book. But it never happened.

His neighbours struggled to believe it really happened.

“They seemed like very honest people,” said one. “It’s a crazy world.”

 ?? THE JOURNAL, FILE ?? Salim Kara covers his face while entering a courthouse in 1996.
THE JOURNAL, FILE Salim Kara covers his face while entering a courthouse in 1996.
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