A bank robber who blew up homemade bombs at two Edmonton branches three years ago, injuring four armed guards, could face up to life in prison.
Last Tuesday in Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench, 48-year-old Justin Byron pleaded guilty to making an explosive substance and trying to rob a pair of GardaWorld armed guards in September 2018.
Byron also pleaded guilty to four charges stemming from another Edmonton bank robbery in December 2018. He admitted detonating an explosive device and attacking a GardaWorld employee while wearing a disguise to rob the bank.
A Crown prosecutor suggested Byron could face a 10-year prison sentence. The maximum sentence is life in prison.
“The crime is a serious one,” Justice Tamara Friesen said as she accepted Byron’s guilty pleas.
“It was premeditated. It put the lives of the guards at risk. It was a serious attack on civil society and on the individuals who were workers simply doing their job.”
According to an agreed statement of facts, Byron was living with his wife and son in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, at the time of the offences. He was a former Alberta resident and had worked as an armoured guard for six months in 2010.
In June 2018, Byron began collecting supplies to build an improvised explosive device (IED).
He ordered an ignition system online and had it delivered to a parcel receiving service in Washington state, just south of the border. Three months later, he paid cash for a mailing tube and cardboard box at an Edmonton store.
Byron took his IED — concealed in a cardboard box — to an RBC branch in south Edmonton after midnight on Sept. 19, 2018.
Surveillance video captured him wearing a face mask, a hooded jacket with the hood pulled tight and gloves. Byron placed the box on a shelf above the entry door, then went to a nearby bus bench.
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“The intention of the accused at the time was to detonate the first IED when the armoured car guards arrived and rob them of their cash bag,” the court document states.
The guards pulled up at 1:30 a.m. Once they were inside, Byron detonated the explosive device, creating a loud bang and lots of smoke.
The guards drew their weapons and took defensive positions. One guard saw a large man leaving a bus bench and a minute later watched a pickup truck driving away.
The robbery attempt had been a failure. Byron left without the bag of cash.
The guards suffered minor injuries. Both eventually returned to work.
Two IEDs in second robbery attempt
Byron bought two more ignition systems in November, then scouted out a north Edmonton bank for his second heist.
The second and third IEDs were more powerful and contained a chili-powder irritant.
Byron drove to Edmonton from Salmon Arm on Dec. 12.
Hours after he arrived, he entered the ATM area of a Scotiabank branch. He wore a different face mask as he placed the bombs in shadow boxes against the glass. Wearing a gas mask and armed with a Beretta semi-automatic rifle, he hid in the parking lot.
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At 2:06 a.m., a GardaWorld truck pulled up to the bank. Armed guard Daniel Evans collected a cash bag holding $130,000 in $20 bills.
“When Evans approached the interior doors, Byron detonated IED 2, blowing Evans to the ground and filling the vestibule with smoke,” the court document states.
“While he was incapacitated on the ground, Byron detonated the other IED.”
Evans’s partner thought they were under attack. She crossed the parking lot and drew her gun when she saw Byron approaching the bank.
Evans was hurt and bleeding, but managed to get back to his truck. The 44-year-old was on his knees when Byron attacked him. Then Byron walked into the bank to grab the bag of money.
Evans’s partner suffered minor injuries, including smoke inhalation.
Both guards ultimately changed careers.
Byron began planning a third robbery.
Arresting the bomb maker
An Edmonton police detective tracked down Byron after his customized Toyota Tacoma was caught on surveillance video driving away from the bank.
Byron became the primary suspect. RCMP put him under surveillance in B.C.
In March 2019, Telus told Edmonton police that Byron’s cell phone signal had been tracked to a tower near the Edmonton International Airport.
Police followed him until he checked in for a return flight the next day. He passed through security before being arrested without incident.
Byron admitted to committing the robberies and detonating the IEDs.
“The accused told the detective that he did not intend for anyone to get hurt,” the agreed statement of facts notes.
“The accused claimed that his motivation for the bombings was to obtain money in order to pay off debts relating to medical treatment expenses for his wife and mother.”
The Crown said there’s no proof any of the $130,000 was used for medical expenses, and that $50,000 is still missing.
When police searched Byron’s house in Salmon Arm, they found another IED along with 10 firearms, two silencers and two Tasers, three rifle scopes, a night-vision equipped ballistic helmet, a smoke bomb and body armour.
“There’s every reason to believe had he not been caught by Edmonton police, he would have implemented a third robbery at some point,” prosecutor Thomas O’Leary told the judge. “He had the devices and the means to do that.”
Police who searched the house also found a box of books about bomb-making, disguises, survivalism and how to commit murder.
Last week, the judge rejected a request from Byron’s lawyer to grant bail until he’s sentenced next month.
Eric Crowther told the court Byron’s mother has terminal cancer and likely has only months to live.
Friesen said she was concerned Byron had the means and capacity to make a getaway if he was released.
He’s been in custody at the Edmonton Remand Centre since his arrest in March 2019.
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