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Peel Police Inspector Stephen Duivesteyn speaks to the media regarding a theft at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont., on April 20.Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press

It was cool and cloudy when Air Canada Flight 881 from Zurich landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport just after 4 p.m. on April 17. The Boeing 777 disgorged its passengers, and one container holding precious cargo.

The box was taken to Air Canada’s cargo warehouse at the edge of the airport, where it was unloaded.

A short time later, police say, the container and its $20-million contents vanished, touching off a whodunit at Canada’s largest airport.

The box contained gold and other expensive items, said Inspector Stephen Duivesteyn of Peel Regional Police, which has jurisdiction over the airport.

He called the theft a rare occurrence at the Toronto airport, an international hub known for heightened security, and assured travellers not to fear. Air Canada’s cargo operations offer “secured holding areas and handling” and co-ordination with “third-party security guards” for “high-value shipments,” the airline’s website says.

Still, the container was taken “by illegal means,” Insp. Duivesteyn said.

The Air Canada cargo warehouse sits just outside the airport’s security fence and faces a publicly accessible service road that trucks use to reach the loading docks.

Bruce Pitt-Payne, a retired RCMP major-crime investigator, said he believes somebody knew enough about the shipment to craft a plan.

“Somehow, somebody had information, they didn’t just all of a sudden go, ‘Gee, I wonder if there’s gold in that building? Oh, look, what a lucky day,’ ” he said from Maple Ridge, B.C.

For now, Mr. Pitt-Payne said investigators will be looking into where the stolen gold could be headed next and whether the thieves will be trying to sell it. Such investigations require a certain amount of luck to solve, he said, which doesn’t always work out.

“A certain percentage of police files don’t get solved and it really depends on who’s better at their job: The police or the criminal?” Mr. Pitt-Payne said.

Air Canada referred questions to the police. So did Pearson’s operator, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, making sure to emphasize that the theft occurred “outside of our primary security line.” “This did not involve access to Toronto Pearson itself and did not pose a threat to passengers or GTAA staff,” the operator said in an e-mail.

Peel Constable Mandeep Khatra said there was no update to provide on Friday.

Police have not said who owns the gold and other precious cargo, or named its intended destination. Brink’s Inc., the armoured-car company that offers secure logistics, was co-ordinating the shipment.

“We continue to work with law-enforcement officials on their investigation,” said Dana Callahan, vice-president of communications at Virginia-based Brink’s. “If assets are lost at any point during transfer, we reimburse our customers in accordance with our contract terms.”

Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, a popular place for wealthy people to bank, invest and store gold because of its stability, low taxes and strict privacy laws. Gold bars and coins are commonly bought and sold as safe investments, and routinely move by aircraft and armoured trucks among the world’s vault facilities.

Gold traded on Friday at just more than US$1,993 an ounce, not far from the high reached early in the pandemic. Gold prices have climbed in recent months amid instability in the global banking system and economic worries.

Mike Gupton, president of Winnipeg’s KMG Gold Recycling, said it is easy to remove the identifying marks from stolen gold, and simple to move it.

“If the items stolen were gold coins or bars from a recognizable mint such as the Royal Canadian Mint, U.S. Mint, or Johnson Matthey, they have probably been melted into other forms by now,” Mr. Gupton said, “and may be on a boat somewhere on the Atlantic headed east.”

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