“After traditional methods failed, Law enforcement’s use of Early Bird to blanket the planet with Lemay’s likeness helped kick off a revolution in policing. Using technology to disseminate information to the public about fugitives and to track escapees has become an everyday occurrence…The world we now live in is a boon for law enforcement but raises all kinds of issues concerning our personal privacy and civil rights that will continue to be litigated well into the future. The world is getting smaller and smaller. Lemay wouldn’t have stood a chance against today’s technology-laden law enforcement, but he would have enjoyed the challenge.”
What do a Canadian bank robber in the 1960s and the technology that brings us HBO have in common? Besides the fact that the former would make a great docu-series for the latter, the answer is a lot!
In Satellite Boy: The International Manhunt for a Master Thief that Launched the Modern Communication Age, Andrew Amelinckx unearths the long-forgotten story of career criminal Georges Lemay, who pulled off one of Canada’s biggest bank heists in July 1961 with the help of a loyal ring of Montreal gang members before slipping past the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) into anonymity overseas. Amelinckx sets Lemay’s story against a Space Race backdrop, chronicling how the world’s first commercial communications satellite, the Early Bird, was used to capture him in Miami several years after his disappearance.
Developed by NASA-backed engineer Harold Rosen, the Early Bird was conceived with the goal in mind of being able to broadcast data synchronously across continents. Today, Rosen’s geostationary satellite technology is used for television streaming, GPS coordination, farm crop management, search and rescue teams and emergency phone notifications, to name a few. Shortly after it launched in spring of 1965, however, it was used to broadcast Lemay’s face into living rooms across the globe, making him internationally recognizable and demonstrating the newly realized potential of satellites for criminal justice.
Not only was Lemay’s apprehension in the wake of the broadcast a game changer for fugitives everywhere, but it also boosted satellite technology’s prestige within pop culture and made international crime fighting a household endeavor. The way Amelinckx tells it, Lemay’s eventual arrest wasn’t so much a testament to his own errors as much as it was a result of the sudden combination of policing and technology.
Amelinckx crafts a compelling dual narrative, following the movements of superhero scientist Harold Rosen and supervillain bank robber Georges Lemay separately until they converge into the one widely championed climax of Lemay’s demise. Though real, Satellite Boy reads like a classic mid-century Space Race thriller, with clear-cut opposing forces of good versus evil, plus a little bit of added mafia drama appeal.
Just as the 1960s were known for having skyrocketed western culture into a new era of professed social betterment, the pursuit of Lemay with the help of Early Bird stands as a testament to that spirit: it “represented the best aspects of the 1960s, a decade that strove for justice and opportunity and attempted to throw off the shackles of a past steeped in the opposite of those virtues.” The fact that one of the satellite’s first uses was for the apprehension of a master criminal across international borders says volumes about the decade’s collective prioritization of finding creative solutions to dangerous problems.
Amelinckx skillfully contextualizes the Lemay ordeal within the Space Race years, affirming throughout his book that both the crime and its correction were exclusive byproducts of their time. If there is any sympathy for Lemay, it is that he had the deep misfortune of finding himself stuck at an unexpected intersection between future-oriented social progress and old-school criminality.
Beyond providing a thorough background on satellite development and a well-researched account of both Lemoy and Rosen, what sets Amelinckx’s book apart is his ability to bring their biographies together under the umbrella of a changing world. For Amelinckx, it is clear that a crucial part of retelling stories of crime is to also remind readers of the world in which the crime was committed (and adjudicated).
Only those with a firm grasp on the hyper-competitive, technologically reckless Space Race mentality can fully appreciate Lemoy’s brand of criminality as unfortunately positioned at the hinges of massive social transition. Similarly, only an understanding of the intense good versus evil mentality that permeated North America during the onset of the Cold War can make a NASA-level response to a bank robbery fully make sense.
Unshockingly, Lemay’s legal troubles did not end when he was finally charged for his heist in 1969. Upon his release into a dramatically changed Montreal in 1977, Lemay turned to a new pursuit that to him appeared to be the crime wave of the future — the manufacturing and distribution of a new LSD-like drug. Once again, tech advancements proved to be Lemay’s downfall, with wiretapping and other forms of newly legalized electronic surveillance cluing police in on his movements before he had any idea they were on to him.
Hovering awkwardly between Butch Cassidy and Breaking Bad, the Lemay of the 1960s and 70s was both antiquated and a little too ahead of his time. With an era of technology breathing down his neck, he was consistently swept up by unanticipated advancements, without having the opportunity to develop any sense of tech age fluency that would help him sidestep these new ways of tracking. For all his savviness, he became an early example of the criminal mind falling short in the face of police-endorsed science.
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]Buy it now