When Joseph Cresp confessed to walking out of the Sunrise Dam gold mine with more than $200,000 worth of gold in his pocket, mine owner AngloGold Ashanti faced an interesting choice.
The 52-year-old contractor, working in a position of trust in the mine’s processing mill, stole the four kilograms of gold after it fell out of a machine he was fixing: all in a bid to surprise his wife with a holiday to Greece.
So would the billion-dollar South African mining giant opt to throw the book at Cresp? Or would they choose to accept an invitation to participate in mediation with an admitted thief?
The company, as the District Court heard during Cresp’s sentencing, chose the latter.
“[AngloGold] saw it as an opportunity to gain insights into how the company could improve its security measures,” AngloGold Ashanti senior vice president Mike Erickson said in a statement this week.
“As well as providing Mr Cresp with the chance to express his remorse and apologise for his actions in a dignified manner.”
Sentencing Cresp to a two-year suspended jail term, Judge John Staude told the District Court company representatives had initially expressed scepticism the 52-year-old had managed to steal so much gold in one single, spontaneous hit.
But he said their enthusiasm improved once the details became apparent – to the point they flew Cresp to Perth at their expense so meetings could continue.
The process, as well as Cresp’s willingness to return the gold he stole and the money he received by selling it, played a critical role in his unexpected suspended sentence.
“We felt the process was constructive for both parties, and aligned with AngloGold Ashanti’s values,” Mr Erickson said.
A long history of thievery
The simple fact they are digging one of the most valuable substances in the world out of the ground means theft has been a long-term challenge for gold miners.
It was rampant in the early days of Western Australia’s Goldfields, eventually prompting a Royal Commission and the creation of the WA Police Gold Stealing Detection Unit [GSDU] in 1907.
The amount of money involved meant each investigation carried high stakes: none higher than the murder of GSDU investigators John Walsh and Alexander Pitman in 1926.
Gold thieves Phillip Treffene and William Coulter ambushed and killed the detectives, dismembering their bodies, burning them in a gold smelter and dumping the remains down a mine shaft.
But after Aboriginal trackers discovered their bodies a fortnight later, Coulter, Treffene and their accomplice Evan Clarke were arrested.
Clarke eventually turned against his co-conspirators and was sent into hiding, while Coulter and Treffene were hanged.
External security a big issue for mines
While internal thefts are less frequent, mines with poor security can prove a treasure-trove for criminals.
The stories are often bizarre: three men who stole more than kilogram of gold from a lease last year claimed they found it during a barbecue in bushland 40km from the nearest town.
Another alleged thief, who appeared in the Kalgoorlie Magistrates Court last month, risked serious chemical burns by stealing gold directly from the tailings ponds of a mine near the city.
Gold is always vulnerable, but the GSDU’s current officer-in-charge Chris King said more dangerous goods were often the target.
“External offenders entering sites are a problem; site security is a big focus for us,” Detective Sergeant King said.
“In the last 12 months, my officers have seized electronic detonators, power gel explosives and detonation cord.
“That hasn’t been seized from mine employees, but there’s only one place it could have come from.”
High wages, job security reduce the theft risk
Asked why large-scale gold thefts are now so unusual, Detective Sergeant King said the risks ultimately outweighed the rewards.
That risk is rammed home by the gold squad detectives on regular visits to mine sites, where they will speak to workers about the risk posed by theft and drug use on site.
“People aren’t stupid; they don’t want to put their salaries at risk,” he said.
“A mine site is a micro-community, so you get the same problems as you see out in society.”
But he said the combination of better investigative techniques and companies’ increased vetting of staff had seen the industry become much cleaner as a result.