GENERAL ARTICLES

The Missing Motive

VERNON LACHANCE August 1 1932
GENERAL ARTICLES

The Missing Motive

VERNON LACHANCE August 1 1932

The Missing Motive

It took four years to solve this murder mystery but in the end the Mounted got their man

VERNON LACHANCE

CONSTABLE GEORGE WILMETT of the Mounted Police moved quietly through the streets of Frank, Alberta, observing carefully the faces and movements of the unemployed and striking miners who were still abroad. His orders were to detect and arrest the thieves who had been working the district that centred on the Wild Goose Hotel. It was his first detail in plain clothes.

Those who returned his scrutiny saw a young man of good muscular development, with an open, good-natured face, brown hair and grey, serious eyes, a fairly recent recruit from the Imperial Yeomanry. Of two things the constable could be quite certain: his identity was unknowns in Frank, and he had not an enemy in the province.

It was Saturday night, pay night for the lucky who had work, another night of incendiary talk for the rest. Frank was full of poverty and theft. Even the frequenters of the Wild Goose complained of robbed rooms, and more than one guest kept a gun concealed. After midnight, Wilmett posted himself behind the hotel and checked off all he saw. Despite a cloudy moon, it was black night in the shadow of the hotel laundry.

At first the vigil was entertaining. A poker party was progressing in a lower room. In the basement an oyster feed was going on. Wilmett smiled at the sounds of revelry. Suddenly he roused himself. Some one had come stealthily from the back door and was trying to enter a ground-floor window, a rather senseless proceeding. Wilmett watched. A pane broke. The man swore, but crawled over the sill. There were sounds, a struck match. Then the man climbed out again with a pail and re-entered the back door. No robber, this.

One o’clock came, and two. Wilmett still waited. It was quiet now, and into this quiet fell a sound from the direction of the freight shed down the lane. Wilmett stole toward it. The sound became surreptitious footsteps. In the clouded moonlight the constable made out a figure slinking in the shadows. He drew a revolver. The figure stopped as the constable reached him.

“What’re you doing here?” Wilmett asked sharply.

The figure, cursing, raised a gun and fired.

Inspector Belcher saw at a glance that mystery had rarely arranged a death with fewer clues. The body of Wilmett, discovered by the Chinese dishwasher of the Wild Goose early on Sunday morning, lay obviously where it had fallen, the blood clotted in its original stream. The body, when found, was still warm.

No Clues

NO STRUGGLE had taken place. No footprint told a special tale. No telltale article had been dropped. Wilmett’s revolver was at his side, a button from his vest lay near the body, but no sign disclosed a single fact about the murderer.

From the wound the doctor removed two gun cartridge wads. This wound, mangling the arteries above the collar bone, had been inflicted at close range—a very few feet. Beyond that, nothing could be told.

If there were no clues, there were at least steps to be taken. A hotel full of questionable guests awaited strict examination. The town brimmed with suspicious characters. A railway had to be watched, roads to be put under scrutiny, houses to be checked for weapons, names taken. Superintendent Primrose arrived to direct action. Back at Macleod, Wilmett was laid beside the others who had died in the service of the Force. It is a peaceful little cemetery where you can read distinguished names.

Many items of suspicion piqqed the searchers’ professional curiosity. Nobody in the Wild Goose would admit having heard the shooting, a fact mysterious if true. George Bend, the clerk, had been up until three a.m., but was positive he had heard nothing. A dozen other men, all of whom could not have been drunk, were within immediate earshot, yet denied any knowledge of a shot. And yet a brakeman and an engineer shunting the freight some blocks away had remarked it. So, they alleged, had two residents who lived some distance from the hotel.

Of the guests in the Wild Goose, two were remarkably tangled in their accounts of the oyster eaters’ movements. One admitted having gone to the storeroom in the lane for more bivalves, but denied ever having seen Wilmett, let alone causing his death. He also admitted that several of

the party kept shotguns handy—for the duck-shooting

season, he explained.

The census of firearms extended to the homes of the foreign mining element, without suspicious result. A bloodhound had managed to follow a line some distance from the place where Wilmett’s body had been found, but was thwarted by a snowstorm. A crowd of miners followed the hound with a sort of furtive interest.

Meanwhile rumors were multiplying like sparrows. A breed at a distant colliery had used threatening language against the police; the night watchman of the Wild Goose had shot Wilmett in mistake for a burglar; an emotional drunkard confessed to the murder in confidential conversation with his friends; an old lady in a near-by town had seen the murderer clearly in a dream and would identify him in return for a free trip to Frank. But, like sparrows, the rumors were soon put to flight. The breed recanted; the drunkard soon sobered under police questioning; and the most that could be got from the night watchman was the fact that he had lost the key to the storeroom, which accounted for the oyster hunter having to break the pane.

Stoney Indians were engaged to search for the gun, in the assumption that it had been thrown away. The Stoneys lasted only two days. A Blood Indian did no better.

A distinctive diamond cutter stolen from a hardware store in Frank was sought for in the hope that its discovery might lead to the identification of the thieves. Beyond sowing an idea in Inspector Belcher’s mind, the diamond cutter lead failed; but the idea stuck. "Thieves,” thought Belcher. "Hunt for the thieves.”

It was the logical deduction. Wilmett had no enemies; few people in Frank even knew that he was a member of the Force. He must have interrupted a criminal at work and been put away. With the background of Frank’s floating population, its reticent and suspicious foreign element, a solution looked hopeless. Unless some one talked. Unless the murderer had accomplices. Belcher cast his lines, stimulated all his channels of information to be on the alert for a whisper when time should have lulled the murderer into a sense of security.

A year elapsed. Superintendent Primrose, directing the case, had covered all other possible angles. He had another

Continued on page 35

The Missing Motive

Continued from page 11

idea. A murder with an all male cast was a rarity. Where was the woman? The neighborhood had been ransacked, the oysterparty suspects, some of whom had gone to the States, had been watched at considerable cost without result. All at once two women swam to the surface of the investigation; girls who had been employed in Frank at the time of the murder. To one of them, Jennie Birn, it had been more than a nine days wonder. She could not help confiding to a friend that she had assisted Burton—one of the revellers—at an embarrassing moment by hiding his gun from the police. She still wrote to Burton at Biggsville.

This news injected new life into the Force’s investigation. Staff Sergeant Piper had a talk with Jennie. Either she was shallow or very deep indeed. Why shouldn’t she have hidden Burton’s gun? What right had the police nosing around a nice man’s room like that? Besides, if she had wished, she could have told them where Burton was that night. Here Jennie blushed.

To Biggsville went Piper. Burton had left, but a trunk remained, and in it were some of Jennie’s letters. Five referred to Wilmett. They indicated a deep interest in the murder, yet connected no one with the crime. In one the girl implored Burton to tell all he knew. In another she referred to her own false statements about the gun. In none was there the slightest aid. Nor did an interview with the girl, now confronted by the letters, add any clue. The oyster party was a cul-de-sac. The commissioner warned Primrose of the mounting expense.

But the division remembered its vow; and Belcher could not forget his theory that thieves entered into the story. As the months wore on, as the mining population of Frank drifted off to other fields, a tiny germ of doubt sprouted in the inspector’s mind. If his theory7 that the murderer had been an interrupted thief were right, might not the murderer by this time be thousands of miles away—well out of the country, in fact?

Belcher’s stubbornness asserted itself. He refused to entertain the thought. Once again he prodded his sources of information. The result was as barren as before.

New Michel, in British Columbia and out of the Mounted Police jurisdiction, had become a replica of Frank. Many of the Frank miners had drifted there as employment in the Alberta mine fields became more and more irregular. This time Belcher’s prodding took in New Michel. It was not just chance. Information had reached him that a cycle of disturbance was now going on in New Michel similar to that in Frank at the time of the murder—a strike, poverty, theft.

One October day in 1911, three and a half years after the murder, a Frank teamster brought back from New Michel an amusing interview with a “lady” whom he had known when she and her husband lived in Frank, a Mrs. Weiner. The teamster was Carl Schnorr.

Mr. Weiner, as his wife complained, had unfortunately been detected stealing a large quantity of clothing and had fled New Michel. Wouldn’t Mr. Schnorr come down to the house for a drink?

Carl went, and the woman drank with him. In the course of many confidences, Mrs. Weiner protested that her husband was not the only rascal in town. Take Matis. He was worse. Infinitely. What hadn’t he done, especially when he lived in Frank?

Carl remembered Inspector Belcher’s importunities. “Well, what did he do that was so bad?” he asked. “Tell me about it.”

Some glimmer of suspicion stirred in the woman. “What do you want to know for?”

Perhaps the teamster was too elaborately casual, at any rate he learned nothing further, and Inspector Belcher, back at Frank, received a very sketchy tale when Schnorr appeared before him. But the word “thefts” had its magic. And Belcher remembered the man Matis. He had been one of the mining colony at the time of the murder. The information might be anything or nothing, but the inspector felt the

first stirrings of excitement. He communicated with his officer commanding.

“No arrest at present,” said Primrose, “but watch him. Get Mrs. Weiner to talk some more. Locate her husband for the stolen goods, and quietly. We don’t want to arouse sleeping birds.”

Arrest of Eberts and Matis

"DUT birds rouse easily. Mrs. Weiner,

I ■*-' infected with suspicion by the teamster’s questions, decided to sell out and go to "her sister in the country.” Piper, however, had a conversation with her first, and learned that another man was even less pleasing to her than Matis, one Eberts. He had also lived in Frank and was now in New Michel. One or the other of these men had informed on her husband, according to Mrs. Weiner, for his thefts. The woman went on to hint of direr things, saying that if Mr. Weiner was caught, Matis would ; hang. Then she boarded a train for the ; East. A member of the Mounted Police in i mufti took the same train.

Inspector Belcher was growing happier as the reports came in. From this unsavory nest at New Michel something important might hatch. In order to detain the jobless Matis and Eberts in New Michel, it became necessary to find work for them.

One day in Montana Mr. Weiner was surprised to find himself under arrest. The mounted policeman, led to him by the unwitting Mrs. Weiner and accompanied by the local sheriff, had found large quantities of stolen goods in his possession. Weiner burst into a storm of rage, implicating Matis and Eberts and indeed various others, later shown to be guiltless, in numerous crimes. Then, while the extradition papers were being prepared, he vanished into the thin air of Montana after breaking three of the sheriff’s teeth. He was not recaptured.

There remained the malodorous birds of New Michel, all ex-inhabitants of Frank, one at least connected with theft. Was it not likely that they had been thieves before, at Frank? Already an investigation at Frank had brought unfavorable comment from people who remembered Matis and Eberts. More than one of their compatriots had blamed them for the series of thefts which Wilmett had been investigating. It was not much to go upon, but enough with the ever present danger that the escaped Weiner might become remorseful and warn his erstwhile friends. Piper left to make the arrests.

Hundreds of striking men were seething for a riot. A strong socialist influence harangued against the law and its officers. At Femie, a few miles away, the mayor was reading the Riot Act. In this atmosphere the lean, courageous Piper took Matis and Eberts into custody, one at a time. Eberts’ comment, though guttural, was brief: “The —women have given me away.”

Now the hardest work for the police was to begin. Not in hours or days could the witnesses be assembled and their memories of nearly four years ago be verified. In a world that is far from infallible, Canadian courts have a high reputation for justice; so have the Mounted Police. In this case it was doubly necessary to secure unquestionable evidence, since Wilmett had been one : of the outfit. Four months went by -a long I time in a Mounted Police case - while news about Eberts was coming from Germany before the trial began.

Eberts’ record in the homeland was an eye-opener. Already seven times convicted for offenses, one a stabbing affray, he had fled to Canada to escape prosecution for an eighth. Germany described him as a rough and violent man. universally dreaded after his military service.

Matis had wandered into Frank only a few days before Wilmett’s death, and had lived alternately with the Weiners and the Eberts. Two days before the murder, Weiner had presented Matis with some unused tools, including a diamond cutter. Mrs. Matis suspected stolen goods and induced her husband to throw them back I into Weiner’s place. Weiner laughed at such ' sensitiveness and gave Matis a drink. Matis

warmed and spoke of poverty. Both Weiner and Eberts told Matis not to worry; they would help him out when he was up against it. Indeed, Eberts invited Matis to go looting with him on the following night, Saturday. Matis mildly demurred.

The men took a nap in Eberts’ shack before starting out, and Eberts borrowed Matis’ gun “to defend himself.” They tried first to break into the freight shed. Matis saw some one moving furtively at a distance and warned Eberts, who said it was probably another “smart fellow” out for a night’s thieving—maybe Weiner himself. They next tried the butcher shop, unsuccessfully. As they came behind the Wild Goose, they saw a shadow. It moved. Possibly suspecting more competition, Eberts grabbed the gun, saying, “I’m going to find out who it is.”

The Motive Discovered

"DOTH men crept around an icehouse to better the surprise. Eberts went ahead and around the corner. Matis, starting to round the other corner, heard a shot. It terrified him. He ran downhill toward the river. The footsteps of another man, also running, followed him. They were on his heels. Matis, almost winded, in a panic, looked around. It was Eberts.

“What was it?” gasped Matis.

“A police, I think,” said Eberts, “but he wasn’t dressed like one.”

“He shot at you?”

“I came around the corner. He was standing there. ‘What’re you doing here?’ he asked. I’m pretty sure it was a police.”

“And you shot him?”

Eberts patted the gun. “Ja. It’s a good gun, this one of yours,” he added significantly.

They stole back to their shack. It was nearing morning. When Eberts woke, he made his insinuation of the night before still plainer. If Matis squealed, he would be the one to hang, for it was his gun.

They did not go down town that day, but dropped into Weiner’s and heard that Frank was buzzing over the murder.

“I’ll bet you two could give a word about that,” said Weiner. “You were out last night?”

“No.” lied Eberts; “we slept too hard.”

When Matis next saw his wife, she told him that Mrs. Eberts had told her all about the murder and that Eberts had said he had committed it. Which sex was loquacious now?

To arrive at the foregoing, simple as it sounds, the Mounted Police had performed in reality a miracle. They had created a clear case from the clueless vacuity which had persisted for four years. Bit by bit the story was built up. checked and tested. Interesting data came out. Eberts had escaped the searchers twice. On the day after the murder Piper had visited his shack, and Eberts had given his name as Wilhelm Wald and shown his gun, an unused single-barrelled shotgun, whereas two wads had been found in the wound. At another time of search Matis presented a Mauser rifle for inspection, and so escaped. Mrs. Matis testified that when Piper called, the shotgun used at the murder was on loan to a friend. This chance occurrence may have prolonged the search for years.

Almost four years to a day after Wilmett’s death, Eberts was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. A reprieve was granted to hear an appeal for a new trial, but the appeal was dismissed.

Finally Eberts’ sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life. Wilmett, in his honorable grave, was at last avenged. Another file was closed. The missing motive, which had wrapped an added layer of mystery about the case, had been found, not in long hatred or revenge or jealousy or avarice, but in sudden fear. As Superintendent Primrose, as Inspector Belcher and Staff Sergeant Piper and the many others who had brought the murderer to light went atout their routine, they were no longer disturbed by an unfulfilled vow. Another expensive, long and harassing effort had been justified.