IT WAS in a box about one foot square—a charred mass of earth, ashes, blackened straw, small pebbles and debris—and it was addressed to the RCMP Scientific Laboratory at Regina, Saskatchewan.
The letter from the Mountie detachment at Calgary said the contents had been dug from under a burned strawstack on a prairie farm. A man was missing and the strawstack had burned under suspicious circumstances . . .
That night RCMP experts pooled their findings and rushed a report to the Calgary detachment. It stated that: The ashes were from human bones; the deceased was male; he was middle-aged and likely of small stature; he wore armbands; he rolled his own cigarettes and he used a certain brand of cigarette papers.
X-ray had found human bone fragments in the charred mass. One fragment was identified as part of the humerus (the upper arm), and around it was a thin, twisted wire that was unmistakably an armband. That indicated the victim was likely small of stature, since tall men seldom need armbands. Alongside the humerus fragment where the chest would be—and a man’s vest pocket—ashes were noted. Analysis disclosed they were from cigarette papers. A further comparison with lab reports on all types of cigarette papers manufactured revealed the ashes were of a certain brand. From jawbone fragments and a third molar tooth it was deduced the victim was middle-aged.
The scientifically “reconstructed man” produced a negative result. He simply served to inform the Mountie detachment at Calgary that the missing man and the unfortunate individual who died under the strawstack were not the same because their descriptions were poles apart. But therein is an aspect of the laboratory’s work that the average citizen seldom considers—its value in preventing errors.
Fiction detective stories almost invariably have science guiding sleuths directly to the criminal’s doorstep. But from the viewpoint of justice, it’s equally important that the possibility of error be eliminated. In the case mentioned above the Mounties might have assumed, and reasonably so, that the missing man and the “charred mass” were the same. However, the laboratory established that (a) the missing man was still missing, and (b) a separate investigation must be launched into the case of the strawstack corpse. Both investigations are now under way.
Another typical example of how Mounties are relying on the laboratory to prevent error in investigations was a case at Nipawin, Saskatchewan, where an old man was found lying dead on a shotgun in a lonely cabin, having been shot twice through the abdomen. The investigators had picked up an empty cartridge beside the body and the coroner’s jury was ready to bring in a verdict of murder “by person or persons unknown.” But the Scientific Laboratory proved beyond all doubt that it was suicide and not murder—even reconstructing the tragedy by a series of sketches inspired by autopsy studies. They pointed out that one of the deceased’s wounds was certainly nonfatal, that there was no evidence of a struggle—even a tub of water standing on a wooden trestle beside the dead man had not been disturbed—and that hardening blood vessels in a man of the deceased’s age could induce a form of insanity usually required for a double suicide attempt.
THE RCMP Scientific Laboratory at Regina, last year handled 632 cases. It began in a humble way in 1937 in a bedroom adjoining the officers’ mess. It. is now as well equipped as any in the world. Every Mountie recruit must now take an intensive course including forensic medicine, ballistics, photography, fingerprinting, handwriting, plaster casts and moulage, restoration of number on metals, lock picking and glass fractures besides the regular intensive Mountie course called for on enlistment. Older members of the Force are being brought back for scientific brushup from as far as the Arctic.
Spark plug of the Scientific Laboratory is its hustling 37-year-old chief, Dr. Maurice Powers, who holds the rank of surgeon (equivalent to RCMP superintendent). He is recognized as one of Canada’s top men in the medico-legal field.
The rugged flavor of Mountie tradition often goes hand in hand with the scientific trend. Some months ago, following receipt of numerous anonymous letters alleging foul play on a long-buried corpse, Surgeon Powers flew to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, and landed along a fairly level pasture on the outskirts of the village—being guided to the makeshift runway by a man racing over the course in an automobile. He performed the autopsy with his wife, a registered nurse, taking the dictated notes. Last New Year’s Eve found the Powers at busy New York morgue seeking new technique in autopsies.
The Laboratory naturally has its favorite cases —ones in which seemingly “perfect crimes” break down in the face of scientific criminology. For instance, there is the case of the bloodstained male corpse found beside a railway track two miles from Meadows on the Manitoba prairies that brought a unanimous verdict of accidental death from a coroner’s jury.
The verdict should have marked “finis”—an unfortunate hobo killed in a railway accident. But in Winnipeg Inspector M. E. F. Anthony of the RCMP frowned over the report wired to him by the constable who investigated the tragedy.
“The skull was bashed in yet . . the Inspector mused after rereading the report, “yet there were no other broken bones or abrasions noted by the coroner. Something curious about that ...”
Inspector Anthony paced his office, imagining a number of possible ways in which the victim might have met death. Supposing he had walked into the train unnoticed by the engineer in the headlight glare?
“No, that doesn’t fit,” the Inspector shook his head. “The impact must have been severe—hard enough to hurl the body into the ditch beside the track. His neck should have been broken. Anyway, if that were the case, there should have been other marks on the body—why was only the skull bashed in?”
There was an alternative—he had either dropped or been thrown headfirst from the top cf a box car. Again the Inspector shook his head; certainly such a fall—sufficient to bash in the skull—would have broken the neck.
Returning to the report Inspector Anthony read that the coroner had estimated death came about 12 hours prior to the discovery of the body. He computed the victim had been hit either by the eastbound freight at 7.20 p.m. or the westbound passenger train at 9.32 p.m. The inspector phoned to the CPR railway police and asked for a checkup on the freight cars that had passed Meadows at 7.20 p.m. the previous night. “Look particularly for bloodstains on engine or cars,” he suggested.
In an hour the CPR police bureau phoned, “A foreman has found bloodstains in an empty gravel car that was on the train last night, Inspector . . . ”
Hurrying down to the Winnipeg yards, Inspector Anthony noted that the bloodstains began at the rear of the car with a large blotch and continued with spatterings the full length—as if a body had been dragged from the point of attack. At the point where the spatterings ended, bloodstains were found on the edge of the gravel car several feet above the floor.
“The body was lifted over the edge here,” said the Inspector, “and flopped beside the tracks. That explains the bashed-in skull and lack of broken bones or abrasions.”
Among the items collected for study at the Scientific Laboratory were seven white shirt buttons picked from the loose gravel on the car floor. To one of the buttons clung a jagged piece of cotton together with green and white strands of thread.
Mounties Use Dogs
SULTAN, a famous RCMP dog, now entered the investigation. Reasoning that, because the body had been found two miles beyond Meadows and the train had been coming toward Meadows, Inspector Anthony rated it a better than even bet that since murderers usually dispose of the weapon as soon as possible, the weapon in this case would likely be found within the two-mile stretch. So “Sultan,” after being allowed to sniff the deceased’s clothes, started from Meadows straining on the leash held by a Mountie constable.
A mile and a half from where the body had been found, the dog uncovered a bioodsmeared cap. Next morning, a half-mile farther on, “Sultan” darted into a clump of buffalo grass thirty feet from the railway tracks and presented his redcoated master with a heavy, bloodstained slab of wood, two feet in length, the jagged end of which was matted blood and hair.
At the Scientific Laboratory experts linked the body near Meadows with the slab of wood found a half-mile east and the gravel car 24 miles east in Winnipeg by comparing a blood sample from the body with blood on the slab of wood and bloodstained chips from the floor of the gravel car. The hair on the slab of wood was of the same color and texture as that of the corpse. Scrapings from the fingernails of the corpse were shown under the microscope to contain gravel particles identical with the samples from the floor of the gravel car.
The rest of the story is one of tedious detective work, of search for a pock-marked man described by the train crew as having been seen on the car in company with the deceased. The Mountie Criminal Investigation Bureau machine went into action on a Canada-wide basis and pockmarked characters were reported from all parts. A wrong lead from the Brandon relief office shifted the investigation 1,500 miles eastward to Saint John, N.B. The relief clerk reported a badly pock-marked man named Robert Bentley, with a Saint John address, had registered at a soup kitchen in Brandon for one meal the day before the murder. Inspector Anthony ordered copies of the soup, kitchen list to be sent to him and had the New Brunswick bureau go to work.
A telegram choked off the Maritime lead—Robert Bentley had never had smallpox and wasn’t pockmarked. That was that. But days later a Corporal of an RCMP detachment at the border town of Emerson mentioned that there was a lad named Nick Zhiha, who was tragically pock-marked, living near Emerson ... he had never been in any trouble, however, and was a quiet, hard-working youth.
‘"How do you spell the name?” Inspector Anthony queried abruptly.
“Z-h-i-h-a,” replied the Corporal.
The Inspector was frankly excited as he drew a finger down the soup kitchen list . . . there was Robert Bentley’s name . . . yes, sure enough!... the name below it was Nick Zhiha!
A hurried phone call to Brandon brought an admission from the soup kitchen clerk that she had made a mistake—the pock-marked man had been Zhiha.
The next step saw Dame Luck accompanying the Mounties as they raided the Zhiha farm. Nick was actually washing a green and white shirt from which most of the buttons were missing. The water had an odd pinkish tinge. Moreover, in his pockets he had a quantity of money which he couldn’t explain.
The Laboratory took over. The tub water reacted positively to a test for human blood; the cap found beside the tracks was proven to be Nick’s; the buttons discovered on the floor of the gravel car were shown by experiments to have been torn from the shirt; and, most crushing evidence of all, fingerprints on the death weapon were declared to be Nick’s.
To this damning flood of scientific evidence was added positive identification of the pock-marked Zhiha by two members of the train crew. Furthermore, a note written by the accused to his uncle declared he had learned the deceased had $60 on him. The note, intercepted by an alert Mountie while Nick was trying to smuggle it to the uncle, went on to say that he, Nick, had not intended to commit murder.
Nick Zhiha went to the scaffold because science had confirmed a Mountie Inspector’s suspicion that an officially pronounced accidental death just wasn’t accidental.
ONE DAY an irate prairie farmer summoned the Mounties and charged that his neighbor had deliberately shot at his cattle. From one cow’s leg the Mounties extracted a bullet from a .22 cartridge. But the laboratory found strange markings on the bullet and set the investigators on a new lead. The truth promptly came out and the complaining farmer was charged with fabrication of evidence. While trying to build up a case against his neighbor he had drawn a bullet from its cartridge with a pair of pliers, scored the bullet with a knife and then, after puncturing the animal’s hide, had inserted the bullet deep in its flesh.
Every now and again an opportunity arises for the nine experts of the Laboratory to conduct experiments hitherto untried by medico-legal research. Last summer a training plane containing a student pilot and his instructor was almost shot down by two “farmers” in Manitoba. The student pilot suffered a slight wound in the arm, while the hood of the front and rear) cockpits was damaged.
Upon their return to the airport the Commanding Officer launched an enquiry. The Mounties were called in.
The Mounties first visited the farmhouse nearest to the scene of the shooting. On the lawn in front of the farmhouse they found three empty cartridges. The farmer admitted owning two .22 calibre rifles but his son insisted nobody had fired a rifle on the property the day of the incident.
The investigators continued their search of the premises and found a trail leading to the field from which the shots were fired. The trail had unquestionably been left by two men.
In the field nine empty cartridges were found.
“Rush these to the lab,” the Mountie in charge told one of his constables. “Have them compared with the cartridges picked up on the lawn in front of the farmhouse.”
The lab report came back quickly. The cases of both sets of cartridges were similar.
Then occurred the first break in the case—a relative told the police that fliers, who frequently visited the farm, had borrowed the two rifles on that day and, donning old clothes, had gone hunting. At the airfield it was found the men were reported AWOL. Questioned the following day they admitted being in the field but denied shooting at the plane.
The rifles, empty cases, cockpit covers and other cartridges were sent to the Laboratory and the methods used to ascertain the weight of evidence are believed never to have been used before in criminal investigation. A small portion of the metal frame of the cockpit where the bullet had penetrated was removed, then cut in two, so that each half presented a concave surface. Test bullets from the suspected rifles were used to make impressions in plasticine. The impressions were then compared microscopically with the concave surfaces and the examination revealed identical major characteristics which enabled the examiner to conclude that one of the two rifles submitted could have been used to commit the offense.
The two airmen pleaded guilty, claiming they had only fired as a prank to frighten the pilots. They were fined and given three-month suspended sentences.
Web of Evidence
IT WAS the Scientific Laboratory’s first major test back in November, 1938, that zoomed it into prominence overnight. In that case the then infant Laboratory faced a cocky murderer who actually waived extradition in the United States, so confident was he that the Mounties couldn’t pin anything on him because they didn’t even have the revolver.
The case began with an abandoned car bearing Saskatchewan license plates found by the Winnipeg police on a side street. They noticed suspicious stains and called on Surgeon Maurice Powers to examine them.
“They’re human bloodstains all right,” he declared, after a test.
That was Nov. 12. Next, tracing back, the Mounties found the car belonged to J. A. Kaeser, a well-to-do farmer of the Moosomin district in Saskatchewan. He had been visiting in Regina and left for his home on the morning of Nov. 9. His wife had been expecting him but he failed to arrive or even phone after that date.
“Where’s Kaeser now and how did the car get to Winnipeg?” the Mounties pondered. Perhaps radio would help. They broadcast a description of Kaeser and his car.
In the Sintaluta district, Saskatchewan, a farmer’s wife was listening to the broadcast. An observant woman, name Mrs. Eva Trout, recalled having seen, a few days previously, a car answering the description drive off the highway into a field near her residence and stop there.
Mrs. Trout put on her coat and walked to the spot—and there, in a clump of bushes, found the body of a man.
Mounties answered her call in a hurry. Over the teletype went the report:
“Body identified as that of J. A. Kaeser found murdered. The body shows five bullet wounds. A short distance away five spent .38-calibre cartridge cases were found ...”
Winnipeg police, working in conjunction with the Mounties, learned a young transient had obtained a ride into Winnipeg in the bloodstained car. From the transient they obtained the first description of the murderer. More “leads” localized the area in which the car had been parked in Winnipeg and the police began a house-to-house call, supplementing the queries with press and radio appeals. Finally a Jack Heipel came forward and volunteered information that the car had been abandoned by him.
“But,” he added, “it had been turned over to me by my brother, Harry Heipel, who had driven it from the West on the evening of Nov. 9.”
The police found that Harry Heipel had rented a room in Winnipeg for a few days and had left a bloodstained raincoat behind. They found, too, that two suitcases belonging to Kaeser had been checked in a CNR check room by a man answering the description of Harry Heipel. The trail shifted back to the Arcola district, where Heipel had been working on his uncle’s farm until the first week of November. Searches produced several empty .38 calibre cartridge cases. A 10-year-old boy told of seeing Heipel in possession of a loaded revolver and extra shells, one of which he had. Heipel was also seen in possession of a revolver at Estevan, Saskatchewan, during the first week of November.
The trail out of Winnipeg became temporarily obscure but sharpened a few days later when immigration officers at Emerson, Manitoba, reported that one Harry Heipel, who had been granted permission to cross the border “to buy his mother a radio” in Minneapolis, had overstayed the 24-hour period allowed him.
Mounties in plain clothes accompanied Minneapolis police on a tour of the cheap rooming houses. They found a place where he had stayed for two days and a cheap club he had been frequenting. Descriptions of the wanted man were circulated throughout the United States. On Nov. 18 came a flash, “Harry Heipel arrested in Ogle County, Oregon, Ill.”
But Harry Heipel was no fool—at least, he thought he wasn’t. The Mounties couldn’t prove a thing without the gun which he had safely tossed away. As for the bloodstains in the car—hadn’t he already told that hitch-hiker transient that freshly shot ducks had caused them? Harry waived extradition and returned to Canada.
Proof by Science
HOWEVER, the trial before the King’s Bench at Regina proved a revelation for more than Heipel. As the Mountie experts proceeded to build a scaffold of deadly solidity, it brought home to the Canadian public in spectacular style that science had donned a red coat.
After the various witnesses presented their separate story-links of the murder chain, the Lab men proceeded to weld the links together.
Corporal — now Sergeant — J. I. Mallow began by producing enlarged photos of the body . . . bringing the full brutality of a good citizen’s murder home to the jury.
Surgeon Powers took the stand, “The stains I found on the cushions and upholstery of the car were human bloodstains—no other type of bloodstains,” he stated. “The overcoat found in Winnipeg which was identified as belonging to the accused also bore human bloodstains.”
Surgeon Powers testified that the overcoat of the deceased showed bullet holes in the back and, on applying the sulphanilic acid test to the cloth, it was determined that the shots fired at the deceased were at close range.
Dr. Frances McGill of the Provincial Laboratory, Regina, followed with testimony concerning the recovery from the body of four bullets “which were turned over to Sergeant J. A. Churchman of the RCMP Scientific Laboratory together with the .38 calibre cases found near the body.”
Then Sergeant Churchman placed the noose squarely on Heipel’s neck with greatly magnified microscopic photographs of the exhibit cartridge cases found near the body, and other photographs of the cartridge cases found at the farm where the accused had been working prior to the murder. Even to the untrained eyes of the jurymen, the similarity was obvious.
“It is my opinion,” concluded the Sergeant, “that the two sets of cartridges could only have been fired from the same revolver. I am also of the opinion that the weapon had a ‘five right twist’ and was a .38 calibre revolver with a slightly damaged firing pin.”
Harry Heipel was found guilty and sentenced to hang at Regina on April 6, 1939. The official Mountie report is climaxed by a stiff official notation, “The decision of the Court was upheld and this sentence carried out.”
But the postscript—added some time later—provides an intriguing anticlimax. It reads simply, “The following summer the murder weapon was found near Fleming, Sask. It was found to be a .38 calibre revolver with a slightly damaged firing pin.”