Almost a decade ago Lee Scott Colgan made a startling confession to his friend Gerald Wilson. Over beers at the Legion Hall in The Pas, Man., Colgan told Wilson that he had been involved in the 1971 murder of an 18-year-old native woman, Helen Betty Osborne. Testifying at the late November trial of a Manitoba man accused of killing Osborne, Col gan said that Wilson, who worked as a court sheriff, reprimanded him at the time. But Wilson waited nearly a dec
ade before reporting the conversation to the RCMP. Now, the mystery of the murder has ended, but many townspeople are asking why it took so long to bring Osborne’s killer to justice. Colgan’s appearance at the Osborne trial proved to be vital. Largely on the basis of his testimony—that he himself had not killed the young native, but that he had been present when she died—a
12-member jury convicted Dwayne Archie Johnston of the second-degree murder of Osborne. Still, community leaders say that unless the full story of the murder and subsequent police investigation is told, relations could deteriorate between the residents of the northern Manitoba pulp-and-paper town of 6,700 and the 2,000 residents of neighboring The Pas Indian reserve. Said the chief of
The Pas Indian band, Oscar Lathlin: “I would want to avoid generalizing by saying everybody in town knew about the incident, because that is not so. But some people knew. It is those people— those who were in a position of authority—that I am disappointed in.” Both Lathlin and the mayor of The Pas, Bruce Unfried, have urged Manitoba’s NDP government to conduct a public inquiry. In response, the RCMP and Attorney General Victor Schroeder’s department have completed in-
ternal reports. Now, Schroeder must decide whether a public inquiry is warranted. The Osborne case began on the night of Nov. 12, 1971. After an evening of drinking beer, whisky and fortified wine, four young men—Johnston, Colgan, James Houghton and Norman Manger—forced Osborne, then a The Pas high-school student, into Colgan’s
father’s car. They drove her to a campground 56 km north of the town. According to Colgan’s testimony, he, Houghton and Manger remained in the car while Johnston struggled with Osborne behind the car. Houghton then got out of the car, Colgan said, to see what was happening. When Houghton and Johnston got back into the car, one of them—he said that he could not remember which one—told Colgan: “She’s dead.” When a fisherman’s son discovered the naked body the following morning, it bore a large number of wounds. According to the autopsy report, Osborne had been stabbed 50 times with a screwdriver.
The four men soon became the centre of an RCMP investigation, but on the advice of a local lawyer they refused to talk to authorities. It took investigators seven months to obtain a warrant to search the car—and when they finally carried out the search, it did not give them enough evidence to press charges. The police periodically revived the investigation, but it was not until the fall of 1986, after Wilson came forward, that police said that they had enough evidence to lay charges against Colgan. After his arrest, Colgan agreed to testify against Johnston and Houghton in exchange for immunity. After a seven-day trial, Houghton was acquitted for lack of evidence and Johnston was sentenced to life, with no eligibility for parole for 10 years. His lawyers are appealing the verdict. Manger was never charged.
In the years before police laid charges, the suspected involvement of the four men in the crime became common knowledge around town. At the trial, local resident Andrea Wiwcharuk said that in 1972 she was present at a party in The Pas where Johnston asked guests: “Do you know what it feels like to kill someone? It feels great.” According to Wiwcharuk’s testimony, he then made stabbing motions, explaining, “I picked up a screwdriver, and I stabbed her and I stabbed her and I stabbed her.”
Native leaders have questioned whether race was a factor in the long delay of the Osborne case. Said Ethel Constant, president of the Opasquiak Native Women’s Group: “The ones in authority, the ones who knew, how come they kept it secret? Was it because she was a native woman?” For his part, Mayor Unfried says that he doubts that race was the reason, but he insists that a full public inquiry is needed. Said Unfried: “This issue is not going to evaporate. If we are concerned about justice, we have to get at these issues.” After 16 years of rumor and suspicion, Unfried says, it is time to clear the air.
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