The parallels are striking. Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old native woman, was abducted from the streets of The Pas in 1971 by a group of young men, driven outside the northern Manitoba community, sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. Pamela George, a 28-year-old native, was allegedly picked up from a Regina street in April, 1995, driven outside the city, sexually assaulted and then beaten to death. In both cases, two young white men were charged with the murders. Eventually, Dwayne Archie Johnston was convicted of Osborne’s murder and James Houghton acquitted. In Regina, the first-degree murder trial of Steven Kummerfield and Alex Ternowetsky in the George case is entering its final stages. But aside from the obvious
similarities, there is at least one critical difference: it took 16 years before anyone was arrested in the Osborne murder, while charges in the George case were laid less than a month after the crime.
Although talk was rampant in The Pas about who was responsible for Osborne’s death, the ROMP were stymied by what many termed a “conspiracy of silence” when no one would come forward with information. It was not until Lee Colgan, who was with Johnston and Houghton on the night of the murder, was granted immunity for his testimony, that police laid charges in 1987—resulting in Johnston’s conviction later that year. A fourth man, Norm Manger, was deemed by the prosecution too drunk to have participated in the crime and never charged. Stung by criticism of how the case was handled, the Manitoba government ordered a judicial inquiry into the Osborne case and how the justice system treats native people in
that province. And now, after refusing to testify at his own trial or to answer questions at the judicial inquiry, Johnston is finally breaking his silence.
Hoping for early
release from his medium-security prison near Vancouver, where he is serving a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 10 years, Johnston recently told the RCMP and members of Osborne’s family that he did not kill Osborne—and named the person he says was responsible for her death. Johnston claims Osborne died after being beaten by one man and that he and the others then stabbed her 56 times with a screwdriver to make it appear she had been murdered by a “berserk” individual. Manitoba’s chief medical examiner, Peter Markestyn, said last week that Osborne’s autopsy report will be reviewed to deter-
mine if she died before being stabbed. The RCMP said they will review Johnston’s statements and decide if any new charges are warranted. By comparison, the George case was a textbook example of the public assisting police with information that led to a quick arrest. According to police sources, a key break occurred when a friend of the two accused came forward with information about the murder after speaking to the suspects. That turn of events is applauded by Del Anaquod, an aboriginal teacher at the University of Regina. “If it was their friends who went to the police, I have to admire them,” says Anaquod. The same cannot be said of those who, for years, kept silent about the death of Helen Betty Osborne.
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