From the history file: only one man came out

A murder mystery from 85 years ago, where three men went into the bush and only one came out.

Looking west over Trembleur Lake

Barbara Roden

Black Press

In early June of 1930, three men ventured north from Fort St. James into the bush. They had been working around the Vanderhoof area for several days, keeping to themselves and exciting no comment. All anyone knew about them was that they were German, and when they let it be known they were heading north to look for gold, and planned to be gone for some time, it raised no eyebrows. In 1930 central and northern B.C. was filled with men who had come from elsewhere—driven by unrest in Europe or the ravages of the Depression—to seek their fortune in the province. It was subsequently learned that the men’s names were Herman Peters, Max Westphal, and Karl Fredericks.

They arrived in Fort St. James sometime between June 2 and 6, and appeared to be amply provisioned. They purchased a boat, loaded up their supplies, and set out, passing—as The Prince George Citizen noted in November 1930—“from the ken of the whites to that of the Indians”. It was soon apparent to the Indians of Tachie that the men were not very competent, either in the bush or on the water. On June 11 they were making very slow progress up the Tachie River, and they were given a tow by August Matise to within four miles of Trembleur Lake. The three Germans had a meal with the Indians; then Baptiste Anatol completed the towing job to the lake. The Indians were quietly amused to note that the trio had made camp at the eastern end of the lake, some way off the usual line of travel.

Two days later their amusement turned to surprise when they found the men’s boat tied up at a landing some four miles south of the lake. It contained a large quantity of the men’s provisions, as well as a note asking whoever found the provisions to look after them until the owner returned. The following day one of the three Germans arrived at the Tachie reserve, indicating that he had taken ill and was going south to get hospital treatment in either Hazelton or Prince George, while his companions continued on their way to Takla Lake. He had money, and bought bearskins, moccasins, and other items—including a pair of moose horns—from the trading post on the reserve. Then he left for Fort St. James, where he got a ride in a car to Vanderhoof. He boarded the train heading east, and disappeared.

The Indians discussed the matter, trying to make sense of it. Why had only one man come out of the bush, and why had he brought the provisions with him? Why had they chosen such a difficult place to make camp on the lake, one that was fully exposed to the west wind? Perhaps the other two men had food caches, but they had not seemed very at home in the bush. It was a mystery; but it was also none of the Indians’ concern.

Some time went by, and eventually the Indians at Tachie despatched someone to the Provincial Police detachment in Vanderhoof to report the matter. There seemed little to go on, and less to investigate. One of the men had come out of the bush, saying he was ill. Well, that was not suspicious. Perhaps the provisions had been his, and his companions had their own provisions with them.

Nevertheless, the police followed up the only lead they had: that the man who had come out had said he would be seeking hospital treatment in Hazelton or Prince George. Police checked with both hospitals, but no one fitting the man’s description had been to either. Perhaps he had recovered, or had gone somewhere else. Police next checked with anyone who had been north of Trembleur Lake if they had seen the two men who remained break camp, or spotted them in the bush. No one had, despite the large number of people going into and out of that region.

This was rather more worrying. Constable Jennings of Vanderhoof took a party of men to Trembleur Lake and searched the campsite the men had used at the eastern end, but it yielded no clues. The lake was dragged in search of bodies, but nothing was found. The shore of the lake was scoured for other campsites the men might have used, but the search revealed nothing. Jennings returned to Vanderhoof, where he pondered the situation. The men had gone missing in June, and it was now early November. He did not yet know what he was investigating, but it was clear that if no clues were found before the snow began to fall the mystery might forever remain unsolved.

It was then that the police finally got a break. An Indian named Alex Prince arrived in Vanderhoof on Nov. 8 to say that he had discovered the remains of a small campsite near the lake, which had escaped detection during the earlier search. Jennings headed north once more, and began to search the site. At first it appeared that it would provide as little information as the other camp; but as he investigated he struck a large stone with a stick he was carrying. The stone was dislodged, and underneath it Jennings could see what looked like a piece of fabric. He began digging around it, and it was not long before he uncovered human remains.

Jennings immediately secured the site and hurried back to Vanderhoof for the coroner, Dr. Stone. They were back at the campsite on Nov. 15, and the grave—which had been very cleverly camouflaged—was exhumed. It revealed the very badly decomposed bodies of two men, both of whom had clearly sustained horrific injuries. The bodies were exhumed and, with considerable difficulty, taken to Vanderhoof, where an autopsy was performed.

The head of one man had been beaten to a pulp. The head of the other man had also been badly beaten, and had also been severed from the body; a process that must have taken some time. The men were lightly clad, indicating either that they had been killed while the slept, or that the murderer had removed any clothing that might have identifying marks. However, a cigarette lighter found on one of the bodies was identified as having belonged to Max Westphal; a fellow countryman testified that he had seen Westphal with it in Prince Rupert. The other body had on it a slip of paper with the name Herman Peters on it. This left Karl Fredericks as the man who had come out of the bush and disappeared to the east, and police immediately set about finding him.

To be continued