Using one of the many prompts from Geneabloggers I decided to document an interesting criminal case from the Winnipeg Free Press involving robbery and murder. Here is a digital version of an article from the Magazine Section of the Winnipeg Free Press printed on Saturday, June 6, 1942.
It is a dramatic account of the murder investigation of 23 year-old Peter Demcheson (Peter Demschyzn), a young settler from the Fork River area in the Mossey River Municipality that occurred approximately 10 years prior on Oct. 14, 1930. Peter attended the Mowat School for a number of years before leaving school to aid his family on their homestead. His murderer, Joseph Verhoski (Joe Veroski), was eventually caught and was hung for the crime on February 2, 1931.
This story is interesting to note as it is revisited again in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press printed on Saturday, June 26, 2004. The article documents that the R.M. of Mossey had recently converted to the numbered road system thereby changing the once interesting name Murder Hill Road to Road 180 N. While changing the names of road to something that may be easier to mange we lose interesting tidbits that could identify what occurred in the community’s past.
Six Points To The Scaffold ~ By Edward Green (6 Jun 1942)
Months of the Most Detailed and Disappointing Investigation Work Ever Carried on by the Manitoba Provincial Police Were Rewarded by The Evidence of a Ballistics Expert and Another Rural Murder Mystery Was Solved.
GENERAL science is merciless, but the science of forensic ballistics is more so by its cold impartiality to life or death area in the criminal courts. Today it is accepted as irrefutable evidence, pro or con, in all Canadian courts of justice, but the following story deals with the time it was first reluctantly admitted to the courts of Manitoba.
Our story opens when William Demcheson, homesteader living near Fork River, a tiny settlement on the highway between Dauphin and Winnipegosis in northern Manitoba, looked anxiously at the darkening sky. The bleak October day was drawing to a close, and the steady downpour of rain had turned to snow. The first chill touch of a long prairie winter was in the air.
Demcheson wondered what could be delaying his brother Peter, who had left earlier in the day to keep an appointment with Dr. Medd, of Winnipegosis. Peter had taken William’s Ford car for the trip and he should have been home by this time. It was probable he was having a hard time negotiating the muddy highway, but somehow or other, William was not satisfied with this possibility. As the night wore on he grew more and more restless, his imagination running riot. Finally he went to bed.
Next morning William was still more anxious because Peter had not returned. Knowing his brother as he did, he was sure some hard luck had befallen him. He reasoned that if Peter had been delayed on some legitimate matter he would have sent word. He was of the quiet, studious type, not prone to staying out late or absenting himself from home without giving a sound reason. William turned to his work, his mind a prey to a million worries.
Two days later, Peter was still absent and William was new thoroughly alarmed. He sought the assistance of his neighbors and they organized a search party. They scoured the road and willow bushes for miles around, but there was no sign of Peter or the car. William immediately made his way to Winnipegosis, where he learned from Dr. Medd that his brother had supposedly left for home on the afternoon of October 14. The local practitioner could give no information as to where Peter might be, and with a fixed conviction that something terrible had happened, William lost no time in communicating with the Manitoba Provincial police at Dauphin. Sergeant G. A. Renton, in charge of the detachment, listened to his story and at once detailed Constable Bayfield to assist the local search party.
Under the able direction of the constable the entire country around Fork River was combed without result. On being questioned by Bayfield Dr. Medd said that Peter had had an abscess lanced while in his office. The abscess had been on his left cheek and had presented no difficulty. The doctor’s answers set at ease any doubts as to the missing man’s physical condition. It had been thought that Peter, weakened by illness, might have lost control of the car and met with an accident.
Many persons had traversed that highway, however, and if there had been a car smash they certainly would have reported it. That possibility was now scouted by the doctor’s opinion. The constable therefore decided to begin a methodical search, starting at Winnipegosis and working toward Fork River.
The occupants of every house along the highway were questioned. None of them had see Peter Demcheson or the Ford car. They were very emphatic on that point. Yes, they knew, and liked the young man, but as the weather had been very inclement they had not been outside as much as usual. No, they hadn’t even noticed any new car tracks, but the roads were so slushy that it would be impossible to identify any tire marks. However, they all agreed that it would be possible for Demcheson to have passed without being seen. Apparently, so far as the search party was concerned, Peter Demcheson and his Ford car had vanished in thin air somewhere between Dr. Medd’s office and the outskirts of Winnipegosis.
Discerned Something in A Thick Clump of Bush
But Constable Bayfield knew that men and automobiles do net vanish without trace. He spread the members of his party out and ordered them to proceed carefully covering an area a half-mile wide on each side of the road. So carefully and thoroughly did they search that it took them hours to cover a few miles.
But they went on in the biting cold until, while pushing through some heavy bush, one of the searchers discerned something in a thick clump of bush. Rushing forward, after calling his companions the man stopped when he saw a Ford car covered with brush. But there was no sign of its driver.
Though night was falling, a diligent search of the vicinity failed to uncover any trace of Peter Demcheson. There were no signs of a struggle; nor was there anything about the abandoned car to indicate that violence had taken place. This was puzzling, for if Demcheson had driven the car into the bush, where was he now? Why would he deliberately hide his brother’s automobile?
Bayfield turned to William Demcheson, who stood by, horror-stricken. Sympathetic, but persistent questioning by the constable elicited the fact that Peter had intimated he might go to Dauphin after visiting Dr. Medd. But if Peter had gone to Dauphin why was the car left in the bush just three miles out of Winnipegosis?
Winnipegosis was next subjected to a thorough canvass in an effort to discover if Peter had accepted a lift from other persons going to Dauphin. No information to this effect was discovered and William insisted that the search be continued along the highway.
Two hundred yards northeast of the point where the car was discovered, Thomas Bednas, a storekeeper, stopped about 15 feet from the road allowance and inspected a pile of brush. He noticed a heavy stone on top of the brush pile and wondered why it should be there. He called other members of the search party and when Constable Bayfield arrived he pointed to something in the brush. It was a piece of cloth.
The brush was hurriedly thrown aside by eager hands. Fearful, William Demcheson stood by.
There, on the muddy ground, lay the dead body of Peter Demcheson. Arms outspread, and hatless, with the surgical dressing still on his face, the unfortunate man’s sightless eyes stared up to the grey sky. A hasty examination for the cause of death showed he had been shot through the left breast. A ragged wound about one and one-half inches in diameter indicated that the weapon used was a shotgun fired at an angle.
Cautioning every member of the party to remain where they stood, Constable Bayfield began a minute search of the immediate surroundings. Nine feet southwest of the body lay a number of freshly cut poplar poles. A few more poles lay in a shallow ditch as though hastily cast aside. Bayfield inspected them certain they were connected with the tragedy.
Continuing his search, the constable covered the ground carefully. Twelve feet west of the body he found a discharged shotgun shell. It was a l2-gage Meteor, a popular brand, made by the Dominion Cartridge company. Close by he picked up another shell. It was from a .32 caliber pistol and made by the same company. About 30 feet farther on he found a plain cardboard wad, and 10 feet away, in the same line of flight, lay another wad. Bayfield wrapped these finds and placed them in his pocket for safekeeping.
Thirty-eight feet from the body, almost on the road, was a stained area about 10 inches in diameter, which Dr. Medd, who was with the party, decided was a bloodstain. According to the position of the stain, in relation to that of the wads, here was where Demcheson had been shot down. In a partial reconstruction of the tragedy, Bayfield deduced that Demcheson had alighted from the car for some reason and had been slain from ambush.
That the unfortunate youth had been murdered, there was not the slightest doubt. The sweater he wore had been pulled up at the back in a manner that indicated it had been used to drag the inert form along the ground. The stained spot proved that a large amount of blood had been spilled and after suffering such a wound no man could possibly have crawled that distance. Death, according to Dr. Medd, had been instantaneous.
PUZZLED as to who could have committed such a brutal murder, Constable Bayfield fingered the shells in his pocket. Judging from them, the slayer must be armed with a pistol and a shotgun. Why should any man in this peaceful district carry two deadly weapons? Bayfield didn’t know, but he was determined to find the answer. He ordered the body of Peter Demcheson removed to Winnipegosis to await the action of a coroner’s jury.
No information as to the motive for the crime was brought to light at the inquest. The post-mortem showed that the left lung had been disintegrated by a charge of shot, which had also shattered the spinal column. The wound ranged downward, and it was the opinion of the coroner that Demcheson had been shot while he was in a stooping position. Bayfield recalled those poplar poles. Evidently they had been used to block the road and when Demcheson alighted to remove them he had been shot.
Now that the crime of murder had been established, the police were faced with the task of apprehending the murderer. If a motive could be found the task would be simplified in this sparsely settled district. But if no motive were uncovered the apprehension of the slayer would be extremely difficult.
Sergeant Renton arrived from Dauphin to take charge of the investigation. Aside from the shotgun and pistol shells he had nothing to work on.
Inquiries in the district brought nothing but praise for young Demcheson. He was a like-able youth, just finishing his high school education. After school hours he helped his brother with the farm work and was steady and industrious. He had no love affairs and he had carried only five dollars on him when he left his brother’s home on that fatal day. Surely no one would murder a man for such a paltry sum. Yet, somebody had killed him and the reason was going to be hard to find, for all were agreed that Peter Demcheson was a fine young man who would have harmed no one.
Renton was up against a dead end for the moment. He sent out a police alarm for all suspicious characters to be picked up for questioning. There was little chance for strangers to slip through this part of the country unnoticed.
But on the day Peter Demcheson was laid to rest the general opinion of all was that here was a murder that would go unsolved. The police didn’t appear to be doing anything other than walk around and ask questions which produced useless answers. It seemed, someone suggested, as if they didn’t care whether the murderer was ever caught.
This idea was erroneous. Sergeant Renton and Constables Bayfield and Klapecki were quietly investigating every angle of the case.
On October 27, six days after Demcheson’s body had been found, a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun was handed to Chief of Police Smith, of Dauphin, by J. Miles, Canadian National railways investigator. He said that the gun had been found by a yard clerk named Parrel in a disused bunk car on the icehouse tracks in the east yards. The door of the car had been open and the clerk entered. He had seen a coat, and under a seat he had found the gun. The weapon was turned over to Sergeant Renton.
Meantime a report came in from C. C. Baker, storekeeper at Gilbert Plains, a small town about 20 miles from Dauphin. He said his store had been broken into and a shotgun was missing. He wasn’t sure if ammunition had been taken, but if so it would be Meteor brand.
Likely Clue Has To Be Abandoned
Renton was trying to connect the shotgun theft with the killing of Demcheson when Chief Smith appeared with an old felt hat and a handkerchief. The latter had safety-pins in its corners as if it had been used for a mask.
If these were to be regarded as clues in the Demcheson case it might be said that they pointed nowhere. The felt hat was of a common type made by the thousands and could be found on the shelves of any country store. But the handkerchief had two initials, “J.W.,” worked in one corner.
Renton realized that an attempt to trace the owner of the handkerchief would be a tedious, if not impossible task. It was of cheap quality, to be found in any store, and so far as Renton or Smith knew, there was no one in town with the initials “J.W.” Like the hat, the handkerchief had to be abandoned as a likely clue.
Back in his office, Renton turned his attention to the gun found in the bunk car. It was too early yet for him to offer an opinion as to whether the weapon was connected with the murder of Peter Demcheson. Dauphin was fifty miles from the scene of the crime; and, moreover, Demcheson had not been killed with a sawed-off shotgun. In any event, who would carry a shotgun fifty miles to ambush a man unless he had a deadly grudge? Most certainly no one who knew the Demchesons would ever attempt to rob them. And if they didn’t know the family it was a far-fetched theory that a bandit would shoot a man down in cold blood on the off-chance that he carried a sum of money.
Comparing the shell found at the murder scene with those taken from the gun, Renton discovered they were identical. This fact proved nothing, for Meteor shells were common in that part of the country. They were a standard make and sold at a popular price. It was safe to say that almost every person who owned a shotgun in the district had a box of Meteor shells for it.
Methodically Renton began a thorough examination of the gun. He found it to be a Davis 12-gauge hammerless, double-barreled model. The two barrels had been raggedly cut and were not more than four inches in length. The cutting was evidently the work of an amateur, for the cut had passed through the cocking mechanism and destroyed its usefulness. It was possible to cock the weapon with a screwdriver, but it was a difficult task. The butt had been sawed off too short to get a firm grip on it for firing. Without doubt, the man who sawed this gun off knew little about firearms.
Working on this theory—if he had known so little as to cut the gun through the cocking mechanism it was reasonable to assume that he would not have sufficient intelligence to use a screwdriver in cocking it. Had he known enough to cock the weapon by other means he would have realized that in cutting it off too short he was destroying its usefulness. There were no fingerprints on the gun and Renton finally placed it in the police vault for safekeeping.
Seated at his desk, Renton went through his files. He noted that Oliphant and McDonald, hardware dealers in Dauphin, had reported a robbery on October 10, in which a shotgun had been stolen. A check showed it to be a Davis double-barreled gun. Going to the vault, Renton checked the numbers on the sawed-off weapon with those of the gun reported stolen. They were identical and proved that this was the gun stolen from Oliphant and McDonald.
Slightly piqued by this turn, Renton was endeavoring to straighten out the tangle when another startling discovery was made. Police, searching the latish, on the outskirts of Dauphin, found a 12-gauge Marlin pump gun. It was promptly identified as the one stolen from Baker’s store at Gilbert Plains.
Here again the gun was mutilated, so as to make it unworkable. The slide action was sawn through in an amateurish attempt to create a riot gun. The saw cuts had hopelessly mined the weapon and it could not be fired by any means.
THE finding of the second gun complicated matters. Apparently the man who had broken into the Gilbert Plains store was also responsible for the Oliphant and McDonald robbery. The two robberies were committed close together, and in both instances shotguns were stolen and sawed off. Who, in that part of the country, desired a murderous weapon to conceal on his person? The sawed-off idea pointed to a city gangster, but what man with any sense would attempt to contrive a weapon to commit a robbery, or murder, in a district far removed from city hideouts?
The carrying of shotguns was not forbidden by law, but coming back to the Demcheson murder, Renton remembered the pistol shell. It was possible this shell had been dropped by a hunter. On the other hand, the murderer might have fired with a pistol, and missed. In that case, Demcheson would have attempted to escape, whereas the bloodstain showed that he had fallen a few feet from the car. In any event, Dauphin, where the weapons were found, was over fifty miles away; not a great distance in some respects, but too far for a stranger to travel unnoticed.
Unlike many cases where clues were lacking, this one had many, but none pointed a definite lead other than there was an unknown individual with a mania for stealing shotguns and sawing them off—and that he was a rank amateur at the work.
In an attempt to uncover a motive, Demcheson’s past life was subjected to another minute scrutiny. No new information was uncovered. The boy had led a blameless life.
Renton was annoyed at his failure to locate a tangible hint of the identity of the killer. He took Constables Bayfield and Klapecki with him to the bunk car where the gun was found and they went over its interior with a fine tooth comb. It was evident that the car had been used as a living quarters for some time, but there was no trace of the whereabouts of its former occupant. If he were a hobo, why did he not go to the hobo jungle where he would find companionship and a bowl of mulligan?
Renton shrewdly guessed that the man who had occupied that car had good reason to lie low. Perhaps he had been seen by some of the yard men. Surely one of them would have noticed a man living in a bunk car.
Carefully and quietly the investigation went forward. Yard men gave varied descriptions of the man they had seen, from time to time around the old bunk car. None of them agreed. The well-known faculty of the human mind for error, or failure to recall essentials, was being displayed in full strength.
Once again, Renton subjected the movements of almost everyone in the Dauphin and Winnipegosis districts to scrutiny. So engrossed did Renton become in his task that a door-to-door canvass was made by him and his men; a gargantuan task, but not too great for this man-hunter. All interviewed gave satisfactory accounts of their movements on the day of the murder and a check proved them correct.
Such persistence, however, could not go entirely unrewarded. At last there came a break. One man in the Winnipegosis area had disappeared a short time after Demcheson’s death.
Here, Renton determined, was something on which to work. It was not very much, for the people who mentioned this fact were reticent when it came to mentioning names or giving information. They admitted they knew little about the man other than he had vanished shortly after the tragedy. Renton obtained a fairly accurate description of the fellow which was corroborated by comparing it with others received from different people.
Burglar, Killer May Be Same Man
Renton returned to Dauphin and commenced rounding up bits of information relative to the Oliphant and McDonald robbery. Checking back on his tiles he found an account given by a man who lived in an apartment opposite the hardware store. He said he had heard the breaking of glass and on looking out of his window had seen a man leaving the store. The man passed beneath an arc light and he had obtained a good view of him. On comparing the eye-witness description of the burglar with that of the missing Winnipegosis man. Renton felt a thrill run through him. The descriptions were identical.
Though he had little real evidence on which to base his theory, Renton was firmly convinced that the man who burgled the hardware store and the killer of Peter Demcheson were one and the same. True, Demcheson had been killed by a shotgun in good condition but that meant little to Renton. Shotguns were plentiful. If he could once lay this fellow by the heels he felt he would have something. He at once prepared a police circular and had it sent out all over western Canada.
Months passed, during which time, Renton and his men continued their quiet investigation of the Demcheson case. Nothing had been heard of the missing man and Renton was seated in his office one day when a woman appeared. She was a middle-aged woman, her wan face still retaining some traces of its former beauty, but in her eyes was the mark of tragedy and want.
“I am Mrs. Joe Verhoski,” she said simply.
Renton started. Verhoski was the name of the missing man. No one had mentioned that he had a wife. Concealing his elation, Renton asked the woman what she wanted.
“My husband is missing and I want you to find him,” she said. “I am poor, and I need him.”
Renton mentally reflected that he too wanted to find Joe Verhoski, but for an entirely different reason. He did not tell the woman this, however. Instead, he asked her to describe her husband.
In halting tones the woman complied. Renton mentally compared her description with that given by others. There were a few discrepancies, but when she had finished, the sergeant had an exceedingly accurate picture of Joe Verhoski.
Continuing his questioning, Renton learned that Verhoski had appeared from somewhere out of the west, settled in the Winnipegosis district and wooed and won this woman in a whirlwind courtship. She knew nothing of his past, but he had appeared to be kind and considerate of her and he seemed likely to make a good husband. That illusion was quickly dispelled, however, for he had vanished, taking with him her few valuables. Now she was destitute and about to become a mother.
“When did you marry Verhoski?” Renton asked.
“On October 17,” was the startling reply.
Despite his effort at self-control, Renton was jolted out of his calm. If his suppositions were correct, and he had no reason to assume otherwise, Joe Verhoski had married this unfortunate woman three days after slaying Peter Demcheson. What manner of a man was Verhoski?
RENTON was a man with a kind heart. He made arrangements that Mrs. Verhoski be cared for and then set about preparing new circulars. He was now certain that the hardware store burglar, the killer of Demcheson and the man who stayed in the bunk car in the yards were the same person.
To corroborate this, Renton went back to the yards again and interrogated employees. With their memories refreshed by a partial description, yard men were unanimous in identifying Joe Verhoski as the man who stayed in the bunk car. But, they said, Joe was a poor, hard-working homesteader, and he merely slept in the car when he came to town as he had no money to pay for a hotel room. They could, they said, have told the sergeant all about Joe Verhoski long ago had they even dreamed that he was anything but a homesteader. Yes, they knew he stayed in the car, but they didn’t think he ever owned a gun; in fact, they knew him so well that he was practically accepted as one of them, or something to that effect.
Renton sent out requests to all police officers that Verhoski be arrested on a wife desertion charge. He cautioned in his bulletin that under no consideration must there be mention made to him of the Demcheson killing. He did not wish to give Verhoski warning that he was suspected and thus give him a chance to prepare an alibi. Besides, Renton was only too well aware of the fact that he didn’t have a single thing to link Verhoski with the killing.
Weeks passed and nothing was heard. Renton continued his investigations. He now learned that Verhoski had wandered about the country, stopping here and there at scattered homesteads and going on his way next morning. He seemed to be bearing southeast, and then from out of the blue came a telegram from the governor of the Portage la Prairie jail, around 50 miles west of Winnipeg, that a man named Joe Verhoski was at present serving 60-day sentence and would be released in a short time. The telegram explained that it had been known that Verhoski was wanted, but the jail officials wished to be certain of their prisoner’s identity before notifying Renton that his man was in their custody.
Renton immediately got in touch with Portage la Prairie officials and learned that Verhoski was serving the sentence for carrying concealed weapons. He had been found in an abandoned warehouse in the railroad yards at Portage by railway police. On being searched he had been in possession of a sawed-off shotgun loaded with Meteor shells.
Though Renton was elated he was also skeptical. The mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun did not mean that its owner had killed a man. There must be some means by which that gun could be tied to the actual killing and so far no such methods of providing that evidence had been admitted to the Manitoba courts of law. Though the science of forensic ballistics was used in other parts it was not accepted as an exact science by the law courts of the prairie province.
When Joe Verhoski was released from the Portage la Prairie jail he swaggered down the steps with a sneer on his face. He turned and waved his hand in derision at the governor; turned again, and walked right into the arms of Constable Klapecki from Dauphin.
Before Verhoski was fully aware of what had happened to him he was whisked back to Dauphin and placed in solitary confinement. In their brief meeting, Renton had sized up his suspect and realized that questioning would only result in a pack of lies. There was, the sergeant reasoned, only one way to treat a man like Verhoski. Shut him up and let him stew in his own juice.
Prepared to Match Wits With Police Officials
Verhoski was puzzled. He had been prepared to match wits with the police on being brought to Dauphin and he now found himself in the position of a man with excellent weapons without the opportunity of using them. And like that man, since he was denied a chance to use them in a legitimate way he was eager to display their worth by demonstration.
This was what Renton was waiting for. Each time Verhoski sent for him he went to the cell, listened politely while his suspect gave an account of his wanderings for the past few months, and then walked away, disbelief on his face. Verhoski, now frantic because his stories weren’t going over so good, elaborated on his statements. Still Renton made no comment. He didn’t even reply when Verhoski demanded answers. But he did send Klapecki and Bayfield out to check on the stories. They were proven to be false in every detail.
But Renton wasn’t idle. His mind was working overtime on the problem of tying Verhoski to the Demcheson murder. No matter how certain he might be that he had Demcheson’s killer under lock and key he would have to have something more concrete than faith it he sent the man to trial on a murder charge. (Continued on Page Five.)
(Continued From Page Three.) He turned to the gun taken from Verhoski at Portage la Prairie.
It was in good order—a perfect specimen of he sawed-off type. Practice, Renton thought, makes perfect. It was possible that this was the gun used to slay Demcheson. A ballistic expert would be able to provide the answer to the puzzling question.
But the services of a ballistic expect cost money. The nearest one, Dr. Glen Murphy, of Winnipeg, was ready to conduct tests if he were so requested. He had the equipment and ample experience, but so far, the government had shown itself highly skeptical of results. Nevertheless, Sergeant Renton persisted in his requests that Dr. Murphy be allowed to test the weapon. Finally it was sent to him, with the shell found at the scene of the Demcheson murder.
As the days went by, Renters became anxious. If the gun found on Verhoski had not fired the death shell he would be forced to send his man to trial on a lesser charge and allow him to escape the more serious count. Which course he would follow depended entirely on the findings of the ballistic expert.
Seven days later, Renton received a report from Dr. Murphy. It was accompanied by micro-photographs showing the effects of the firing pin on the primer at the base of the shell. The report stated that the gun was a 12-gauge hammerless model made by J. Manton and company. But what interested Renton greatly was the last line of the report. The shell HAD NOT been fired from that gun.
Though a victory for the science of ballistics it was a bad setback for Sergeant Renton. All of his work seemed doomed to go for nothing. He was in that aggravating position that besets most police officers in the course of their work. He knew he had the guilty man, but he couldn’t prove it. If he could tie Verhoski to the gun found in the bunk car and the shell found at the crime he would have something that couldn’t be talked away.
But the province of Manitoba was loath to speed money on what it termed useless work. Conservative to the extreme, the authorities felt that ballistics were all very well in their place but that they did not represent a good investment in police work. They took the view that they were accepting the word of a scientist without question where the matter of life and death was concerned. This, they felt, was too radical a step to take. Unless, they said, the scientist could produce something that was easily understood by all concerned, they would have nothing to do with him.
SERGEANT Renton felt downcast over this decision. In a conference with other police officials he suggested sending the gun found in the bunk car to Dr. Murphy. The others observed that Demcheson had not been killed by a sawed-off shotgun, but Renton countered with the fact that the gun could have been sawed off after the crime. He had, he pointed out, a definite connection between the gun found in the car and the man now in custody. Though not wishing to go over his superiors’ heads he intimated that he was willing to bear the expense of the tests himself if he were given permission. After a talk with Inspector Brown official permission was finally given to send the second gun to Dr. Murphy.
It was all or nothing now. Renton was staking his reputation on the outcome of a ballistic expert’s finding. More than that he was staking the future of forensic ballistics in the courts of Manitoba. He determined that while waiting for the expert’s reports he would sound out his prisoner.
Verhoski was beginning to show the effects of silent treatment. He was nervous, and eager to talk. Renton stood before the cell and surveyed him with studied indifference. Finally, Verhoski could stand it no longer. In an effort to make conversation he blurted out:
“Did you ever find out who killed Peter Demcheson?”
Not by word or sign did Renton show he had heard the question. But he felt a thrill. For Verhoski had not at any time been given to suspect that he was being held in connection with that crime. Evidently, Renton thought, the fellow’s conscience was beginning to trouble him.
Verhoski became angered.
“You should be out looking for the man who killed him instead of keeping me locked up here,” he fidgeted.
Renton merely eyed him.
“What am I going to be charged with?” Verhoski finally demanded.
“You might,” Renton said meaningly, “be charged with the murder of Peter Demcheson.”
Verhoski stared in alarm as Renton turned and left the cell room.
Back in his office, Renton chafed with impatience. If he could only hear from Dr. Murphy he would know what to do. He was still fretting about what he thought was delay, when Verhoski suddenly sent word that he wished to make a statement concerning the Demcheson crime. Renton smiled grimly and left his office. Before going, however, he nodded to Bayfield and Klapecki to go and hear what Verhoski had to say.
Cautioned Accused As to Legal Rights
At the cell room, the two constables cautioned Verhoski as to his legal rights and asked him to reconsider his decision to speak. Verhoski refused to listen. He was determined, he said, to talk about the crime. A stenographer was sent for and the constables awaited Verhoski’s story.
Verhoski lighted a cigarette and began to talk. He said he came from the west and being unable to find work in Dauphin he broke into the store and stole the shotgun. The next day he went to Fork River and stayed at Nick Shewchuck’s place for the night. Leaving early next morning he wandered along the road until he saw a Ford car coming from Winnipegosis. He determined to rob the driver so he threw some poles across the road. The driver stopped the car and alighted to remove the poles. Verhoski then stepped from the bush and ordered him to throw up his hands.
The driver refused. He grasped the barrel of the weapon and in the ensuing struggle the gun was discharged. The man fell dead so Verhoski dragged the body into the bush and rifled the pockets, obtaining $1.35. He covered the body with brush and drove the car into the bush. He denied owning a revolver or pistol and could not account for the pistol shell found at the scene of the crime.
After this confession, Verhoski asked that his wife be sent for. She came, but the only words she could get from him were:
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
The distraught woman did nothing. She walked out and left him. Verhoski became angry and said he wanted to talk some more.
He said that he later obtained a hacksaw blade and cut the gun off. He then found it was useless, but carried it with him to Dauphin and left it in the bunk car. He went to town and when he returned two hours later the gun was missing. He denied stealing the Marlin pump gun from Baker’s store at Gilbert Plains.
Renton scanned this confession with some gratification, but little solid comfort. He could spot holes a mile wide in the story and none knew better than he what an astute lawyer could do with a confession like that. It was possible that the confession would not even be admitted as evidence. If a single doubt were raised about it the defence would demand it be thrown out. If this happened, Renton didn’t like to think of the spot he would be in.
Even as he sat drumming his desk with a pencil a report was on its way. Renton was still pondering every angle of the case when Dr. Murphy’s findings were laid before him. A single glance at them and Sergeant Renton promptly laid a charge of willful murder against Joseph Verhoski. A swift preliminary hearing followed and Verhoski was ordered to appear before a higher court.
The legal fraternity of Manitoba watched this case with deep interest. It marked a turning point in the rules of evidence. Modern science was taking its place in the musty halls of justice and this was the test case. They awaited the outcome with crossed fingers.
Joseph Verhoski went on trial for his life before Mr. Justice Adamson. He was defended by D.D. Bates, a skillful criminal lawyer with a reputation for ripping evidence to shreds. C.S.A. Rogers, K.C., represented the crown.
A FEW preliminary witnesses: women who told of Verhoski coming to their homes and begging meals, made their way to the witness stand and departed without having said anything of much value. The only evidence given which did count was given when a woman said that Joseph Verhoski’s real name was John Wecheko.
The handkerchief found in the box car was initialed “J.W.,” but even that was worthless evidence when applied to a capital charge. Verhoski’s counsel was on his feet in an instant and demanded to know whether his client was being tried for murder or for changing his name. Justice Adamson ruled that Verhoski’s counsel was justified in his objection. The handkerchief evidence was stricken from the records.
Evidence was next given which proved Verhoski had a long, criminal record. He had served an eight-year term for a murderous assault on a prison guard and he had also caused a fire in which three lives were lost.
It was open knowledge that Verhoski had deliberately set the fire, but no actual evidence was uncovered that would warrant trying him on a charge of murder.
Once again, Verhoski’s counsel was on his feet in vigorous protest. Were they trying his client on his record or on a charge of murdering Peter Demcheson. Justice Adamson allowed this objection also.
So far the crown had been worsted at every turn. Bates was fighting a victorious battle for his client and Renton saw months of accurate police work going for nothing. Then Crown Prosecutor Rogers began to read Verhoski’s confession.
Bates now began to fight in real earnest. He said the confession was nothing more than a concoction of the police and that Verhoski had been coerced into signing it. He charged that the police, finding themselves at their wits’ end for evidence, had fabricated the confession and had promised Verhoski immunity if he signed it. He demanded that the confession not be allowed.
Justice Adamson promptly ordered the court cleared. He then called Constables Bayfield and Klapecki to the stand, and after putting them under oath, severely cross-examined them as to how they obtained the confession.
In reply, the constables denied any coercion and pointed out that Verhoski had described the crime and surroundings so accurately that this in itself was sufficient proof he had been on the scene. No other person, they persisted, could have given such a convincing word picture had he not been there. The stenographer also was called and told that Verhoski had given the statement of his own free will. The judge agreed with the constables that there had been no coercion. The confession was admitted as evidence and the trial continued.
Then things began to happen. The defence put up a spirited attack on the statements of every witness; and when the name of Dr. G. Glen Murphy was called, Bates went after him tooth and nail. He questioned his science, his ability to use it and its value in court. In effect, his words were intended to place Dr. Murphy in a questionable light. He asked the jury if they were going to allow themselves to be hoodwinked by a scientist using scientific terms which he himself did not know the true meaning of.
Ballistics Triumph In a Murder Charge
Dr. Murphy was calm and in reply to a question from Crown Prosecutor Rogers he stated that the gun now in court was the gun which had fired the shell found at the scene of the crime. Rogers turned to the jury in triumph, for it had been definitely established that Verhoski had stolen that gun from Oliphant and McDonald’s store and that he had carried it until he lost it in the bunk car. Instantly, Bates, the defence counsel, was on his feet.
“Are you prepared to swear that this gun fired that shell?” he demanded.
“I am,” replied Dr. Murphy.
“Are you prepared to prove to me, and this jury, that no other gun could have fired that shell?” Bates asked derisively.
“I am prepared to prove to you, or anyone else, in terms you can understand that the chance of any other gun having fired that shell are less than one in five million. In this case I might even say one in twenty-five million.”
At last the big moment had arrived. For the first time in Manitoba jurisprudence a scientist was going to give evidence that would, if accepted, send a man to the scaffold. The confession had faded into insignificance now. If Dr. Murphy’s evidence was unconvincing, Verhoski would walk from that court a free man. None knew this better than Renton.
Another important point had also arisen. Verhoski had admitted ownership of the gun and his counsel was hammering home the statement that Demcheson had been killed by accident. Dr. Murphy must not only prove that the gun in question fired the shot, but he must also prove that it had been deliberately fired.
Coolly, Dr. Murphy unfolded a set of micro-photographs and displayed them to the jury. He stated they were photos taken through micro-luminar lenses, of the primers in the base of the shell sent to him for examination. Two of the photographs were of the test shells fired from the sawed-off gun which Verhoski admitted owning, and the third was the shell found on the ground near Demcheson’s body. One of the photos differed from the others, which were exactly alike. The differing photo was from a shell fired from the left hand barrel of the gun. The others had been fired from the right hand barrel. And the gun that fired them lay on the table for all to see.
Dr. Murphy pointed out six different points where an accurate comparison could be made of the primer marks. The jury examined the photos with great interest. When they concluded their examination of the photos there wasn’t the shadow of a doubt about their being convinced.
The next step was to refute Verhoski’s statement that the gun had been discharged in a struggle.
The ballistician set up some heavy cardboard frames pierced with ragged holes and blackened around the edges. He explained that the holes were made by shotgun charges being fired at-measured distances. Referring to the post-mortem statement he said that the course of the wound showed that the gun had either been fired from a height, or that Demcheson had been stooping when shot. There were no powder marks on either the clothing or the body, which was significant. Pointing to the cardboard, Dr. Murphy showed that powder marks were visible up to a distance of eight feet. Taking the hole in Demcheson’s body as a comparison, he proved that Demcheson was at least ten feet away when he received the fatal charge. The charge, Dr. Murphy said, had been fired from a choke-bored barrel.
When Dr. Murphy left the stand, Bates spread his hands, eloquently, with finality. None knew better than he the futility of questioning that evidence. He glanced at Verhoski and shook his head as if to prepare him for the worst.
It came in the form of a verdict of guilty from the jury. Verhoski was sentenced to be hanged in the Headingly jail and at 7.15 o’clock on the morning of February 2, Joseph Verhoski went through the trap in the floor of the execution chamber; the first murderer placed there by the immutable findings of science as applied to the courts of Manitoba.
Murder Hill Road no more ~ By Billy Redekop (26 Jun 2004)
Dark name that recalled gruesome deed slips into town’s history.
WINNIPEGOSIS — If life is a highway, Murder Hill Road is where it ends.
Or so it did for Peter Demschyzn in a sensational murder case here 74 years ago. Local residents shrug when asked about the uncommon road name. Modern street names, usually dreamed up by developers, tend to promote happy thoughts, not tragic footnotes.
“It was stating a fact. The local council didn’t know what else to call it,” said Edna Medd, who runs the local museum in Winnipegosis, 380 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. It was also a case of a fatal mix-up of Model T Fords. On Oct. 14, 1930, Demschyzn travelled to town to see Dr. Alfred Medd, Edna’s father.
“Peter Demschyzn had five dollars in his pocket. He’d borrowed the five dollars from his brother.
“He came here to get a boil lanced, and dad did it in his office. He had a couple pieces of adhesive on his face when he left,” said Medd.
Demschyzn came from a prosperous farm family. He and his two brothers farmed with their father. They were one of the few families to own a motor vehicle, a Model T Ford. Demschyzn’s family thought he had gone to Dauphin for the boil removal. So when they didn’t hear from Peter, they assumed he had stayed the night in Dauphin.
It was also before telephones, and electricity hadn’t even arrived yet. “We didn’t have electricity until 1939,” explained Medd.
Several days later, a farmer, out looking for his cattle, stumbled upon Demschyzn’s car hidden in some bushes. A search party was organized and found Peter’s body buried just off what became Murder Hill Road, about five kilometres south of Winnipegosis.
“The body had been dragged 25 feet, and covered with brush and a rock to hold the brush,” said Medd.
Demschyzn had been killed by a shotgun blast to his left chest at close range. The murder shocked the small community on the south basin of Lake Winnipegosis. “My dad carried a revolver after that for quite a long time,” said Medd.
“Winnipegosis was always a peaceful town,” she said. At its peak, the village on the south basin of Lake Winnipegosis had about 1,200 residents, compared to 770 today.
“My parents left their doors unlocked until after the Second World War,” said Medd.
Manitoba Provincial Police patrolled rural Manitoba at the time. Eight months later, the police arrested Joseph Verhosky of George Street in Winnipegosis. The key piece of evidence was an empty shotgun shell at the murder scene. The distinctive markings on the spent shell led police to Verhosky’s weapon. It was the first case in Manitoba in which ballistics were used to solve a crime.
Verhosky’s plan was to rob a cattle buyer as he left an auction in Winnipegosis, figuring he would have at least $100.
“The cattle buyer had a lot of money, and he was flashing it around town,” said local resident Ray Snyder. The cattle buyer also had a motor vehicle, a Model T Ford, one of the few vehicles in the area. Verhosky cut down some trees, laid them across the road, and waited in the bush. It is the oldest trick in the book by today’s standards, but not very old back then when there were few motor vehicles. Neither did Verhosky anticipate someone else with a vehicle coming along.
When Demschyzn drove up in his Model T, and got out of his car to move the tree, Verhosky assumed he was the cattle buyer. He let him have it with a shotgun blast from close range, killing Demschyzn so there wouldn’t be any witnesses. But all Verhosky got was three dollars. Demschyzn had spent two dollars in town filling up his vehicle. Verhosky was captured and hanged.
Known for over half a century as Murder Hill Road, the road sign finally came down last month.
The RM of Mossey, in which the road is situated, has converted to the numbered road system recently recommended by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. Murder Hill Road is now Road 180 N. That indicates it is a east-west road 180 miles from the American border. The murder was at the fork of Road 180 N and Road 107 West.