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Thursday, 12 July 2012

The murder of Lawrence Lees - Rossburn's 80 year-old cold case


This is the 80th anniversary of the unsolved murder of Lawrence Lees.

The Lees were newlyweds, married on June 3rd, 1932 and just back from their honeymoon at Victoria Beach. Lawrence, 35, was a World War I Veteran from Neepawa and a park warden at Riding Mountain National Park. She was Myrtle Alyce Barnette, 24, of Rossburn.

At 10:40 p.m. on Wednesday July 13, 1932, Clear Lake RCMP received a frantic, incoherent telephone call from the couple's home, twenty-two km outside of the town of
Rossburn, Manitoba.
When police arrived they found a horrific site. Lawrence Lees lay dead from a single gunshot wound to the back. Myrtle had been shot in the head and barely clinging to life.


July 15, 1932, Winnipeg Free Press

There was no gun found in the home, nor were any valuables disturbed. The only thing that appeared to be missing was the warden's log book. Police assumed that the killing must have been personal or related to his job as a park warden. In either case, it was likely local.

An immediate manhunt for the killer or killers began. Police, wardens and citizens fanned out around the area checking the bush and every structure that they came across. Within days the search group grew to 150 people and even a small plane was called in to assist.

Manhunt on horseback (Tribune Archives)

Killing a park warden may seem odd. In this region, however, tensions were running high between wardens and the Ruthenian (Eastern European) immigrant settlements in the area.

Poaching for food was common, which sometimes led to tense and even physical confrontations between the two groups. Warden Lees was particularly disliked, known as one who showed no flexibility when it came to enforcing park rules.


Mrs. Lees to hospital (Tribune Archives)

Mrs. Lees had been shot at close range through the back of the neck, the blast exiting through her jaw and ripping away a five centimetre section of bone. She was driven to Shoal Lake Hospital. When she regained consciousness a couple of days later she filled police in on what she thought happened that night, though some of the details and timing were vague.

She said that said her husband was on patrol earlier that day and she thought he had caught someone poaching in the park. When he returned, an infraction was recorded in the warden's log and the couple settled in for a late supper.

While eating, a shot came through the window and struck Mr. Lees in the back. Mrs. Lees ran to find her husband's gun and shot out at the darkness then called police. While on the phone, she heard glass break and the gunman was facing her.

She described him as a "rather tall man in overalls and a sweater" who seemed familiar to her but she could not place him. He spoke with a slight accent but his English was good. He told her that warden Lees "had it coming" and that he "...should have been shot long ago." He also demanded that she hand over the rifle that Lees was carrying in the park earlier that day. He then shot Mrs. Lees in the head and left her for dead.

This all played into the RCMP's theory that it was, indeed, a local matter and the manhunt intensified.


Back of Lees house (Tribune Archive)

Some new evidence found in the days ahead. The bullet that killed Lees was located in the ground 200 meters from the front of the house. A pile of cigarette butts near a fence at the rear of the house indicated that the killer laid in wait for the warden.


Ruthenian farm near Rossburn ca. 1925 (Timelinks)

The police weren't getting any help from the Ruthenian community. A combination of bad blood, mistrust and fear of reprisals ground the investigation to a halt. A Free Press correspondent from the region noted:

"Fear and intimidation is sealing the lips of those who might give information, and it is this deadly silence and inertia the police have to fight against."
July 19, 1932, Winnipeg Free Press.


Downtown Rossburn (Hillman Archive)

The case was tough on Rossburn, a village of hundreds and a region of just 3,000 people.

There was a constant, almost overwhelming police presence, daily grizzly newspaper stories and heightened ethnic tensions. There were also all manner of rumours that the police had to put to rest, everything from a Chicago mob hit to one of any number of jealous husbands to a vigilante military posse roaming the bush.

There is little about this sleepy village to suggest its proximity to the scene of one of the most brutal murders in the annals of Manitoba crime.
July 18 1932, Winnipeg Free Press.


September 20, 1932, Regina Leader-Post

As the weeks turned to months police were no closer to finding the murderer. The case soon faded from the public eye.

On September 19, 1932 the coroner's inquest was finally held. By this time Mrs. Lees was almost recovered and living with her parents in Rossburn. Her testimony was similar to what she told the police soon after the crime. There were no other witnesses or new evidence to present beyond what was found in the initial days after the murder.


Mrs. Lees (Tribune Archive)

As for Mrs. Lees, born Myrtez* Alyce Barnette of Rossburn, she disappears from the papers after the September inquest. A search of other records reveal no clues as to what became of her.

The murder of Lawrence Lees was never solved.

Update: An anon commented to say that her first name was actually Myrtez, not Myrtle as found in her wedding announcement and at the vital statistics database archive page of their wedding. If that is the case, Myrtez Lees was living and working in Winnipeg by 1959 and died on June 29, 1991 at the Health Sciences Centre. She did not remarry.

8 comments:

PLP said...

"Fear and intimidation is sealing the lips of those who might give information, and it is this deadly silence and inertia the police have to fight against."

And how little has changed, eh?

Thanks for the post. Super interesting.

James Turner

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story. Great read!

I'd say that's worth a pint..


Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Some of this story is incorrect, you should get your facts right her name was not myrtle it was MYRTEZ she was not hard to fine at all
I know I am related to her.

mrchristian said...

Thank you for that information anon.

I used the name Myrtle because that is the name I saw in a newspaper article from the day and the name listed by Manitoba Vital Statistics on their wedding certificate record: http://vitalstats.gov.mb.ca/Query.php

I looked back to other articles from the time of the crime and found an additional article that referred to as Marteze but nothing for "Myrtez".

When writing stories such as these, newspaper accounts of the day and government records are often all there is to go on and if they contain incorrect information then that is what gets passed along. I wouldn't have even guessed that the actual name was Myrtez.

Fortunately in an online world, I often get messages from people who come across one of my posts and are able to provide additional information or correct mistakes. That is exactly what you have done here. I have corrected the spelling of the name.

mrchristian said...

Anon, here is a link to the other source I used for the name Myrtle: it's from their wedding announcement in the Winnipeg Free Press http://www.flickr.com/photos/christiansphotos/7702254456

Anonymous said...

so close to my home town.Was very interesting to read about.

Bear HardcorePicker said...

Do you know if there was/is any record of what kind & brand of rifle Lees was carrying? The rifle's serial number? And if the killer did take it with him? I am doing some research on an individual who seemed to be prone to criminal acts, who may have been staying in that area in that time period. I am wondering if this crime could have been committed by him.

Mike Bell said...

too bad they didnt keep the cigarette butts, with dna today, who knows...