Botwood, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1958
In the midnight blackness of a cold November night mixed with rain in snow, three RCMP officers entered a restaurant by way of an upstairs window. Rumours around town had been rampant. The owner’s son had been missing for days. Father and son hated each other. He had been stabbed, or shot, and had been dumped somewhere, or he had been cut into pieces and put into a freezer to be secretly disposed of later. This unfolded as a German ship, the Alstertal, was scheduled to return to port, whereupon crew members intended to kill both father and son, feeling quite justified in doing so.
No one was paying attention to the many warning signs of impending disaster. As the police officers cautiously made their way toward the living quarters door, a terrible chapter in the history of Newfoundland and the RCMP was about to be written.
This is a true story.
Cover photo by Leo Dominic.
Hearsey climbed up the ladder, stepped out onto the roof of the back porch extension, and went to the window on the left. She had to be careful of the barbed wire. After twenty minutes of knocking on the window, she finally heard Jim speak from the inside. “Who is it?”
Hearsey replied with the Chinese name Jim had given her. “Boey. Come down and let me in, will you, Jim?”
“No! No! No!” Jim sounded quite agitated.
“Where is Ken?” she asked.
“Me not know,” he replied, his voice rising in volume and sharpness.
“Is he in there with you?”
Jim replied, “No! No No!” This time he was even louder and quite emphatic.
“Do you need a doctor?” Nothing. The place fell silent.
There was no question about it. By this time, Jim was coming unglued. He had screamed in such a high pitch and volume, Hearsey figured he had gone savage with rage and frustration. Her questions to him seemed normal enough. What the hell was going on?
Hearsey tried to keep a conversation going, but Jim simply shut down. Only silence came from inside the building. She kept listening for Ken’s voice, or anything that might indicate he was inside and well. Her body shook with fear. Still, Hearsey and Frank and Linda waited silently, trying to comprehend Jim’s behaviour, along with the fact that there was no sign of Ken.
Slowly and quietly, with tears spilling down her face, a greatly disturbed Hearsey descended the ladder, stepped off, and stood frozen, baffled as to what to do next in that drizzly, cold, windy night.
Frank Adams, Hearsey, and Linda lingered around the café a while longer, listening hard. Soon Hearsey, having heard nothing further, suggested they all return to Mr. Adams’s house. All three were very worried now, especially Mr. Adams. No one knew Jim as well as he did. He had visited the café every day and was Jim’s best friend in the world. This was beyond normal. It was insane.
Frank decided he had had enough. Something had to be done. He picked up the phone and called Harvey Fong and filled him in on what had just happened. His frustration and concern were unmistakable. It took a lot, but Frank was finally pissed off.
Harvey said, “I will call Corner Brook and Grand Falls and get back to you.” About an hour later, he called back. Nobody had seen Ken. He also checked the Chinese community in Botwood. The response was the same. Nobody had seen Ken lately, and he hadn’t said he was leaving town to anyone except Edgar Buckley.
“Harvey, should we notify the police?” Frank asked.
“Harry Chow will be down tomorrow,” was Harvey’s response. Their spirits sank. With that, Frank and Hearsey reluctantly agreed to leave things until the next day. Some years earlier, it was Mr. Chow who had persuaded Jim to reopen his café after having closed it for a week. Harvey felt Mr. Chow had a much greater chance to break through to Jim than he did.
A few minutes later, Harvey called again. He had just spoken to Harry Chow again, who had once more called around the province. All reports were that Ken had not been seen.
A deeply worried Harry Chow felt that, after all this effort by him and Hearsey Canning, it was time to approach the police. Sadly, it seemed his old friend was no longer responsive to him. Further intervention on his part, he reluctantly concluded, would not be fruitful. Additionally and most concerning, the fact that Ken had not been seen or heard from anywhere in the province could not simply be dismissed as some “misunderstanding or miscommunication.”
“Harvey, you must make sure to tell the police they have to be careful. Jim has a gun in the café.”
Harvey ensured him this message would be clearly passed on. At around 10:30 p.m., Hearsey and Linda, noting Frank’s exhaustion, left to walk home. They would be passing right by the police station and would stop there along the way. If that failed, Hearsey would make the report in the morning.
Around 8:00 p.m., down at the police station, Red Bowen and Terry Hoey were finishing up some paperwork and waiting for the time to make their rounds. They would be on their own this evening, as Healey was in Grand Falls attending a Rifle Association event. Healey was temporarily in charge of the Botwood detachment, as the regular officer was in Regina attending specialized classes.
Before going on the regular evening run around town, Hoey decided to write his old buddy, P. G. Ryan, back in Regina. Terry was unable to finish the letter, since Bowen rapped on the door and told him it was time to make a routine cruise around town. Because it was so miserable out, they decided to take their pea jackets in case they had to get out and check on something. In a matter of a few minutes, off they went.
Hearsey and Linda walked down to the station, climbed the Water Street stairs to the second level, and knocked on the door of the RCMP private quarters. It was their intention to report the matter in detail, after which they would continue on down the road to home. The police would then have enough facts to begin an investigation. If they were not in, they would continue on home and try again in the morning.
At that very second, the police cruiser pulled in. It was now around 10:20 p.m. Behind the wheel was Red Bowen. Also inside was Constable Hoey. They were just passing by the station on the way toward Peterview when they saw the two young women on the landing.
Hoey rolled down the window. “Yes, ladies, can we help you?”
Hearsey breathed a huge sigh of relief. She was forthright and got right down to business. “Who is in charge?”
“Constable Healey,” replied Red, “but he is in Grand Falls at a meeting.”
Standing by the car, Hearsey and Linda quickly relayed their concerns to the officers. Hearsey shared how Jim had not called or answered the phone since Monday, something he would never do. He always stayed in touch with her, no matter what.
Linda recounted to the officers the events of the previous days, leading up to their visit to the police. “It kind of started on Monday afternoon, when I walked up to the café to meet Hearsey, who was getting off early. As she was about to go out the door, she heard the beginnings of a conversation between Jim and Ken, when Ken said, ‘She not coming, she not coming!’ That’s when their discussion got loud and angry, but Hearsey kind of dismissed it as nothing out of the norm. She and everyone else knew Jim’s wife was not coming because of Ken’s letter, so this must have pertained to Ken’s wife. She felt that Jim was in denial regarding Ken, and in spite of it all, he wanted Ken to stay and be part of his life. And she had told him so. Jim used to smile at Hearsey, kind of silly, like, and say nothing. This went on for a couple of days and concerned even Mr. Adams.”
“Because the place was locked up and there was no sign of anybody,” Hearsey interjected. “We stopped in on the people who knew the Lings, but no one was alarmed. What was going on behind the scenes, we didn’t know about.
“Finally, later on tonight we received word from Harvey Fong to go to the police station and to make sure the police knew there was a gun in the café. That’s when we walked down to the police station and you fellows pulled in.”
Constable Bowen asked them to get in the cruiser. They got in, and Hearsey continued to fill them in, and Linda picked up where she left off. Hearsey poured everything out as they drove up to the café.
“Wait a second. I need to make some notes,” said Constable Hoey, reaching to his left for his notebook and pen. He began to write furiously.
Hearsey reiterated, “Harvey Fong told me to report what is going on in the café because it’s so strange. He wants you to know that Jim has a gun and can sometimes be unpredictable. The local Chinese have checked everywhere in the province where Ken could have gone, but he is not there. They have tried to get in, but can’t. I’m afraid they might have gotten in a fight and one of them is injured or dead. Ever since the fat incident in October, they appeared to be getting along a lot better. But for some reason they were having heated words, and both were ready to erupt when I left work on Monday, and no one has been able to get in since. Not only has no one seen or spoken to Ken since by phone or otherwise, their stove has been lit only twice since then, only for a short time in these cold conditions we’ve been having the past week. Ken seems to have disappeared. It’s the strangest thing.”
Red had in fact noticed that the place had been closed for a few days, but he had thought nothing about it. People can close their stores if they wish. It really is no one’s business, he had thought to himself. However, these new revelations caused him to reconsider that position. At 10:30 p.m. they pulled into the eastern parking lot of the café.
Humber’s book is packed with historic details, including Appendices that run from A to S, compiled from RCMP investigative files and archival correspondence.-- The Telegram --