Golden Country Presents: Death of the Range – Pt. 6: The Trial Begins

Barbara Roden's continuing sage of murder and betrayal on the Cariboo frontier.

When the Clinton Fall Assizes commenced in late September 1915, the case of Rex vs. Clinger was not the main attraction. That honour went to another, even more sensational, capital case, which saw 40-year-old Betty Coward charged with the murder, only three weeks earlier, of her husband Jim at their cabin near Fort St. James. Before Mrs. Coward could be tried, however, the trial of Albert Lester “Chubby” Clinger – which had already been postponed from the Spring Assizes – had to be heard.

Once more the brick schoolhouse in Clinton was turned into a courtroom, with the schoolchildren left to find their own amusement for the duration of the assizes. Mr. Justice Denis Murphy, fresh from hearing court cases in Vancouver, took the bench to oversee proceedings, and Rex vs. Clinger was at last underway, almost eight months after Thomas Burton Smith had been murdered.

The Crown was represented by Mr. N.F. Baird, who mounted a very careful case for the prosecution which verged, at times, on the tedious. There was, however, a good deal of corroborative detail to be got through, and Baird was obviously determined not to leave a stone unturned as he put forward the Crown’s picture of what had happened.

Albert Clinger, the Crown alleged, had murdered his partner Thomas Smith in cold blood, his motive being to gain access to the other man’s money and his share in their property at Springhouse Prairie. Clinger had waited until the two men were en route from Spinghouse to Ashcroft, shot Smith in the back of the head, then waited four days before reporting that Smith had robbed him and disappeared into the night, obviously hoping that police would take the story at face value. The story Clinger had spread about Smith wanting to visit a son in Romania might have had a basis in fact, but seemed unlikely in the middle of a war that was tearing Europe apart. The other story Clinger told – that Smith had a scandal in his past, and was trying to evade family members who had caught up with him – must have sounded equally unlikely, given that there was no evidence to support it.

The prosecution would also have brought forward damning pieces of physical evidence: the cheque that was drawn on Smith’s Ashcroft bank account a week after he died, and that was forged by Clinger, as well as the letter that had been received by a neighbour of the two men. The letter was supposedly written by Smith, and recounted the story about traveling to Europe, but it too had been forged by Clinger, as a comparison with his handwriting showed.

One by one various witnesses would have been called – Chief of Police Frank Aiken and Const. Jack Bourne, who had found the body; Napoleon Pigeon, Smith and Clinger’s nearest neighbour, who had received the letter from “Smith”; Chief Constable Colin Cameron, who had discovered the evidence of the forged cheque – and each one of them would have added another nail to Clinger’s coffin. Perhaps blackest of all was the fact that Frank Aiken had discovered an unsigned bill-of-sale leaving all of Smith’s personal effects, as well as his share of the two pre-emptors’ house and property, to Clinger. The bill was supposedly written by Smith, but once more it was proved that it had been forged by Clinger.

At last Mr. Baird was finished, and it was time for Clinger, represented by Mr. J.E. Bird of Vancouver, to make his case. Up to this point the accused had taken “the greatest interest in all the proceedings”, according to the report in the Ashcroft Journal on Oct. 9, 1915, and had “watched every word and movement of the various witnesses”. When it was his turn to stand in the witness box, Clinger betrayed no sign of embarrassment, and the story he told painted the events of February 1915 in a rather different light.

Clinger testified that the two men had set out for Ashcroft as stated, and had made camp near Dog Creek later that day. As he was making his way towards the fire the men had built, Clinger said that he stumbled and fell over some object hidden in the deep snow, and that the rifle that he was carrying discharged accidentally, with the bullet striking Smith in the back of the head. Clinger demonstrated to the court and jury exactly how the accident had happened, and The Journal reported that he “told a very connected and plausible story leading up to the death of Smith”.

The accused’s explanation of subsequent events was likewise “connected and plausible”, according to the paper. His first thought, he said, was to give himself up to the police; but it probably did not take long for him to realize that circumstances meant there was a very real chance he would be accused of murder. He therefore came up with the story of Smith robbing him and then fleeing, in the hope that it would lead police astray. In order to bolster his story, he had forged “some letters to friends of Smith”, according to The Journal report, although the only forged letter which appears to have been discovered is the one written to Napoleon Pigeon.

Clinger also admitted to forging the cheque for $57 on Smith’s bank account, as well as the unsigned bill-of-sale. In his defence, he stated that he was in such a dazed and stupefied state following Smith’s death that he could only think of getting as far away as possible from a scene which had become a source of horror for him, presumably by whatever means were necessary.

When the prosecution cross-examined him, Clinger maintained his composure, and Mr. Baird was unable to confound him in any way. Clinger’s defence lawyer, Mr. Bird, gave a short, but very able, address, and then sat down. The case of Rex vs. Clinger was now in the hands of the judge and jury.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

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