Past, Present & Beyond – Death on the Range – Pt. IV: The investigation

Barbara Roden's continuing saga into lies and greed and murder in the wild west.

What had started out as a fairly routine, if distressing, case – one partner robbing another in the dead of night and then disappearing into the BC interior – turned into something much more tragic, and mysterious, when the body of the supposed thief was discovered with a bullet through the back of his head. What was more, Thomas Burton Smith had clearly been dead for several days when he was found, throwing the story told by his partner, Albert “Chubby” Clinger, into considerable doubt. After Smith’s body had been found in the bush near Dog Creek, District Chief of Police Frank Aiken promptly arrested Clinger in connection with the death; but he knew that was merely the start of what promised to be a long and difficult investigation.

When Clinger was told that his partner had been found murdered, his response was that someone must have caught up with him. Who that someone was, however, remained a mystery. On Feb. 15, 1915 an autopsy was performed on the body of Smith by Dr. Fort of Walhachin, and Dr. Sanson, the coroner, held an inquest. The jury viewed the body, but the inquest was held over pending further developments. With Clinger in prison, and the clock ticking, Frank Aiken got to work.

Clinger had said that his partner had robbed him of several hundred dollars while the two men had been camped overnight on the road from Dog Creek to Ashcroft. However, no money had been found on Smith’s body when he was discovered. This proved nothing other than that whoever had killed Smith had relieved him of whatever valuables the dead man had possessed. Clinger, when arrested, had been carrying $100, considerably less than the sum of which he had supposedly been robbed. On the other hand, he had had more than a week to dispose of the cash, so this proved nothing. Aiken would have to cast his net further afield.

To that end, he headed out towards Dog Creek, where the pair had made camp on the night when Clinger was supposedly robbed. The policeman hoped to find someone who had seen the pair together, and could confirm or disprove some of Clinger’s story. His investigation eventually took him to the ranch of Napoleon Pigeon, the closest neighbour to Smith and Clinger at their pre-emption at Springhouse Prairie; and it was here that he learned something interesting.

Pigeon told the policeman that he had received a letter from Smith in which the pre-emptor had said he was leaving the country, and possibly going to Europe, which tied in with the story Clinger had told of Smith wanting to go to Romania to visit his son. As he was departing in such a hurry, Smith wrote, there would be no time for a personal goodbye, for which he was sorry. Pigeon, however, told Aiken he thought it was odd that Smith should write to him at all, since the men never saw much of one another, despite their proximity.

Aiken took the letter as evidence, and headed back to Clinton. Why would Smith write a letter of goodbye to a man he barely knew? The more he thought about the case, the more he kept circling back to money as the root of it all. Albert Clinger claimed that Smith had robbed him; but what sort of money had Thomas Burton Smith had at his disposal? If the man had had money of his own, there would seem little need for him to rob his partner. There was only one way to find this out; so Frank Aiken found himself heading back to the cabin at Springhouse Prairie that Smith had shared with his partner.

It did not take long to find that Smith had an account with the Bank of British North America in Ashcroft; there were several returned cheques from that bank in the cabin, written and signed by Smith. Aiken took these as evidence, in part because they provided a sample of Smith’s handwriting and signature. With these in hand he returned to Clinton and phoned Chief Constable Colin Cameron in Ashcroft, asking him to check what funds were in Smith’s account and whether there were any recent cancelled cheques.

Within an hour Cameron reported back. There was approximately $1,000 in Smith’s account, and several cancelled cheques. Aiken asked what the date was on the last cancelled cheque Smith had issued from his account. The answer was Feb. 11.

The date on which Thomas Burton Smith’s body had been found.

By which time the man had been dead for a week.

Aiken asked if there was any possibility of a mistake. Cameron replied that there was not. He was calling from the British North America Bank in Ashcroft, and he had the cancelled cheque, for $57, in his hand as he spoke. It was signed by Thomas Burton Smith . . . but a week after he had died.

Aiken told Cameron to let him have the cheque, as it would undoubtedly prove valuable. When he had it in his hands a few days later, he laid it out beside the other pieces he had assembled. These included the cancelled cheques he had found in the cabin at Springhouse Prairie which were undoubtedly in Thomas Burton Smith’s handwriting; the letter to Napoleon Pigeon, which was supposedly from Smith; and a sample of Albert Clinger’s handwriting, obtained from a letter which was in the file of the local government agent. When laid side by side, and carefully compared, the evidence was overwhelming. The letter to Pigeon, and the cheque for $57 drawn a week after Smith had died, were in the same handwriting; but they were not the handwriting of Thomas Burton Smith.

They were in the handwriting of Albert Clinger.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

Aerial view of a wildfire at 16 Mile, 11 kilometres northwest of Cache Creek, that started on the afternoon of June 15. (Photo credit: BC Wildfire Service)
Wildfire at 16 Mile now being held

Wildfire started on the afternoon of June 15 at 16 Mile, east of Highway 97

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read