Past, Present & Beyond – In the Line of Duty, pt. 5

Barbara Roden's continuing saga of Special Constable Isaac Decker and the train robbers.

Why no one tried immediately to stop the man who gunned down Special Constable Isaac Decker remains a question that, more than 100 years after the fact, will never be answered. There were certainly enough onlookers, that day by the river in Ashcroft in late June 1909, but none of them made a move towards the gunman, who was able to remove papers and a revolver from his dead companion before crossing the CPR tracks and disappearing into the hills. Perhaps they were in a state of shock, still trying to comprehend what had just happened; or perhaps they were rightly hesitant about approaching an armed man who had callously and deliberately shot an officer of the law. It was several minutes before two of the men at the scene took off in pursuit, presumably in the hope of at least finding out in which direction the man had fled so that he could be tracked.

Not that those who were at the scene did nothing. As soon as the gunman fled, people scrambled down to where Isaac Decker lay, shot in both the lower body and the head. Almost instantly the cry went up that the policeman was not dead. A spark of life still remained, but it was obvious that Decker was gravely injured. A stretcher was hastily procured so that he could be moved, and someone was sent running to alert Dr. Burris to what was happening.

Not that Dr. Burris needed much in the way of alerting. Ashcroft was, by this time, in an uproar. Eight-year-old Tommy Cumming – who had witnessed the entire affair – had spread news of the tragedy, and by the time Decker was brought back into town it seemed that there was scarcely a person who did not know what had happened. There was no shortage of volunteers ready to man a posse; but Joe Burr, the policeman in charge of the Ashcroft detachment, had not yet returned. Isaac Decker was to have been in charge during Burr’s absence, and the lack of clear leadership led to confusion and delay. The two men who had set out after the fugitive returned, empty-handed and with nothing to report. By the time a posse was organized night had fallen, and it would have been pointless sending men out into the darkness against an armed and dangerous man who could be anywhere. Pursuit would therefore have to wait until morning.

The body of the other man also had to be moved from where it lay by the river, so that he could be examined and searched. Decker’s shot had caught him full in the face, and he had probably been killed almost instantly. Search was made of his pockets for anything that would identify him, and which might have been overlooked by the other man, but apart from two photographs there was nothing. One of the pictures showed a little girl on the porch of a house, while the other was of an older man driving a team of horses. The photos were promptly scrutinized, in hopes that they would provide a clue, but there was nothing on them that identified the people, or where the pictures were taken, or by whom.

Search was also made of the green boat in which the pair had been traveling, and here the investigators appeared to find confirmation that the men were indeed the bandits who had held up a CPR train near Kamloops a week earlier. In the bottom of the boat were some 30 sticks of dynamite, as well as a coil of fuse and some detonators, and it was surmised that these were intended to be used in another hold up. More importantly, a suitcase was discovered, presumably left behind by the fugitive in the haste and confusion, or because he did not want to be burdened with it in his flight.

If the searchers hoped to find any clues in it, however, they were disappointed. The case contained a good suit of clothes, two linen shirts, collars, and ties, none of which had identifying marks or names in them (the dead man’s clothing likewise bore no identifying marks). There was also a wooden clothes brush, bearing the trademark of the Long Beach Mercantile Company. It was the only hint of a clue the investigators found.

As soon as it was light the next morning, June 29, 1909, the posse – consisting of townsmen, Natives, and two bloodhounds – set out. There was a report that a man answering the fugitive’s description had eaten dinner at the Evans Ranch, and spent the night sleeping in the icehouse there, but this lead proved a false one. The hounds managed to pick up a scent near the river, and the party followed it for some miles to the east of town, towards the Goss Ranch [now the YD], but there the trail went cold. No sign of the killer was found, and the posse returned to Ashcroft.

Dr. Burris, in the meantime, had been tending to the injured Isaac Decker. Those who had not been witness to the shooting presumably took heart in the fact that the policeman was still alive, but the doctor only had to make a cursory examination of the man’s injuries to realize that he was beyond any help that surgery or medicine could offer. All that remained was to make his final hours as comfortable as possible; and at around midnight former policeman Isaac Decker, who had been sworn in as Special Constable only a few short hours earlier, breathed his last. He was laid to rest three days later, on July 1, 1909, on what was then called Dominion Day. He was 53 years old, and survived by his widow Lena and 12 year-old son Archie.

To be continued

 

Barbara Roden

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