Past, Present & Beyond – Only one man came back – Pt. 2: Death at Trembleur Lake

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly recounts of BC Interior's early history.

In early June 1930, three German men – Herman Peters, Max Westphal, and Karl Fredericks – headed north into the bush from Fort St. James. A short time later one of the trio came back south, a boatload of provisions with him. He said he was ill, and was going to seek medical treatment.

The Indians of the Tachie Reserve who heard this story thought little of it, although they did wonder why the man hadn’t left the provisions with his companions. When nothing more was heard from the remaining men, the matter was reported to the Provincial Police in Vanderhoof, who despatched Const. Jennings to the shores of Trembleur Lake, where the men had made camp. No trace of them was found.

Jennings returned to Vanderhoof, where he pondered the situation. The men had gone missing in June, and it was now early November, with no word heard of them in that time. Jennings did not yet know what he was investigating, but winter was fast approaching, with the promise of snowfall that would obliterate any evidence. It was clear that if no clues were found soon, the mystery might forever remain unsolved.

It was then that the police got a break. An Indian named Alex Prince arrived in Vanderhoof on Nov. 8 to say that he had discovered the remains of a small campsite near the lake, which had escaped detection during the earlier search.

Jennings headed north once more, and began to search the site. At first it appeared that it would provide as little information as the other camp; but as he investigated he struck a large stone with a stick he was carrying. The stone was dislodged, and underneath it Jennings could see what looked like a piece of fabric. He began digging around the area, and it was not long before he uncovered human remains.

Jennings immediately secured the site and hurried back to Vanderhoof for the coroner, Dr. Stone. They were back at the campsite on Nov. 15, although almost every trace that it had once been a campsite had been removed; only the keen eyes of Prince had spotted the signs that someone had made camp there. The grave, which had been carefully camouflaged with stones and pieces of wood, was uncovered, and revealed the very badly decomposed bodies of two men, both of whom had sustained horrific injuries. The bodies were exhumed and, with considerable difficulty, taken to Vanderhoof, where an autopsy was performed.

On Nov. 13, 1930 The Prince George Citizen reported the findings. “As four months have elapsed since the crimes were committed the murderer has a good start on his pursuers, but the police department has a long arm, and the fact the trail has been cold for four months does not mean the murderer will not be brought to justice.”

The autopsy was conducted by Dr. H.S. Trefry of Prince George, and revealed that the head of one man had been beaten to a pulp. The head of the other man had also been badly beaten, and had been severed from the body; a process that must have taken some time. The men were lightly clad and were not wearing shoes, indicating either that they had been killed while they slept, or that the murderer had removed any clothing that might have identifying marks. One man had a bullet wound to the head; the other body showed no sign of a bullet wound.

However, a cigarette lighter found on one of the bodies was identified as having belonged to Max Westphal; a fellow countryman testified that he had seen Westphal with it in Prince Rupert. The other body had on it a slip of paper with the name Herman Peters on it. This left Karl Fredericks as the man who had come out of the bush and disappeared to the east, and the police immediately set about finding him, as soon as the Coroner’s jury found that the men had been murdered by “person or persons unknown”.

Inquiries showed that Karl Fredericks had not gone far. He was found to be working at a farm in Moon Lake, Alberta, and was promptly arrested, although he maintained that he had never met Westphal or Peters and had never been to Trembleur Lake, Fort St. James, or Vanderhoof.

He was brought back to Prince George, and during the journey his story changed. Now he claimed that he did know the other two, and that while they were camped by Trembleur Lake there had been an argument, during which Westphal and Fredericks told Peters they wanted to end the journey.

Peters – who according to Fredericks had a vicious temper – told the other two he would kill them if they turned back. Fredericks claimed he had killed Peters in self-defence, and had returned to the camp some hours later to find Westphal dead, apparently killed by Peters earlier in the day.

Fredericks was placed in a police line-up and identified as the man who had come out of the bush alone. The German asked for paper and a pen, and proceeded to write a lengthy account in his native language of what had transpired.

A preliminary hearing in December 1930 saw the evidence presented. Fredericks asked to be taken to the scene of the crime; that the court secure the services of an expert on ammunition and rifles, and submit a report on the way in which the two men had been shot; and that the character of Herman Peters be entered into the record.

At the end of the hearing, Fredericks was charged with the murder of Westphal and Peters. The case was scheduled to be heard at the Spring Assize in Prince George, with the Citizen noting that “the greatest interest” was being taken in the matter.

To be continued

Barbara Roden