Past, Present & Beyond – Only one man came back – Pt. 3: A horrible sight

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly column on little-known historic tales from around the province.

There were five cases on the docket of the Spring Assizes in Prince George in May 1931; two for murder, one for manslaughter, one for permitting the defilement of a girl, and one for the abduction of an heiress. But, noted The Prince George Citizen on April 30, “The murder case of Rex vs. Fredericks is regarded as the one of most general interest.”

When the case opened on May 14, the courtroom was packed. Karl Fredericks, a German native, has been accused of killing two fellow-countrymen – Herman Peters and Max Westphal – at Trembleur Lake, north of Fort St. James, in early June 1930. That was when the three men had vanished into the bush, with Fredericks emerging a few days later and leaving the area. The bodies of Peters and Westphal, both badly mutilated, had been found in a carefully concealed grave in a small campsite on the lake.

The Citizen noted that the case was expected to take some time to hear, as the accused had, since his arrest, told conflicting stories about the part he played in the tragedy. It also noted that the majority of the Crown witnesses were Indians from Tachie, many of whom spoke little English, and that the accused had German as his first language, which would require the use of a second interpreter.

Things went slowly on the first day, with some 19 witnesses from Tachie brought forward by the Crown. They testified about what they had seen and heard when they took the three Germans north from Tachie in early June 1930, and then encountered one of the trio back at Tachie two days later, claiming to be ill.

“The courts generally have a lot of trouble with Indian testimony in that there is usually considerable variation in the stories as told after intervals in the several stages of the prosecution,” noted The Citizen, “but in this case the variation was not very great. The manner of life lived by the Indians is also a factor in Indian testimony. In some matters their perception appears dull, but in others it is surprisingly acute. . . . Their eyesight and hearing is generally keen and their testimony on such matters is often surprising.

Although Fredericks’s English was not good, he followed the trial closely through the assistance of his interpreter, John Assman, and conferred frequently with his counsel, Mr. A. Young. When Young stood to begin his defence, he asked that a handwritten statement made by his client following his arrest in November 1930 be admitted.

The prosecuting lawyer, Mr. A. M. Johnson, argued that the statement should not be admitted: in part because it might be argued that, having been given voluntarily and without the proper police cautions, it could be ruled inadmissible in the case of a guilty verdict, and in part because of the length of time between Fredericks’s arrest (on Nov. 21) and the date of the statement (Dec. 8). Justice W. A. MacDonald, presiding over the case, initially declared the statement inadmissible; but when Young made his request Johnson offered no objection, and the statement was presented.

In it, Fredericks told how he had met Westphal and Peters, who were trying to put together a grubstake that would allow them to go prospecting. Fredericks joined them and the men got work with George Cameron, a farmer north of Vanderhoof. In his statement Fredericks said they worked for Cameron for four weeks, and that he personally earned $150. Their stakes secured, the men headed north with a boat, provisions, and several weapons: a 30-30 Winchester belonging to Fredericks, a .22 rifle belonging to Westphal, and a 45-90 rifle belonging to Peters.

Fredericks asserted that Peters had been a brutal man. The trip north from Fort St. James had been difficult, and when the men attempted to negotiate the difficult rapids in the Tachie River, Westphal and Fredericks had grown so discouraged they wanted to give up the expedition. Peters, however, had threatened to shoot them if they turned back, and later kicked Fredericks into the river. After making camp at Trembleur Lake, Westphal and Peters repeated their determination to turn back, and Peters once more threatened to shoot them.

On the night of the murders Fredericks claimed that Westphal had retired to bed after dinner. Fredericks decided to go hunting for bear, and had walked about a quarter-mile from the camp when he heard loud words, and then a shot. He turned back to the camp, and had got halfway there when a shot whirled past his head. Two more shots followed, and he said he could see Peters shooting at him. Fredericks dropped to the ground, and Peters obviously thought he had been hit, for there were no further shots.

Ten minutes later there came another shot from the camp, followed by silence. Fredericks waited, crouched in the bush, for an hour, then made his way back to the camp. He found Westphal dead on his bed, his head half-blown off, and Peters dead nearby, shot through the head. It was a case of suicide following the killing of Westphal, said Fredericks.

It was a horrible sight, two men without heads, and Fredericks claimed he was stiff with fear. Terrified, he left the camp and did not return until morning. Assuming he would be held responsible for the deaths, he did not go to the police. Instead, he stripped most of the clothes off the bodies to prevent identification, and hid them, then covered the bodies with rocks and driftwood, so the grave would go undetected. He burned the men’s papers, and threw everything that was heavy into the waters of Trembleur Lake. Then he loaded the provisions into the boat, and returned the way he had come, to disappear into the east.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

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