This summer marks the 80th anniversary of a brutal Manitoba murder that was never solved. Here is the story of the Lees of Rossburn, Manitoba.
The Lees were newlyweds, married on June 3rd and recently returned from their honeymoon at Victoria Beach. Lawrence was a 35 year-old World War I Veteran from Neepawa and a park warden at Riding Mountain National Park. She was Myrtle Alyce Barnette, 24, of Rossburn.
At 10:40 p.m. on Wednesday July 13, 1932, Clear Lake RCMP received a frantic, incoherent telephone call from the couple’s home twenty-two kilometres outside of the town of Rossburn, Manitoba.
When police arrived they found a horrific site. Lawrence Lees lay dead from a single gunshot wound to the back. Myrtle had been shot in the head and was clinging to life.
There was no gun found in the home, nor were any valuables disturbed. The only thing that appeared to be missing was the warden’s log book. Police assumed that the killing must have been personal or related to his job as a park warden. In either case, it was likely local.
An immediate manhunt for the killer or killers began. Police, wardens and citizens fanned out around the area checking the bush and every structure that they came across. Within days the search group grew to 150 people and even a small plane was called in to assist.
Killing a park warden may seem odd. In this region, however, tensions were running high between wardens and the Ruthenian (Eastern European) immigrant settlements in the area. Poaching for food was common, which sometimes led to tense and even physical confrontations between the two groups. Warden Lees was particularly disliked, known as one who showed no flexibility when it came to enforcing park rules.
Mrs. Lees was shot at close range through the back of the neck, the blast exiting through her jaw and ripping away a five centimetre section of bone. She was driven by car to Shoal Lake Hospital barely alive. When she regained consciousness a couple of days later she began to fill police in on what she thought happened that night, though some of the details and timing were vague.
She said that her husband was on patrol earlier that day and she thought that he had caught someone poaching in the park. When he returned the infraction was recorded in the warden’s log and the couple settled in for a late supper.
While eating, a shot came through the window and struck Mr. Lees in the back. Mrs. Lees ran to get her husband’s gun and shot out at the darkness. She then called police. While on the phone, she heard glass break and the gunman was facing her.
She described him as a “rather tall man in overalls and a sweater” who seemed familiar to her but she could not place him. He spoke with a slight accent but his English was good. He told her that Ranger Lees “had it coming” and that he “…should have been shot long ago.” He also demanded that she hand over the rifle that Lees was carrying in the park earlier that day. He then shot Mrs. Lees in the head and left her for dead.
This all played into the RCMP’s theory that it was, indeed, a local matter and the manhunt intensified.
Some new evidence was found in the ensuing days. The bullet that killed Lees was located in the ground 200 meters out front of the house. A pile of cigarette butts near a fence at the rear of the house indicated that the killer laid in wait for the warden.
The police weren’t getting any help from the Ruthenian community. A combination of bad blood, mistrust and fear of reprisals ground the investigation to a halt. A Winnipeg Free Press correspondent from the region noted: “Fear and intimidation is sealing the lips of those who might give information, and it is this deadly silence and inertia the police have to fight against.” (July 19, 1932, Winnipeg Free Press.)
The case was tough on Rossburn, a village of several hundred people and a region of just 3,000. There was a constant, almost overwhelming police presence, daily grizzly newspaper stories and heightened ethnic tensions. “There is little about this sleepy village to suggest its proximity to the scene of one of the most brutal murders in the annals of Manitoba crime” wrote the Winnipeg Free Press on July 18 1932.
There were also all manner of rumour that the police had to put to rest; everything from a Chicago mob hit, to one of any number of jealous husbands, to a vigilante military posse roaming the bush.
As the weeks turned to months, police were no closer to finding the murderer. The case soon faded from the public eye.
On September 19, 1932, the coroner’s inquest was finally held. By this time, Mrs. Lees was almost recovered and living with her parents in Rossburn. Her testimony was similar to what she told the police soon after the crime. There were no other witnesses or new evidence to present.
Myrtle Lees disappears from the papers after the September inquest. A search of other records reveal no clues as to what became of her.
The murder of Lawrence Lees was never solved.