#20 – Extortion & Murder in the Backwoods – A Canadian Tragedy – Part 1

New Years came and went and the Lake family celebrated with friend and neighbour, Otto Blakeney, in their 2-room cabin. It was winter, and a blanket of snow covered the ground. Nothing that outdoorsman and woodcutter Otto couldn’t handle. Besides, Philip and Bertha Lake had two small children at home, 21-month-old Jack and 6-month-old Betty, so it was easier for Otto to come to them. The day together ended and Otto went home and the Lake family continued on with their daily grind. The sun rose on Monday, January 6 1936, Otto peered the bellowing smoke beyond the horizon, coming from the general direction of his friend and neighbour. This is Extortion & Murder in the Backwoods, the Lake family’s story.

It was just after new years, 1936. The first all talking movie ‘Scrooge’ had recently opened up and theatre in the general area and Mary McLeod Bethune, philanthropist,  distinguished educator, and government consultant founded the NCNW (‘National Council of Negro Women’) in the United States. This organization had at its core, a mission to create & advance opportunities and quality of life for African American women, their families and their communities.

But the residents in the backwoods of primitive New Brunswick, Canada, didn’t think much on these matters. They were sometimes impoverished and living off the land where they lived, for the most part. Philip Lake was such a man, as was his friend and neighbour Otto Blakeney. Both of them trappers, trying to trap the minx and foxes that flourished in the area.

On the morning of the 6th, Otto headed out to see Philip, to see if he was faring any better with his traps than he did and maybe see if he could get some provisions. Over the horizon, towards the Lake’s cabin, he saw the rising smoke billowing in the distance. He waded through the snow towards the smoke, and as the woods opened to a clearing and emerged onto Ballast Pit Road, he was upset to see the blackened ruins of his friend’s home. Otto thought for certain that his friend Philip would not let himself get caught by a fire in his home and immediately thought there was something off with the entire situation.

Otto started inspecting the scorched ruins and found the body of Philip Lake laying on his back, partially cremated, burned on what was left of his iron bedframe, within the kitchen area where they usually slept. His clothes burned off his body, except for a few buttons that melted in to him. Otto turned the body over and discovered a small bullet wound in the back of Philip’s head.

Although distraught by this discovery, Otto franticly kept searching, there were 3 more members of the household to find and maybe they were safe. He had found no other bodies in the fire-stricken cabin. What he did see was small footprints leading from the cabin area, that looked as though they were made with bare feet. About 9 feet away he noticed spots of blood on the ground. A little further on he found a baby bottle, its milk frozen within it. And, at about 60 feet from the burned cabin lay a body clothed in a thin night-slip, in a pool of blood and partially covered in a layer of snow from the snow fall during the night and early morning, lay Bertha, Philip’s common law wife. She had suffered a terrible wound from blunt force trauma to her right temple from a blunt weapon. Her arm was spread, as though reaching out for her children. A little further on, was little 21-month-old Jackie, face down in the snow, with no apparent injury. It looked as though he had died from exposure, the overnight temperatures ranged from -15 to -30 C (5 to -22 F).

Otto continued his search, but he couldn’t find 6-month-old Betty-Ann. Horrified, he ran around 3.2 Km s (2 Miles) to the home of another neighbour, Omar Lutes, who was he station agent for the Canadian National Railway, who then called the RCMP in Moncton, some 9-12 Kms away.  

Omar Lutes, his nephew Carl Horsemen, and Otto Blakeney returned to the crime scene and awaited the police officers. Omar Lutes and his family knew Philip, Bertha, and the kids well. Of the group of neighbours, Mrs. Lutes was the last to see Philip alive. He visited their home the morning of January 5th, to pick up a bottle of medicine that Omar had picked up for him when he went into Moncton.

Inspector John C Burn, commander of the Moncton post RCMP, arrived on scene with sergeant Bedford Peters and constables Ewing, Pettigrew, Fenwick, and Kent to start the investigation.

There was no obvious motive for the murder of Philip Lake. He was well liked and very sociable. Inspector John asked Otto and Omar if they knew a Marshal, Ring, both of them advised they didn’t. He went on to tell then men that Marshall Ring was Bertha’s estranged husband. Bertha and Marshall had separated several years before when they were living in St. John, NB and that Marshall had recently moved to Moncton and worked now at the Moncton Hotel. He also advised that Bertha had charged Marshall with non-support.

Omar and Lutes were tasked with identifying the remains of Philip Lake. Although his remains were partially cremated, they were able to identify him by the two gold teeth in his upper jaw. His cause of death was later determined to be by gun shot wound. A meticulous search of the ruins was completed, but they could not find the body of 6-month-old Betty-Ann. Likewise, her body was not found in the search of the surrounding country.  

Sergeant Peters, of the RCMP quickly identified two sets of foot prints leading from the crime scene and then along Ballast Pit Road, then through the brush, towards the train tracks.  The prints appeared to be those of two men. Seeing as they were a set of two and heading in a different direction than that of Otto, they quickly deduced that these were the prints of the murderers. Twenty-seven meters from the road, he found a worn, wool-lined leather mitten.  They followed this trail, collecting clues along the way for 3 days in frigid temperatures.

They followed foot tracks along the north shore of north river. Approximately 100 meters (yards) from the cabin, the two sets of men’s footprints were joined by a smaller pair, showing that a woman had waited there. Between 200-300 meters (Yards) on this path, past the North River Bridge, they came across several smaller oval shaped prints in the snow, just before the trail went on to the Canadian National Rail tracks. Sergeant Peters concluded that these were from the butt of a rifle. A .22-gauge rifle was found in the snow along the railroad embankment. At some point along this trail, Sergeant Peters found a blood-stained bowie knife, often used for hunting.

A train had passed earlier that day and the prints on the tracks were subsequently wiped away. But, given the general direction, they were able to pick them up again near Berry Mills Station. As this point they lost the trail as their foot prints mixed in with others, but they were convinced that they headed east, towards Moncton.

In the meantime, Omar Lutes informed the RCMP that a little after midnight on January 6th, his big police dog started barking and that he typically doesn’t bark without cause. His wife had gotten up to check, but couldn’t see anything amiss. Then dog had continued barking and growling for about 15 minutes.

Constable Ewing had finished taking photos of the crime scenes and the bodies were removed and transported to Moncton, where Drs. Paul Melanson and A.R. Landry performed the autopsies. They concluded that Philip Lake’s cause of death was due to a gunshot wound to the head, that Bertha’s cause of death was a compound fracture of the skull and lacerations to the brain and that Jackie Lake had died from exposure, hypothermia.

Several people were questioned with regards to the deaths of the Lakes. The first person to be questioned was Bertha’s estranged husband Marshall. He had insisted that there was no issue between him and Bertha and that he never even met Philip. Additionally, Marshall had an alibi. He had been working at the hotel in Moncton from 11:00PM on January 5th, to 4:00AM on January 6th.

They also questioned a local 18-year-old hunter named Earl O’Brian. He did confirm being in around the Lake cabin within the past few days, however he had been at home all Sunday night. It would appear that the RCMP were able to confirm this alibi. During the interview, Earl O’Brian informed about other visitors to the Lake cabin. He named Blakeney, Lutes, and Arthur and Frances Bannister. This was on the second of January. Arthur, 19, and Frances, 15, were children of May Bannister, who lived on Berry Mills road.

Sergeant Peters then asked Otto about the Bannister’s who visited with Philip Lake and family. Otto told sergeant peters that a few months ago Philip told him of an odd situation where Artur Bannister, and his older brother Dan had visited one day and told Philip that “they were after Betty-Ann”. But Phil took it as a joke and laughed about it. He would have neve given his daughter for adoption.

Before visiting the Bannister home to interview Daniel, Arthur, and Frances, the RCMP investigated a little more on the family. They started speaking with and interviewing their neighbours. The neighbours had informed them that May Bannister, 43, had just had a baby girl. That she had gone off for several weeks in December and then returned on December 29th with the baby. She apparently was seen carrying an extremely swaddle baby through town.

May Bannister had been separated from her husband for 10 years and had 4 children from that previous marriage. Sons Daniel and Arthur and daughters Frances and Marie being her youngest at 13. Naturally, the police wanted to know who the father of this new baby was. The neighbours suggested they speak with a Milton Trites, a second hand dealer who lived close to the Bannister home. May Bannister had been his housekeeper until she went away to have the baby.

When interviewing Milton Trites, he said that he and May had been intimate and that he was the father of her daughter. He told the RCMP that May approached him in November and advised him that she was pregnant and would be having the baby soon and the had financed it. He had purchased a crib and stroller as well as giving May money every week for groceries. He said at first, he kicked up a fit about having to buy the crib and stroller and about giving her money every week, but now he was really anxious to see his daughter. After she came back with the baby on the 29th of December, May wouldn’t let Milton see his Daughter Thyra for 2 days. When he finally did see a glimpse of her she was heavily swaddled lying in her crib asleep and looked just like a doll. He wanted to pick her up but May wouldn’t let him disturb the sleeping baby. He told the constables that he was telling May that they needed to christen the baby and then have a christening party. During the interview Milton let slip out that Albert Powell was visiting the Bannister house frequently.

So, constables Ewing and Pettigrew then went to speak with Albert Powell, a freight clerk who did social work with the salvation army on the side. Albert said that he first got acquainted with the bannisters in 1934 when he learned that they needed help. He had given money for groceries and to pay some bills and since then he had stopped occasionally to see how they were doing. He said that he had recently been staying away from the Bannisters and the police as May was accusing him of having an affair with her 13-year-old daughter Marie, claiming Marie to the pregnant with Albert’s child and that he would need to support the child. An accusation that he vehemently denied. He told her that if Marie was pregnant, he certainly wasn’t the father and he would be damned if he would pay. They asked him if he saw the new baby and replied with telling them both that no he didn’t, and he didn’t there actually was even a baby. He believed that May was parading around town with a doll and that she fooled Milton with it as she could get money out of him.

While investigating this angle, the RCMP interviewed a Moncton resident by the name of Albert Powell, that thought the bowie knife might be the property of Arthur Bannister. Additionally, another resident of Berry Mills road identified the worn leather mitten as one that looked like a pair that he had seen Daniel Bannister wear.

Sergeant Peters realized that this was only circumstantial evidence, therefore he arranged with Coroner Caldwell to have the bullet removed from Philip Lake, so the striations and calibre could be compared to a gun, should one be located, in order to identify the murder weapon and its owner.

He then sent constable Kent to check in on the Bannisters to see what they had to say with regards to the found items being identified as belonging to them.

When Constable Kent visited the family home, May Bannister was out with the scandal baby, but the 4 children were home. He said Daniel and Artur were lazily sitting around while Marie, the 13-year-old was making lunch and Frances, the 15-year-old was playing with a life-sized baby doll. When questioned about the knife and glove, both Daniel and Arthur confirmed these items to be theirs, but told Constable Kent they had lost them in the woods around the 2nd of January when they went to visit the Lake family.

Meanwhile Inspector Bird had found out that May Bannister had applied for the adoption of a baby at the NB protestant orphans home in St. John in February 1935. Her daughter Frances completed application on her behalf. Seeing that she had a hard time feeding the 4 kids she already had, he found it odd that she would want to have another child. She was unable to adopt a child.

On the 9th of January the RCMP went to the Bannister home. She refused to let them in or speak with them and they didn’t have a search warrant at this time so they had to leave. They returned the next morning with a search warrant. The first thing they collected was the life-sized doll. May Bannister also denied knowing the Lake Family. While completing their search, they heard the sounds of a baby coming from another room. One of the police officers went into the other room and came back holding a baby girl. May insisted that this was her baby and that Milton Trite was the father.

May Bannister was arrested for kidnapping.

Law enforcement theorized that on the night of January 5th, Philip, Bertha and children were asleep. Someone entered the cabin and shot Philip in bed while asleep. They grabbed Betty-Ann. Bertha had awoken and grabbed her young son and tried running the 2 miles to the Lutes. Halfway there she was overtaken and killed and the small boy was left there in the snow and freezing temperature to die. The house was set on fire to mask the murder of Philip Lake.

Later in the day, after the arrest of May Bannister, Sergeant Peters interviewed Frances Bannister, her 15-year-old daughter. Frances confessed that on January 2nd, she and Arthur went to the Lake home to kidnap Betty-Ann but weren’t able to as Earl O’Brian was hanging around the place so they had to forgo their plan. Then on Sunday, the 5th, they left the home again to proceed with their plan. Arthur left the home at 4PM with a .22-gauge rifle and that she and Daniel left the house at 8:00PM. Daniel had taken a large hunting knife.  When they arrived at the Lake Cabin, Arthur had come out to meet them. He then went into the cabin. Frances said she heard a noise that sounded like a shot and that shortly after he came out and handed the baby to her. This was around Midnight on the 6th. She said that she ran out to the road with Betty-Ann while Arthur ran to the side of the house where the barn was to set fire to the house. While she running, she also heard a woman scream. She had screamed for a while and then she suddenly stopped. She didn’t look back. Shortly after that the boys caught up to her and she turned and saw that the cabin was on fire. As they continued walking, they could hear the incessant barks of the Lutes’ dog.  Arthur handed the rifle to Daniel and then carried Betty-Ann the rest of the way. Near the railway embankment Daniel broke the rifle and threw the parts into the bushes. She advised that they returned home at 3:20 AM. Arthur entered the home first with Betty-Ann in his arms. Their mother was awake and took charge of the baby as soon as he walked through the door. She then accompanied the police where the broken rifle was thrown, and they recovered the additional pieces.

To the shock of some nearby residents Arthur and Daniel were arrested for kidnapping and the murders of the rest of the Lake family and Frances Bannister was ordered held as a material witness.

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