The Death of Helen Betty Osborne

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission


Chapter 5

View Chapter



Community Knowledge of the Murder
The Conduct of Arthur Fishman
Communications with the Police
The Role of Sexism



The Community TOP

Community Knowledge of the Murder TOP

One of the central issues concerning the investigation into the murder of Betty Osborne is when the identity of her assailants became public knowledge and when it became known to the police. It has been said that knowledge of the men’s identity was widespread in The Pas. Some even have suggested that "everyone in town knew" and yet did not tell the police.

After examining the evidence, we have concluded that immediately following the murder a small number of people became aware of who was responsible. This knowledge, however, was not widespread. It appears to have been restricted to a circle of relatives and acquaintances of the four men, and did not extend to the RCMP. Rumours–many of them fanciful–may have spread quickly, but actual knowledge about who was involved seems to have been limited. There was no knowledge of the identity of Osborne’s attackers in the Aboriginal community.

It is clear that Colgan began talking about his participation in the days immediately following the murder. He told his story to Catherine Dick as early as the weekend of the murder. Annette Veito, who testified at the preliminary hearing, told the police that she first formed a belief that Houghton and Johnston might have been involved within a week of the murder. It seems probable that the close friends and acquaintances of Colgan’s, and perhaps those of Johnston’s also, came to know some details very shortly after the murder.

It also seems likely that those who had learned the details would speak to others about what they had learned. We might assume, then, that some rumours might have started circulating within days of Osborne’s murder. We do not believe, however, that the rumours quickly became general knowledge. We believe that the threats by the suspects and their close friends intimidated some of those who heard the stories and prevented the rumours from circulating widely. Dick conveyed the information anonymously because she had been threatened by a close friend of Colgan’s. Veito kept quiet until 1984 because she had been warned to be careful and was afraid of Houghton and Johnston.

It was only after receiving the anonymous letter sent by Catherine Dick in May 1972 that the RCMP began to concentrate its investigation on Johnston, Houghton, Manger and Colgan. After the seizure of the Colgan car and the questioning of the suspects, it appears that stories about the murder began to circulate more widely. Knowledge of police activity in itself generated rumours and speculation until a significant number of people were aware of the identity of those involved. However, from what we have been able to determine, there was never a time before the arrest of Colgan and Johnston in 1986 when "everyone in town knew."

Sheriff Gerald Wilson said he first heard that Colgan, Houghton, Manger and Johnston were the four suspects from Corporal Duncan by November 20, 1971. Duncan denied this, telling us that he first arrived in The Pas to work on the Osborne case on November 26, 1971 and that when he arrived there were no suspects. He said he left The Pas on December 12 and did not resume work on the investigation until September 1972. He remembers neither interviewing nor even talking to Wilson in 1971. None of the RCMP documents which were submitted in evidence suggests that the four became suspects before the receipt of the anonymous letter in May 1972. It is our conclusion that Wilson is mistaken about Duncan’s having told him the identity of the suspects in 1971. We do not believe that the RCMP had the names of the four until the spring of 1972, when the letter from Catherine Dick identified three of the four and an informant in the town named the fourth as Johnston. It is, of course, possible that Wilson heard a rumour about the men from a source other than the RCMP.

Following the summer of 1972, the rumours increased. A person who appeared before us, and who wished to remain anonymous, told us that she heard the rumours during the spring or summer of 1972. Arlene Demmings, Colgan’s ex-wife, told us that she heard the rumour that Colgan had been involved in Osborne’s murder either in the fall of 1972 or the winter of 1973.

It was not until 1977 or 1978 that Sheriff Gerald Wilson, who was acquainted with Colgan through activities at the Legion, heard Colgan’s story directly from him. Kathy Phillips, a civilian employee of the RCMP, was told the story by Colgan in 1978 or 1979. Veito did not hear any of Colgan’s confessions until December 1984. Until that time she had thought it was Colgan’s brother who had been with Houghton and Johnston on the night of November 12.

When Urbanoski took charge of the investigation, he interviewed a large number of people. It seems that he obtained the majority of these names from the response to the article in the Opasquia Times and from the wiretapping of the phones of the suspects. Some persons refused to be interviewed. Only eight gave information of value to the RCMP. TOP





The Conduct of Arthur Fishman TOP

In the examination of the nature and extent of public knowledge of Betty Osborne’s attackers, the behaviour of one resident of The Pas deserves particular attention. Arthur Fishman was the owner of the clothing store where Lee Colgan worked at the time of the murder. Colgan testified that within six months of Betty Osborne’s murder he had told Fishman of his involvement in the killing.

In 1988 Fishman became a key informant for Lisa Priest when she was researching her book on the Osborne case, Conspiracy of Silence.1 Much of Priest’s information on the level of public knowledge of the attackers’ identity came from Fishman. She took this information and fashioned it into the main assumption of her book: that many people in The Pas knew who killed Betty Osborne and shielded the killers from justice. When she testified at our hearing Priest said that Fishman had told her that within a week of the murder Colgan had revealed to him that he, Johnston, Houghton and Manger had been involved in killing Osborne. Fishman, Priest said, had told her that Colgan discussed the murder several times. During her testimony before us, Priest was asked:

Q Do I infer ... that Fishman told you that he had received a confession from Colgan of his involvement at least on more than one occasion?

A Yes, he said he brought it up on several occasions.

Q Did he tell you how often?

A He said all the time he talked about it. It was always on his mind and he’d given snippets here and there.

Q The next quotation [from Conspiracy of Silence] is, "’There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t know what was going on.’" Are those the words of Mr. Fishman again or someone else?

A Fishman. (p. 2146)

Fishman himself told us that he had read Priest’s book and had thought generally it was a fair treatment of what he had said, despite other inaccuracies contained in it. In the course of his evidence before us, however, Fishman became quite evasive as to what he in fact had known. It is fair to say that he intended in his direct examination to leave us with the impression that Colgan did not tell him anything of substance and did not tell him anything which connected Colgan directly to the abduction and murder of Betty Osborne. Fishman eventually did tell us that within a month or two of the murder Colgan had made a number of comments about being with Johnston, Manger and Houghton when they took an Indian girl to Clearwater Lake. Fishman said that he assumed the girl Colgan was referring to was Betty Osborne and that the outcome of the trip was murder. When he testified before us, Fishman also repeated his views on how widespread public knowledge was:

1 Lisa Priest, Conspiracy of Silence (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989).


Q When did it become common knowledge that Lee Colgan, Norman Manger, Jim Houghton, and Dwayne Johnston murdered Betty Osborne?

A By way of hearsay I would say two to three months after the actual incident occurred, but again it was hearsay. It was bandied about in town. It was on the tongues of everyone in town because of the horrible nature of this murder. It was the topic of conversation for a long time in The Pas.

Q You’re saying then by three months, by February, 1972, the names of the four killers were common knowledge in The Pas?

A Well, the names of the four who were supposedly the instigators of this heinous crime was common knowledge in The Pas, but again it was hearsay evidence.

Q By common knowledge, do you mean that it was coffee shop gossip?

A I would suggest that it was more than coffee shop gossip. It was generally a topic of conversation and not just what you would consider coffee shop gossip. (p. 2023)

As we have already stated, we do not believe that public knowledge about the attackers was as prevalent as Fishman and Priest suggested. But it is apparent to us from the evidence of Colgan, Priest and Fishman himself that Fishman did know something of Colgan’s involvement in the abduction and murder of Betty Osborne, and knew also about the involvement of the other three.

It also is clear to us that Fishman did not relate that information to the police at any time and that his first public disclosure of what he knew came in his interview with Lisa Priest. However, we believe that in that interview, Fishman probably embellished aspects of his story. He did so for his own purposes, not all of which are clear to us, but he related things to Priest that did not occur. As an example, Fishman apparently told her that Colgan first spoke to him about his involvement in the murder at the store in front of other store employees, including Dennis Brownlee, brother-in-law of RCMP officer Keith Duncan. Brownlee denied such a story, and Duncan stated that Brownlee has always maintained to him that Colgan had told him nothing. We accept Brownlee’s evidence on this point. While that part of Fishman’s story to Priest made for fascinating reading, it has proven to us to be untrue.

While we believe that Fishman embellished what he knew to Priest, we also believe that Colgan did disclose his involvement to Fishman and that Fishman failed to disclose any of that information to the RCMP. Fishman asserted that he failed to disclose what he knew to the police for any one of four reasons:

1. That Colgan would deny the conversations ever took place.

2. That the conversation with Colgan was private.

3. That the information related by Colgan was hearsay.

4. That the information related by Colgan was known already to the police.

It was apparent to us that Fishman did not believe any of these reasons. More importantly, none of those excuses justifies his failure to come forward. Perhaps the real reason he failed to disclose Colgan’s involvement had to do with another fact.

Some time prior to November 12, 1971, Fishman discovered that Colgan had stolen over $900 from the store. Fishman confronted Colgan about the theft and arranged with Colgan to repay the store at the rate of $25 every two weeks until the full amount was paid. In the evidence of both Priest and Fishman himself, it became obvious to us that Fishman was persuaded into silence by the fact that without Colgan’s continued employment with the store, he probably would not recover his money.

Lisa Priest was asked if she knew why Fishman did not go to the police with the information he had, and she stated:

Q Anything else, other than that, by way of explanation or response?

A Well, I asked him how he could have this guy working in his store after he heard this.

Q Yes?

A And he said it didn’t really bother him that much.

Q Did he tell you that this guy was also indebted to him and working off a debt at the time?

A Yes, he wanted his money. (p. 2144)

In an exchange between Fishman and counsel for Justine Osborne, the following took place:

Q Isn’t that the reason that you didn’t get rid of Mr. Colgan in early January when you knew he was connected with the murder and you obviously knew he was connected with the theft; the reason you didn’t get rid of him is you wanted your eight or nine hundred dollars back, you wanted him to work it out?

A He did work it out and our agreement was at the end of the time that the money was paid back his services were terminated.

Q Well, let’s say he didn’t owe that to you, would you have fired him once you linked him up with the murder?

A I certainly would have. (p. 2078)

Fishman obviously knew of Colgan’s involvement in the murder within a very short time. His decision not to relate that information to the RCMP or even to terminate Colgan’s employment with him discloses an individual with a warped sense of social responsibility.

He is one of the few individuals whom we have been able to identify who had early, direct knowledge from one of the four suspects about the murder. Whether that evidence would have been sufficient to charge or convict Colgan is difficult to say, given Fishman’s evasiveness and deliberate vagueness before us. But we do believe that he was told something concrete by Colgan and should have reported what he heard to the police.

It is clear that Fishman was not motivated by fear for his own safety in failing to disclose whatever information he had, as there is no evidence whatsoever that he was under any threats or coercion to keep silent, as were some of the other witnesses.

Fishman probably was motivated by self-interest in not wanting to jeopardize Colgan’s freedom so that Colgan could continue to work for him in order to pay off the money that he owed. This does not explain, however, why there was a failure to disclose the information to the RCMP following Colgan’s termination of employment early in 1972. It is possible that his silence at that point was motivated by the race of Betty Osborne. However, we are prepared to accept that it is equally conceivable that he failed to disclose anything further to the RCMP after May 1972 because he did not want it known to anyone that he had had that information and had withheld it for mercenary reasons.

The fact that Fishman did not tell the RCMP what he knew helps us assess his statement that the identity of Osborne’s killers was "common knowledge" within three months of the murder. If it became accepted as fact that "everyone knew," then he would more easily be able to justify not coming forward. This was true of others as well who might have known.

Our conclusion is that for Fishman, who had direct admissible evidence against Colgan, the contention that "everyone knew" was a convenient excuse for his silence. Whatever his motivations, Fishman’s failure to disclose the information he had probably allowed Colgan to escape responsibility for his involvement in the events of November 12, 1971. TOP





Communications with the Police TOP

Although there would appear to have been only limited knowledge of the identity of the murderers in The Pas, it is clear that many people had heard rumours and yet did not convey their content to the police. The silence probably says something about the relationship between the police and the community. Either the police were not close enough to the community to hear the rumours, or the community members did not feel close enough to the police to discuss matters of this kind with them. It must be kept in mind, however, that many people did come forward years later when Urbanoski took control of the investigation.

We do not find it highly surprising that average citizens did not communicate the rumours to the police since, to our knowledge, this has not been the practice in our society. While there may be a moral obligation, there is certainly no legal requirement to relate one’s knowledge of criminal behaviour to the police. Crime Stoppers and similar programs now encourage the public to do so and are effective because even fragmentary information can be valuable in augmenting existing knowledge about a particular case. The program has made it easier for members of the public to assist. There was no Crime Stoppers program in place in The Pas in 1971.

Rewards have been used for many years to encourage people to convey important information to the police but, although this option was considered, a reward was not offered in the Osborne case. Although the RCMP asked the Attorney General’s department to authorize one early in the case, the Deputy Attorney General declined. It is not clear why this decision was taken. Crown attorney George Dangerfield and others believed it might have helped.

There are different reasons why citizens of The Pas may have remained silent about knowledge they had about the murder of Betty Osborne. Some of these reasons are straightforward. It is clear that the silence of the four suspects was motivated by mutual protection and self-interest. Their friends and families also remained silent to protect them. The concern of these people obviously was much greater for the suspects than it was for the victim whom they did not know. Several acquaintances of the suspects’, such as Catherine Dick, Annette Veito and both the unidentified witnesses, remained silent out of fear.

More complex are the motivations of other members of the community who did not tell the police what they knew or had heard. Our society generally shows an indifference to the victims of crime. Unless there is a direct personal connection to victims, it is all too easy for us to disregard their plight. It is easier and safer not to become involved. Sometimes this apathy assumes grotesque proportions. One well-known example of this was the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a New York woman, whose cries for help while being fatally stabbed were ignored by her neighbours. Only after she had died did someone finally call the police. Indifference to the victims of crime takes the form of detachment and passivity; a kind of personal insulation from the unpleasant realities of the world around.

Coupled with this is the attitude that crime is a matter for the police. This attitude serves to release individuals from taking personal responsibility even in situations where they have knowledge which might further the cause of justice. Many people in our society feel estranged from the police, making it all the more likely they will attempt to remain uninvolved.

All these attitudes seem to have been at play in The Pas during the investigation of the murder of Betty Osborne. Indifference to the victim and a wish to remain uninvolved were probably more powerful motivating factors than was racism.

We saw these attitudes even in employees of the justice system who appeared before us. Kathy Phillips, who worked for the RCMP, told us she remained silent because she "wasn’t a constable." Sheriff Gerald Wilson told us that his reason for not coming forward until 1986 was that he thought the police already had the information. He also thought that he had communicated with a plainclothes police officer in the Legion the night after Colgan made his confession to him. He said he spoke to the person who had sent Colgan the Screwdriver drink. Wilson testified he told the man, "‘Colgan wants to talk. If you keep the pressure up, he’ll break,’ or words to that effect." To this day we do not know whether or not the person to whom the sheriff spoke was a police officer.

Whatever his motivations, we find Sheriff Wilson’s inaction to be inexcusable. Because of his special position within the justice system, we believe that Wilson had the responsibility to come forward and tell the police of his conversation with Colgan.

It appears that townspeople who, like Wilson, did not come forward just did not care about Osborne and her brutal death or thought they had nothing of value to offer. It does not seem possible to classify this silence as a "conspiracy." We conclude that some of the friends and acquaintances of the suspects’ deliberately chose not to speak and there was a conspiracy among them, but apart from those, we were offered no evidence of any conscious decision on the part of the townspeople to suppress information about the murder. TOP





The Role of Sexism TOP

Women in our society live under a constant threat of violence. The death of Betty Osborne was a brutal expression of that violence. She fell victim to vicious stereotypes born of ignorance and aggression when she was picked up by four drunken men looking for sex. Her attackers seemed to be operating on the assumption that Aboriginal women were promiscuous and open to enticement through alcohol or violence. It is evident that the men who abducted Osborne believed that young Aboriginal women were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification.

We know that cruising for sex was a common practice in The Pas in 1971. We know too that young Aboriginal women, often underage, were the usual objects of the practice. And we know that the RCMP did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance on its part.

It is intolerable that our society holds women, and Aboriginal women in particular, in a position of such low esteem. Violence against women has been thought for too long to be a private affair. Assaults on women have not been treated with the seriousness which they deserve. Betty Osborne was one of the victims of this despicable attitude towards women.

Chief Lathlin of The Pas Band suggested that the fact that Osborne was Aboriginal and a woman contributed to the delay in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Justine Osborne thought that if her daughter had been a white woman there would have been more interest.

Osborne’s friend, Rebecca Ross, raised similar questions:

I always wondered why it took this many years to bring the case up and I also was very disappointed in my own native people that they didn’t do their part to push the case through, and I always wondered why did they not push the case.

Was it because that Helen Betty Osborne was a woman? (p. 2311—12)

There is one fundamental fact: her murder was a racist and sexist act. Betty Osborne would be alive today had she not been an Aboriginal woman. TOP

buffy.jpg (6592 bytes)Manitoba Government Home Page  

Back to Table of Contents