“We don’t catch the smart ones.”
Eve Lazarus surveys unsolved homicides in Cold Case Vancouver (Arsenal Pulp).
December 13th, 2015
Stats reveal Vancouver is a good place not to be murdered now that the average age of the populace has risen.
The good news—if there can be any good news in a book about unsolved murders—is that the homicide rate is falling in Canada. These days murder accounts for 0.1 percent of all police-reported violent crime.
Vancouver is safer than ever, with one of the lowest murder rates in North America. Whereas in 1962, Vancouver had eighteen murders with a population of less than 400,000, by 2013, the city’s population had more than doubled and yet there were only six murders.
That disparity can be partially explained by demographics. The percentage of the population comprised of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five—the demographic that commits seventy-five percent of homicides in most countries—has dropped considerably since the 1970s.
The VPD has 337 unsolved murders on its books dating back to 1970. Police will not comment about these crimes on the record, but Eve Lazarus has examined twenty-four of the city’s most baffling unsolved murders between 1944 and 1996 for Cold Case Vancouver (Anvil $21.95).
As a populist historian, Lazarus has developed a lively but authoritative tone in three previous B.C. heritage titles. For her fifth book, Lazarus is more like a respectful reporter, avoiding sensationalism, as she relates the facts, without lurid or rumoured conjectures, adding maps, archival photos and newspaper clippings.
There’s the well-known 1953 ‘Babes in the Woods’ story about the skeletons of two little boys uncovered by a Vancouver Parks Board worker in Stanley Park. Both were likely killed about six years earlier. Lazarus points out they were slain around the time seven-year-old Roddy Moore was inexplicably beaten to death on his way to school in East Vancouver in 1947.
There’s the case of the young country singer Debbie Roe, just back from success in Nashville, who was sexually assaulted, beaten, strangled and left to drown in 1975 and also the first recorded gang murder in 1954 when Danny Brent was shot in the head, probably by hired killers from Montreal, and left on the tenth hole of the UBC golf course.
Sex rears its ugly head in numerous entries, including the case of an in-the-closet gay man, Robert Hopkins, who was found strangled and shot in the head in his home in the Kensington-Cedar Cottage area. We learn from BC Gay and Lesbian archivist Ron Dutton that if a crime against a gay person ever did make it to court up until the 1980s, the “homosexual panic defence” was a standard tactic for defence lawyers. A defendant could claim he was so horrified to be propositioned by a gay person that extreme retaliation could be deemed acceptable by the court.
Conversely, a man who attacked thirty women in the early 1950s was dubbed “the love bandit” by the press. In that era, domestic violence was largely ignored and women were chronically at-risk in their homes.
“Certainly in the Fifties,” says Neil Boyd, Director of SFU’s School of Criminology, “it was totally permissible for mother and fathers to whack their children in the grocery store. Teachers would hit children, and the notion that a man could ‘correct’ his spouse was seen as totally acceptable.”
Lazarus has not merely regurgitated stories from the likes of retired Vancouver Police staff sergeant, Joe Swan, who operated the Vancouver Police Centennial Museum and wrote an historical crime column for the West Ender newspaper commencing in 1983. His accounts of murder cases were reprinted in A Century of Service: Vancouver Police 1886-1986 (Vancouver Police Historical Society, 1986) and Police Beat: 24 Vancouver Murders (Vancouver: Cosmopolitan Publishing, 1991).
Instead Lazarus has consulted a wide range of informants and undertaken some original research, most strikingly in her introductory story about the grisly fate of twenty-four-year-old Jennie Conroy whose body was found near the West Vancouver cemetery in 1944.
A disturbing percentage of victims in Cold Case Vancouver are female; and we learn we are most at-risk to be murdered if we are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.
“The truly frightening thing is,” Lazarus writes, “is that these killers might still walk around among us. As a forensic expert for the Vancouver Police Department said, even with DNA and all the scientific improvements, ‘we don’t catch the smart ones.’”
This article reveals the reality behind the deluge of murder mysteries in film, TV and novels these days: the genius detective who solves every case is a fiction. These stories are indicative of our natural need for closure though sadly in real life such neat endings are often elusive. The good news is the sharp decline in murder rates.