Stanley Park is to Vancouver, Canada, what Central Park is to New York City, United States. The lush, evergreen nature spot is the third largest urban park in North America; it overlooks the city’s grand skyline.
On the 14th of January, 1953, Albert Tong was clearing brush for new trees near Beaver Lake in Stanley Park when he came across the skeletal remains of two young children. They were laying head to foot and had been covered with a woman’s rain coat and an accumulation of leaves that had fallen since their death. They were wearing shoes and only rags remained of their clothing. Near their bodies, police found a woman’s shoe, a blue and white lunch box, and a hatchet. The hatchet was the same type of tool that was used by a latherer in those days. Most poignantly, police also found two child-sized aviator helmets; the kind that would be worn by children playing army games. An examination determined that the two young children had been dead for approximately five years and were somewhere between the ages of six and ten. They were initially thought to be a boy and a girl but years later, advancement in DNA technology would indicate otherwise. Despite the fact that so much time had passed and all that remained were skeletons, it was evident that the two children had been murdered. Their skulls bore damage inflicted by the hatchet that was found alongside them. It was theorised that the shoe with a “thick pale crepe rubber sole” came off the killers’ foot when fleeing the scene.
With the case already cold when the remains were discovered, police went public with what little information they had in the hopes that somebody could come forward. From bits of cloth found around the bodies, police attempted to recreate the clothing which was likely worn by the children. It wasn’t an easy feat. The small pieces of rotted cloth was carefully washed and examined under microscope which showed traces of red. With assistance from a yard-goods manager of a Vancouver department store, the cloth was determined to be red Fraser tartan. It was made in a way that made police conclude that it was most likely home made from an old piece of cloth. Police were also able to determine that there was also material from corduroy pants found at the scene.
Early on in the investigation, over 100 tips were logged from people who recollected seeing a boy and girl in the park around 1947. One woman who contacted police said that she was in Stanley Park on the 5th of October, 1947, when she saw a woman and two children who looked to be “either Swedish or Norwegian.”1 The caller said that the woman and two children entered a bush and that the woman was carrying a hatchet. She claimed that when the woman spotted her, she started to cut small branches from trees. According to the caller, the woman called the boy either “Ronny” or “Rodney.” Around 45 minutes later, the caller claimed she saw the woman leaving the park but she wasn’t accompanied by the two children and that she was missing her coat. This moment stuck out in the woman’s memory because it was the date that she called off her engagement to her fiancé.
Investigators worked hard trying to match the bodies with missing person reports. They scoured through thousands of school board records and social services records in search of children who had inexplicably vanished. The case was handled by Vancouver Detective Don Mackay and during his investigation, he put tracers out on 76 pairs of children. These tracers led to investigation by police in the United States, Canada, Scotland, Austria and even Venezuela. Tips and leads came in from across the world. A young boy from Vancouver reported that he had made two friends but never saw them again. When he saw their mother on the street, he asked about his two friends but the woman brushed him off. An English naval officer contacted Vancouver police to say that the children may be his since his estranged wife had come to Canada with them. Ironically, one tip came in from the mother of then 13-year-old Clifford Olson who later went on to become a child serial killer. Mrs. Olsen had wondered about a neighbour who had been acting very peculiar in an interview with police. The investigation was thorough but the so-called “Babes in the Woods” could not be identified.
The case gradually went cold but as time progressed, so did advancement in DNA technology. In 1998, genetic material from the children revealed that they were two boys, not a boy and girl like initially believed. Moreover, the two little boys were half-brothers and were aged around five and eight. While the revelation was a breakthrough, it was somewhat bitter sweet as it meant that it had set investigators on the wrong trail and turned away hundreds of tips. “Had we known at the time they were both boys, it might have made a world of difference,” said retired Vancouver Police Department detective, Brian Honeyburn. “The whole file must be reviewed and any involving a male and female can probably be eliminated.2
In 2003, retired detective Honeyburn took on the challenge to solve the cold case. He had worked on the investigation for years and when he retired, he made it his life ambition to crack the case. His investigation led him to Mission in search of a single mother with two children who had been picked up while hitchhiking from Mission to Vancouver. The person who picked her up recalled how the two boys were wearing aviator helmets much like the ones found at the scene. While at Mission investigating this lead, Honeyburn appeared on the Rafe Mair radio talk show to speak about his lead. Afterwards, an elderly couple from Mission called in with a tip that led to the conclusion that the woman from Mission wasn’t involved in the murders. The couple directed Honeyburn to where he could find the woman’s children – all of whom were still alive and well.3
During his investigation, Honeyburn uncovered that the children’s’ shoes were available to purchase before World War Two. This revelation opened up the possibility that the children may have been murdered earlier than initially believed. This discovery made Honeyburn think back to an earlier discounted witness account from 1944. A Sailor from Esquimault and his fiancée had been walking along the seawall in Stanley Park when a woman came running out from within the bushes. She appeared to be wearing just one shoe and no coat. She let out a wailing sound as she took off running.4 With this new information, Honeyburn had Vancouver police check school attendance records to see if they could identify any children that vanished in May of 1944. Unfortunately, this only led an exasperated Honeyburn to a dead end.
Another popular theory over the years – and one that was established by Vancouver detective Don Mackay – was that the two boys were the children of Madeline Fortier, a woman from Levi, Quebec, who told Mackay that she had given her children up for adoption in Vancouver. Mackay worked on the case for years. It was his “pet” case, so to speak. In 1961, he said: “Somewhere, somebody must have known these kids and someday I’ll meet that somebody.” Sadly, however, Mackay died before solving the case. Before his death, he discounted the theory that the children were those of Fortier. He believed that the killer – who was either the children’s mother or guardian – had taken them to the park on the pretence of going for a picnic. She then led them to a secluded area and struck them both across the head with the hatchet. He considered the fact that the woman may had jumped into the water under the Lions Gate Bridge and drowned.
Today, File number 53-636 still sits in the basement of 312 Main Street. The case files on the “Babes in the Wood” case are as old and dusty as the trail of the killer who is presumably long dead by now.
- The Vancouver Sun, 7 October, 1961 – “The Babes in The Wood”
- The Standard, 20 March, 1998 – “DNA Tests Destroy Theory in Long Ago Child Killings”
- Mission City Record, 26 August, 2004 – “Mission Leads to Babes in the Woods Killing a Dead End”
- The Province, 6 October, 1944 – “New Clues May Revive 60-year-old Babes in the Woods Case”