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Sixteen Years to Justice: The Helen Betty Osborne Murder
Born into a large family on the reservation in Norway House, Manitoba, Helen Betty Osborne dreamed of escape. She was very intelligent and hoped to one leave the reservation to study at a secondary school.
Despite speaking very little English, Betty proudly went off to The Pas, Manitoba, a predominately white, English speaking town, and set about getting her education; becoming one step closer to her dream of teaching.
Betty’s first year in The Pas was relatively unremarkable. She missed her family and made a few friends; fellow Aboriginal kids also pursuing their secondary educations. Her grades were lower than to which she was accustomed, but it wasn’t for lack of effort; Betty was tackling education in a language with which was largely unfamiliar to her. She vowed, however, to overcome the pesky obstacle.
The Pas was a small town literally divided into two classes: Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Betty’s friends were in the former group and, although the pickings were slim, she would have never considered dating someone from the latter group. In Betty’s mind, the non-natives were evil white people who took her ancestors’ land and forced them onto poverty-stricken reservations.
No, The Pas wasn’t a place where she intended to put down roots. Bety was only there to get her education then she was going home to teach her own people; to be a leader in freeing the Crees from education oppression.
Betty Osborne was determined to change the future and she would, just not in the way she had imagined.
The White Life
In order to encourage more Aboriginal children to pursue secondary educations and in an attempt to desegregate the races, the Canadian government established a foster home system, of sorts; white families were encouraged to offer housing for studying Métis or Crees in exchange for monetary reimbursement of expenses.
Betty wasn’t keen on the idea of living with a white family but realized how helpful it could be in overcoming the language barrier and help her to someday educate her own people. Reluctantly, Betty agreed to participate in the program. She was chosen, along with another Indigenous female student, Muriel, to reside at the home of Bill and Patricia Benson at 441 Lathlin Avenue.
Living and interacting with white people consistently aided in relieving some of Betty's fears, common among the indigenous peoples, as she found her foster parents to be quite friendly and gracious. It did nothing to change her mind, however, about ever dating a white man.
No, Cornelius Bighetty, an indigenous man, was the only man for Betty.
Good Times, Cheating Guys
On Friday, November 12, 1971, Betty went with her friend, fellow Norway House native, George Ross, to visit a mutual friend in the hospital.
After the visit, the pair returned to the Benson home and began drinking beer. After a little while, Mrs. Benson told them they’d had enough and sent George home. Betty told her host she’d like to go the convenience story and get a Coke and bag of potato chips to eat as she settled in the for night with a movie. Mrs. Benson agreed, but told Betty not to stay gone too long.
Betty caught up with George and, on their way to the store, they ran into friends Eva Simpson and Marion Osborne. Together they purchased a case of beer and sneaked back to the Bensons, where they drank the beer in an outdoor shed. The Bensons were unaware of the groups’ presence.
Despite all of them being quite inebriated, the group of kids decided to walk back uptown. Walking into the Cambrian Hotel, Betty spotted Cornelius with Lillian Michelle. Betty was furious and the two girls began screaming and fighting. It took all of his strength for Cornelius to separate the dueling ladies.
Betty’s party left the Hotel. George Ross later recalled that the last time he saw Betty, she was walking alone down Edwards Avenue towards home.
Murder In The Pas
On November 13, 1971, Steve Gurba took his fourteen year-old son Kenny Gurba fishing at a spot known locally as "the point" on Clearwater Lake. When nothing seemed to be biting, Kenny decided to explore. His discovery would blow any thoughts of fishing out of the water.
Calling the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the father and son took officers to the location of the body. The RCMP officer called in local police. When they arrived they found a young woman who was bloodied and mangled. A further study of the scene revealed she had been stabbed dozens of times, had been stomped on with boots, and her left ear was nearly cut in half. There were no signs of sexually assault.
Murders like this didn’t happen in The Pas. Sure, murder happened but it was fighting between drunk Aboriginals that went too far or white supremacy groups challenging the natives to a battle. Frenzied killings of a teenager girl, even if she was an aboriginal, no, that simply didn’t happen The Pas.
Yet it had happened and now they needed to why it happened. And who had done it.
A Town’s Dirty Little Open Secret
The first person police suspected was Cornelius, but he was quickly cleared after passing a polygraph test. This left police with no suspects.
Lee Scott Cologan was the son of a well-respected family in The Pas. The only respect Lee had however, was because of his family; the boy did little to earn his own. His employer had accused him of stealing from the from the store till and his pay was being garnished.
After the murder of Betty Osborne occurred, Lee started making odd statements about it while at work. Having a reputation as a liar, however, made his colleagues ignore him. He also said these things to his father, who unlike the others, had listened closely.
Mr. Cologon immediately took Lee to see local attorney D’Arcy Bancroft. Sitting in the solicitor’s office, Lee told a horrific story of being with his best friend and neighbor Jim Houghton, a small time gangster Dwayne Johnston, and dimwitted drifter Norman Manger. According to Lee, the foursome had attempted to pick up the young Cree girl but she had racially insulted them. It made them angry and they had decided to kidnap her just to teach her lesson. Lee said they never intended to kill her, things had just gotten out of hand.
Solicitor Bancroft met with the three other boys to hear their version of events. In the end, he advised all of them to keep their mouths shut and tell no one.
Fortunately, such would prove difficult for Lee. Every time his tongue became thick with liquor, he would tell the whole story to anyone who would listen. The unfortunate part, however, was just as it was with his fellow employees, people in The Pas discounted his tale of murder, as well.
Norman and Dwayne too had difficulty keeping the crime to themselves, too but they had a reputation for braggadocio and they too were ignored.
Jim Houghton, the fourth member of this murderous clan, was intent on succeeding in life and knew his dreams depended on his silence. He never told anyone.
Although the gossip mills were running at fiery speeds, the case of Betty Osborne was growing colder by the minute. It seemed there would never be justice for Betty, the young Cree girl who had come in search of a better life and ended up dying alone on a cold November night by the lake.
If I Knew, You Knew – Right?
Sixteen years after the death of Betty Osborne, it appeared it was never to be solved but a new investigator was about to come on the scene and he was determined to get justice for the young woman.
Shortly after the case came into the hands of Constable Rob Urbanoski, he ran a classified ad in the local newspaper asking anyone who had any information, no matter how insignificant it may seem, to please call him or visit his station.
Urbansoski was amazed - admittedly, more disturbed, at the number of people who called or stopped by with information they had heard through the grapevine or been told to them personally by a member of the group of suspects. When the detective inquired why they never told these things to police before, he got the same answer, “If I knew, I was sure police knew.” Time and time again, this statement was made.
It became obvious the killers’ identities in the Osborne murder were an open secret among the residents of The Pas.
Not A Secret Anymore
In the sixteen years since Betty's death, Lee Colgan had gone on to be a pathetic drunk, so detectives turned their attentions on him first. Lee let them know he knew all about the murder but refused to talk without being offered immunity.
Once the immunity was in place, Lee spilled his guts. He told them what he had told his attorney, who was now deceased, about the November night Betty died. Lee told how they yelled to her from the car and tried to convince her to get in and have sex with them; how she had refused and insulted them with a racial slur; how it had angered them and they had decided to teach her a lesson; how things had gotten out of hand and two of his friends had murdered her instead; how he had cleaned his father’s car, the one in which the group was in riding in that night, to rid it of any evidence; and how the group had made a pact to never speak of it again.
According to Lee’s statement, Norman had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jim Houghton and Dwayne Johnston were arrested and charged with murder.
In 1987, Jim and Dwayne went on trial. Jim had done a good job of never speaking of the murder and was acquitted; Dwayne on the other hand had talked too much and witnesses testified about the things Dwayne had told them, essentially giving credit to Lee Colgan’s testimony, which led to Dwayne being the sole participant from that night to receive a conviction for murder.
Dwayne Johnston served ten years of a life sentence before being released on October 10, 1997. He will remain on full parole. He continues to live in Manitoba.
Lee Colgan died of an extended illness (probably from the drinking, but it’s not been confirmed) in 2004.
Jim Houghton continued on with life. He presently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
There whereabouts of Norman Manger are unknown.
Betty’s death led to an investigation focused on why the case took so long to solve especially when so many people knew the killers or at least had been privy to information about their identity. The conclusion of the study said racism, sexism, and an indifference were the main causes of delay in obtaining justice.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police officially closed the case of Betty’s homicide in 1999.
The Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation was created to commemorate Betty’s life and now offers scholarship awards to Manitoba’s Aboriginal students to aid in their pursuit of post-secondary education. The HBOMF site also offers links to the complete transcripts of Commission hearings resulting from Betty's murder investigation.
Aboriginal writer David Alexander Robertson wrote The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel, written with the purpose to educate youth about racism, sexism and indifference. Robertson donates a portion of the proceeds from each book sale to HBOMF.
© 2016 Kim Bryan