Sunday, March 12, 2017

Capital Murder at Age 18! (Convict Interred at Boot Hill Cemetery)

Hello Friends,

We bring you the tenth story of our series about the convicts buried at Boot Hill Cemetery, the small plot of land used for prisoners (maintained by inmates & 1913-1968) from the BC Penitentiary (aka "The Pen, closed in the 1980's), overlooking the Fraser River.
As the cemetery is unmarked to this day, I wonder how many people walk by believing it's just an unused piece of land. I have witnessed walkers with their dogs pooping on the grass, but they never stay long. Crows sit in the trees surrounding the land, squawking loudly as people try to enter the sacred space.

Meet Convict #2938 - Reginald John Colpitts:
Photo by Kati - Convict #2938 (top section - northwest)

On March 25, 1963 news was splashed on page 3 of the French Language Newspaper in Moncton, New Brunswick with news of a jail break:
Courtesy - L'Evangeline newspaper (Mar.25, 1963) pg 3
The above article is in French. Here is my attempt to translate it to English. Note, it's not perfect:

"Three evaders from the prison of the County
Detachments of the Canadian police in the southeastern region of the province were searching yesterday for three evaders from the Gaol of Westmorland.
The prisoners, Robert Laurie Sillikers, and Roderick Joseph Johnson, of Port Elgin, and Reginald Colpitts, of Moncton, took the key to the fields around 8 hours after sawing the bars of their cell.
Sillikers, aged 20 years 5'10" weighs 175 lbs, has dark brown hair and a broken nose; Johnson is also 20 years old, measures 5'6", 130 lbs and thick red dyed hair; Colpitts, age 16 weighs 130 lbs and measures 5'8" and has black hair.

It is also reported that an auto, Studybaker owned by Mr. Robert Hickman of Dorchester, was stolen in the evening."

It appears Reginald was a troubled young man who landed himself in jail (Gaol) in New Brunswick for armed robbery, and at a young age of 16 years old he escaped with two others. The above article gives us a fairly good description and provides a hint of who he was.

In the early 1960's, New Brunswick had just closed "The Boys Industrial Home" which was criticized for emphasizing incarceration more than rehabilitation although it boasted a rate of 85% being successful in transitioning youth back into the community. In it's place the Province opened the "New Brunswick Training School" at Kingsclear in 1962 for children 9-16 years of age labelled as juvenile delinquents and those seized by child welfare authorities prior to being placed into foster care. This school closed in the late 1990's and was replaced by the "New Brunswick Youth Centre" in Mirimachi. In 1962 it is reported that 137 boys aged 15 years were labelled juvenile delinquents in New Brunswick. A total of 412 (aged 7-15 years) were documented to have been arrested in the Province during that year.

I could not find any documentation that Reginald Colpitts was placed in the NBTS, perhaps it was due to his age and the seriousness of his crime.

Breaking out of jail/prison was, and still is, a serious offence. The Westmorland Institution was opened in 1962 as a minimum security prison in Dorchester, New Brunswick, and is connected with the Dorchester Penitentiary which is medium security. They are located on the same piece of property.

The next news article we found was one and half years later in 1964.
Courtesy - Globe & Mail (Sep.20, 1964) pg 2
The news is shocking; 18 year old Reginald Colpitts is accused of stabbing a prison guard in the Dorchester Penitentiary and thus charged with "Capital Murder". It advises us the crime happened during a recreation period, while the guard was supervising a group of inmates.

The Dorchester Penitentiary opened in 1880 in the village of Dorchester, New Brunswick to replace penal institutions in Saint John, Halifax and Prince Edward Island. It was built of stone, had 120 cells (4 x 6 x 9 feet) and was surrounded by a wooden fence on a 12 acre plot of land. Today, it is much larger and the wooden fence is long gone.
Courtesy - Dorchester Penitentiary
Edwin James Masterton became a prison guard only five years earlier in 1959. He had been a bricklayer, born fifth out of seven children to a farmer and his wife. Edwin was married with two children.
Courtesy New Brunswick Archives - Death Certificate of Edwin James Masterton
On September 23, 1964 Edwin was stabbed multiple times and was rushed to the Penitentiary Hospital, where he later died of internal hemorrhaging. The Mastertons' family website describes that Edwin had been stabbed by an edged weapon out of revenge for being sentenced for armed robbery and car theft. The attack took place in the prison's exercise yard while he was overseeing several inmates. This event shocked Warden Smith who explained it was the first time an officer had been killed in the line of duty at the prison.

According to the Canadian House of Commons debate on the Criminal Code - Proposed Amendment Regarding Capital Punishment on March 28, 1966, David Lewis (New Democratic Party) stated in his argument "Edwin James Masterton the fourth case, was stabbed to death at Dorchester penitentiary, New Brunswick, on September 23, 1964, by an inmate 18 years of age who was serving concurrent sentences of 10 and 12 years respectively for robbery with violence." - This helps us to understand how serious Reginald Colpitts' original sentence was. For such a young man to be facing that many years in prison in the early 1960's may have been too much to take.

Courtesy - the Brandon Sun (Nov.30, 1964)
The above article confirms the conviction of Capital Murder in November 1964, and the sentence of hanging. In search of the court case, I found the next step Reginald Colpitt's lawyer took. He filed an appeal of the decision made.

On March 05, 1965 an appeal was filed and reviewed in the Criminal Court of Appeal in New Brunswick, Canada. It presented an overlook of the crime Colpitts is accused of. Below find exerts from the Appeal read out by the Chief Justice of New Brunswick, George F. G. Bridges (1964-1972):

"The crime was committed on September 23, 1964 in an exercise yard of Dorchester Penitentiary where the defendant was serving a long term of imprisonment. The victim was one Edwin James Masterton, guard at such penitentiary, who was at the time acting in the course of his duties.

Aside from certain statements of the defendant and a tape recording made by him, with which I shall deal later, the chief evidence for the Crown was that of two fellow prisoners, Michael P. Flynn and George E. Westerberg. The testimony of Flynn is to the effect that he went into the exercise yard on September 23, 1964 at about 7:30 p.m. and was sitting on a bench listening to the radio when the defendant and Westerberg walked by him. From his position on the bench, Flynn noticed the victim Masterton standing some 50 to 60 feet from him not far from the west wall of the yard with his back towards it.

There were floodlights in the year and a small light near where Masterton was standing. At about the time Flynn saw Masterton, he noticed the defendant standing in front of him and Westerberg not too far behind him. Shortly after this Flynn stated that there was a 'kind of commotion' where the three were standing and that he saw Masterton pull his hand out of his pocket and grab his chest, saying 'My God, I am stabbed'.

Flynn testified that, after saying he had been stabbed, Masterton ran across the yard to the entrance of a building and that the defendant and Westerberg also ran from where they had been standing. The time was then shortly after 8:00 p.m. On reaching the entrance to the building Masterton collapsed. A stretcher was brought and he was carried to the prison hospital where his death occurred ten minutes later. There is no question that it was caused by a stab wound in his chest. In addition Masterton had been stabbed in the back."

Chief Justice Bridges continued his coram:

"The evidence of Westerberg, the other prisoner, was to the effect that he was in the exercise yard on the evening of September 23, 1964 and was talking at about 7:30 p.m. to the defendant, who said to him 'I am going to shiv a guard' meaning, knife a guard. They walked along in the yard together when the defendant showed him a knife which he pulled partly out from a case. Westerberg told the defendant he would be doing a foolish thing and the defendant replied 'it don't make any difference. I am doing twelve years.' After this they separated, Westerberg going to stand beside Flynn whom he said was standing up.

Westerberg further testified that after leaving the defendant he noticed Masterton talking to another guard and that on their separating he observed Masterton standing with his back to the wall and the defendant moving behind him. He then saw the defendant's arm shoot out and heard Masterton cry out that he had been stabbed and start running, holding his stomach. The defendant then came over to Westerberg and according to the latter said to him 'if you say anything about this you are a dead man.'

A knife was found later that evening stuck in the ground of the exercise yard. it was received into evidence. Westerberg said it was the knife that the defendant had shown him. it would seem to me probably the most he could have said was that it was very similar to such knife.

At 6:40 in the morning the following day, September 24, 1964, the defendant was placed in the prisoner's section of the visitors' cage, where he was kept under close watch. There he received his breakfast and at about 9:00 a.m. was taken to a lavatory. After his return to the cage he told one of his guards at 9:10 a.m. that he wanted to see the R.C.M.P. As a result, Corporal Jack J. Lawlor and Constable Yvon Vanasse of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came at 9:15 a.m. to the visitors' cage.

On the arrival of Corporal Lawlor and Constable Vanasse, the defendant said 'I will talk to you fellows, get the screw (a guard) out of here'. The guard left and the defendant then asked 'Did you find the knife yet'? to which Constable Vanasse answered 'We found the knife'. The defendant, on asking if it had a taped handle, was told by the constable that he did not know. The defendant then said 'Is the screw dead? They aren't flying that flag at half-mast for nothing'. To this he was given an affirmative answer. Constable Vanasse then gave the defendant the usual warning to which the latter replied 'I have heard this a thousand times before' and, after stating he understood it, said 'I shivved the guard'. On being questioned as to what he meant, he stated 'I killed the guard'. On being asked if he wanted to make a statement in writing, the defendant replied that he did. He was then brought out to the visitors' section of the cage and, on being given a pad and ball point pen, wrote and signed the following statement:-

'I 8495 Reginald John Colpitts an inmate of the Dorchester Penitentiary, on the night of Wednesday 23rd of September 1964 did kill a guard of the Dorchester Penitentiary by stabbing him once in the chest and then again in the back.'

After this written statement, the defendant made a verbal statement which was taken down in writing by Constable Vanasse and signed by the defendant. It is as follows:-

'I did not pick out any particular guard. If he was standing in the spot that I picked he was getting it. In other words it is a premeditated murder. It was not something that I did on an impulse.'"

Now we have a much clearer image of what the scene must have been like. However, there was more. Chief Justice Bridges read further that Colpitts answered questions, recorded by Constable Vanasse in writing, and also gave the full story via tape recording. Both admissions were received in evidence of the trial; and in both, Colpitts admits that a few weeks prior he was fed up with doing time on his 12 year sentence and found someone to get him a knife. He hid it in the yard, and on the morning of the murder took it to his cell. Colpitts goes on to explain that evening he took the knife with him having made up his mind to kill the first guard who would visit a certain area of the yard. Colpitts admitted he walked up to Masterton and asked what time it was. When the guard advised he didn't know and began to walk away, Colpitts stabbed him in the chest. When Masterton screamed, Colpitts turned the guard around and shoved the knife into his back. Colpitts then walked away to the back of a building (B7) and threw the knife into a mud puddle. His response to the question of whether he was sorry was:-
"No, I will tell you the God's truth I am sorry I didn't get more".

The appeal also explained that Colpitts appeared in prison garb during the first two days of his trial, which then was objected to by his defence. The trial judge ordered him to be dressed in civilian clothes for the remainder of the trial.

When the accused testified in his own defence during the trial, Colpitts advised he had lied in his statements to the R.C.M.P. He claimed he was protecting a friend, but when this person gave evidence against, him he saw no reason to keep up the lies. His exact words in court were:-
"I was going to protect him even to the point of hanging for him until he tried to hang me."

On cross-examination Colpitts stated:-
"He stabbed him once in the front, and the Guard - he went - the Guard reached out and grabbed him, and they scuffled. He went around behind the Guard. I was directly facing the Guard, and he stabbed him again; and the Guard reached to grab me, and I stepped out of the way."
When he was asked "Maybe you didn't see anybody stabbed", Colpitts replied:-
"Maybe I didn't, but Mr. Friel don't put words in my mouth".

Colpitts does not name this friend throughout the trial, but admits he walked with him for some time in the yard. After having read the above portion of the appeal, it leads us to believe perhaps he had meant George E. Westerberg.

The grounds of the appeal raised were: 1) the prison attire worn during the first part of the trial; 2) the admission in evidence of a tape recording reproducing a confession made by Colpitts; 3) failure by the trial judge to place the defence fairly to the jury; 4) the finding of the jury is contrary to the evidence; and 5) improper questioning of Colpitts on cross-examination and wrongful admission of evidence in answers thereto.

The appeal's fifth ground was based on the following evidence of Colpitt's trial transcript:-

"Q. Now how long have you been in the -- how many times have you been in the -- an inmate at the penitentiary?
A. This is the second time.
Q. The second time?
A. Yes.
Q. And what are you in for this time?
A. Armed robbery.
Q. Armed robbery?
A. Right.
Q. And how were you armed on that occasion?
A. With a gun.
Q. And what was the first time you served penitentiary -- what was that for?
A. For escaping gaol, car theft, and breaking and entering.
Q. And had you served any sentences besides penitentiary?
A. Yes.
Q. And where did you serve these?
A. County Gaol.
Q. When did you first serve time in the County Gaol?
A. 1962?
Q. Did you use a knife in any offence before?
A. No.

Q. Were you not involved in the Friar's hold-up?
A. Mmmm.
Q. Was not a knife used there?
A. Prove I used it.
Q. Pardon?
A. Prove I used it. I didn't use it.
Q. Did you have a knife?
A. No.
Q. What weapon did you have?
A. I had nothing.
Q. Did you plead guilty to a charge of armed robbery?
A. Mmmm, but I didn't plead guilty to having a knife.
Q. What were you armed with?
A. I was armed with nothing. My accomplice was armed."

Chief Justice Bridges then read out his decision on each ground, reciting cases and discussing the evidence provided etc., and made a ruling "In my opinion, the verdict would necessarily have been the same if the errors in question had not occurred. I would, therefore, dismiss the appeal." - Dated March 5, 1965.

Justice Louis McC. Ritchie's decision was to dismiss the appeal; whereas Justice R. V. Limerick's decision was to "allow the appeal and order a new trial."

The following day, an article from the Globe and Mail:
Courtesy - Globe and Mail (Mar.06, 1965)
Mr. Colpitt's appeal had been dismissed, and the sentence to be hanged was moved to May 05, 1965.

Reginald's lawyer (Paul S. Creaghan) submitted a request for an appeal through the Supreme Court of Canada, which was heard over several days, June 2, 3 and 24th, 1965, the Chief Justice being the Right Honourable Robert Taschereau, P.C., C.C. After the reading of the Justices' opinions and weighing the arguments and evidence presented, Taschereau ruled in favour of a new trial.:-
Courtesy Supreme Court of Canada - Taschereau
"...there are a very considerable number of items of evidence which point toward the possibility that the appellant might be telling the truth in his evidence at trial. In my view, it was the duty of the judge to submit all that evidence, not only that in favour of the accused but that against him, to the jury so that they might weigh it and come to the conclusion whether, on all of the evidence, they had any reasonable doubt of the guilt of the appellant.
I am of the opinion that this Court cannot place itself in the position of a jury and weigh these various pieces of evidence...
I am of the opinion that there is such a possibility and I, therefore, would allow the appeal, set aside the judgement of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick, Appeal Division, and direct a new trial of the appellant upon the charge of capital murder."

Courtesy - Globe and Mail (Jun.25, 1965)

During the 1960's in Canada, a debate was before the House of Commons questioning Capital Punishment. It was not until 1976 that Canada abolished it after 710 people were hanged. The last two hangings were on December 11, 1962, at the Don Jail, Toronto, Ontario.
Courtesy Vancouver Sun - Debate on Capital Punishment (Jun.24, 1965)
The next document I found was from the Supreme Court of New Brunswick Appeal Division, between Reginald John Colpitts and Her Majesty the Queen. The appeal was from the conviction of Colpitts for Capital Murder after the previous conviction was quashed by the Supreme Court of Canada and the ruling of his second trial (unknown date at this time).

There were five grounds of the appeal:-
1) the trial judge erred in admitting as evidence a tape recording alleged to be a reproduction of a confession; 2) the trial judge erred in admitting a piece of plain paper as evidence, allegedly torn from another piece of paper containing a note written by Colpitts; 3) the trial judge erred in failing to put fairly to the jury the theory of the defence; 4) the trial judge erred in failing to direct the jury fairly and adequately as to the law applicable; and 5) the finding of the jury was contrary to the evidence and to the law applicable.

Once piece of evidence we were not aware of before was mentioned in the 2nd ground for appeal. As per an excerpt of the coram read by Ritchie, J.A. as follows:-
"The second ground of appeal relates to the admissibility in evidence of exhibit P-18, a torn piece of lined paper of the same type and quality as exhibit P-17. The only markings on P-18, apart from the lines, are notations for identification purposes made by the police officers who handled it.
Exhibit P-17 is a hand written note, picked up by a penitentiary guard on July 7, 1965 after it fell from the clothing of an inmate he was transferring from the disassociation block to the exercise yard. At the time the appellant (Colpitts) was occupying cell No. 9 in the disassociation block. The note is written on a torn sheet of lined paper similar to that issued to the inmates for purpose of letter writing. It reads:-
'To My Friend: after you memorise this, burn it.
Hi! I will have to make this very short, as it has to be taken to you without being found. If you want to go to court and help me out, I will call you this time. I can beat the rap if you say this and nothing else. (1) (I seen who killed the Guard. It was not Reg Colpitts. Colpitts, when I saw him, he was walking towards the baseball field and another inmate was fighting with the Guard, I could also see that the other inmate had a knife. I could not say who the other inmate was, because I could not clearly see his face or number.) (2) Then tell the truth about how I came from behind the new wing and met up with you and what we did from there. Make sure and say just exactly what it (sic) between number (1) and number (2). Don't tell my lawyer that I killed the guard, and make sure and not fall for them Mounties sneaky tricks. I sure miss you Greek and I think of you all the time. Also the hangman didn't bother me on bit. Ha-Ha. I will write more when I get a chance. If the lawyer calls you a Greek, you will know I sent him.

From Your Friend!'
After reading exhibit P-17 on July 8, 1965, Corporal Grover, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, arranged to have the appellant removed from his cell which he then proceeded to search. In that cell, he found exhibit P-18. No other piece of paper similar to exhibits 17 and 18 was found in the cell."

The coram goes on to state a document examiner of the R.C.M.P. Crime Detection Laboratory testified that a comparison had been made of the torn edge of both exhibits and caused him to conclude the two exhibits had, at one time, formed one sheet of paper. He also compared handwriting from P-17 to P-12 and testified there was a strong possibility both were written by Colpitts.

In the end, all Justices of the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick ruled to dismiss the new appeal. This meant the trial decision to be hanged would stand.

Courtesy Brandon Sun - (Jan.17, 1966)
The above article was the next piece of evidence I found concerning what happened next. It indicates there were two stays of execution between the original trial (Nov.1964) and Colpitts' appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in March 1965. It also confirms the hanging would go forward on Wednesday January 19, 1966. However, the next day, everything changed for Reginald Colpitts.
Courtesy Globe and Mail - (Jan.18, 1966)
Courtesy Wikipedia - Pearson 1957

Lester B. Pearson, Canada's 14th Prime Minister from 1963 to 1968, had commuted the death sentence ruling to life imprisonment. The above article goes on to confirm Colpitts' second trial was held on October 29, 1965. I could not find any newspaper articles or copies of the second court trial.

I next find out that Reginald John Colpitts had been transferred to the B.C. Penitentiary in the following newspaper article.
Courtesy Medicine Hat News - Alberta newspaper (Jan.24, 1966)
Sometime in between Jan.19th and Jan.24th, 1966, the decision to move Colpitts to the Pen was made. Two days later news comes from New Westminster, B.C. the home of the Pen, on the other side of Canada in the west.

Courtesy Ottawa Journal - pg 48 (Jan.26, 1966)

We do not hear anything further until 1967. Reginald John Colpitts decided that he no longer wished to live and therefore hung himself in his cell.
Courtesy - British Columbia Penitentary (online)

Courtesy Lethbridge Herald - (Nov.27, 1967)

I pulled Reginald's death certificate to get a better understanding.
Courtesy BC Archives - Colpitts deceased Nov.24, 1967
Under sections:- 
23. Cause of death: Asphyxia, Strangulation, Hanging
26. If a violent death, fill in also: (a) Suicide (checked), (b) Date of Injury: 24 Nov. 1967, (c) How did injury occur?: Subject is an inmate of the B.C. Pen. hanged himself with a bedsheet in hospital ward of B.C. Pen.
Dated: Nov.29, 1967.

Reginald John Colpitts born September 9, 1946, in Moncton, New Brunswick, died at the age of 21 years young on November 24, 1967.

During the late 1960's, the B.C. Penitentiary was experiencing overcrowding. In 1966 the Government announced it was purchasing land in the Fraser Valley, and discussions over the life of the Pen were ongoing. Transferring aging prisoners to the Mountain Prison in Agassiz was one way to alleviate the stress. Several new in prison activities were born, such as the Bridgeview Jaycees formed by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and were a first for a Canadian penitentiary. Just before Christmas 1966, it was recorded that the convicts would participate in traditional seasonal festivities such as church services, films, live entertainment in the auditorium, extra periods available for sports (IE: handball, volleyball, soccer), and meals would be upgraded to include such items as grapefruit, ham, salad, turkey and plum pudding. Although some of these changes were viewed as positive ones, the 1970's brought turmoil, instability, murder, riots, suicides, violence, guards held at knife point, and more to the Pen. The behaviour of inmates became increasingly suspicious, morbidly resentful and selfish over the coming years. The decision to close the penitentiary came swiftly and on February 15, 1980, the last inmate to transfer out was processed.

We will never understand what goes through a convict's mind and why he/she chooses to end their own life. If Colpitts was going through his own turmoil, I don't think his decision was easily made. Seeing what a tough and disturbing young man he had been, I can only believe he didn't see any other way out of prison life and became desperate for his freedom; that being death.

Reginald John Colpitts was buried in Boot Hill Cemetery on November 30, 1967.

If you have not read any of our previous accounts, please check them out. Each convicts' story is filled with interesting facts, incredible adventures and emotional effect.
01) Meet Convict 1548 - Thompson
02) Meet Convict 2370 - Walsh
03) Meet Convict 2304 - Chinley
04) Meet Convict 1774 - Hinds
05) Meet Convicts 1628 - Herman Wilson + Unknown# - Joseph Smith
06) Meet Convict 1659 - Y. Yoshie
07) Meet Convict 1884 - Moses Paul
08) Meet Convict 2516 - Daniel Henrick Urick
09) Meet Convict 1948 - Unknown Gim
10) Meet Convict 2938 - Reginald John Colpitts
11) Meet Convict 5603 - Stephen Poole
12) Meet Convict 3130 - Harry Davis
13) Meet Convict 2312 - Albert Hill
14) Meet Convict Unknown# - Phillip Hopkins
15) Meet Convict #9720 - Norman Donald Bottineau
16) Meet Convict #2225 - Louie Num
17) Meet Convict #3237 - Harold Gordon McMaster
18) Meet Convict #4234 - Herbert Ross

Thank you for visiting our blog and enjoying yet another story. If you have any information to assist us in our research, please do not hesitate to contact us via our Website, and/or our Facebook Page. We'd love to hear from you, even if it's just to chat and/or exchange ideas.

Until next time,

Sources:;;; Provincial Archives of New Brunswick; Vancouver Public Library; Correctional Service Canada; Westmorland Historical Society;; New Brunswick Peace Officers Memorial; (2404283); Cases.Legal.En; New Brunswick Courts (; University of New Brunswick (Young People & the Law); Stats Canada (Dominion Bureau of Statistics) - report on Juvenile Delinquents; Supreme Court of Canada;; BC Archives; Archived Google Newspapers; Four Walls in the West - Jack David Scott

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