A Duty to Remember: Memories still fresh - 50 years after Peterson Creek shootings

I could see that the gunman was well protected, not only by the tree he was lying behind, but also his body was down slope from it.

He was so close I could hear the action of his rifle as he worked the bolt to reload it and it (gave) some time for me to scrunch behind that small rock, for his next shot hit it.

I now had a safe time to look and I shot at the dirt to the side of the tree, hoping to perhaps hit his elbow, but it was clear there was too much protection of earth in front of him.

Now it was time to duck, for I heard his bolt slam home again.

He shot a third time, creasing a small tree in line with me, and a sliver of wood nicked my forehead.

My turn again.

- Chief Supt. Jack White

(from Tragedy At Peterson Creek Canyon, 2000)

* * *

The early morning of June 18, 1962, was shaping up to be a busy one at the Kamloops RCMP detachment.

It was the Monday after a boisterous Indian Days weekend and 64 post-party revellers were waking up in the city's jail cells to pounding headaches, bruised knuckles and black eyes - the full effects of their weekend of excess dawning on them and on the small detachment of police officers who faced processing the arrestees through the court system that morning.

It was going to be a busy day, and it had only just begun.

Const. Joseph Keck and Const. Gordon Pedersen were among the officers who reported for duty at 8 a.m. Keck was 25, two years older than Pedersen, but already a dad with a second child on the way.

Pedersen had only been married a month. He would die that morning without knowing that his 21-year-old wife was carrying their child.

As the dayshift officers began their routines, Const. Donald Weisgerber stopped by the detachment to do some work before going to play golf. It was his day off and he was eager to try the new clubs his wife, Joan, had given him for his 23rd birthday a week before.

Neither Weisgerber nor his two colleagues on duty had any idea of the trouble brewing just a few blocks away, where the first act of a tragedy was about to begin.

* * *

George Booth was in good spirits that morning, according to a neighbour who gave the 31-year-old man a ride into town from the hamlet of Knutsford, where Booth lived with his dad, John Wilkes Booth, in a two-room shack.

Neighbour Anthony Parrott saw the younger Booth walking early on the morning of June 18 and gave him a lift to Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street, near the government buildings. Booth, dressed in a dirty windbreaker, red flannel shirt and soiled khaki pants, appeared normal enough.

But he was a man with a troubled past and, by all accounts, a tangled mind. Back in 1957, his family committed him to Essondale psychiatric institution in Coquitlam for four months because he kept asking if someone was poisoning his coffee. In those days, the law required police to escort a patient to the facility.

John Booth had let his son believe it was the RCMP's decision to commit him. It was a lie, of course, but it provided the flame for George's long-simmering resentment toward police.

On the morning of June 18, Booth tucked his .303-calibre British rifle into his father's buckskin sheath, along with several rounds of ammunition and headed to Kamloops.

Parrott, the neighbour who gave him a lift into town, would later report Booth planned to go to the government precinct downtown off Columbia Street - to the welfare department and possibly the conservation office as his gun licence had expired.

"He looked terrible but seemed in good spirits. He talked about the weather and told me he wanted to pick up a gun licence."

But Booth was believed to be angry with the welfare office as his cheques were getting progressively smaller - his last one was for $51.

* * *

Just before 9 a.m., game wardens George Ferguson and Frank Richter spotted Booth and his rifle at the footbridge near the Glenfair seniors' residences, a housing complex between the government buildings and the downtown entrance to Peterson Creek.

Ferguson believed Booth was nervous and upset and could see the man swinging and pointing the rifle. As Ferguson approached, Booth shoved the muzzle of his .303 against Ferguson's stomach. "Get the hell out of here or I'll kill you," said Booth.

The two game wardens went to the nearby provincial highways building and Ferguson called police, saying he'd been threatened and believed Booth was dangerous.

It was shortly after 9 a.m. when Const. Joseph Keck took the call and told everyone in the detachment there was a man with a rifle at the provincial welfare office who needed to be checked.

He, Pedersen and Weisgerber were at the scene in minutes.

Witnesses report the officers tried to approach Booth, but he kept walking away and didn't respond to their words.

They made their way among the buildings until they were on a dirt road toward Peterson Creek. Booth pulled the rifle from its scabbard and made threatening gestures as the officers tried to move around him.

Their movements only agitated Booth. When he saw Pedersen crouching on the side of a dry creek bed, he fired his rifle, shooting the young officer in the back.

Keck returned fire on Booth with his snub-nosed .38 revolver as Weisgerber - unarmed and in his off-duty clothes - moved behind a gravel hopper.

Pedersen, injured but still alive in the creek bed, raised his revolver and shot at Booth, hitting the gunman on his right side.

Keck made a run toward the bridge but was no match for Booth's marksmanship. Keck was shot dead.

Booth then walked to the bridge deck and shot Pedersen again, this time fatally.

Weisgerber tried to run, but was shot twice.

* * *

Betty Pedersen's day had started like any other on June 18, 1962, with her husband going to work at the detachment and she to her new job at a downtown bank.

But it would end unlike any other.

"I was working at the Scotiabank, doing cheques at the back - sorting and such," she recalled.

"All of a sudden I noticed this RCMP wife who I had recently met. She went into the bank manager's office but I didn't think anything of it, I just thought, 'Oh, Carole's here.' And I went on working."

Betty was called to the manager's office minutes later.

Inside the office, Carole Finch told Betty she needed to come with her right away, that it was urgent, that they needed to leave the bank.

"What? What are you talking about?" Betty asked.

But all Finch would tell her is that Gordon had "received an injury." Then she whisked Betty into her car and started to drive.

The truth of it was Gordon was dead, but Finch didn't know how to break the news; Betty and Gordon had been married less than a month.

It was all happening so fast. As they drove to Finch's house, the car radio was on. The announcer interrupted with breaking news. There had been shooting in town. Officers were dead.

"I fell apart," said Betty. "It was all a blur after that."

At about the same time that morning, 25-year-old Joan Weisgerber was at her switchboard station inside the B.C. Telephone building downtown when one of the senior employees approached her. Chief switchboard operator Margaret Williams asked Joan to come outside. Herself stricken with emotion, she tried her best to be gentle with the words. There had been a "very bad accident," she began. There was no way to soften the blow. Donald was dead.

"I wanted to see him," recalled Joan. "I remember asking to see him."

No one got to Ann Keck. She came bouncing into the downtown detachment after shopping and was unaware of what had occurred.

It was a federal election day, and she'd been vigilant about making sure her husband cast his ballot.

She had her enumeration slip and told everyone to remind Joe to vote.

The staff sergeant on duty paled. He knew he had to tell her Joe was dead.

Word of the shootings spread, mostly by radio and phone, but details were sparse and confusion was rampant.

Const. Bert Terry was on dayshift with Keck and Pedersen.

He was out of the office when the initial report about Booth came in and was taking prisoners back and forth to the courthouse in among the provincial buildings along Columbia Street.

"We all grabbed rifles and went down but it was too late," said Terry. "Then the manhunt was on."

Const. Don McDonald, who had switched shifts with Keck, was at home, unaware of the shootings and waiting for Weisgerber to meet him at his house to go golfing. He called the detachment to see if Weisgerber was there.

The staff sergeant answered. "He just said, 'Get down here, get into your uniform, there's been a shooting.'"

McDonald took his car to the office, then headed up Sixth Avenue alongside Peterson Creek. He stopped near a police car with a radio and a staff sergeant broadcasting directions.

"All it said was, if you see a man with black curly hair, red and black bush shirt, and black pants, shoot him."

Officers began moving through the sagebrush on all sides of Peterson Creek, trying to close off the killer's eastern escape route.

Cpl. Jack White, 32, was working a dayshift with the Kamloops subdivision general investigation section, not the City's downtown detachment, when he got the call to come in along with Const. Norm Belanger and Cpl. Ab Willms.

* * *

"I remember the day well," said Helen White. "I was working at home and the neighbours were screaming at me to get in the house because (the shooting) was all over the radio. People were being told to get inside and here I was out in the garden."

White was in the backyard of the Fairview Avenue home she shared with husband Jack.

She ran inside and within minutes, heard her husband arrive. Jack had come home to get his .270-calibre hunting rifle and revolver. He'd grown up with guns in the backwoods of Jasper National Park, where his dad was a warden, and knew the snub-nosed .38s were no match for Booth's rifle.

White had long complained about the inaccuracy of their standard-issue .303 Lee-Enfields.

The detachment had received a few 7.62-mm FNs, but no one had worked with them and there was no ammunition. Booth had already shot officers; White was sure as hell not letting Booth take down any more.

"I don't remember what Jack said when he came in the door, just that he needed his rifle," recalled Helen. "There was no time to waste."

White raced to the scene and headed up Rose Hill Road, where he started walking westward.

Other officers stopped by a downtown sporting goods store, where the owner lined a countertop with rifles and ammo for them to use. Nearby residents offered their firearms, too.

"We didn't have any when I was picked up," said Harvey Finch, a constable at the time and whose wife, Carole, had gone to fetch Betty Pedersen at the bank.

"Going down Sixth Avenue, we had people actually stopping us, in the middle of the road, handing us rifles, to the point we didn't have any idea who they belonged to."

Some officers pushed into the park from the east, along Sixth. Others went to Springfield Drive, to close off the west. Still others moved up from the north. A rented helicopter flew overhead.

"I was on the ground, there's an old folks home. I went to the old folks home and guarded that area. Some people called in around to cover the whole area, which is a pretty big area," said Terry.

"Our main concern first was to protect the people at the seniors' complex."

By noon, the G.I.S. team of White, Willms and Belanger were walking in a spread triangle through the bush and nearing the area where they suspected Booth was hiding.

Belanger reached a crest, levelled his revolver and began backing away.

Booth suddenly stood up and began shooting at them.

They had found their man. Now they just needed to take him in.

From the eastern flank, McDonald heard the exchange of gunfire between White and Booth.

"It was just like a bloody war broke out."

The two marksmen were in a duel to death, with White crouched behind a rock and Booth taking cover behind the crested hillside.

White, three decades later, wrote about the shooting in an RCMP periodical.

This time as I looked, he had rolled onto his left side to reload and exposed the back of his head past the safety of the tree. I shot and he appeared to dive over backward to my right and out of sight.

I couldn't believe I could possibly have missed him and we couldn't afford to lose track of him.

I motioned Belanger to guard the right and to Willms to guard the left while I gingerly stood to advance. I could then see him lying prone some 10 feet from where he had been. The impact of the shot had actually lifted him over backward.

Our trading of six shots had caused a flurry of activity far below us and soon the helicopter swept by. We waved it in and then learned that three of our members had been slain.

Three hours after Booth's deadly rampage began, he was dead. White's shot had stopped him cold.

* * *

The days that followed were shrouded in grief and shock for the slain officers' families, Booth's family and, indeed, many of Kamloops' 10,000 residents.

A public funeral was held at Memorial Arena on Friday, June 22. People lined the streets as the bodies of three officers lay in state.

After the service, a 127-car funeral procession drove up Sixth Avenue to Columbia Street and toward Hillside Cemetery, where Keck and Weisgerber were buried.

"I was a nursing student at the hospital and I remember standing at the bottom of the hospital steps to watch the procession drive past," said Tivola Howe. "The whole city watched that day."

Pedersen's hearse headed toward Vernon, where a service was held in the church he'd been married in just weeks before. Const. Bill Spring, who had been best man at Pedersen's wedding, made it to both funerals. He was pallbearer for Keck, attended the service in Kamloops, then flew to Vernon on a private plane arranged by Pedersen's family.

Betty Pedersen never went back to her banking job. She returned to her family in Vernon and learned a few weeks later that she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy and named him Gordon Eric, after his father.

Joan Weisgerber stayed in Kamloops to care for her ailing mother. She later married an RCMP officer and had two daughters before the union fell apart in the early 1970s. She has since remarried and is happily living in Victoria. She remains close with Donald's family back in Saskatchewan and visits Kamloops every year to tidy Donald's and Joseph's gravesites.

Ann Keck also remarried. She lives in Chase and declined to be interviewed for this story.

As for Jack White, the hero who brought down a cop killer, he died last year at the age of 80. His wife, Helen, said he rarely spoke about the shooting in the years after 1962.

White's forehead was nicked by a sliver of tree from a shot that Booth took at him on that fateful morning of June 18.

It left a scar that his colleague McDonald said was all the more obvious because White was fair-skinned and balding.

"There it was in the middle," he said.

A scar that faded, but never went away.

A SON IS BORN: Shootings marred a day of celebration

Two hours before three Kamloops RCMP officers were shot on June 18, 1962, a baby boy was born at Royal Inland Hospital.

Madeline Long's son Bill came into the world at about 7 a.m. His dad, RCMP Const. Ron Long, was on duty and hadn't yet met his newborn, but he had already handed out one round of cigars by 9 a.m. and was on his way to a downtown cigar shop with RCMP dog handler Dave Foss to pick up more celebratory stogies.

That's when their police car radio blared the news of the shooting.

They were the first to arrive after three officers had fallen.

Someone at the welfare office told them about Booth waving around his gun and the officers following him out back.

As a district police officer, Long was familiar with Booth. He or his colleagues had been involved in taking him to Essondale mental institute probably three times in the past.

"Between he and his dad, you never saw people move through the bush so quickly," he said.

Booth built a double-walled log cabin at remote Goose Lake for himself.

It had an opening between the walls and the roof where he could sit and watch, like a fortress.

"He was pretty paranoid. We never had a problem with him because he didn't get to town. He was pretty reclusive."

On the morning of the shooting, Long and Foss made their way down the road alongside the Highways building at Sixth and Columbia. As they neared the bridge, they saw Weisgerber lying on the road.

"It was obvious he was dead. I had no idea where Joe and Gord were," recalls Long.

Foss and Long grabbed rifles from whomever they could find nearby and headed into the sagebrush of Peterson Creek.

"Not knowing, I ran right past Gordie Pedersen lying in the tall grass in the creek bed. He was gone, too."

The two men split up; Long went right, Foss went left. As they climbed upward, other officers showed up from the sidelines.

"I don't know how far we were up. We were getting close to in and around where the highway is now. We heard some hooting on Dave's side of the ravine. Some pop, pop - five or six shots. That was of course Jack White, Belanger and Wilms having a go-around with George," he said.

"Word came down - 'They got him, they got him, they got him!' "

Hours passed before Long got to the hospital to be with his wife and son.

"I held Bill. I thought he looked like Winston Churchill," he remembers.

But he couldn't feel much of anything at that point.

"I don't know. That whole day was kind of numb."

On Monday, RCMP officers and others who want to pay their respects are gathering in Kamloops to remember the three who died in the line of duty.

Ron Long will be one of them. His son, Bill, will be there, too - on his 50th birthday.

"Bill has been kind of an annual reminder for me," said Long.

"A few years ago, he told his mom he always thought his birthday was a sad moment for me."

But his son is also aware his parents tried to make the day special. Especially when he was a child.

"I'm more proud of my parents and their ability to handle that. I couldn't have been blessed with better parents. They are two truly amazing people. And the courage my dad and those officers showed, I don't know if people can really understand that."

A SON IS LOST: Father blamed others for carnage that day

Despite having a sometimes-tumultuous relationship with his son George, John Wilkes Booth was deeply affected by his death.

The 65-year-old father of three believed if the officers had left his son alone as he departed the welfare office in Kamloops - let George go back home with his rifle in hand - nothing bad would have happened on June 18, 1962.

In 1963, the First World War veteran wrote an eight-page letter to the Law Society of B.C., giving his view of what happened in Peterson Creek.

He said his son was bluffing by pointing the rifle in the scabbard, as it was unloaded. He also said someone knocked on his door at home and told him George was overheard to tell the cops "leave me alone, I want to go home." And that that's where he was headed when he left the welfare office.

He added that his son had gone into town with the gun because he wanted to get a temporary licence for the rifle. If he couldn't do that, he would get the rifle 'sealed up' so he'd be on the safe side.

"Gentlemen, I will try to conclude this account, the longest and most sorrowful letter I have ever written in my life," wrote Booth.

Booth repeatedly blamed conservation officer George Ferguson for reporting his son and for jumping to a conclusion that he was dangerous because he was carrying a rifle in a bag. He said his son was minding his own business, waiting behind the provincial government buildings until they opened.

He included a photo of his son and a cabin of peeled logs that George completed in July 1961, showing it as a surprise to his dad. "He only made two trips to his cabin."

Booth created a memorial to his son out of red-dyed concrete and a copper cross at the top of Micro Wave Mountain, overlooking Kamloops. It was vandalized over the years.

He also created a shrine to his son in his two-room Knutsford home, hanging George's blood-stained clothing on the wall. He squarely pinned his son's death on George Ferguson.

"The verdict should have been this, We find that George Ferguson is guilty of criminal negligence by not identifying himself. Therefore causing the death of George Booth in sequence of happenings. This, Gentlemen, is my Verdict. Thanking you Gentlemen, John Booth."

In 1973, John Booth shot at a man in downtown Kamloops, hitting the frame of his eyeglasses, according to Cpl. Jack White. He was committed to a mental hospital and died in 1974.


The public is invited to a special 50th anniversary memorial service in honour of slain officers Joseph Keck, Donald Weisgerber and Gordon Pedersen. The service gets underway at 10 a.m. Monday at the RCMP's Kamloops city detachment, located at 560 Battle St.

Click here for a gallery with more historical pictures.

© Copyright 2018 Kamloops Daily News