From the history file: Was Fredericks a killer?

The conclusion of this case from 1930. It took three separate juries to decide the fate of accused murderer Karl Fredericks.

Continued from last week

Karl Fredericks, the only survivor of a trio of men who had gone north from Fort St. James in June 1930, was a wanted man once the bodies of his companions were found in a carefully concealed grave on the shore of Trembleur Lake. A call went out for his arrest, and he was found working at a farm in Moon Lake, Alberta. Fredericks was promptly arrested for the murder of the other two men, although he maintained that he had never met Max Westphal or Herman Peters, the dead men, and had never been to Trembleur Lake, Fort St. James, or Vanderhoof.

He was brought back to Prince George, and during the journey his story changed. Now he claimed that he did know the other two, and that while they were camped by Trembleur Lake there had been an argument, during which Westphal and Fredericks told Peters they wanted to end the journey. Peters—who according to Fredericks had a vicious temper—told the other two he would kill them if they turned back. Fredericks claimed he had killed Peters in self-defence, and had returned to the camp some hours later to find Westphal dead, apparently killed by Peters earlier in the day.

Fredericks was placed in a police line-up and identified as the man who had come out of the bush alone. The German asked for paper and a pen, and proceeded to write a lengthy account of what had transpired.

A preliminary hearing in December 1930 saw the evidence presented, and Fredericks was charged with the murders of Westphal and Peters. The case was scheduled to be heard at the Spring Assize in Prince George, with The Prince George Citizen noting that “the greatest interest” was being taken in the matter.

When the case of Rex vs. Fredericks opened on May 14, 1931, the courtroom was packed. A long string of witnesses, mainly Indians from Tachie, testified as to what they had seen when the three men went into the bush and only one came out; a process that took some time, as many of the Indians had to have their evidence translated into English, which then had to be translated into German for Fredericks.

When it came time for the defence to present its case, Fredericks’ lawyer, Mr. Young, asked that the accused’s written statement be entered as evidence. Some doubts were raised as to whether it was admissible, as the accused had not received an official police warning before writing it. Eventually, however, it was allowed, and was found to contain yet another version of the story.

In this account, Fredericks asserted that Peters had been a brutal man who had at one point kicked Fredericks into the river when the latter had said he wanted to turn back. On the night of the murders Fredericks claimed that Westphal had retired to bed and Fredericks decided to go hunting for bears. He had gone some half-mile from the camp when he heard shouts, and then a gunshot. He turned back for the camp, and was about a quarter-mile away when he said that Peters fired several shots in his direction. Fredericks dropped to the ground, where he remained motionless for some minutes. Then he heard another shot, and there was silence from the camp. After an hour he plucked up his courage and returned to the camp to find Westphal dead, his head half-blown off, and Peters dead close by, also shot through the head; suicide after killing the other man, or so Fredericks claimed.

Terrified, he left the camp and returned next morning. Assuming he would be suspected of the crime, he stripped most of the clothes off the bodies to prevent identification, and hid them under a nearby log. He buried the two bodies and covered the grave with rocks and driftwood so it would go undetected. He burned all the men’s papers, loaded the provisions into the boat, and returned the way he had come, intending to disappear to the east.

Fredericks did not take the stand, but his lawyer argued that bullet marks found on two trees near the camp confirmed his client’s story that Peters had shot at him. No explanation was offered as to why Peters’ head had been severed from the body. The crown attorney, Mr. Johnson, pointed out a number of contradictions in Fredericks’ statement. For example, he had told some Indians that he had worked for a man named Cameron near Vanderhoof, and had cleared some $150 personally. However, Cameron said he had paid the three men a total of $149. Johnson argued that Fredericks had lied about the money in his statement, in order to lead people to think he had a good deal of money, and therefore no need to kill his companions. Cameron also testified that the three men had been on good terms. Johnson pointed out that Fredericks’ actions after the death of his companions were not those of an innocent man, nor was his statement, upon returning to Tachie, that his companions had headed north.

The question faced by the jury was simple: who had killed Westphal? Was it Peters, in anger, or Fredericks, as part of a double murder to rid himself of his companions and leave the area? The jury members retired just after noon to deliberate, and twice reported back to the judge that they felt unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Both times the judge sent them back to consider further; but when, at 6:00 pm, the foreman reported they were still deadlocked the jurors were discharged, with the case being traversed to the Fall Assize in Prince George.

When the case resumed in November 1931 the same evidence was once more presented, including the written statement Fredericks had made in December of the previous year. This time the jury did not hesitate to bring in a verdict of guilty; but Fredericks’ defence appealed the decision, winning him yet another trial, this time in Kamloops in the spring of 1932. The third time was the charm for the German, as he was acquitted of both charges and able to leave a free man.

Two years later, however, he was picked up near Bridge Lake in the Cariboo by a game warden, who discovered that Fredericks did not have a licence for his rifle. He was told he could either pay a fine or spend 60 days in jail, and Fredericks, unfortunately for him, chose the latter option. While he was being held, his fingerprints and picture were sent to Ottawa, where they were promptly matched with the man who had been tried for murder two years earlier. As he was a German national, this information was transmitted to German officials, who replied that Fredericks had six criminal convictions in his native country.

The matter was turned over to Immigration, and Fredericks soon found himself heading towards Halifax, where he was placed on a ship back to Germany. Much had changed there since Fredericks had left, including the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi Party had started rounding up those who opposed it, paying particular attention to anyone who was a member of the Communist Party. Fredericks, it turned out, had been involved with the party before he left for Canada, and had taken part in some street fighting. When his ship arrived in Germany in 1934 he was met by members of the S.S., who promptly whisked him away to a concentration camp.

He was never heard of again.

Barbara Roden