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 that was literally divided into two groups: 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 that took her ancestors’ land and forced them into poverty-stricken reservations.
No, The Pas wasn’t a place she intended to put down roots. She 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 little-education stigma.
Betty Osborne was determined to change the future and she would, just 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 type of foster program; 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, but realized how helpful it could be in overcoming the language barrier so she agreed to participate in the program. She was realized with another Indigenous female student, Muriel, too moved into the home of Bill and Patricia Benson at 441 Lathlin Avenue.
Living with a white family relieved some of Betty’s fears as she found her hosts and their children to be quite friendly and gracious. But it still didn’t change her mind about every dating a white man. No, Cornelius Bighetty was the only man for her.
Really, the only man for her. The first and only. The last.
Good Times, Cheating Guys
On Friday, November 12, 1971, Betty went to 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 packing. Betty told her host that 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 snuck back to the Bensons, where they drank the beer in an outdoor shed. The Bensons were unaware of the groups’ presence.
After drinking the beer, Betty was a little drunk and the group 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 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 too him 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 showed that she had been stabbed dozens of times, she had been stomped on with boots, and her left ear was nearly cut in half.
It was a brutal, disgusting murder but it had not been a sexual assault, according to the medical examiner.
Murders like this didn’t happen in The Pas. Sure, murdered happened; but it was fighting between drunk Aboriginals that went too far or white supremacy groups challenging the natives to a battle – the groups having a 50/50 history of “wins.”
But frenzied killings of a teenager girl, even if she was Cree; no, that didn’t happen The Pas.
But it had happened. Now they need to why it happened. And who was behind it.
A Town’s Dirty Little Open Secret
The first person police suspected was Cornelius, but he was cleared after passing a polygraph test.
Police had little in the way of possible suspects to work with.
Lee Scott Cologan was the son of a well-respected family in The Pas. The only respect Lee had, however, was because he was a member of the family; the boy did little to earn his own. At the time of the murder, his employer had accused him of stealing from the from the store till and his pay was being garnished. After the murder, Lee started making odd statements about it while at work. But with his reputation as a liar and player of women, most co-workers just tuned him out.
Lee did tell his father however, and his father listened closely. He immediately took him to see local attorney D’Arcy Bancroft. Sitting in the solicitor’s office, Lee told a story of being with his best friend and neighbor Jim Houghton, a small time gangster Dwayne Johnston, and dimwitted drifter Norman Manger and how they 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 versions. In the end, he told them all to keep their mouths shut and tell no one.
That was difficult for Lee who, every time his tongue became thick with liquor, would spill the story to anyone who would listen. But, just as with his fellow employees, people in The Pas and discounted his tale of murder.
Norman and Dwayne too had difficulty keeping their crime to themselves, but they were preceded by their reputation for braggadocio. They too were ignored.
Jim Houghton, the fourth member of this murderous clan, was intent on succeeding in life and knew that 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 little Cree girl who had come in search of a better life and died alone on a cold November night by the lake.
If I Knew, You Knew – Right?
Sixteen years after the death of Betty Osborne, it seemed 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.
The Constable was amazed (and 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 told these things to police before, he got the same answer, “If I knew, I was sure police knew.” Over and over and over, this statement was made. It would seem that 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 the death of Betty, Lee Colgan had gone on to be a pathetic drunk, so they turned to 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. How they’d 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 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. So they arrested Jim Houghton and Dwayne Johnston.
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 his conviction of murder.
Dwayne Johnston served ten years of a life sentence before being released on October 10, 1997. He will remain in 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 that racism, sexism, and an indifference were the main causes of delaying in obtaining justice. (Wow, what a surprise, eh?)
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 this case. 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, donates a portion of the proceeds from each book sale to HBOMF.