Trent Ernst, Editor
If you’ve ever been down to Flatbed Falls (note: I of course meant the Flatbed dinosaur tracks, ed.), chances are you’ve seen the cabin in the woods.
And, if you’ve been down with someone who has been here for a while, chances are they’ve told you the story.
I first heard the story in 1988, while making my way to Flatbed Falls for the first time with a group of teenagers.
“See that cabin,” one said, pointing to what amounted to a horse rail and a roof. “That’s where the murderer was caught.”
Trying to pin down which murderer was a bit more of a challenge. It was someone out of Grande Prairie, said one, or Edmonton. Or maybe Prince George. He had killed a family. Or a kid. Or something. But everyone knew that he had hid out here. In Tumbler Ridge. In this very cabin.
Even now, people who hike down to Flatbed Falls hear the story of the murderer in the cabin. And, perhaps walked a little faster, for fear of murderers in the bushes, or perhaps bears.
It’s a nice bit of legend building, but, like most great stories, it’s not true.
This one, however, is.
In the Beginning
Yes, there was a murderer, and yes, he was caught here in Tumbler Ridge. He did not, contrary to popular legend, hide out in a shelter on the way to Flatbed Falls. There was a cabin, yes, but not this one.
It happened 30 years ago. November 18, 1983, to be precise. That’s the day that Tumbler Ridge Constable Ron German picked up David Shearing and brought him to Dawson Creek to talk with a quartet of investigators, ending what was one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history.
But, like all good stories, it starts earlier than that. This one has its roots in events more than a year earlier, in Well’s Gray Provincial Park, near Clearwater. But our story starts only a month earlier, in September of 1983, when German first encountered Shearing.
In 1983, Tumbler Ridge was still a town under construction. Shearing, a construction worker, had come to help build Tumbler Ridge.
If you didn’t live here at the time, it’s hard to understand the sheer amount of work that was going on at the time. Shop Easy was not going to open until December of that year. Quintette still hadn’t shipped its first load of coal. The electrified railway was still a few months from completion. Indeed the last spike wasn’t driven until November 1. Over 1,800 people were here just to work on building Quintette alone. Workers were madly trying to finish the houses before it got too cold.
Most of the construction workers were living in a series of camps in and around town, but many, not interested in paying the camp fees, or perhaps just looking for a place to get away from people, went out into the bush around Tumbler Ridge and built their own cabins. Some are still standing. Many have been torn down.
According to someone who worked on a landscaping crew with Shearing, Tumbler Ridge was a rough place at the time, and Shearing fell in with the worst crowd.
“I observed that group from a distance,” he says. “I knew what was going on. They gathered together. There was a group of very bad people. I got to see it first hand from a distance.”
Constable Ron German first encountered Shearing after a long day’s work. German was driving home, when he past a yellow Ford truck with three people inside, missing a headlight. This in itself was not an issue, as at the time, many vehicles were beaten up. None of the roads into town were paved, and cracked windshields and missing headlights were practically de rigueur.
However, the truck box was loaded with tools, which caught German’s eye. It was late at night, far too late for people to be returning home from work. The truck turned to head into Quadra Camp, and German turned to follow it. He flicked on the lights, and the driver pulled over.
Because he was alone, he also turned on the blinding off-road lights, which would obscure the fact that he was the only one in the car.
Before he could get out of his cruiser, the driver of the pickup hopped out of the truck and walked back to talk to him. This wasn’t the usual behavior, and the driver’s somewhat unsteady walk also added to German’s growing sense of suspicion. The two exchanged pleasantries, and while Shearing was calm, German could tell he was scared.
He asked for the man’s driver’s license. David William Shearing, it read. Shearing was acting extremely nervous, thought German, so he began to walk towards the truck. Shearing followed him. German asked about the stuff in the back of the truck. Shearing listed off the contents, about $40,000 worth.
German brought Shearing back to his cruiser and locked him in the back seat. He wasn’t arresting Shearing, but wanted him out of the picture for a few minutes, as he dealt with the other two people in the truck. They too, were behaving suspiciously. Generally, when the driver is being questioned, the passengers will crane their necks about to see what’s going on. These two sat facing forward, trying to see what was happening in the mirror.
German came around his cruiser on the right, passenger side, hugging the ditch. He knew that the off-road lights would be blinding in the mirror, and that the people in the car would be expecting him to approach from the driver’s side.
When he got to the cab, he saw that his suspicions were right. The two men inside were nervously watching the mirrors. One of them, he saw with a start, was holding a 30/30 rifle, pointing towards the driver’s door, cocked and ready to fire. He had approached with gun drawn, and now he stuck it through the open window, to the back of the gunman’s head. “Don’t even think about moving,” he ordered.
He grabbed the gun, locked it in the trunk of the cruiser, then loaded the other two into the back of the cruiser. After questioning the three, he decided to let Shearing and the second man go, but not before writing down some of the serial numbers from the tools. He took the man with the gun, Fred White, to Dawson, on charges of attempted murder.
Cabin in the Woods
The next morning, German got a call from one of the local engineering firms. They were missing about $40,000 in tools, surprise surprise.
German was working alone in the detachment that day, but another constable, Mike Johnson, would be returning the next day. When he did, the two of them loaded into the Police Suburban and went looking for Shearing and the second man, Wylie Laidenen.
To German’s surprise, they found Shearing and Fred White digging a hole in front of a hand-made cabin in the woods.
The cabin, according to people who lived here at the time, was actually down by the Murray River, near the Wolverine confluence, and not on the way to Flatbed Falls.
In Mike Eastham’s engrossing book, The Seventh Shadow, German describes the cabin, saying “there was no siding on it or anything like that, but for a couple guys in the bush, the place looked pretty comfortable.”
German and Johnston crashed into the clearing where the cabin stood, lights blazing. Shearing and White took off like rabbits. The two officers hopped out of the Suburban and gave chase. They fired a couple warning shots over the men’s heads. They didn’t stop.
The foot chase ended when the two suspects became caught up in a thicket of thorn bushes. They were cuffed and brought back to the Suburban. Shearing, says German, was now belligerent and angry, swearing “enough to shame a biker,” writes Eastham.
When German asked if the third man was in the house, Shearing just swore. “Let’s go check,” said German.
“You can’t force me to go in there,” said Shearing.
Once again, the behaviour of Shearing and his companions set off warning bells in German’s mind. Instead of going into the house himself, he grabbed Shearing and pushed him ahead and through the open door. “Willie,” called Shearing. “It’s me, Willie.”
Inside, German could see Laidenen hiding under a bunk, pointing a rifle at the open door. When he saw German leading Shearing, he threw the gun down, claiming to be unarmed.
This time, German brought all three men into Dawson for possession of stolen property. White and Laidenen were both held for a variety of other charges, but Shearing, who didn’t have an extensive criminal record, was scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 21 and released.
The Clearwater Killer
He never made his appearance. Down in Clearwater, there was a major discovery in a murder investigation that had been ongoing since the previous summer. Two families—six people total—who had been camping in Wells Gray Provincial Park had gone missing in August, 1982. In September of that year, one of the vehicles they had was found by a mushroom picker. When the police came to investigate, they found the burned remains of a car. Inside, they found remains of six people.
Missing was the second vehicle, a truck with a camper on the back. The police had received reports that the vehicle had been spotted driving across country, possibly by a pair of men from Quebec, and their investigation had focused on looking for these mystery men.
However, on Oct. 18, 1983, the burned out hulk of the truck was found by a pair of forestry workers about 50 km from where the family was killed. The killer had to be someone local, realized the investigators. Someone who knew the area. Who knew that at the end of the road where the truck was found, high centred on a log, was a canyon, into which the truck would have disappeared and never have been found.
The entire investigation shifted gears, focusing on suspects in Clearwater.
A few days later, an anonymous tip came in that David Shearing had run over someone a few years earlier and gotten away with it. The same day, a waitress in a local restaurant handed one of the investigators a slip of paper. On it was written two words: Dave Shearing.
On Nov. 16, Mike Eastham, head investigator on the case, finally managed to get in contact with Ron German. Eastham told German that he needed to keep an eye on Shearing, and arranged for transportation up to Dawson Creek. However, bad weather delayed Eastman, and their first chance to confront him evaporated. Shearing had been in Dawson Creek that very night, partying, but was returning home to Tumbler Ridge.
It was once again Ron German who would have to deal with Shearing. Shearing was traveling by bus with a friend, who, as it turned out, had some outstanding warrants. German arrested the other man, and told Shearing that the members in Dawson Creek wanted to talk to him.
Instead of arresting one of the most wanted men in the country, German simply hinted that he could arrest him, but it would be far easier if Shearing just came along. Shearing, only a few days out from his court case and not wanting to make any more trouble, agreed, and road along up front with German.
In Dawson Creek, Mike Eastham and three other investigators were waiting to talk to Shearing. Eastham told Shearing that he could get a lawyer, that he didn’t have to answer any questions, but hinted that such behaviour was typically a sign of a guilty conscience. Shearing didn’t call a lawyer.
At first, Eastham convinced Shearing that they were investigating the hit and run. Shearing confessed that he had accidentally run over someone, providing a written confession. Then the questioning turned to the Clearwater murders. Shearing slipped up, telling Eastham where the murders had happened, even though it wasn’t public knowledge. Eastham was able to convince Shearing to keep talking, and after six hours, Shearing had admitted to the whole thing.
Or at least, almost the whole thing. One thing was missing. Motive. While Shearing said it was because he wanted the victim’s property, he admitted, after the trial was over, that his real motive was he desired the family’s two young daughters.
These days Shearing is going by the name of David Ennis. He is spending his life sentence at the Bowden Institute in Alberta.
In 2008, he was eligible for parole, but was denied. In 2012, he made a second attempt to get out of prison, but was again denied. He is eligible to apply for parole every two years.
If you wish to find out the whole story, Mike Eastham’s excellent account, The Seventh Shadow, is available from the library.