I was 17 and I’d been hitchhiking for 55 days – and I was coming home. It was August 28, 1972 and my trans-Canadian adventure had taken me from Victoria to Charlottetown, P. E. I. and back…almost. This was my last full day on the road and I was a consummate pro at the art of travelling by thumb. I’d had some close calls and near misses in the previous two months but this was the home stretch and I was confidently optimistic of making it back to Victoria by the following day – maybe even this day if all went well.
Aunt Alma was a sweetheart and offered to drive me to the highway outside of Lethbridge to begin my day, but she was prone to worry. “Ohh George….I just don’t feel right leaving you out here by the side of the road…all alone” she said. Her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes scrunched and her mouth turned down with a look of great concern, “In the middle of nowhere”. “Don’t worry Aunt Alma”, I said, “I won’t have to wait long…and I’ve got that sandwich you made me”…”Thanks for the lift – see ya!” she gave me a hug, I grabbed my backpack, and hit the highway with my thumb out.
It was a hot, dry August Monday in southern Alberta – rolling plains of grasses, scrub and crops, where my Grandparents had settled sixty years earlier to grow sugar beets. I didn’t have to wait long for a ride, catching a lift in a truck with a young farmer with a pronounced stutter, who took me past Fort McLeod and Pincher Creek to the small farming town of Cowley on the edge of the Foothills.
The next lift was with a heavy equipment operator who was willing to put up with my company for the next five hours all the way to Trail, BC, where he worked. We breezed through the Crowsnest Pass and the BC-Alberta border into the Kootenays along Highway #3 – one of the most scenic drives in BC and a personal favourite of mine. This was a great ride as it took me almost halfway home. I sat back and enjoyed the view, engaging in small talk with the driver, regaling him with stories from “the road”.
From my experience, it usually didn’t take more than an hour between rides, maybe two if there was a long line-up or you were stuck in a particularly conservative, redneck area where kids with long hair – like me – were frowned upon. As a blue-collar town with it’s fair share of hippie-kid bias, I expected that leaving Trail might take longer than usual, but was surprised that three hours lapsed before someone decided to stop and pick me up. Finally some “heads” (counter culture term for Hippies) stopped to give me a ride.
“We’re just goin’ to Christina Lake, where ya off to?” they asked. “Heading home to Victoria so anywhere further west is great – thanks.” I threw my pack into the back seat and climbed in. It’s about 6pm and the drive to Christina Lake is about an hour. The unexpected delay in Trail has changed my plans. “I’ll try and make it to the Okanagan tonight, maybe Osoyoos or Penticton to find a Hostel.” I said. The driver and his friend were American draft dodgers in their 20’s, living on a commune near Christina Lake. Canadian roads, communes, and hostels were full of young American men fleeing the draft and the Vietnam war during these years, and the Kootenays seemed to be a particularly popular destination.
They dropped me off at what is now known as the Tempo General Store & Gas Station shortly after 7pm in “the Village” of Christina Lake. The spot looked like it had good hitchhiking Feng Shui – it was close to a store/gas station with access to food and drinks and washrooms, and it was on the Village strip where cars would have to slow down and abide by the reduced speed limits. Slower cars usually translated into more rides. I imagined that I’d be in Osoyoos by sundown in time to grab a bed and maybe a bite of food at the local hostel.
There was no shortage of traffic, it was summertime and Hwy 3, officially known as the Crowsnest Highway, was full of holiday travellers. By 8 o’clock, as the evening light began to wane, and many cars had passed, I became slightly concerned – “I don’t like to hitchhike at night” I thought, “Things can get weird”. By 9 o’clock it was dusk and, despite striking my most pathetic and needy hitchhiking postures, I hadn’t had any bites – except for the increasing number of mosquitoes. By 10 o’clock it became clear to me that something was wrong. People were certainly driving by slowly – too slowly – and looking fearfully at me through their rolled-up car windows. “I wonder what’s up, this is just as bad as Trail,” I thought. I was resigning myself to hauling out my sleeping bag and finding shelter in a nearby park. “I’ll give it another 15 minutes…a bed would be nice.”
Then, an Old Dutch Potato Chip Truck pulled over to the side of the road ahead of me. At first, I wasn’t sure if this was a ride or if the driver had to
deal with an emergency. He opened the door of his cab, got out, and walked towards me. “I bet you’ve been stuck here for a while, haven’t ya?” he asked. “Yeah, Jesus…3 or 4 hours I replied, as I picked up my gear. “What’s goin’ on?” “Well…There’s a murderer loose in this area…killed some people in a campsite…just walked in and shot ‘em.” “The RCMP and local police are looking for the guy…happened this afternoon…anyways, I’m driving to Kelowna so I can get you that far” “No wonder it’s been such a shitty day for hitchhiking” I replied, “I was stuck in Trail for 3 hours this afternoon too…I appreciate the lift man, I just wanna get outta here.” Rather than admitting me into the passenger side of his cab though, he opened the back door to the windowless compartment and said, “Hop in.”
The voices in William Bernard Lepine’s head told him that he was chosen to save the world from a nuclear holocaust. Although he’d spent time in the East Kootenay Mental Health Unit and the Riverview Mental Hospital in Coquitlam, from whence he escaped on July 30, he did not exhibit any violent behavior. On this day however – starting around 9am August 28, 1972 – Lepine, armed with a 22-caliber rifle and a 30-caliber rifle, walked into an orchard outside Oliver, BC, where Willard Potter (16) and Charles Wright (71) were working on some irrigation equipment, and shot them both – dead.
Lepine was a 27 year-old American who had worked for a time in the orchards near Summerland, and doing maintenance work for the Municipality of Creston before his slide into schizophrenia. Symptoms typically come on gradually, in young adulthood, and can include delusional thinking, hallucinations and hearing voices that do not exist. Today, Lepine’s tragic internal commands dictated that he kill random innocent people to stave off Armageddon. He put his first victims bodies in their landrover and drove northeast towards a campground off the Kettle Valley Road. Around 11am he discarded their bodies in the bushes off the road and entered the campground.
The Clarks and the Wilsons had been friends for a long time and liked to go camping together. The Kettle Valley Recreation Area was one of their favourite places to park their motorhomes and spend a weekend hiking, picking huckleberries, and sitting around the fire at night drinking a few beers and sharing some laughs. Around noon on this day, William Lepine entered the campsite, chatted briefly with Lester (58) and Phyllis Clark (61), and Allan (62) and Mildred Wilson (55) and then left. Shortly thereafter he returned, armed with one of his rifles. He ordered the two couples into one of the motorhomes and started shooting, killing Phyllis Clark, and wounding the other three. While Lepine escaped in his car, the Wilsons – bleeding profusely and in shock – managed to get into their vehicle and drive towards Westbridge in search of help. Lester – also severely wounded and suffering the additional trauma of witnessing his wife being shot and killed – managed to follow the Wilsons in his motorhome with his deceased wife in the back.
After receiving critical medical care in Westbridge, the wounded survivors were able to give the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) the information they needed to begin their manhunt, in which about 25 officers participated. Patrols went out, road blocks were set up and radio stations were alerted to warn the public that an armed killer was on the loose. By 3:00 as I was being dropped off by the roadside in Trail, the hunt for William Lepine was moving into high gear. And then he killed again.
How many murders does it take to stop a nuclear holocaust? As he went about his unfathomable mission, neither Lepine nor his internal voices could provide an answer. It’s over when it’s over, when the shooter is either caught or shot.
Lepine had driven several hours north to the small village of Edgewood on the shores of the Upper Arrow Lake. It was late afternoon on a beautiful summer day at the end of August, and Herbert (57) and Nellie Thomas (56) were enjoying life and each others company when the young unshaven man approached. Nothing could prepare them for what was to follow. Without warning or explanation, Lepine pulled out his rifle and shot and killed them both. After hiding their bodies nearby he escaped in their car, drove 30 miles north and shot and killed Thomas Pozney (24) who was enjoying a little quiet fishing time on the Lower Arrow Lake near Nakusp.
I was surprised that the driver of the Old Dutch Potato Chip truck was putting me in the back of the truck, in the windowless box with all the merchandise, but it was a lift and I’d been languishing by the side of the road for hours…and there was an active shooter, a murderer, on the loose. I hopped in and he closed the door.
When the driver closed the door, every last bit of light was gone. It became absolutely, completely dark and I became blind. I had to feel my way with toes and outstretched hands, between the boxes of chips, pretzels and pepperoni sticks to a place against the wall where I could stretch out. It was a 12 x 6 x 6 box…432 Cubic feet of pungent Old Dutch product line aromas – Salt n’ Vinegar, Barbeque, Sour Cream n’ Onion, Cheesy Puffcorn, Ketchup Flavoured…and Original…saturated the air. Just as I was thinking that the driver wouldn’t miss a couple of bags of chips, a male voice in the darkness said, “Hey man…where ya goin’?” I didn’t know that I had company in the box.
Momentarily startled by this revelation, I tried – with no success – to determine exactly where he was inside the cube…and if there were others. “Heading back to Victoria” I replied guardedly, my thoughts turning from chips to murderers. “I didn’t know there was anyone else in here…where are you goin’?” “I’m trying to get to Penticton…pretty wild about the murderer” he replied. He sounded young, maybe about my age and seemed amicable. I wasn’t getting a strong vibe of “crazy serial killer in the dark” so our conversation turned to comparisons of our experiences on the road. He was from Winnipeg and was going to the Okanagan to pick fruit or find other work. He too had been stuck for hours this afternoon, in Salmo, before catching a lift with the Potato Chip samaritan. Or at least…the driver seemed like a real Old Dutch Potato Chip Truck driver…maybe he killed the real driver and was impersonating him, we speculated jokingly…and then, in the middle of nowhere the truck slowed down…and stopped.
Noises and muffled voices outside. Moments later, the door flung open and two powerful flashlights beamed in, hurting our eyes, which had become accustomed to the dark. “OK, gentlemen” said the authoritative male voice, “…I’ll have to ask you to get out of the truck.” We hopped out, smelling like potato chips, into a cordon of Mounties holding shotguns at the ready, near a roadblock of police cruisers with lights flashing. My initial fear that the driver was the murderer and was stopping to kill us was now replaced by the fear that the cops would search my backpack and find my small stash of marijuana and my pipe. “I’ll need to see some ID…no doubt you’ve heard that there’s a murderer on the loose, we’re just checking to make sure you aren’t him,” he said.
The roadblock had been set up at the junction with Hwy 41 to the States in case our fugitive decided to flee south – he was after all American. This was the first time I’d seen my travelling companion, another young, long-haired denizen of the hitchhiking culture that was so popular during the late 60’s and early 70’s. We didn’t talk much while we were being scrutinized by the cops – I found out later he too was worried about them finding his stash of hash and two hits of mescaline. But the police had larger concerns than the contraband of teenage hippies – a second murder victim had been found and four other missing persons reports had been filed. It was bad and appeared to be getting worse, they had to find Lepine.
We were back in the windowless potato chip truck talking about the weirdness of our situation and whether or not we should do the mescaline. We decided that it might be a bad idea in the off chance we might have to disarm a psychopath or brave another police roadblock. The driver had decided to shorten his trip to Kelowna by taking Hwy 33 through Westbridge rather than the longer Hwy 97 route through the Okanagan. My choice was to get dropped off on the side of the road near Rock Creek around midnight – with a mass murderer on the loose – and try and get a ride to Osoyoos, or continue to Kelowna…which would put us at the hostel around 2am. It was not a difficult choice.
We arrived at the hostel shortly before 2am fully expecting that it would be closed, and that we’d have to sleep outside. Luckily, two of the long-haired volunteer Hostel staff were up, quite stoned and playing “Go”, and they let us in. We thanked the driver for delivering us from evil and he gave us a box of Pepperoni sticks as a parting gift which we, and our hosts eagerly devoured…think “munchies”.
William Lepine was caught and arrested the next morning at Galena Bay and taken to the RCMP office in Nakusp before being transferred to Nelson, bringing his murderous rampage to an end. He was ultimately tried and found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and placed in the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam, where he remains to this day.
I made it back to Victoria the following day despite having to wait another three hours outside of Kelowna for a lift, likely “because of the fucking murderer” according to my journal. My immersion in the darkness, fear, and potato chips has not diminished my enjoyment of Old Dutch products – my favourite is still “Original”.
Nearly 30 years later, I would meet Jackie B. and her sister Barbie B. who would both become very good friends of mine. As it so turned out, they are the granddaughters of Allan and Mildred Wilson who had been shot and wounded in the campsite in the Kettle Valley on August 28, 1972, and who drove those desperate miles to Westbridge for help. Jackie and Barbie have attended parole hearings for the past 25 years to speak of their family’s pain, and help prevent the release of William Bernard Lepine.