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"Sleeping Victims": A Cape Breton True Crime Story?
“Sleeping Victims”: A Cape Breton True Crime Story? Whenever I think about how much the world has changed in my lifetime, and especially if I find myself wondering if it’s all for the better, I go back to the summer of 1970. That was when three young Cape Bretoners were found mysteriously – bafflingly, unaccountably – dead on the Aroostook County main railway line, near the small town of Houlton, Maine. Less than two weeks after the deaths, once the autopsies on the three bodies were completed – that is, as soon as legally possible – the sheriff of the county, Darrell Crandall, closed the file on the case. This did not come as a surprise; while acknowledging the inexplicable nature of the deaths, Sheriff Crandall nevertheless had ruled out, from the very first, even the possibility of foul play. The families of the deceased remained suspicious. We, in the boys' circles of friends, believed that the three were murdered. But, for all the difference our suspicions and beliefs made, we might as well have been speculating about the murders of the Manson Family, whose California trial was then front-page news in our local newspaper. In those days, authority was not questioned. When the parish priest or the school principal or the camp monitor – when any official spoke, people listened and accepted. The sheriff said the three deaths were an inexplicable accident; so it was reported, and that was what everyone believed. If young people expressed doubts, adults would say, Of course it was an accident. The sheriff said so in the paper. A father would sagely nod his head and knowingly add, An accident; inexplicable, but an accident. There was no more than minimum reporting; with unchallengeable small-town decency and common sense, the press pointed out that coverage would only distress the families. Nothing was done. In our circle of friends, when the girlfriend of one of the deceased tried to start up a petition asking for an investigation, she was sternly warned against it by an older boy: You have to get permission! No one in our circle spoke up. Who do you think you are? We had grown up during the rebellious Sixties, but remained schooled in obeisance, unpolitical peasants, accepting the world as it is. The victims, unlike Charles Manson, never made the front page of the Cape Breton Post. There really wasn’t much interest in the deaths of three Cape Breton youths back then, not even locally. The Post's coverage included, in total, five brief articles, all on the third page. In the provincial paper, The Chronicle-Herald, the tragedy was mentioned just once, and that consisted of seven sentences in a report on fatal accidents over the weekend. And what coverage there was unfailingly repeated, parrot-fashion, what Sheriff Crandall, down there in Aroostook County, said – what the sheriff speculated, declared, mused regarding the accident. The tragedy, so easily dismissed and forgotten back then, quite possibly a triple murder of three boys, wasn’t even investigated. It couldn’t happen now, but they got away with it back then. The three were Kenny Novak (fifteen) and David Burrows (seventeen), both from Sydney River; and Terry Burt (twenty) from Whitney Pier, in Sydney. They had been camping in Ingonish Park, when, on a whim it seems, they decided to hitchhike down to the States, maybe to Washington, DC. On Friday, July 10, 1970, a couple of days after the boys left the campsite, the Bangor-Aroostook train came out of a deep hollow at 40 mph and rounded a sharp curve. It was seven in the morning, about the time the train made that turn every day. The engineer, Earl W Cooper, saw what he thought was rubbish on the track. As he began to slow the train down, Cooper, though he saw no movement, realized he was looking at sleeping bags and locked the train’s wheels. It was too late to stop– there could never have been time to stop – and the engine and all nineteen cars of the train rode over the three sleeping bags. That evening, in Sydney, there were rumours of the trio's deaths, rumours we simply didn't believe. They were confirmed, however, the next morning, when we read in the local news section of the Saturday Post that three Cape Bretoners, not yet officially identified, were found dead in Maine. And in the article of fourteen sentences, it was repeated and repeated, like a litany, as it would be in all future news coverage, that the men died in an accident, killed by a train while they were sleeping. In large font, the bold letters capitalized, the headline declared: FREIGHT TRAIN KILLS THREE YOUNG MEN. In the first sentence of the article, we read again that it was under the wheels of the freight train that the three men were “instantly killed.” We read that all three “were asleep on track.”And “the accident” happened Friday morning. It was “an accident” that happened when “the three were asleep in sleeping bags.” The train ran over the “sleeping victims.” We read as well that the police were puzzled: “Police in the U.S. town were puzzled by the men sleeping on railway tracks.” Though it was puzzling why three people would choose to sleep on train tracks, there was nothing possibly criminal here or the least suspicious; such lurid words as “criminal” and “suspicious” weren't even spoken. This was clearly an accident, not a crime. It was an accident because the freight train killed the three young men, and they were asleep when they were killed sleeping in their sleeping bags by the freight train . . . It was so because we were told so. We were told by the authorities, and Sheriff Crandall was all the “authorities” anyone needed. The Houlton sheriff, being a good sheriff, took a good look round that Friday morning, there at that spot just north of Timoney Crossing, looked at the shattered and torn bodies, the scattered Canadian cigarette packages and food cans, the empty envelopes and the five dollars and change that was all the money left among the three – he looked around and at once understood: This is an accident, not a crime scene. He immediately saw that there was nothing suspicious. Saw that these three boys – and he didn't then know who they were, because not one was found carrying any ID – but these boys, whoever they were, were asleep, sleeping the deep, heavy sleep of the young, in their sleeping bags, warmed by two hours and ten minutes of sunshine when the freight train came around that sharp turn as it did every morning and couldn't possibly stop before the engine and every car of the 20-unit train rode over their still bodies. This was an accident, not a crime, without question. And there were no questions. Not one was ever publicly voiced. (This is the second of four articles about this 1970 mystery. The first was published in the Cape Breton Spectator under the title "Remembering a Mysterious Summer of '70 Tragedy." The next article will examine closely all the questions that were not addressed at the time.)
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Three young Cape Breton men were found dead on train tracks in Maine in the summer of 1970. Was it a crime or an inexplicable accident?
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