“We’ll make no effort to find out. We don’t care”
If it is not yet a truth universally acknowledged, it remains an unwritten law universally observed that the murder of outsiders is never to be attributed to local hands. The deaths -- if the bodies are ever found -- will perhaps be declared by local authorities the result of an accident. Or the result of a dispute among the strangers themselves. Or an overdose, or a suicide pact, or just some weird, crazy behaviour on the victims’ part. Like, say, sleeping on train tracks, near a sharp turn. It doesn’t matter, just about any story will do: the deceased were just passers-through.
So as day followed night on July 10, 1970, the very morning the bodies of three Canadian youths had been run over by a freight train, in Maine -- the three heaped liked garbage under sleeping bags, so that the train crew, as they turned the bend, first thought they were seeing “debris” -- Darrell Crandall, the sheriff of Aroostook County, announced to the press that he had “ruled out the possibility of foul play” (13 July, 1970, Cape Breton Post). A few days later, he would reject the possibility of “foul play” as “far-fetched” (17 July, Post). And the day the state toxicology report was released, allowing the Sheriff’s Office to close the case, Crandall’s final words on the matter were an emphatic pronouncement that his “report [would] stress that there was no ‘foul play’ in the triple railroad fatality” (23 July, Post).
Sheriff Crandall said the deaths were “a tragic accident.” He pronounced the fatalities “an unfortunate mishap.” On another day, he went with “an inexplicable accident.” But the deaths were always not the result of foul play. Crandall never said that the boys weren’t killed. He never said a crime hadn’t taken place, or, God forbid, that murder hadn’t happened. It was always foul play that hadn’t happened that July night in Aroostook County. Sheriff Crandall had an absolute aversion for certain words, words like crime, or theft, or that ugly obscenity, never to be heard passing his pristine lips, murder.
And, following the lead of the Maine police, the press reported only that foul play was ruled out, never that a crime wasn’t suspected, let alone anything specific like robbery, or a triple murder. Readers would have gone into a Victorian swoon if they had read in their morning newspaper, “The sheriff said the idea of a triple murder was far-fetched.” Triple murder! My God, Alice, they’re using banned words! It was always nebulous foul play that was ruled out; it was always oh-so-genteel foul play that was far-fetched. In those far-away, morally superior days, when the Greatest Generation still strode the earth, many things were better left unsaid. And if it was taboo to use the word murder, even in denying that such a lurid thing had happened, then it became impossible to broach the subject of murder, even, for many, to let the idea of murder rise into their conscious mind. It was obscene, far-fetched, shameful: push the thought away!
Obviously there was no need to investigate the deaths. There was no need for the State Police to get involved.There was no need to hold the bodies for an official autopsy, instead of having them readied to be shipped home the next day. There was no need for questions or delay. This was the word of Sheriff Darrell Crandal of the Aroostook Sheriff’s Office, his will be done - and all, without exception, bowed before him, such was the world in 1970.
Those Forbidden Words
In two previous articles on this site, “Sleeping Victims” and “An Unfortunate Mishap,” I described the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Terry Bert, Kenny Novak, and David Burrows. Such as the fact that the evening before they were found dead, the trio had apparently crossed the Canada-U.S. border illegally, going nobody knows where or why. That they were found without identification -- not one piece of ID among the three of them. That less than seven dollars was found at the supposed death site. That all three were completely covered by sleeping bags, and no movement was detected under those sleeping bags by the crew Engineer or Fireman as the train bore down on the heap of “debris,” and the engine began to run over the bodies. That the state toxicology reported no trace of alcohol or drugs in the bodies, yet the boys were supposed to be, at 7:00 a.m., almost two hours after daybreak, asleep on train tracks, completely covered under sleeping bags. And that the bodies were conveniently lying on the tracks near enough to a sharp turn that it would be impossible for the engineer of the freight train to stop before the engine and all nineteen cars ran over the boys’ bodies.
But pondering “the badly mangled and dismembered bodies” that Friday morning, Crandall did not say, Well, this is the most suspicious, shocking death scene this sheriff’s office has ever been confronted with. There’s damn sure going to be a thorough investigation by me, working with the State Police, to get to the bottom of this, however long it takes. The sheriff didn’t say that or anything like it because, unlike the rubes who believed what in fact he did say, Crandall lived in the real world, not a television crime show. He said and did the kind of things local police always say and do in cases like this. Sheriff Crandall said the three foreign youths died as the result of their own bizarre choice to sleep on railway tracks; what he did, after blaming the boys for their own deaths, was order the bodies readied the next day to be shipped back to wherever they came from in Canada. And, in effect, for everyone, including the Canadian media and Canadian police, to shut-up with any foolish talk they might have of “foul play.”
Oddly, the Canadian media and police were so quick in following the lead of the Sheriff, they seemed not to need telling, and they, too, were unable to bring themselves to even use words like murder, or triple murder, or murder and theft, or any other variation there might be on those suddenly prohibited terms. The Canadian media and police, too, pondered only the boys’ mysterious decision to sleep on train tracks, and spoke only of there not being any foul play suspected. And you can rest assured that our sober and responsible Canadian authorities never spoke blasphemies like triple murder or police cover-up, or in the slightest way questioned or deviated from the pronouncements of Sheriff Darrell Crandall.
We’ll never know what evidence might have been discovered at the site if there had been a thorough investigation, or if even one deputy or journalist had decided to poke around the area with a stick for twenty minutes or so. More crucially, we’ll never know what evidence actually was discovered by the Aroostook’s Sheriff’s Office at the site and never released to the public. But the few details that were reported, along with the glaring fact that three immobile youths were lying across a train track buried under sleeping bags when a train ran over them at seven in the morning, were enough to tell some of us -- mostly young teenagers not yet socialized into utter stupidity -- that the most reasonable assumption about the deaths was that there was indeed foul play. That the three boys were murdered. Someone or some people had killed them. A terrible crime had happened -- a triple-murder. There was a police cover-up, which protected the killers.
I know there are those who could never arrive at such conclusions unless given permission to by an authority figure. There are others, proudly unimpressed by reason and evidence and common sense, who believe that climate change is a hoax, we once walked with dinosaurs, and the authorities have only our best interests at heart. There is nothing I can say to such people. But I believe it should now be clear to intelligent and critical readers of my previous articles that the three youths were already dead when the train ran over them, and the official story was so nonsensical that it only serves to confirm this. For any new readers let me repeat one fact: as the train turned the sharp turn north of Timoney Crossing and bore down on the three bodies with the locked brakes screeching and the horn blowing, two experienced trainmen, Engineer Earl W. Caper and Fireman Ralph H. Fowler, did not, at any time, not even as the train was about to ride over the bodies, detect the least movement under the sleeping bags, not a ripple.
A triple homicide, then. But who were the killers of the three Cape Breton youths? And how did those murderers get away with it?
“Only theories can be offered,” Sheriff Crandall said at the time about what might have happened to the boys, and we sceptical teens, not that a soul was interested, had our own theory to offer. We began with the fact our three friends, because of their long hair and jeans, would have been viewed as “hippies'' -- foreign hippies at that, but in those days, in the United States, just being any long-haired boy was enough to get you beaten or killed. For the vast majority of Americans, hippies were drug-addled perverts, lazy bums, and war-protesting traitors. Middle-class parents feared the venereal diseases, drug addiction, and moral ruin they believed hippies spread to their children. Real rednecks, like the fictional one we saw in the movie “Easy Rider,” were beating and killing young men with long hair. And the majority of Americans were fine with either legal authorities or vigilantes beating and killing those young men with long hair. (See “Peace, Love, and the Freedom of the Road,” on this site, for more on the period’s rabid anti-hippie hatred and the government licensing of hippie persecution.)
So we speculated that our Cape Breton friends had encountered some Northern good old boys, the real mean kind of hippie-hating Yankee rednecks we imagined flourished in backward places like Aroostook County, and a fight got started -- a fight or just a welcoming stomping, but anyway a violent midnight encounter, near an isolated stretch of train track, that led to the death of one Canadian boy, which necessarily meant another death to follow and then a third. Three young dead men alongside train tracks. And the rednecks thinking: Three dead, but only hippies -- Canadian hippies, too. With long hair and granny glasses and jeans and . . . beads, for God’s sake! And, look, a hash pipe! Three dead drug-using foreign girly-haired losers. Not good, but maybe not such a big deal either. So our Aroostook rednecks, we imagined, hastily piled the bodies on the tracks, covered them with sleeping bags, and, after taking what money they could find, they fled, hoping for the best, from that godforsaken stretch of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad line.
The following morning Sheriff Crandal and his deputies arrive on the scene. Or Crandall didn’t even arrive, it’s not clear from the press coverage; maybe Crandall had something else important to do that morning, so he just sent his two deputies to the site; and Deputy Sheriff Russell Socoby and Deputy Sheriff Glen Philbrick applied their expertise and experience to a possible triple-homicide crime scene for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, before concluding that the three deaths were definitely, beyond a doubt, for sure accidental. Just good down-home police work, fast, no tediously drawn-out day-long investigation, no calling in the State Police, none of that fancy foolishness. We imagined the police thinking, Well, we got three dead border jumpers on the tracks in suspicious -- no, inexplicable -- in inexplicable circumstances. Just a nuisance of three Canadian hippies dead of an inexplicable decision. Death due to inexplicable decision. It happens. Nothing here that needs the State Police looking at.
Anyway, it was local police that arrived in some configuration that Friday morning, saw the remains of the three dead boys, then saw the rolling papers and pipe --hippies, Christ!-- and, after finding a Nova Scotia address on Terry Burt’s sleeping bag, decided --or Crandall deciding when his deputies got back to him, wherever he was-- and you have to give it to straight-talking Crandall, because, whatever else he was busy doing, he would that very morning, flat-out say to all and sundry what he was doing about these dead foreigners: We’re going to, on the double, ship those boys’ bodies back to where they came from, somewhere in Eastern Canada, and not do one other thing about it, except forget about the whole ugly mess.
And the place in Canada where they came from, well, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if this Cape Breton Island turned out to be another benighted place like Aroostook, where, apart from the poor grieving families, there wasn’t going to be much fuss made about three kids, not even the Island’s own children. And not surprise anyone if the boys were buried early next week and promptly forgotten, and no one -- not one single person in the boys’ community -- would ever publicly ask one awkward question, because decent Canadians aren’t that different from decent Americans, and don’t care much about lowlife young people, and anyway believe whatever the police tell them. A community, perhaps, too docile and uncaring and corrupt at the top to demand the serious investigation automatically due when three young people are found dead in suspicious circumstances. And so the Sheriff walked away from the site, or turned away from the deputies who told him what they saw, to talk on the phone with his colleagues, the Mounties in New Brunswick and the police in Cape Breton, followed by the useless, sycophantic Canadian press, and, just like the Sheriff called it, a few hours after those mangled and torn bodies were found, the story ended the way it always was going to end, with the bodies being prepared to be shipped back to Cape Breton, where the boys would be promptly buried and forgotten about.
The police in Maine rightly took for granted the resulting public indifference to their non-investigation and inability to give an explanation of the deaths. And we sceptical kids got it right that there had been a cover-up. Never mind how the boys died, we understood the authorities' mindset well enough, and knew there wasn’t going to be any trouble taken by local cops over outsiders, especially hippies: In Aroostook County? Cause trouble for Aroostook boys who got in a mix-up with Canadian miscreants, who weren’t even supposed to be in the USA? Who sneaked across the border at night, probably all stoned-up on marijuana and tripping over their hair. Hippies who made your skin crawl just to see them. Swishy, communist, potheads? Are you serious? Do you think, for a moment, that any Aroostook boys, who need some smartening up to do, for sure, but that those Aroostook boys, of whatever age they are, are going to have their lives ruined for trying to beat some sense and decency into three trouble-making border jumpers? Long-haired criminals who shouldn’t be in our country, let alone our County, who shouldn’t even be on this planet. And whose own fault it no doubt was that things got out of hand, with their counterculture attitude, and maybe something to do with drugs or perversion, and maybe they kind of had it coming to them.
No, if you thought about it for a moment, it wasn’t likely that police, in 1970, were going to take trouble, or make trouble, over those deaths. Sheriff Crandall, it has been said, couldn’t bring himself to shake the hippie hand of Kenny Novak’s older brother when he met him later that year. But it didn’t really matter: even if these boys weren’t hippy border-jumpers, just because of their status as outsiders there would be no investigation, and the bodies would be quickly going back over the border to Canada, because this was Aroostook, Maine, the home of Sheriff Crandall, and the County and the people of which he won an election to protect, not an election in some Canadian backwater to protect foreign drifters. And there is an unwritten law which is universally observed about this sort of thing.
So it didn’t surprise us that the killers got away with it. We young people had got it right about there being a cover-up. But we were too fast deciding who the killers had to be: rednecks, bikers, maybe migrant loggers celebrating a payday -- had to be some variation on that type. We proudly critical adolescents thought in stereotypes, just like everyone else. For us, just as much as the older generation, there was much automatic thinking and much we couldn’t even think.
Drug dealers were the only alternative killers imaginable for us. But just piling the bodies on the track and throwing sleeping bags over them was rough work, not the kind of job you’d expect of professionals. Were people really supposed to believe that three sober youths curled up on a train track, pulled sleeping bags over themselves, huddled together -- and then slept in? And taking all the boys’ identification, presumably to slow down the investigation, was a pointless, and potentially counterproductive, move. Then, on top of it, taking the boys’ money and leaving behind such a small amount? Six dollars and change between three people travelling from Canada to the States? No, we reasoned, professionals wouldn't leave behind all those clues and questons to be asked. It makes one think of those murderous clowns who, twenty-two years later, would rob a McDonald’s in Cape Breton and kill three young adults --though in that tragedy, the victims were locals and the culprits were quickly found and sentenced. No problem, if you’re looking. But the police in Aroostook weren’t looking.
Anyway, we thought we had it figured out. We didn’t ask ourselves, What do we know about how professionals do things? We knew how professionals operated from television shows and movies. So the killers had to be rural bigots, or drunken town rowdies, or nasty bikers -- stereotypical outsiders. We had correctly reasoned that everything pointed to this being a triple murder. We saw there was a cover-up, since, in spite of the mysterious circumstances and unanswered questions, there was no investigation and the bodies were immediately shipped back to Canada. But we had assumed that the nature of the cover-up was necessarily one of a deliberate dereliction of duty. It was the police just not caring about their lower-class riffraff killing these outsiders. We were young and we didn’t know a thing about the world, didn’t know there's nothing that's necessarily so, or necessarily not so. No suspects but our stereotypical killers occured to us, bungling amateurs with the dumb luck to choose the right victims, three roving kids who no one who mattered cared about.
We didn’t reflect that for the police the hippies were not only traitors from the counterculture cesspool, but were criminals, almost the worst kind of criminals, drug-dealers. Actually by 1970, hippies, along with black militants, were becoming, for political reasons, the number one enemy of the police and the state. But no law enforcement officer thought much about it, just knew any male with long hair was a hippie enemy. Hadn’t the highest U.S. government officials, politicians like Governor Ronald Reagan of California and Vice-president Spiro Agnew, declared open season on hippies and protesters? After the Kent State massacre, a couple of months before the train incident, there were “tin soldiers and Nixon coming” for hippies and blacks. Those lyrics from Neil Young’s “Ohio,” we now know, were not in the least an exaggeration; the brutality and hatred were even worse than we thought. America was a violent and dangerous country, especially for minorities and the counterculture.
A correspondent from Maine, a retired journalist, recently told me: “I recall an editorial I wrote back in June 1970 about ‘hippies’ and conflicts with ‘local cops.’ It sounds silly now, but men with long hair were viewed with absurd suspicion and automatically suspected of carrying drugs.” It was like that across the States back then, not just Maine: absurd suspicions, automatic suspects. And if the man with long hair was carrying a couple of joints, he may as well have been carrying a bag of heroin -- drugs were drugs to the police.
Everyone thinks in terms of stereotypes. We kids all did, and the cops sure did.
“As far as we know, that was my general impression, at least not while I was here.”
U.S. Customs Inspector Frederick William of Houlton
I remember once reading about a Sydney true crime case and thinking how uninmaginably painful it must have been for the man when his wife was brutally murdered, and he became the main suspect. He was a suspect only because he was the husband. But when a broken, innocent man is taken at night into a cold, bare room to be interrogated about the murder of his wife, he has to understand that the police officers are just doing their job. It’s an investigation. It’s police procedure. Don’t take it personally.
But the attitude of the police is not friendly: We have questions for you, and you’re going to be here with us in this room for what could be a long time -- however long it takes for you to give us the answers we expect, however long it takes for you to break. Because sometimes the murderer is the husband. After all, in many homicide cases, it is the only, or first, or obvious suspect or suspects who commited the crime. So as an adult and a good citizen, you don’t complain, you recognize the necessity. You might, if you have sense and inner strength enough, maintain silence until you see a lawyer, but you don’t whine about being a suspect. You know it’s routine. All questions have to be explored, all avenues of enquiry pursued.
It’s police procedure, even in a perfunctory investigation: identify obvious suspects and question them. And if in the death of some poor man’s wife, as in our example, there are no suspects, then, only for that reason, in opposition to any sentimentality, the broken and grieving husband is aggressively interrogated, and if he has to be literally picked up off the interrogation room floor a couple of times during the questioning, well, so be it. Or if one morning three dead males are found, and the three were pursued the night before being, then that pursuer is a suspect, in fact, the main suspect. And if Terry, Kenny, and David were pursued by men the night they sneaked across the border, then those pursuers were and are the main suspects in the three boys’ deaths. And those pursuers, if known, ought to have been investigated and questioned by the State Police. Whoever they were. There shouldn’t be exceptions; there shouldn't be a double standard. It should have been police just doing their job and doing their duty. Especially when there were no other suspects in the boys’ deaths.
We know the Aroostook Sheriff’s Department did not carry out an investigation, but a cover-up. They immediately declared the suspicious and unexplained deaths the result of an accident, and there are no suspects and nothing to investigate in an accident. That is not to say there actually weren’t suspects in the triple murder case, or that the police didn’t know of the suspects. The police knew the three Cape Breton youths were being pursued that night. They knew the boys were on the run. That’s why the three were walking along the railway: to avoid detection by staying off the main roads. Those pursuers were and are the prime suspect in the deaths of Terry Burt, Kenny Novak, and David Burroughs.
The late Dean Rhodes covered the story for the Bangor Daily News. He was a good reporter, but, like all journalists of the time, he was not permitted to draw conclusions, not even the most obvious conclusions. It goes without saying that he was not permitted to ask any law enforcement officers questions they would have considered disrespectful of their authority. But, being a good reporter, Rhodes did ask (politely) some pertinent questions, and he did follow leads. One lead he was checking out regarded the Cape Breton boys’ illegal border crossing. He was also looking into the related fact that the Houlton Border Patrol had been pursuing the boys. The day following the mysterious train incident, Saturday, July 11, in an article entitled “Identity of Trio Hit by Train a Mystery,” Rhodes reported in the Bangor Daily News:
About 11:30 p.m. Thursday, U.S. Border Patrolman William Butterfield of Houlton
attempted to stop three hitchhiking youths on Drake’s Hill at Houlton. But the three
Robert Fauk, acting chief patrol agent of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Houlton Office said
that Butterfield became ensnarled in traffic on Drake’s Hill. While he turned around,
the youths ran in different directions.
'A later attempt was made by Butterfield to locate the trio using an unmarked car
car, without success,’ Faulk said.
A persistent Patrolman this William Butterfield of Houston, though, that evening, a no doubt frustrated and unhappy one.
Drake’s Hill, where the three “unidentified” hitchhikers were pursued, is about a mile and a half from the Canadian border. It was also at Drake’s Hill, around that time Thursday night, that three youths from Canada approached Royden Hunt outside an ice-cream parlour on Military Street. Hunt, then a college student, was chatting with a few friends. One of the Canadian boys asked Hunt if he could give them a lift. Hunt, who was about to give his friend, Mike York, a drive to work, said he would. Hunt and York got in the front of Hunt’s car, and the Canadian boys got in the back, and they drove out of the parking lot.
A few minutes later, the Border Patrol pulled into the restaurant lot, where four or five young people were still hanging out in front of the parlour. The Border Patrol asked the youths if they saw anyone fitting the description of the three hitchhikers. One of them, a girl Hunt knew, told the Patrol that the boys had left in Hunt’s car, a blue Pontiac Lemans. The Border Patrol left in search of that blue Pontiac.
In a recent interview, Hunt told me that the boys refused his offer of a drive to downtown Houlton, the best hitchhiking location. Instead, they said wanted to go to Interstate 95. Hunt wondered why, but agreed to drive the boys to the Smyrna exit on Interstate 95. As they drove along, the two older boys smoked, and the youngest, Kenny Novak, tried to sleep, leaning his head against his knapsack. Hunt and York chatted a little bit with the two older boys. One said they had recently crossed the border, but didn’t say how. The other, for some reason, announced they weren’t carrying drugs and said not to worry.
As they approached the Smyrna interstate exit, one of the boys said to Hunt, “They were going to go on the tracks. They said they wanted to stay off the road” (reported by Rhodes in “Trio Killed By Train Got Lift in Auto”). Hunt let the boys off about 11:45 p.m. After getting out, they all said, “Thanks!” Less than eight hours later, the boys would be found dead, a couple of miles down the track, and, as Dean Rhodes wrote, “hundreds of miles from home.”
In my interview with Hunt, he told me, “They wanted to get off the road. We had an idea why.“ For Hunt and York, it had become clear by the time they let the boys off that the Canadians were most likey on the run from the Border Patrol, after illegally crossing the border. It was also apparent from their wet shoes and pants covered in grass that they had been literally running. Their clothes were so soiled that the next day Hunt cleaned the back seat of his car. A few days later when two detectives from the State Police came visiting, and searched the Pontiac, they found the back seat had been wiped and vacuumed. Hunt hadn’t cleaned ashtrays though, and the detectives were able to examine them, but they found nothing. Hunt believes the detectives were looking for drug traces. We'll never know. The State Police’s involvement in the case wasn’t official.
It was when Rhodes asked Crandall whether the boys crossed the border illegally, that the sheriff said he didn’t know, and added, “We’ll make no effort to find out. We don’t care.” But Sheriff Crandall liked to boast to the press that anything that happened in his jurisdiction he knew about pretty quickly. And one thing he must have known was that the Houlton Border Patrol had been pursuing the boys, at least if he read the Bangor Daily News or ever spoke with anyone from the Border Patrol.
But neither the Border Patrol or the Aroostook Sheriff’s Office ever admitted any law enforcement officers were pursuing the boys. When questioned by Rhodes, the Border Patrol would allow that they were looking for three hitchhikers fitting the boys’ description, but couldn’t, they said, confirm the hitchhiking trio they had been pursuing were the Canadian hitchhikers. Robert Faulk, of the Houlton Border Patrol, told Rhodes that the Border Patrol “was unable to link the youths at Smyrna with the trio near the border.” Who knows, perhaps it was three hitchhiking Swedes or something. Except Hunt would make the link by revealing that he had driven the border trio to Smyrna from Drake’s Hill. But that was a couple of days later, and by that time the involvement of the Border Patrol in the story of the three deaths had already become forgotten history.
From the first, the police seemed to be preparing for the disappearance of the Border Patrol from the story. It was when Rhodes pointed out there was no record of anyone fitting the boys’ description legally crossing the border that the Houlton Customs Inspector, Frederick William, replied, “As far as I know, that was my general impression, at least not while I was here.” It’s the kind of evasive gibberish that delights police in an interrogation room, and leads to either many hours of tough questions, or a confession. In this case it was the end of the story.
(Crandall’s and Williams’ responses to Dean Rhodes, which also serve as epigraphs, are from “Three N.S. Youths Killed By Train,” a Rhodes’ article on the train incident for the Bangor Daily News. All available news articles from the summer of 1970 are on file at the public Facebook page "Searching for Answers," which is administered by Lorne Duke Novak.)