The Wandering Teeth
This is a tale of murder and mayhem in the Cariboo, a mystery that was solved by a rookie policeman and a pair of wandering dentures.
Ghosts of Hallowe’en were heavy in the air one gloomy night in late October, 1931, when Constable Stan Raybone stepped outside the darkened Police Office in Williams Lake. It had been a quiet week in the cowtown, with the exception of the usual minor disputes at the Lakeview Hotel.
Raybone had taken on his new position as Constable in Williams Lake with an ease and a maturity that belied his lack on experience as a lawman. He had a decided knack for dealing with ordinary misdemeanors.
However, as he stood on the steps of the office in a wind that had fingers of ice, he held in his hand a telegram that gave him a strange feeling of foreboding.
A deadly fire in the small community of Forest Grove south of Williams Lake had killed two men. Raybone was directed to go immediately to Forest Grove to investigate the circumstances of the tragedy. This would be his first important case.
Forest Grove was the hub of a bustling ranching and logging district. Loggers were beginning to make inroads into the heavy forests north and west of the community. Small sawmills were scattered throughout the bush. In the community, a general store, bank, post office, school and hall were going concerns along the main road. A racetrack occupied a field between the store and the school.
A second store had been set up in a two-storey building across from the general store. The store was owned by S.D. Hoy. His ailing eighty-one year-old father had come to live with Hoy early in October. Now Raybone read, both men had been killed in a fire that had engulfed the building within minutes in a blast of flames.
When Constable Raybone arrived in Forest Grove in the morning, he was joined at the fire scene by a police sergeant who by coincidence happened to be travelling on the Cariboo Wagon Road in the vicinity of 100 Mile House when he heard about the tragedy. The sergeant was a member of the B. C. Criminal Investigation Branch.
Constable Raybone watched the sergeant intently as he poked through the charred rubble, making his way around the site. Small curls of smoke still rose from chunks of blackened furniture and wooden beams. He examined the woodstove and surrounding debris thoroughly.
After an hour or so, the sergeant concluded that the fire had started in the chimney flue. He told Constable Raybone that the men had been sleeping upstairs next to the stove pipe. Their death had been swift and accidental, the sergeant declared firmly.
Before leaving Forest Grove, the sergeant instructed Raybone to put the men’s remains in boxes and ship them to Vancouver where an inquest could be held. Raybone enlisted the help of couple of local men to build two rough boxes for the bodies. He was to put them on the southbound Pacific Great Eastern train that was due at Exeter Station in about fourteen hours.
Raybone decided to fill in the remaining hours taking a closer look through the still-smoldering litter of the building. He prodded hunks of wood and knocked layers of talcum-like ashes from the jumble of cans and broken boxes.
Then, as he later said, “ I nudged aside some scorched cans with my foot and made a shocking discovery. Under the cans were what I took to be white beans. On closer look I saw that they were false teeth, about a half dozen of them. That was odd. Those teeth were a long way from where the bodies had been found.”
Raybone searched the scene once again. He noticed that the cans had been standing on a collapsed shelf that, from its location, he deduced must have been part of the store’s counter. Therefore the storekeeper was probably down in the store when the fire started. Why would his teeth be there, in that spot, if he hadn’t been standing there?
Many questions came to Raybone’s mind. Why hadn’t Hoy run outside? Maybe he had tried to rescue his father and had been overcome by flames. But what about the teeth? If Hoy had been trying get to his father, to get him out of there, his body would have been closer to the stairs. Raybone was convinced that foul play had indeed taken place. After all, he concluded, a man’s teeth are usually in his head or next to his bed.
Raybone wrestled with the problem of whether or not he should report his suspicions to police headquarters in Kamloops or to accept the sergeant’s judgement of accidental death. He was reluctant to question his superior’s decision.
In the end, integrity won and Raybone wired in his own conclusions about the deaths, based on his discovery of the teeth. He stated in his telegram that he was convinced that the men had been murdered. He received an abrupt answer from Kamloops instructing him to ship the bodies immediately. They were not interested in his opinions.
Before he left Forest Grove, one of Hoy’s neighbours asked Raybone if he had seen Hoy’s black Labrador retriever anywhere. Hoy had been very fond of the dog and it was always at his side. But no trace of the dog’s remains had been found in the ruins. Nor was the dog ever seen again.
Raybone was stationed at Williams Lake for several more years. Whenever the fatal fire at Forest Grove was mentioned he kept his thoughts about the mysterious case to himself.
One night Raybone was at home in Williams Lake when he got a phone call from a farmer who was frantic, shouting for help, saying that he was in great danger.
It was midnight by the time Raybone and his partner arrived at the farm north of Williams Lake. Raybone said later that “it was blacker than the inside of a wolf!” The house was completely dark. As they pulled in the driveway, the car’s headlights swept across the body of a man, lying in the grass.
He was dead from a gunshot wound. A rifle lay beside him. As the policemen moved into the pitch-black house their flashlight beams picked out the figure of a woman, crumpled lifeless on the kitchen floor.
An elderly couple, their eyes wide in terror, huddled nearby, weeping. The woman was their daughter. The policemen learned from the couple that the murderer’s name was Lawrence Roberts. He had killed his wife in a drunken rage.
The officers lit a lantern and returned to the man on the ground by the driveway. They searched his pockets and found a suicide note. Roberts had written a confession. He described how he had committed a murder in a place called Forest Grove. He wrote that he had killed a man in a store and then packed him up the stairs and laid him on a bed. An older man was asleep in the room.
Roberts had cleaned out the bit of money in the cash drawer and then set fire to the building. As he went out the back door, he pushed a black dog out of the way.
Old timers say that this is not a completely accurate story, as old stories tend to be.
However, two Forest Grove boys would disagree. A couple of years ago, Justin Antone and Jesse LaBounty discovered fragments of furniture and other artifacts, some of them badly charred, in a backyard in Forest Grove, precisely where S.D. Hoy had his store.
The boys were poking around, digging up here and there, building this, and tearing down that.
Who’s to say they won’t unearth a few teeth someday?
It was Christmas Eve, 1948.