Penticton cop shot and killed by 'Jesse' James on Okanagan Lake more than a century ago | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Penticton cop shot and killed by 'Jesse' James on Okanagan Lake more than a century ago

The S.S. Okanagan played host to the Duke of Connaught and the deadly shooting of a police officer all in the same year.
Image Credit: Submitted/Okanagan Archive Trust Society

The sordid story of the Okanagan’s version of Jesse James led to the shooting of a popular Penticton police officer travelling on the SS Okanagan in 1912.

Const. Geoffrey Aston died a short time after he was taken from the ship to the hospital in Kelowna.

The killer was actually named Walter Boyd James.

“Through his many aliases, he liked to emulate his folk hero ‘Jesse’ James and, like Jesse, Walter was never without his guns,” Brian Wilson, archivist with the Okanagan Archive Trust Society wrote in Archivos magazine.

He described James as an American army deserter and desperado who drifted around the Okanagan until, on the evening of March 23, 1912, he decided to hold up the Okanagan Mission General Store.

“He burst into the store with a large pistol held high and yelled: ‘Hands up,’” the Archivos story goes. “The young assistant, Roy Randall, complied quickly but a customer, Mr. Small, laughed, thinking it was a prank and had the pistol placed at his temple.”

Randall was able to escape while James forced the store owner to open the safe.

“With a curse, the gunman bounded after him,” says an article on the Lake Country Museum website. “The night silence was shattered by the crashing report of the .44 as he fired at the boy’s retreating figure.”

In the darkness, he missed, even though James was reputed to be a crack shot. He went back into the store and was able to take a small amount of cash out of the safe before fleeing.

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“Randall hurried to the Bellevue Hotel but lost precious time convincing patrons that the robbery was not a joke,” Archivos said. “James was identified even though he was disguised by a white handkerchief and large droopy hat, as he had been loitering about the hotel most of the day.”

At the time, the bar was filled with 30 to 40 men celebrating the Saturday afternoon rugby match.

James fled over the Wild Horse Canyon trail in what is now Okanagan Mountain Park.

On the way, he came across another drifter, Frank Wilson, who decided to travel with him down to Penticton.

Image Credit: Submitted/Okanagan Archive Trust Society

“Two days later, the wanted man and a companion entered Penticton’s B.C. Hotel about 11 p.m. and asked for a room,” the Lake Country Museum site says. “One of the proprietors, Thomson, recognized James by the description circulated by the police.

“’Sorry, we haven’t got a room left,” he said. Then he suggested, as if an afterthought: “’There’s a rooming house at the end of the block. Why don’t you try there? If they’re full, come back here and maybe I can think of something.’”

After they left, Thomson called in the police who, upon returning to the hotel, found the two men sitting quietly in the lounge with their backs to the street door. They were promptly arrested.

The plan was to take the captives back to Kelowna on the 5:45 a.m. sailing of the S.S. Okanagan.

At about 1 a.m., the men were taken on board and shackled in Cabin 34 with only Aston left behind to escort them.

Const. Geoffrey Aston
Const. Geoffrey Aston
Image Credit: Submitted/Okanagan Archive Trust Society

The men were sleeping on board the boat as it travelled between Penticton and Peachland. When Aston awoke, James, who had not been properly searched, pulled out a .22 calibre pistol.

“He drew the pistol and demanded that the officer put his hands up,” the Archivos story says. “Aston refused and leapt on James in an attempt to disarm him. The gun made a small ‘pop’ and the constable fell to the floor.

“James turned to Wilson, who was in a state of panic, and pushed the pistol in his face growling ‘If you cry out I will shoot you dead!’ James offered to tie up Wilson and leave him with the dying officer but, in his fear, Wilson refused. The two retrieved the keys to the shackles and the weapons carried by the constable, covered him and then left by the deck door. Without raising any suspicion, they left the sternwheeler at Peachland dock.”

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After the ship left Peachland, the purser, Alfred Watson, checked his records and discovered no tickets had been issued for Peachland and became suspicious.

Shortly after, they found the wounded constable.

“Captain Estabrook was informed and the ship made haste to Gellatly Bay where he raised the alarm with authorities north and south,” Archivos says. “The ship made way to Kelowna where the officer was transferred to hospital. Const. Geoff Aston was pronounced dead soon after arriving.”

Before noon, the manhunt began with magistrates swearing in every available man as special constables.

“The order went out to ‘shoot on sight’ if any resistance was offered,” Archivos says. “Well over 200 men set out to find the trail. Many hobos and vagrants were herded to the lakeshore for identification. Then a break; tracks were discovered at the snowline at the Glen Robinson mine above Peachland, then a report that they had held up in a shack in Westbank.”

They were finally discovered by two special constables while sitting on a log on the beach at Wilson’s Landing, north of Westbank.

“The two officers covered the two with their rifles and, even though James seemed to reach for his weapon, he was disarmed without incident,” Archivos says. “At the inquest, James asserted that he had seen the constables and could have easily shot them down.”

They were taken back aboard the S.S. Okanagan and into jail in Kelowna.

“At the inquest, Wilson offered testimony against James and, oddly, James corroborated Wilson’s testimony in every detail,” the story goes. “Both were charged with the murder and transported to Kamloops to await trial.”

In the end, Wilson had all charges dropped and was released. James was convicted and sent to the gallows September 9.

“James was defiant ‘til the end,” Archivos says. “On the day of his execution, he made a dash for the open door at mealtime, throwing pepper he had saved into the face of the deathwatch officer. The officer quickly subdued James with his truncheon, knocking him unconscious. The 24-year-old James went to the hangman with a large knot on his head.”

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There was another tragic death relating to the S.S. Okanagan – the fate of the vessel itself

The ship was built in Okanagan Landing in 1906 for the Canadian Pacific Railway. When it was launched the following year, it became the second steamship on Okanagan Lake, joining the S.S. Aberdeen.

The S.S. Okanagan had room for 400 passengers and 32 overnight cabins.

“The interior boasted attractive colours with goldleaf highlights; bright chandeliers with curtains on the windows.,” the S.S. Sicamous Heritage Marine Park website says. “Wall to wall carpets adorned the Ladies’ cabins, lino was in the Men’s smoking lounge where men chewed tobacco, and a hardwood parquet floor was a feature of the dining saloon.”

The same years as the murder, 1912, the Okanagan played host to the Duke of Connaught, who was Governor General of Canada, when he and his wife toured BC and several extra bathrooms were installed.

But, it was only two years later that the larger S.S. Sicamous was launched so the Okanagan was relegated to relief duty and fruit hauling before being retired in 1934.

“The beautiful Okanagan was broken up at Okanagan Landing,” the website says. “However, the Ladies Saloon from the stern of the boat survived, used as a beach cottage near the Landing.”

It was rescued from there and moved to the S.S. Sicamous park in Penticton in 1992 for restoration.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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