The streets of Vancouver on December 10th, 1965, were quiet and chilly—just like any other winter’s day in the city. In the suburban area of Main Street and East 22nd Avenue, however, while most families were fast asleep in the warm confines of their homes, a horrifying family murder was taking place and it would soon shake the foundations of everyone’s idyllic lives. The people who lived in this neighbourhood would wake-up and learn that, in their tight-knit community, the majority of the Kosberg family had been killed in their home with a double bit axe. The killer was the family’s eldest son, 16-year-old Thomas Kosberg, who, by most accounts, seemed like a normal teenager in a large family. A neighbour even remarked that the family “had the nicest, most beautiful children.”
These are some of the Kosberg murder details that have been written, told and shared over the past 52 years, but the facts and criminal proceedings that surround the case are still filled with many unanswered questions, leaving the door open for new insights. Heidi Currie, a criminologist and professor of Mental Health Law at Douglas College, unveiled many of these fascinating new views to a packed crowd in her recent talk at the Vancouver Police Museum’s 2017 Speaker Series: Beyond the Headlines.
Revealing an entirely new angle to this tragic case, Currie began her lecture by pointing out critical deficiencies in the Kosberg murder case, and delved into how these oversights would not stand in today’s vastly different judicial and mental health system. For instance, she revealed that there was no transcript from the trial of Thomas Kosberg and, instead, police only documented the amount of time witnesses were interviewed. She also pointed out that current murder and young offenders laws are vastly different from those from the 60s, as are modern-day forensics, media and defence of insanity practices.
As she dug deeper into the Kosberg murders, Currie highlighted details that many were not familiar with. In particular:
- Dorothy Kosberg had been entertaining her best friend Florence the night before the murder. Sometime around 11pm, Florence left to go home. Thomas waited for Florence to leave and for his father to return home from his late shift at the Allied Heat and Fuel Co. (roughly 1am) before committing the murders.
- There was a large span of time between the murders and when they were reported (from 1am-7:45am).
- Police received a call at 7:45am from Dr. Bennet Wong, a highly regarded psychiatrist in Vancouver, who had been treating Thomas prior to the murders. Thomas drove his father’s 1954 sedan to Dr. Wong’s home and confessed to him: “I’ve done something awful.”
- The Kosberg house was in a strange state of disarray when entered by police. Photos reveal most drawers and cupboards left open, shoe polish and shaving cream left in the kitchen, beer bottles strewn everywhere and the axe, delicately placed standing against the kitchen stove.
- 13-year-old Marianne Kosberg was alive at the time police found her, and underwent surgery to save her life. Sadly, nine days later, she succumbed to her serious head and brain injuries.
- 6-month-old Osbourne Kosberg Jr. was found alive and unharmed, and likely went on to live with family members who lived near by. Presumably, he is still alive.
- Thomas Kosberg had been admitted to Crease Clinic (now Riverview) in 1961 at 13 years of age. Crease Clinic, at the time, was a state-of-the-art mental health facility where “patients went to get better.”
- Thomas had reached out to Dr. Wong two days prior to the murder, but was not able to get a hold of him. Some reports say that Dr. Wong tried to get in touch with Thomas but the messages never reached the teenager.
- It is unconfirmed whether Thomas drugged his family before the murders. Reports have stated that he made them chocolate milkshakes laced with sleeping pills—but the evidence has yet to be confirmed.
Based on her investigation of these facts and evidence, Currie emphasised several important problems with the way the case was handled. Namely:
- Both the police and media had made grand and hasty assumptions about the murder. The most important of which found Thomas “unhinged” or mentally unstable. However, Currie argued that the both Thomas’s admission of doing something “awful” and his meticulous planning of the murder, show a comprehension to the murder that was not explored enough by authorities.
- The investigation of why Thomas chose an axe as his weapon would have revealed deep insights into the murder. It was never known if Thomas had used the axe before, why he chose it and how the weapon had factored into his life.
- The state of the house and kitchen seemed unusual for a mother who had been entertaining a guest.
Currie went on to describe the court proceedings two years after the murder as “…the fastest I’ve ever heard of. The case was decided before it even went to court.” For instance, witnesses were only interviewed for minutes, and the entire process of assessing Thomas, declaring him not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), and then sending him to Riverview only took mere weeks.
This left many in the audience to ask why the police and courts would choose to make such a hasty sentence. Currie aptly answered that the crimes were too horrific for the public to believe that someone could commit them willingly. Labelling Thomas as mentally unhinged (his official diagnosis by doctors was schizophrenia) would offer them relief that the system would take care of him, and that, as a teenager, he would not have to face the death penalty—a sentence that was ‘distasteful’ for a such a young person to receive.
Currie assured the audience that the process and outcome of the case would be extremely different under today’s laws and practices, and in our modern day, there would be a much more detailed examination of Thomas’s intent to murder, and the events leading up to the murder.
At the end of her presentation, Currie spoke of what finally happened to Thomas after he was deemed not criminally responsible by reason of insanity back in 1967. Specifically, he was sent for rehabilitation at Riverview Hospital and was released in 1977. Doctor’s labelled him as a “sober and sensible” young man who would enter back into society at the age of 27.
The crowd was left with a final image of Thomas as an older man, found through his obituary in 2016. The obituary said he lived a full life as a married man who worked at a children’s hospital for over 30 years. It was an ending that certainly left many pondering the fine line between justice, mental health issues and rehabilitation in today’s modern world.
Author: Sheena Koo, VPM Content Contributer