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Murder, Mystery & Intrigue in Review – Babes in the Woods

Babes in the Woods Mystery Vancouver Police Museum

A newspaper clipping from The Vancouver Sun, 1998.

*This is a repost of a popular blog from 2014

The final lecture in the Vancouver Police Museum’s Murder Mystery & Intrigue series capped off two months of incredible storytelling by some of our city’s most notable historians, authors and police authorities. Since March 13, 2014, people from across the province have come to the museum to hear about Vancouver’s most salacious crimes, and they weren’t disappointed.

Presentations included the following:
• The 1956 milkshake murder with Museum Director Robert Noon
• The 1927 Janet Smith murder with author Edward Starkins
• The 1963 Pauls murders with author and historian Eve Lazarus
• The 2001 Vivien Morzuch murder with retired Major Crimes Detective Steve McCartney and Forensic Expert Stu Wyatt

Fitting for a grand conclusion to the series, a sold-out crowd packed seats to hear retired Unsolved Homicide Unit Detective, Brian Honeybourn, speak about the 1947 Babes in the Woods murders—a case that is arguably the city’s most famous unsolved crime to date. Honeybourn shared his findings and unveiled some facts that surprised even the most informed Babes in the Woods aficionados.

Retired detective Honeybourn made a big media splash when he reopened the Babes in the Woods case.
He began with the scene of the crime. On January 14, 1953, sometime during the day, a Stanley Park Parks Board employee stumbled upon a patch of leaves that made a strange crunching sound. He dug a little deeper beneath the brush, and found numerous bones imbedded into the earth. He notified authorities and the next day investigators showed up close to Prospect Point to unearth a shocking crime.

Beneath a heavy layer of dirt, leaves, tree branches and a decomposing fur coat, they found the bones of two young children and a layman’s hatchet—which turned out to be the murder weapon. Detectives also found two children’s aviation caps, decomposed pieces of children’s clothing, a lunchbox and a woman’s size 7 ½ penny loafer.

Original evidence from the Babes in the Woods murders, archived at The Vancouver Police Museum

Original evidence from the Babes in the Woods murders, archived at The Vancouver Police Museum

A doctor (not a forensic pathologist) was called to the site. He stated that the bones came from a young boy and girl, roughly aged 5-7, and 7-9. Detectives looked at the layers of brush, and concluded that the bodies had been sitting in the woods for approximately six years, meaning that they had been murdered sometime in 1947.

Interestingly, while information from the 1953’s two-page report is still used today, Honeybourn believes that some pieces—such as the date and other facts – may be incorrect. He explained, for example, that nowadays detectives would have called in a forensic botanist among several other specialists to determine the age of the bones, brush and other evidence. Authorities in 1953 simply did not have access to these resources. This is important because Honeybourn believes that the bones may have been sitting in the park for more than six years, placing the murder much earlier.
After the discovery of the bodies, police called upon the public to help identify the children and their murderer—specifically, they asked anyone who saw a woman with a young boy and girl in Stanley Park throughout 1947 to come forward. They received hundreds of tips, but none of leads went anywhere.

Babes in the Woods Sketches at The Vancouver Police Museum

Casts made of the two skulls showed how the boy and girl may have looked. Image from the Vancouver Province.
Detectives gathered evidence and bones from the scene and kept them in two boxes for safekeeping. Honeybourn pointed out that, nowadays, evidence management is very strict. This includes making sure it is preserved in various specialized bags and cases because the average box can cause acid erosion—which is exactly what happened to the Babes in the Woods evidence. As the case turned cold, one box found its way to the Vancouver Police Museum (at one point, the children’s skulls were also put on exhibition at the PNE).

In 1996, Honeybourn became the head of the Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit. Given the freedom to choose which case he wanted to work on, he decided to reopen the famous Babes in the Woods case. He did so because he had always been fascinated by the stories he heard as a child. The first step in reopening the investigation was re-collecting the evidence. He managed to wrangle the box of bones and other related evidence from the Vancouver Police Museum. He then decided to re-analyse the evidence with new technology.  He contacted Dr. David Sweet, a professor and specialist at UBC who was able to extract DNA from the teeth of the children’s skulls. The results from the extractions revealed ground-breaking news: the two murdered children were not a boy and a girl as initial reports suggested, but were, in fact, two boys. Furthermore, they were brothers with the same mother but different fathers.

This completely changed the shape of the investigation, because Honeybourn was now looking for witnesses who had seen a woman with two boys in the park – not a boy and a girl.

Honeybourn revealed many of the promising leads he pursued over the past few years, including:

• A woman who stayed in the New Haven Hotel with two boys, and then disappeared
• A woman from Mission who hitchhiked to Stanley Park with her two young boys (the boys were wearing aviation helmets as well)
• A woman (allegedly a prostitute) who lived with her father and two young boys in a house by the lighthouse at Prospect Point in Stanley Park
• A woman and a man who were seen with two kids at Stanley park with a hatchet. The woman was said to have disappeared into the woods with the kids and the man. She returned later with only the man. She also had blood all over her legs when she returned

Original VPD Crime Photos from the Babes in the Woods murders

With meticulous attention to detail, Honeybourn followed up on all of these stories, but surprisingly, found that the children in question were still alive, or the dates and times did not line up with the actual murder. Still searching for answers, Honeybourn is currently reviewing a lead about a deranged woman who was seen running from the bushes of the park in 1944 without shoes. He also hopes that with advances in DNA testing, he will eventually be able to track down a relative of the children.

Map of Babes in the Woods bodies were found

One of the most intriguing parts of Honeybourn’s presentation did not deal with the murder investigation itself. Instead, it dealt with putting the bodies to rest. Several years ago, he decided to give the young children a dignified resting place. He cremated the majority of the bones and released the ashes into the sea as part of a small ceremony, hopefully bringing closure to the two nameless souls. He saved crucial parts of the bones for future DNA testing.

A thrilling end to the series, the Babes in the Woods lecture did not disappoint. Due to the success of this year’s series, we are excited to announce that we will be hosting our third series next spring, and we look to you – the public – for suggestions on what you would like to hear. Please feel free to contact us at info@vancouverpolicemuseum.ca with suggestions on themes for the series or on what crimes or aspects of law enforcement you’d like to learn about!

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