The Speaker Series Is Back! Part 1: Seeing the Kosberg Murders in a New Light
Written by Sheena Koo
In the early hours of December 10th,1965, the streets of Vancouver were quiet and chilly, just like any other morning in early winter. On this day, in the suburban area of Main Street and East 22nd Avenue, most families were fast asleep in the warm confines of their modest homes, but would soon wake to horrifying news that would shake the foundations of their idyllic lives. They would learn that, in their tight-knit community, unbeknownst to neighbours and friends, the majority of the Kosberg family was mercilessly murdered in their home with a single double-bitted axe. The killer, to everyone’s horror, was the Kosberg’s eldest son, 16-year old Thomas, who, to most, seemed like a normal teenager in the large family of six—a family that one neighbour said: “…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.
Currie began her presentation by pointing out critical deficiencies in the Kosberg murder case, and 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, were only documentations of the amount of time witnesses were interviewed. She also pointed out that current murder and young offenders laws are vastly different, as are forensics, media and the handling of defence of insanity cases.
Delving deeper into the Kosberg murders, Currie highlighted details that many were not familiar with. Specifically:
– 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 Company (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 were notified of the crime at 7:45am by 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 in West Vancouver 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 that most drawers and cupboards were left open, shoe polish and shaving cream were left in the kitchen and beer bottles were strewn everywhere. Most chillingly, the axe had been delicately placed standing against the kitchen stove.
– 13-year old Marianne Kosberg was alive at the time that police found her, and underwent surgery to save her life, but nine days later, would succumb to her serious head and brain injuries.
– 6-month-old Osbourne Kosberg Jr. was found alive and unharmed by police 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 and laced them with sleeping pills, but the evidence has yet to be confirmed.
Based on her investigation of these facts and evidence, Currie highlighted several problems with the way the case was handled. Namely:
– Both the police and media 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,” his meticulous planning of the murder, and the fact that he waited for the victims to be home (also known as “laying in wait”), show a mental capability 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 fit to stand trail, declaring him not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) and sending him to Riverview only took hours. In fact, the entire trail for sentencing only took eighty-one minutes in total.
This left many in the audience to ask why the courts would choose to make such a hasty sentence. Currie answered aptly that it was difficult for the public to believe that someone would commit such horrific acts willingly. Labelling Thomas as mentally unhinged (his official diagnosis by doctors was schizophrenia) would offer them solace from the disturbing reality, as most people at the time believed that the mental health system would take care of him—or keep him safe from the general public. She also noted that with his sentence, he would not have to face the death penalty—a punishment that was viewed as “distasteful”, especially for a teenager at the time.
Currie assured the audience that the process and outcome of the case would be extremely different under today’s laws and practices. In particular, there would be a thorough and detailed examination of Thomas’s intent to murder, the events leading up to the murder and his relationships with his family members. Moreover, the trial would involve more witnesses, lengthier testimonies and more detailed assessments of Thomas’s mental state prior, during and after the crime. She noted that Florence, the only witness who saw the family before the murders, was only questioned for nine minutes—a testimony which nowadays would take hours.
At the end of her presentation, Currie spoke of what finally happened to Thomas after he was deemed not criminally responsible for the murders by reason of insanity in 1967. Specifically, he was sent for rehabilitation at Riverview Hospital and, 10 years later, was released in 1977. Doctor’s labelled him as a “sober and sensible” young man who could enter safely back into society at the age of twenty-seven. His release and diagnosis by his psychiatrist at the time, Currie pointed out, are highly inconsistent with the severity of his mental illness, schizophrenia. In particular, most cases see an increase in schizophrenic behaviour with age—especially without modern-day medication and psychological assistance. “Can you have a remission of schizophrenia?” she asked the crowd. “Yes, you can…but not like that. It is extraordinary.” Currie went on to state that, in her opinion, Thomas did not suffer from schizophrenia.
The crowd was left with a final image of Thomas as an older man, found through his obituary in 2016. In it, Thomas was described as having lived a full life as a happily married man who worked at Vancouver Children’s Hospital for over 30 years. It was a conclusion that certainly left many pondering the many complexities surrounding justice, mental health issues and rehabilitation in today’s modern world.
Stay tuned for our next blog on the Unsolved murder of Jennie Eldon Conroy, a 24-year old woman who was found beaten to death with a claw hammer in West Vancouver.