T.W. Paterson: Ma Miller’s birthday recalls unsolved crime

The case took a startling turn in January 1870 with the sudden turning-up of Leonard Stealey — Butch.



The case took a startling turn in January 1870 with the sudden turning-up of Leonard Stealey — Butch.

Inspired by the 152nd birthday of Ma Miller’s Pub, originally the Goldstream Hotel, we’ve been following the story of the cold-blooded murder of Capt. Joseph Baker shortly after he left the pioneer roadhouse. After being accompanied partway by hotelier Patrick Fowler and a man named Butch, Baker had proceeded alone towards Victoria. He never arrived and, months later, in August 1869, his scattered remains were found in a Langford Plain swamp.

When, shortly after, police learned that Fowler had sold his hotel and was leaving the colony, they arrested him and charged him with Baker’s murder. Fowler’s lawyer denied that he was fleeing the country; he had business interests and family in Washington Territory and, for that matter, he hadn’t yet received full payment for the sale of the hotel. However, as one of two persons known to have seen Baker within a half-hour or so of his murder, Fowler was considered to be a prime suspect and he was remanded into custody.

At a second bail hearing, Alfred Peatt Sr., a settler, testified that Fowler told him that he and Butch had parted soon after Baker left them, that, shortly after, he’d heard “the crack of a rifle”. (Peatt’s son noted that Fowler hadn’t mentioned this at the inquest.) The senior Peatt quoted Fowler as saying, on another occasion, that Butch had accompanied Baker towards Victoria and that he, Fowler, heard a gunshot as he returned to his hotel.

Henry Kibblewaite swore that Fowler told him that Butch had never left his side. He also said he’d never known the innkeeper to have a gun.

Leigh Harnett testified that Fowler told him yet another version: Shortly after Baker left the hotelier and Butch on the trail, Butch followed in the same direction and was gone for “a considerable time”. He did mention, however, that Butch was unarmed and that he, Fowler, hadn’t heard a shot. Harnett concluded his testimony by saying that he knew the innkeeper to be “a kind, hospitable man” who’d been drinking on the day he told of having last seen Baker on the Goldstream Road.

It was then learned that Fowler had remarked to R.K. McDonnell that he was grateful for the fact he’d had Butch with him that day as a potential witness.

William Millington — who’d starred in his own shooting drama eight years before — deposed that the garrulous innkeeper told him that Butch had never been out of his sight that day.

Tenuous and contradictory as all this was, it was deemed sufficient by the court to remand Fowler for trial for the murder of Joseph Baker.

The case took a startling turn in January 1870 with the sudden turning-up of Leonard Stealey — Butch. He’d just returned from Washington, to be told by a Johnson Street bartender that he’d been the “object of affectionate inquiry” by the police, who suspected him of being Fowler’s accomplice. Expressing astonishment and indignation, Butch hastened to the office of Insp. Bowden. “Why,” he exclaimed, “I must be the man [you] want for I remember Baker passing along the road while Fowler and me was cutting a fallen tree out of the way.”

In his statement to Magistrate Pemberton, Butch said he and Fowler had accompanied Baker along the road to Victoria as far as the fallen tree, which they’d proceeded to clear away as Baker continued on towards town. He said he’d heard no shots, that he saw no other travellers that day. This contrasted sharply with yet another version by Fowler, who claimed to have heard a shot and who since had recalled that several Indians passed by shortly after Baker proceeded towards town alone.

For his trouble, Butch was also remanded in custody for two and a half weeks until he was released on his own recognizance to reappear in court in a month’s time. The garrulous Fowler remained behind bars.

A month later, he, too, was released as it became apparent that the Crown’s case against him was paper-thin.

The Langford Lake Mystery slipped from the headlines until November when police charged Thomas G. Smith with Baker’s murder. Smith was arrested in a Wharf Street saloon after talking freely of being with Baker on that fateful day in January, and of having accompanied him to the Sooke cut-off.

The newest suspect said he had a pistol with him, that Baker was unarmed although carrying several $20 gold pieces and some silver. Under interrogation, however, Smith denied everything.

Before the magistrate, he refuted all charges and said he could prove he wasn’t “in Vancouver Island” at the time of Baker’s disappearance. After several court appearances he, too, was discharged.

Almost a century and a-half after Capt. Joseph Baker met sudden death in a Goldstream meadow, the identity of his killer or killers, the so-called Langford Lake Mystery, remains just that — a mystery.