ETHELBERT — Elsie Steppa was a known eccentric, nicknamed the Cat Woman by villagers for all the stray cats she harboured.
Steppa’s nephew, Harry Jones, who lived with her, was best known for his belief that he was Jesus.
When Steppa, 81, was found slain in her home, everyone assumed Jones, who was missing at the time, had done it.
When RCMP reported two days later that Jones had also been found dead, everyone assumed it must have been a murder-suicide.
When a third RCMP report came out after the autopsy calling it a double homicide, everyone decided they better start locking their doors.
"The psychotic killer of Ethelbert," proclaimed Ronnie Balanyk, sounding like the voiceover to a horror movie, as he parked himself with a steaming cup of caffeine in the coffee shop of the local gas station.
Balanyk’s reaction, however, was as incredulous as it was mocking. He noted how suddenly the Polish-Ukrainian community of 312 people has suddenly changed, probably forever.
"Now, it’s a double murder and we’ve got paranoia. Now, everyone’s saying, ‘Is it a third party? Is it a fourth party?’"
Ethelbert is 60 kilometres northwest of Dauphin. It straddles Shanty Creek and the Fork River. Rose Tootoo (née Harrison), the mother of Inuit NHLer and former Brandon Wheat King Jordin Tootoo, was raised here.
It’s off Highway 10. When you take the access road in, headstones of the unfenced Ukrainian Catholic cemetery run linear along one side of the road, and headstones of the unfenced Ukrainian Orthodox cemetery run linear along the other side, like a welcoming party. You almost feel watched.
Lynn Katchur has never locked her doors in 50 years that she has lived here. In Ethelbert, you left your door open and if someone came by and you weren’t home, they left a note on the kitchen table.
But she locks her doors now. All the time. She admits she’s feeling unnerved these days.
"Every creak and sound, I don’t sleep at night because I’m scared," she said.
Since the homicides, one interesting fact has come to light: Jones isn’t really the nephew’s name. No one is quite certain what his real name is, but the RCMP have told people he has several aliases. Another one is Clarence Thornton.
Mounties combed the yard of the crime scene for days, people say. But the RCMP have released few details, such as how the victims died, saying they don’t want to jeopardize the investigation. People also don’t know how long the victims had been dead. The victims didn’t really associate with other people.
The bodies were discovered after a neighbour noticed their dogs hadn’t been around. Although Steppa was known as the Cat Woman, keeping more than 10 cats at a time, she had gotten rid of them in recent years when her nephew brought home two medium-size dogs that people describe as "very aggressive." The dogs were never tied up and would bolt out of the yard to confront passersby. They nipped at the pant legs of some people.
"It was a scary house," one woman said.
But one day, a neighbour realized she hadn’t seen any sign of the dogs for days. She called the mayor, fearing something had happened to the elderly lady, and they went over to the house together. That was Friday, Jan.18. One door of the house was open and the dogs were barking inside. The dogs were likely locked in the basement or a room because they couldn’t get out. Neither were there any dog or human prints around the house.
They decided to go no further and contacted the RCMP, but it was a stormy night and the Mounties didn’t get there until Saturday.
The aunt lived in Toronto prior to her and her nephew’s moving here in 1992, but no one seems to know why they chose Ethelbert. The newcomers didn’t know anyone in the area.
Steppa kept to herself and one person who used to work in a store and served her said that when she said hello, Steppa wouldn’t respond.
Jones, 50, left quite a history of oddball behaviour in his 20 years in Ethelbert.
"He ranted and chanted about Jesus and God talking to him," one woman said.
Jones would get into churches in the area and spend days and nights there until he had to be kicked out. He attended the Ukrainian Catholic church in Ethelbert but was eventually barred because people were afraid of him. Board members were quitting out of fear.
He was argumentative with people. One person said he could become angry if you just looked at him. He was just 140 pounds at most and small in stature. That didn’t stop him from allegedly uttering death threats against some people. He threatened to kill a woman in Pine River, where he and his aunt also owned a small house, and the woman reported him to the RCMP.
» Winnipeg Free Press
In Ethelbert, he kept putting letters on the bulletin board outside the Solo Store claiming another resident in town — Clifford Besson, who concocts homeopathic medicines — was murdering a person in town with his medicines. Besson didn’t take the letters seriously but eventually reported them to the RCMP at a friend’s urging.
"One of the neighbours said to me that maybe I killed (Jones) because he blasphemed my name," said Besson. "I just laugh it off. I was one of his best friends... I try to be a friend to underdogs, because at times I’ve been one."
Robbery doesn’t appear to be a motive. The aunt and nephew didn’t work that anyone knew about. "They had nothing.
It’s a poor house," said Katchur.
Neither does it appear to be a random killing. It wasn’t on a main road. "If you come to a strange town, you always have to ask where such and such lives. There was none of that," she said.
Katchur and her friend, Kathy Lambert, believe it was a revenge killing. Jones may have had aliases because someone was looking for him, they theorize.
But if so, Katchur asked, why was Steppa murdered, too? "That wasn’t called for. Not that any of it is called for."
And how did the killer get past the two vicious guard dogs? Or was it just luck the dogs were locked up?
And why did it take so long to find the nephew’s body? Local people say RCMP officers didn’t find the nephew’s body for two days after finding Steppa. The sequence of RCMP press releases seems to confirm this. The nephew’s body was in the backyard. It’s not known if it was covered in snow. People say he liked to go out into the backyard and pray. There is a shell of a truck cab there.
It’s purely speculation — and there’s a lot of that going around, but understandably so—that maybe his body was hidden under the cab.