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Horrific day a lifetime ago made widows of three wives

It was election day that warm June morning 50 years ago. Ann Keck ticked through a list of midday errands, including escorting her elderly grandmother to the polls.

On leaving the house, she noticed her husband had left behind his voting card. She'd drop it off for him at work, another small chore on a busy day for the pregnant mother of a two-year-old boy.

After voting, she walked into the RCMP detachment in Kamloops to deliver Joe's voting card.

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"A pall came over the police station," she remembers. "They took me into an office and told me, 'The staff sergeant wants to see you.' I sat at that desk and I sat at that desk and nobody came in. Nobody came in."

She steeled herself for what was to come.

She was told Elwood Joseph Keck, a man whom she met on a blind date, the son of wheat farmers from Gravelbourg, Sask., handsome like the movie star Montgomery Clift, the father of her son and the baby to come, was dead, aged 24.

She would not be alone in her grief that terrible day.

Two other young women who woke that morning as brides, went to sleep as widows.

On Monday, some 300 people gathered at the RCMP detachment on Battle Street in Kamloops to pay tribute to the memory of three officers killed a half-century ago in a few short minutes of gunplay. The national anthem was sung, as were hymns. A bugler played The Last Post and Reveille. Mounties marched in their famous red serge uniforms. A Union Jack was draped over a folding table, atop which rested a trio of stetsons flanked by photographs of the fallen men.

On June 18, 1962, a deranged gunman shot to death three young constables, one of the force's worst one-day losses.

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The events of that tragic day began when a game warden reported being threatened by George Booth, an unkempt man with a rifle who was known by police and local residents as suffering from mental illness. He lived in an isolated, tarpaper shack in the nearby hamlet of Knutsford.

His father later spoke of his son's prowess as a shooter, bragging he was capable of splitting a match from 50 paces. The Vancouver Sun would describe the gunman as a hillbilly, "a spectre from the past, a thing out of place in civilization."

Constable Joe Keck took the complaint and was soon assigned to investigate the matter with Constable Gord Pedersen. Each carried a sidearm. They were joined by their friend, Constable Donald Weisgerber, who happened to be at the station. He was not in uniform and was unarmed.

The three officers spotted Booth, who made a threatening gesture before leaving the area on foot. The police told him to stop and drop his rifle, the foot chase lasting about the length of two football fields, according to an account provided by the RCMP.

As Booth crossed a timber bridge over a dry creek bed, the officers closed in. Booth opened fire with his .303 rifle. One shot ripped across Pedersen's back, severing the cross strap of his Sam Browne belt. The constable fired back before taking a fatal bullet to the head.

Meanwhile, Keck ran for cover beneath the bridge over Peterson Creek, while Weisgerber hid behind a gravel skid box. Keck fired, one of his shots striking Booth in the side, causing him to drop his weapon. Seeing him wounded, Weisgerber raced forward, but Booth recovered enough to lift his army surplus rifle and fire three shots into the unarmed constable's abdomen.

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As Keck leaned from his hiding spot, he was shot in the head.

Booth headed for the hills, where he was pursued by a police dog, a helicopter, and officers who had armed themselves with their own hunting rifles, as the detachment did not have service rifles in stock. After another exchange of shots, an RCMP marksman killed the gunman.

More than 1,500 mourners attended a joint funeral at the local arena, each casket draped by a Union Jack upon which rested the officer's stetson.

Donald George Weisgerber of Fife Lake, Sask., and Gordon Eric Pedersen of Milk River, Alta., were both 22.

Joan Weisgerber had been married less than a year. Betty Pedersen had only just returned from her honeymoon, during which she became pregnant, a fact she learned only after her husband's death and about which he never knew.

All three widows remarried. They have grieved together and reminisced together. They have stayed in touch through the years.

Fifty years later, the three gathered to remember what they will never forget.

Ann Boyd, formerly Keck, hugged Joan Turner, formerly Weisgerber, and Betty Barr, formerly Pedersen, at the memorial for their late husbands.

"To have gone through this on our own would have been horrid," Ms. Boyd said. "The three of us going through it together was a comfort. Thank God we were there for each other."

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