The Murder of Herbert Schill

Photo by Chanita Sykes on

It was a routine Sunday for Herbert Schill on October 16, 1938 in Lebret, Saskatchewan. First church, then lunch with a friend before returning home to his farm where his wife and family waited. In the evening, he changed out of his church clothes and went out to the barn with their farmhand, Stanley Illerbrun, to milk the cows.

About an hour and a half later, Stanley returned to the house and asked Gertrude, Herbert’s wife, if she’d seen her husband. When she said no, obviously confused since they’d gone out to the barn together, Stanley explained that while they were milking the cows, a car had pulled into the yard and a man had come to the barn door and called to Herbert. The two men had gone off together and Herbert never returned to the barn to help finish the milking.

Gertrude was a little worried, but decided to wait. The next morning, when he still wasn’t home, she decided to contact the RCMP and report his disappearance.

It took two more days for the RCMP to come out to the farm. Stanley repeated his story and police dogs were brought in to help with the search. Police and neighbours gathered to check straw piles, granaries, buildings, old wells, bluffs and coulees throughout the valley. No trace of Herbert Schill was ever found.

Thinking it odd that the mysterious stranger would go to the barn without first stopping at the house, the RCMP questioned Stanley again, but he was resolute in his story. Could the man have arranged to meet with Herbert earlier? Did he know enough about Herbert to be so sure of his habits?

The search continued but soon winter came and the area was covered in a blanket of snow. In January, no longer needed as a farmhand, Stanley moved back to his father’s farm at his hometown of Gull Lake.

The people of Lebret never stopped wondering what happened to Herbert Schill and rumours abounded. Most suspected murder of some kind or another. The neighbours, unhappy with the Mounties’ conduct of the search, decided to dig up the ground around Schill’s farm as soon as they finished the spring seeding. The Mounties heard of the plan and sent a detachment of officers, headed by Detective Sergeant Hermanson, to supervise the search.

Under the direction of Hermanson, the group began to dig up the large manure pile behind the barn. They moved about three and a half feet of fresh manure when two neighbouring farmers hit something hard and brittle.

They knew that Schill had a colt that died and had maybe buried it in the manure pile, but as they turned over the pile, it was a farmer’s smock and something round like a skull with black hair the same colour as Schill’s that waited for them.

The Mounties stepped in, and using their hands and a small curry-comb, carefully uncovered the body, lying on its right side. He was still wearing overalls and boots and laying next to the skeleton was Schill’s hat, decayed but recognizable, his watch, its hands stopped at 9:15, and his spectacles, surprisingly unbroken.

An autopsy was performed and a bullet hole with no exit wound was found in the back, right hand side of the skull. There was also a hairline fracture on the right side of the skull most likely made by the course of the bullet, as well as a fracture on the left side of the skull, which the pathologist deemed likely the result of the force of impact from the bullet. Two pieces of lead were found in the brain.

It was at this point that the neighbour’s began to remember some odd behaviour on the part of Stanley Illerbrun. Herbert’s brother, Ed, recalled that whenever Stanley dumped manure on the pile, it was always on the spot where Herbert was buried. Two other farmers told officers that during the initial search, when they started poking around the manure pile, Stanley told them they were needed to help search the bluffs.

RCMP in Gull Lake immediately arrested Stanley for giving a false statement and Det. Sgt. Hermanson went straight down to collect him. When he spoke with the prisoner, Stanley confessed that they’d argued and he’d grabbed the rifle from the barn wall and shot him.

Apparently, Stanley was put out that he hadn’t received the two Sundays off each month that he’d been promised and Herbert was always trying to cut his wages. During the trial it came up that Herbert had also found Stanley in his twenty-one-year-old sister’s room and had forbade Stanley from ever going in there again, but it wasn’t mentioned in the confession.

Stanley was found guilty and sentenced to hang at his trial in October, 1939, but was granted a new trial after his defense argued that the judge had improperly instructed the jury.

At the second trial, in March of 1940, Stanley claimed that it was self defense, that Herbert had come after him and he’d run past the cows and gone through the three foot hole in the horse barn. He said he fired a shot with the rifle without looking, thinking it would make Herbert back off, over a cow’s back and after waiting a few minutes and hearing nothing, he’d come back and discovered Herbert was dead. He’d panicked and buried him in the manure.

But if that was the case, why not mention it in his initial confession?

The jury once again found him guilty and on June 21, 1940, he was hung.

Unfortunately for Stanley, his clever storytelling could only delay the inevitable discovery of Herbert Schill’s body, not prevent it. Hidden so close at hand, beneath the manure, he would have walked by it nearly every day. It must have been a shock for Gertrude to learn that his body had been there the whole time, and the farmhand she trusted to look after her children was behind it. And if Stanley was so very panicked as he claimed, it’s interesting to think of how he managed to hide the body, clean up any mess, come up with his story and finish the milking in only an hour and a half.

If only he’d been clever enough to just quit instead.

Information for this post was gathered from the book, THE PATHOLOGICAL CASEBOOK OF DR. FRANCES MCGILL by Myrna L. Petersen, as well as the following editions of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix: June 8, 1939, June 12, 1939, June 20, 1939, October 25, 1939, October 26, 1939, November 6, 1939, November 16, 1939, November 22, 1938, November 28, 1939, March 13, 1940, March 15, 1940, and March 16, 1940.

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