Manhunt in Dunkirk

Thursday, January 7, 1932

It was still dark at 7:00AM when Peter Jeanotte got up and went out to the barn to do his chores. He was a farm hand on the Fitch farmstead in Dunkirk, Saskatchewan and had been working for his friend of seven years, Robert Walter Fitch, since October.

Fitch, who went by Walter, was about a half an hour behind him. He got up, lit the fires in his house, then picked up a lantern and milk pail and started for the barn. He was only fifteen feet from the barn when Jeanotte fired a single shot from within, the bullet passing through his heart and killing Fitch almost instantly.

Jeanotte, still carrying the rifle, walked to the house. Mrs. Fitch, having not heard the rifle shot, stepped out onto the veranda to check the thermometer and found Jeanotte just outside the door.

“I’ve killed your husband,” he told her. “He made me too mad.”

Shocked, Mrs. Fitch told him not to come in the house, to which he responded that she didn’t need to worry. He wouldn’t kill her.

Fearing the worst, she ran down to the barn where she found her husband, dead. She went back to the house and sent her nine-year-old son, Richard, to the neighbouring farm to get Arthur Fitch, Walter’s brother. Jeanotte left, walking towards the highway, but not before going into the house to get more ammunition.

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Robert Walter Fitch

Walter Fitch was, by all accounts, a fair man and well liked in the district. He was born in Bethany, Ontario and was a graduate of the Toronto University. He taught high school for a number of years in Toronto before moving to Dunkirk to farm about fifteen years before his murder.

He had hired Jeanotte in October of 1931 to work the winter. Jeanotte, also reasonably well liked, had been living and working in the district for seven years and had been friends with both of the Fitch brothers since his arrival. He was described by previous employers as “one of the best workers they ever had.”

Jan 8, 1932 – Regina Leader-Post

The Manhunt Begins

Informed by his nephew of his brother’s murder, Arthur Fitch called the coroner, Dr. Welch, and the RCMP at Mossbank. Then he went straight to the farm, where Mrs. Fitch was waiting.

Constable McNally arrived at the farm soon after and immediately picked up the trail, following Jeanotte’s footprints in the snow. He was joined in the hunt by Arthur Fitch and Dr. Welch, the three trekking through the snow on foot until Oscar Neilson arrived with his car. They eventually caught sight of Jeanotte, who opened fire without hesitation. The constable answered with shots of his own from his revolver.

The chase was officially on, Jeanotte dodging among the hills in all directions, sometimes doubling back, the party following behind, tracking him by his footprints.

Believing himself to be well ahead of his pursuers, Jeanotte made his way to the farm of Alex Ferrara, a friend of his, and told him he’d lost his job. Ferrara invited him in to eat, which Jeanotte accepted, unloading his gun and putting it in the kitchen. They’d only been eating for about five minutes when Jeanotte spotted the constable through the window, grabbed some food and dashed out the door with his gun, firing on the men from behind a wagon.

They fired back and Jeanotte ran out into the open, disappearing into a small ravine. The trail was taken up again but they lost him. Doubling back, they met a police car from Moose Jaw, carrying Constable de Miffonis of Moose Jaw. They were quickly joined by more officers and civilians. I found some newspaper reports stating that at this point Arthur Fitch, Dr. Welch and Oscar Neilson dropped out of the search, but the stories are unclear.

Jeanotte was incredibly tricky, leading them through the south country hills, jumping back and forth between fences, always managing to evade them. As nightfall approached, Jeanotte took shelter in some bush and once again opened fire on his pursuers. They returned fire until Constable McNally ran out of ammunition and another man’s gun jammed. Jeanotte made his escape, passing through a farmyard belonging to a man referred to as W. Scott.

W. Scott had a phone, so they called Moose Jaw and Regina for reinforcements and set up the Scott farm as their headquarters. Here they were joined by police officers and civilians from Regina, Moose Jaw, Avonlea, Weyburn and Mossbank. There were twenty-one of them in total, eleven police officers and ten civilians, all armed with rifles and revolvers.

Near the correction line on the No. 2 highway, about 12 miles south of Moose Jaw, the police threw their first cordon (a line or circle of police officers) around Jeanotte, but he slipped through. He could see the officers because of their flashlights but they couldn’t see him as he snuck by, a shadow in the darkness.

While officers trailed Jeanotte, others in cars dashed along the highway ahead of him in an attempt to cut him off. Unphased, Jeanotte went left and right, doubling back repeatedly, always escaping their clutches, until eventually he reached the town of Tilney.

The posse was almost ready to give up, when daylight broke and his tracks were found, leading from Tilney to Moose Jaw. The group scattered in all directions in Moose Jaw, looking for Jeanotte. As the cars drove up River Street West, one of the men recognized Jeanotte, leaning casually against The American Hotel. The men rushed him, but he gave up without resistance, having discarded his rifle and ammunition somewhere along the way.

He was taken into custody at 8:15AM, Friday, January 8th and charged with the murder of Walter Fitch.

Jan 13, 1932 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

The Coroner’s Inquest and Trial

The inquest into Walter Fitch’s death opened on January 15, 1932 under Coroner Dr. W. T. O. Welch in Expanse, Saskatchewan, to be followed immediately by Jeanotte’s preliminary trial. The coroner’s jury, unsurprisingly, came to its verdict quickly. They found that Walter Fitch had come to his death from a bullet fired from a 25-20 rifle in the hands of Peter Jeanotte.

The preliminary trial began at 6:00PM the same day, presided over by H. D. Pickett, magistrate of Moose Jaw. A number of witnesses gave testimony, including Jeanotte himself, who finally explained why he’d shot Fitch.

Peter Jeanotte was obsessed with the idea that Walter Fitch was keeping relief work money from him. When Fitch had first hired Jeanotte, he had tried to employ him under the relief work plan of the provincial government, whereby the farmer would get $10 a month for keeping the hired man and the hired man would receive $5 a month for his labours. Jeanotte believed this application had been accepted and Fitch was keeping Jeanotte’s share of the money. This was not the case. In an ultimate twist of tragedy, Fitch had only just received word from the provincial government the day before his death, with a letter to fill out to come under the plan.

For three days prior to the murder, Jeanotte had been brooding. Arguments with Fitch had kept him from sleeping for two successive nights. He described an alleged argument he’d had with Fitch over the killing and eating of a chicken he thought was diseased and unfit for food.

Jeanotte was committed for trial at the next sitting of the court of the king’s bench in Assiniboia. On March 15, 1932 he was found sufficiently sane to stand trial, despite the testimony of Dr. A. Campbell, who had examined Jeanotte and described him as distinctly delusional, suffering from hallucinations and the illusion of persecution. He told the court that people of this type could converse passably on subjects apart from their illusion and could work normally, the mental deterioration being slower than other cases of insanity.

His defense, C. H. J. Burrows, entered a plea of insanity at his trial but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang on June 17, 1932. Burrows appealed and on May 9, 1932 he was granted a new trial. As his earlier execution date grew near, Jeanotte was reported to be upset with his defense counself for appealing. Apparently he had it in his head that his execution date was actually going to be his release date and if not for the appeal he would have been back at work in the fields.

His new trial was set to begin on Oct 25, 1932, but on Oct 27, 1932 the jury found him unfit to stand trial. This time testimony by two of his doctors, Dr. Campbell and Dr. O. E. Rothwell were enough to convince the jury that Jeanotte suffered from hallucinations and persecutionary delusions, believing that his neighbours and friends were conspiring against him.

Oct 27, 1932 – Regina Leader-Post

Thank you for reading! Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Jan 7, 1932, Jan 8, 1932, Jan 9, 1932, Jan 12, 1932, Jan 13, 1932, Jan 14, 1932, Jan 15, 1932, Jan 16, 1932, March 14, 1932, March 16, 1932, March 22, 1932, April 15, 1932, May 4, 1932, May 9, 1932, May 10, 1932, Sep 24, 1932, Oct 21, 1932 and Oct 27, 1932.

If you liked this story, please subscribe and share! And if you’re interested in more stories of true crime in Saskatchewan, try the following:

The Yorkton Hammer Murder

The Haunted Skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse

Shootin’ Rabbits by Moonlight: The Murder of Hans Pederson

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