The Hitchhiker With the Revolver

Winnipeg, 1938

It was around 8:30PM on November 9, 1938 that sixteen-year-old Bert Taylor and his mother noticed a strange car parked in front of their house at 672 Furby Street. It was an attractive, 1938 Chrysler grey coupe. They contacted the police about it but were told it hadn’t been reported stolen. The next day, when it was still there, they contacted police again. This time, they sent officers to look at the car, but when Bert pointed out that there was blood on the running boards of the vehicle, the police wrote it off as hunting season and left.

The following night, on November 11th, their neighbour, James Stewart from 678 Furby Street, noticed two men go to the car, unlock it, climb in and drive away.

The car was finally recovered on November 12th, at 754 Garwood Street, Fort Rouge, Winnipeg, when Mrs. R. Aldiss called in about a car parked in front of her house that didn’t belong. The police began looking into it and found out that the car belonged to a man named J. A. Kaeser, a sixty-five-year-old Moosomin farmer who’d been in Regina for the past few weeks and had left for home on November 9th, traveling alone in his car. With the car now in Winnipeg and Kaeser missing, all indications pointed to foul play.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 21, 1938

The Investigation Begins

Kaeser had been traveling with two club bags. One was dark brown leather with a smooth finish and the initials J.A.K. on it. The other was smaller with well-worn dark leather. Neither bag was in the vehicle when it was recovered. They knew Kaeser had left Regina on November 9th and had stopped that same morning at Balgonie to see Mrs. Delia M. Scharif and deliver some groceries that her son had sent along for her. Delia confirmed that he was alone when he visited. This was the last time anyone had seen Kaeser.

RCMP had men out on the No. 1 highway searching sloughs, outbuildings, clumps of trees and bushes from Regina to Winnipeg. On November 14th, they released a broadcast with a description of Kaeser and his car.

Mrs. Percy Trout heard the broadcast and remembered that five days before, a car like Kaeser’s had driven up a side road near their farm, just two miles east of Sintaluta. She’d seen a man get out and walk around the car, although she couldn’t see what he was doing, and after about fifteen minutes it pulled away again. She sent her husband to call the RCMP and went along the road to investigate. There, in a clump of willows near a slough, she noticed a boot. As she got closer, she saw the ankle and the cuff of a man’s pants. It was Kaeser, his body covered with a blanket and left in the willows. It looked as though someone had emptied his left trouser pocket.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 16, 1938

The post mortem examination was conducted by Dr. Frances McGill, the provincial pathologist. She found four bullets in his body, plus an injury to his elbow that may have been from a fifth bullet, or caused by one of the previous four. The bullets were from a .38 caliber revolver, fired at close range. One had entered through his left temple, another through his forehead. Two were found in his back above the waistline, one hitting the spinal column.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 16, 1938

Kaeser was known to carry cash and pick up hitchhikers. It was believed that when he left Regina he had about $200 in cash on his person that was now missing, the equivalent today being between $3500-$3700. The RCMP believed Kaeser had most likely picked up a hitchhiker and been robbed. They started canvasing every filling station between Balgonie and Winnipeg, while police in Winnipeg continued their own investigation.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 17, 1938

A name and description emerged through their investigation and on November 15th, the RCMP quietly issued a warrant for the arrest of a twenty-four-year-old man named Harry Heipel. But Heipel was no longer in Canada. He’d crossed into the States from Emerson, Manitoba on a 48 hour visitor’s permit, telling the border officials he was going to Crookston, Minnesota to buy a radio for his mother. He was traced to Illinois, where police believed he was headed to his mother’s place in Myrtle. He was caught in Oregon and arrested by Sheriff Delos Blanchard, who’d seen the warrant and knew him as a former convict of the Joliet Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois where he’d served fifteen months for forgery and been released the previous March.

Harry Heipel was promptly returned to Canada and taken to Regina to face the murder charge of J. A. Kaeser.

Harry Heipel

Harry Heipel was born in Manitoba in 1914 to Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Heipel. His parents divorced when he and his brother Jack were young, and the two boys ended up living with neighbours or relatives for most of their childhood. Henry and Jack had sold newspapers on Winnipeg streets when they were between ten and thirteen to help make ends meet.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 21, 1938

After his stint in Joliet Penitentiary, Harry had been deported back to Canada and was working on his uncle’s farm (R. J. MacFarlane) at Arcola. However, he’d left on October 29, 1938 and gone to Estevan. He hoped to get a job working on a government dam there, but found out he’d need to apply at Regina. While at Estevan, he tried with several acquaintances to sell a .38 revolver, one he claimed to have received from his uncle but was later proven to have been stolen from a neighbour. Unable to sell the revolver, Harry set out for Regina on November 7, 1938 and managed to hitch a ride. He left Regina on the 8th or 9th, heading East.

When arrested, Harry told police that he had no idea who Kaeser was, and didn’t have anything to do with the murder. He said he’d been hitchhiking and found the coupe on the highway with the keys in it and taken it.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 23, 1938

However, that didn’t explain the human blood stains they found on his coat, and when the police talked to his brother Jack and his friend Arnold Graham, they heard a different story.

When Heipel arrived in Winnipeg, he immediately joined Jack where he was staying. Jack told police Harry had two bags with him, one marked J. A. K., and a pocketbook with J. A. Kaeser printed on it. Jack had learned years ago not to ask a lot of questions, but Arnold was more nosey. He asked Heipel how he got to Winnipeg and Heipel told him by car, adding with a laugh that he’d stolen it. Arnold asked Heipel if he could borrow the car and Heipel reluctantly agreed, handing over the keys and giving them the address on Furby Street where he’d parked it. Jack and Arnold went and got the car and were driving around in it when they noticed bloodstains all over the inside of the car and on the seat. There was even a wrench with specks of blood on it. Nervous, Arnold threw the wrench out the window and asked Jack to let him out. He walked back to their rooms while Jack parked the coupe on Garwood. Arnold immediately asked Harry about the bloodstains and he said he was picked up hitchhiking and had hit the driver on the head with the wrench and dragged him to the side of the road.

The police recovered the wrench in Winnipeg, based on Arnold’s testimony of where he’d thrown it and indeed found blood on it, although it’s unclear whether it was from blood spatter during the gun shots or if it was used to strike Kaeser at some point during the attack. Kaeser did have an abrasion on his head, but Dr. McGill attributed it to his head hitting the dashboard rather than from a wrench.

Further adding to suspicion, Heipel had been identified by a number of people at filling stations and cafes along the route to Winnipeg, driving Kaeser’s coupe. James Woodland, another hitchhiker from McGregor, Manitoba, picked Harry Heipel out of a line up as the man driving a coupe just like Kaeser’s that had picked him up at Brandon and taken him to Winnipeg on November 9, 1938. He’d also noticed the blood in the car at the time and when he asked about it, Heipel had told him he’d been hunting, but Woodland hadn’t seen any evidence of hunting; there were no animal remains or rifle.

The Trial

Heipel went on trial on January 17, 1939. Every day the courtroom was packed, with people being turned away to wait outside for news. The court heard testimony from Dr. Frances McGill, Mrs. Percy Trout, James Woodland, and although the revolver hadn’t been recovered, a gun expert testified that bullet casings recovered on the road near Kaeser’s body matched the casings provided by Heipel’s neighbor in Arcola, from whom the revolver had been stolen. They even heard testimony from a young boy from Arcola, who used to help out Harry Heipel with chores. Heipel had shown him the revolver numerous times. And the description given by the boy matched those of acquaintances in Estevan he’d tried to sell it to. Jack Heipel and Arnold Graham also testified.

The defense argued that Harry hadn’t killed Kaeser at all, but had been picked up in the coupe by the real murderer and had then struck him on the head with the wrench and stolen the car, taking with him the bags and J. A. Kaeser’s billfold.

It was a weak story and the jury was out for only nine hours before they found Harry Heipel guilty on Jan 21, 1939. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

The Regina Leader-Post – April 25, 1939

Despite appeals, his sentence was carried out on April 26, 1939 at the Regina jail.

Just two and a half months later in July, 1939, Heipel’s revolver was recovered, found hanging in a tree near Fleming. After he’d been found guilty and was waiting on his execution, he’d admitted to police that he’d thrown the revolver out of the car near where it was found. It matched the description given by the boy from Arcola and the people in Estevan he’d tried to sell it to.

And that my friends, is the story of the murder of J. A. Kaeser.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Nov 16, 1938

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Nov 16, 1938, Nov 17, 1938, Nov 19, 1938, Nov 21, 1938, Nov 23, 1938, Nov 24, 1938, Dec 1, 1938, Dec 7, 1938, Dec 8, 1938, Dec 9, 1938, Jan 6, 1939, Jan 17, 1939, Jan 18, 1939, Jan 19, 1939, Jan 20, 1939, Jan 21, 1939, Jan 23, 1939, Feb 8, 1939, April 25, 1939, April 26, 1939 and July 25, 1939.

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If you’re itching for more historical Saskatchewan true crime, give these a try:

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