Vancouver’s ‘Babes in the Woods’ murder case remains unsolved
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
Stanley Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the city of Vancouver. The blend of ocean, forests, and scenic views of English Bay, Vancouver Harbour, and Burrard Inlet make for a picturesque and breathtaking experience. Many park goers enjoy picnics and family gatherings while others walk, run, and ride their bikes along the seawall.
But 67 years ago, Stanley Park would become known for a more horrific reason. It would be the site for one of Vancouver’s most infamous unsolved murder cases: “Babes in the Woods.” On January 14, 1953, the skeletal remains of two children (later identified as ages six and ten) would be discovered near Beaver Lake by a park employee named Albert Tong. He was walking in the area when he stepped on a patch of leaves that made an odd crunching sound. Later, he returned to the site and began to dig. He would soon discover two skeletons. Located near the remains were the following items: a lunch box, a decomposed fur coat, deteriorated pieces of children’s clothing, a woman’s penny loafer shoe (size 7 and a 1/2), two aviation caps, and a layman’s hatchet. Later, that hatchet was found to be the murder weapon.
The gruesome murders of two children in Stanley Park made front page headlines in the local newspapers. Pictures of the clothing and other items from the crime scene were spread across North America. Missing persons cases were checked for any matches all through the continent. Plaster casts were created of the children’s faces based on their skull shape. In the 1980s, the bones of the children would end up in an exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum.
Yet seven decades after the discovery of the two children’s remains, the case remains unsolved. It was determined that the children were murdered in 1947. The children were originally identified by a medical examiner as a boy and a girl. A theory was established that the boy and girl were murdered by their mother. Yet the identities of the mother, boy, and girl remain unknown. For decades, this was the assumption investigators would rely on.
In 1996, unsolved homicide unit detective Brian Honeybourn—of the Vancouver Police Department—took over the Babes in the Woods case. Honeybourn is very familiar with the case. “Well, I was the first detective sergeant in the unsolved provincial unsolved homicide unit from the Vancouver police,” Honeybourn said in a phone interview with the Other Press. “I had the luxury of being able to pick and choose what cases I would look at because I would be assisting the detectives in my unit with their investigations, but I wasn’t carrying a case load. Now, I was born in 1947, I grew up in New Westminster, and I remember every few years the media would resurrect [stories] about the ‘Babes in the Woods.’ I remember my parents talking about it. So, I thought I’d have a look at the case. There were several viable leads that didn’t go anywhere, but that’s why I got involved in it. There had been considerable amount of work done on the files by others prior to me looking at it,” said Honeybourn.
In 1998, Honeybourn would make a remarkable discovery after taking the children’s remains to Dr. David Sweet, a prominent and now retired forensic dentist at UBC. After extracting DNA from the children’s teeth, he revealed that the two children were both boys—not a boy and a girl. In addition, the boys were brothers that had the same mother, yet had different fathers. Honeybourn said the findings hurt the investigation. “[It was] very damaging, very damaging,” Honeybourn said. “Because the focus was on a boy and girl, pretty well [at] the onset and they were misidentified by a medical examiner. You got to remember there was no DNA back in that time. So, I can’t put a percentage on how damaging. But it would have had a very severe impact on the investigation,” he said.
Honeybourn began to go back and investigate old leads. Unfortunately, many of the leads he pursued would point to dead ends. Notably, in 2014, Honeybourn disputed the claim that the boys were murdered in 1947. He found a specific shoe style the boys were wearing that was available in Vancouver before the end of WWII—making it probable that they were murdered prior to 1947.
One lead stood out for Honeybourn which supports his theory that the boys were killed before 1947. He remembered a testimony from a couple from Esquimalt who happened to be walking in Stanley Park in May 1944. The couple recalls a woman in distress approaching them while letting out a “guttural” roar.
One lead stood out for Honeybourn which supports his theory that the boys were killed before 1947. He remembered a testimony from a couple from Esquimalt who happened to be walking in Stanley Park in May 1944. The couple recalls a woman in distress approaching them while letting out a “guttural” roar. She was wearing only one shoe, which stood out—considering that a single shoe was also discovered beside the bodies. “That’s why I think that the children were probably killed in May 1944,” Honeybourn said. “The couple went back to the island and they were interviewed by the RCMP over there—and that’s the report that we have in the file. I think that’s a very good lead and I think that’s probably when it happened,” he said.
In September 2018, Honeybourn approached staff sergeant Dale Weidman of the Vancouver Police Department to suggest that this lead needed further investigation. Another reason for the urgency in following up with the lead was the availability of websites like 23AndMe and Ancestry.ca. This could possibly reveal the identity of the two boys 67 years after the discovery of their remains.
“And [school records] are sealed for 100 years. Why anybody would seal records for 100 years is beyond me.”
Honeybourn contacted the Vancouver School Board to gain access to elementary school attendance records from the 1940s to find out if two boys had been absent from school. “And I attempted to follow that up after I retired,” Honeybourn said. “I wanted the school records [from] the elementary schools in Vancouver. I went to the school board, which I had dealt with when I was still working [….] and asked if I could have the school records. They phoned me back the next day (remember I’m retired now) […] and said, ‘No, you’re retired.’ And [school records] are sealed for 100 years. Why anybody would seal records for 100 years is beyond me.”
Nevertheless, Honeybourn wanted to honour the memory of the two children by giving them a proper burial. He had their skeletal remains cremated, leaving vital parts of the bones for upcoming DNA testing. Honeybourn later scattered the children’s ashes into the water off Kits Point in the 1990s. He hopes one day that the two children will finally be identified. He detailed why in an interview with the Globe and Mail: “They get murdered in a major city, in a park, and we don’t know who they are? They’re two little guys that lost their lives way too early through no fault of their own. I think it’s incumbent upon us to try and figure out who they are.”
Unfortunately, seven decades have passed since the discovery of the two children’s remains in Stanley Park. The murderer likely is long deceased. There will be no upcoming trial to bring justice to the two victims. Now it appears that advanced technology—mainly genealogical websites and databases—will be key in identifying the two boys.
“ I’m very optimistic with the way science has evolved that future investigators, those that are taking part in the investigation now, have a very good chance I think—in maybe identifying who the children are. ”
Finally, Brian Honeybourn mentions to the Other Press that he remains hopeful that the boys will be identified. “Well, I’m an optimist by nature. I’m very optimistic with the way science has evolved that future investigators, those that are taking part in the investigation now, have a very good chance I think—in maybe identifying who the children are. And certainly, I wish them all the luck in the world. I really do,” he said. One way Honeybourn believes justice can be served is to find the names of the two boys in order to restore their identity and dignity.
Brian Honeybourn spoke
about the “Babes in the Woods” case as part of the Vancouver Police Museum’s Murder
Mystery and Intrigue series.
During his talk, he revealed many of the promising leads he had pursued
over the past years:
• The woman in New Haven Hotel with two boys. She later disappeared.
• The woman from Mission with her two male children who also wore aviation helmets. They hitchhiked to Stanley Park.
• The woman living near the lighthouse at Prospect Point in Stanley Park. She lived with her two boys and father; she was rumoured to be a sex worker.
•A woman and a man that had a hatchet and were seen with two children at the park. It was said they went into the forest with the kids and then only the adults came out of the woods—and the woman had blood on her legs.