On June 24, 1919, Simon Gunanoot, accused of a double murder, walked into the police station in Hazelton, B.C. and gave himself up, thus ending one the longest manhunts in British Columbia history. He had been on the run for thirteen years.
Gunanoot was a well-respected Gitxsan hunter and merchant in Kispiox, eight miles up the Skeena River from Hazelton. One evening in June 1906, he stopped for a drink at a disreputable bar at Two Mile, near Hazelton. There, at about four in the morning, he argued and then fought with Alex McIntosh, a packer on the mule-trains and worker on the steamers. Although what sparked the fight is not totally clear, many people believed that Alex had taunted Gunanoot with having slept with his wife.
“I will go away and come back and fix you,” one witness reported Gunanoot as saying to McIntosh as he left the bar. Another witness reported him saying, “Just wait and I will kill you.”
After helping round up horses for a pack train leaving that morning, McIntosh rode toward the hospital to have his injured hand attended to. Bested in the fight, partly drunk—it isn’t clear just how drunk— and angry, Gunanoot, the police alleged, had ridden home to get his gun, and had come back two hours later and shot McIntosh dead.
Next morning, McIntosh’s body was found on Doctor Wrinch’s pasture land on the trail to the hospital. Constable James Kirby rounded up a posse and started the search.
Within hours he received news that a second body had been found on the trail to Kispiox. This one was of Max LeClair, a guide, who had no connection with either McIntosh or Gunanoot. Why LeClair was shot is not known, but some suspected that the murderer might have mistaken him for a policeman coming to arrest him.
The police started the hunt. They raided Gunanoot’s home at Kispiox. They sent out search parties and they gathered evidence from witnesses. By then Gunanoot had disappeared into the wilds of northern British Columbia. With him went his family and his brother-in-law, Peter Himadan. No one was ever quite sure exactly what Himadan’s role in the murders might have been. The police seemed to think they could work that out after the arrests they expected to make shortly.
The authorities in Victoria were determined to arrest them and try them for murder. When the first search was unsuccessful, they sent out special parties, some more capable than others, some more honest than others. Finally they hired two Pinkerton’s agents to go about the district disguised as prospectors in an effort to catch them. They too failed.
The police were faced, though, with a major problem. Gunanoot was popular, and McIntosh had always been seen as a bit of a thug. There were few Gitxsan or settlers in Hazelton who wanted to see Gunanoot caught. No one stepped forward to collect the reward. Eventually the authorities lost interest and merely hoped that someone would betray him.
Gunanoot spent the thirteen years in the wilderness east and north of Hazelton. Through middlemen such as his friend George Beirnes, he was able to sell his furs in Hazelton and earn an income. The clerks in the Hudson’s Bay Company store usually knew when they were selling Simon’s furs but said nothing. Friends kept him supplied with food and ammunition. From time to time he was spotted, and it is known he was often in the woods around Kispiox. He even came into Hazelton occasionally, something the frustrated police learned about afterwards.
Public opinion in the Province turned in his favour. Having at first been depicted in the newspapers as a murderous savage, as the years passed he became seen more as a Gitxsan Robin Hood, a heroic outlaw.
For some years Gunanoot had been thinking of taking his chances with a trial. His surrender was carefully orchestrated. Sperry Cline, the police constable in Hazelton in 1919, had, through George Beirnes, persuaded Gunanoot that he should get a lawyer before surrendering. Stuart Henderson, one of the best lawyers in the province, was quietly hired for him. Gunanoot stayed in the forests for another winter to catch sufficient furs to pay for Henderson’s fees.
On June 24, 1919, he said his prayers and farewells to his wife and children. Then he stepped through the doors of the Hazelton police station and said to the surprised police constable there, “I’ve come to fight my case.”
Gunanoot was tried for the two murders in Vancouver in October, 1919. Witnesses were heard; evidence was examined. Henderson damaged the credibility of those who had dangerous testimony. After being out for only ten minutes, the jury returned with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Himadan surrendered early in 1920 and charges were dismissed against him. Simon Gunanoot returned to Hazelton and died out on the trails in 1933.
Following his death, a friend said of him, “So Simon Gunanoot is dead, eh? He was a good fellow, as good as anyone would wish to be on the trail with… . There was nothing bad about him.”
Geoff Mynett’s biography of the pioneer medical missionary Dr. Wrinch—Service on the Skeena: Horace Wrinch, Frontier Physician—will be published by Ronsdale Press in October, 2019. (www.geoffmynett.com)