What Detectives Hide from You: The Story of Helen Betty Osborne

A Case that has been Unsolved for Nearly Twenty Years, but Why?

Allison Moua
Feb 2, 2018 · 5 min read

There has been more than 17,000 reported homicides just in the United States alone in 2016, and one-third of those cases go unsolved. That means that about a little over 5,600 cases are unsolved. Why do these cases go unsolved? Many detectives claim that what leads to a cold case is lack of evidence or sloppy detective work. But many detectives try to hide that intersectionality plays a big role to unsolved crime, such as the case for Helen Betty Osborne, a nineteen-year-old Native American woman from The Pas, Manitoba.

In November 13, 1971, Osborne is walking home alone at night after meeting her friends at a café in The Pas, Manitoba in Canada when four boys, Dwayne Archie Johnston, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger forced her into the car. They assaulted her in the car before being taken to Houghton’s family cabin at Clearwater Lake, where Johnston repeatedly beat her while the rest drank beer as they watch. They transported her to a pump house, where they stripped her and stabbed her fifty times with a screwdriver. When she was found the next morning, her face was so severely damaged that she was beyond recognition. An anonymous letter was sent to them claiming that Johnston, Houghton, Colgan, and Manger are the culprits.

Dwayne Archie Johnston, one of the men arrested for Osborne’s death.

There was clear evidence of her hair and blood in the car that they used to abduct her, but what they needed was for the four boys to admit that they did it. However, their lawyer told them that in order to avoid being arrested, they simply have to keep their mouth shut during their interrogation. Eventually, the police gave up, and this case was left unsolved for sixteen years, until a new officer, Robert Urbanoski, joins The Pas police force and decides to solve the case on his own volition. By publicizing this case more than the initial investigation, more people came forward that the four original suspects went around town and told everyone about their involvement. This led to the arrest of the four men, but only Johnston was found guilty and sent to ten years in prison.

Why was this case unsolved for nearly twenty years? They have the evidence, enough people came forward to appoint the four boys responsible for Osborne’s murder, and the police proceeded with the case professionally. So where did this go wrong? Answer to that question is intersectionality. Intersectionality is a word that Kimberle Crenshaw define as the interconnected nature of social class such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, which can create discrimination and unjust, and this played a big role in Osborne’s case. Crenshaw breaks down intersectionality into three structures: political, structural, and representative. Political intersectionality is when a person can belong to more than one community (i.e. Asian woman can be in both the Asian and women community separately). Structural intersectionality is an infrastructure of socio-economic class that a person is in; meaning that the lower the class, the lower chances of getting access to what you need. Representational intersectionality is how people are represented culturally and in television shows, and how this affects them in real life.

A Diagram of Crenshaw’s Intersectionality

In the mid-1900s, the population in The Pas mostly derived of Native Americans and Whites, and there was a segregation between the two races. When the news came out about Osborne’s death, the Whites in the town were not surprised, claiming that she was the one who lured the boys, while the Natives feared that if it could happen to her, then it could happen to them. Because of the color of her skin, the police, who are all White, deemed her case as unimportant. Even though the four culprits went around the entire town and bragged about getting away with Osborne’s murder, no one came forward. It was a clear message that the Natives were afraid that if it could happen to Osborne, then it could happen to them. The reason why more people came forward years later isn’t solely because the case became more publicized, but because they knew that the man in charge of the case sixteen years older has not been tainted by the town’s racism. Even the judge for the case had said after the trial that had it not been for the color of her skin, then the murder would’ve never taken place.

Breaking down how Osborne’s murder is a case of her intersectionality, her structural, political, and representational intersectionality lead to her death. Politically, she was at a disadvantage from the start, being in both disadvantaging communities (her gender and race). With her being a woman and a minority, she became an easy target of murder, as being a woman can “sexually drive” those four boys to force her into the car, and her race making it easy for the police to deem her as unimportant. Structurally, Osborne is born in a lower-middle-class family, and the lower the class, the less the people care about her case. Since she is born in a family full of Native Americans with low-paying jobs in a town full of dominating Whites, no one offered to listen to their story. Representationally, the Whites have been told that Natives spread germs and are naturally dirty, so when the Whites heard that the four boys murdered her, they defended them, claiming that they got rid of a “vermin”.

To tie everything together, Helen Betty Osborne’s case is an example of how intersectionality can lead to unsolved cases. She was more than a victim of a murder, but a victim of discrimination by her town. If she had been white, then more people, or at least those in the dominating circle, would’ve cared about her death. This case may be over forty-five years old, and the way people think has changed over time, cases like these are left unsolved today because of intersectionality.

A journal on gender and violence.

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