Among those who called Pacific Junction home was the Lake family, which consisted of Phil, 30, wife Bertha, son Jackie, 20 months, and the baby of the family, four-month- old Betty.
Phil Lake and his family lived in a 26-by-10 ft. home in a little clearing in the woods near the CNR tracks.
About 13 km away in Berry Mills lived May Bannister and her four children, Daniel, 20, Arthur, 18, Frances, 14 and Marie, 13. May Bannister had been deserted by her husband shortly after Marie’s birth.
The family had lived in poverty ever since. None could read or write. Both boys were of below-average intelligence.
The members of these two families would become the main characters in a murder case which would make New Brunswick history.
On Monday, Jan. 6, 1936, Otto Blakeney was cutting firewood near the Lakes’ home. Normally, he ate his midday meal with the Lakes. Otto was shocked to find nothing but a smouldering burned-out ruin where once the Lake home had stood. Upon closer examination, Otto made out the horribly burned body of Phil Lake.
He scurried down the railway track toward the CNR office. Tiny droplets of blood were visible in the fresh snow. Every hundred yards or so there were larger blood smears, as if someone had fallen and risen, only to fall again. Further on, Otto came across a baby’s bottle.
Exactly 471 yards from the Lakes’ home, he saw the frozen body of 20-month-old Jackie Lake. A few yards farther was Bertha Lake’s almost nude body.
The snow beside the body was thrashed, giving evidence that, after dropping her son and falling herself, Bertha had made attempts to rise before dying alone in the snow.
Soon, RCMP was on the scene. An entire family had been wiped out in one night.
Although four-month-old Betty’s body was not recovered from the ruins, it was assumed it had been consumed by the flames. Phil’s body was identified by two conspicuous gold teeth.
Police noted what appeared to be two sets of tracks beginning in the snow where Bertha had died in agony.
The police followed the tracks, seeing holes in the deep snow beside the tracks, as if someone had used a cane while trudging along.
RCMP Sgt. Bedford Peters found a mitten. It would become the most important piece of evidence in one of the weirdest murder cases in Canadian history.
Meanwhile, CNR employee David Barron volunteered that around nightfall the day before he had seen one of the Bannister boys walking the tracks.
Mounties called on the Bannister home and were greeted by Daniel. Shown the mitten found along the trail, Daniel exclaimed, “Hey, that’s mine, where’d you guys get that?”
Daniel said he loaned his mittens to his brother Arthur the previous day. David Barron identified Arthur as the man he had seen walking the tracks. Arthur was arrested and charged with murder.
Arthur confessed, admitting he had visited the Lakes’ home.
Daniel and Frances showed up to take him home. Phil Lake made an improper advance to Frances. A brawl ensued, in which Bertha was accidentally struck on the head by a piece of firewood thrown by her husband.
Daniel then hit Phil on the head with another piece of firewood, at the same time overturning an oil lamp.
According to Arthur, the Bannisters took off.
No doubt Bertha Lake ran from the fire and collapsed, dropping her baby, who froze to death while she died from the wound to her head.
Frances and Daniel backed up their brother’s story. Daniel was taken into custody and charged with murder. Frances was held as a witness.
The murder victims were duly buried. It was then that the Bannister-Lake case took a bizarre twist.
While questioning a neighbour of the Bannisters’, one Milton Trites, police learned there was a baby at the Bannister home. RCMP officers faced May Bannister with this information. Reluctantly, she turned the baby over to the officers. When asked who the mother of the child was, she replied, “It’s mine.”
In reality, the baby was four-month- old Betty Lake, who for a week was believed dead.
May had concocted a diabolical plot. To give the appearance of having given birth to a baby, she had purchased a doll in Moncton. She was seen by several people carrying a bundle, which everyone assumed was a baby.
Why did May Bannister pose as the mother of a doll, and later somehow come into possession of the Lake baby?
Milton Trites often loaned May small amounts of money. During the previous year she had worked for him as a housekeeper.
When she left his employ in November 1935, she told him she was leaving to have his baby. When she returned, she told Trites she had left their child in Moncton. On the day after the Lake murders, she invited Trites to see his baby.
It was also learned that Albert Powell, a CNR freight clerk and part-time Sunday school teacher, had conducted Sunday school classes at the Bannister home for two years. He was often alone in the company of Marie Bannister. May had accused Powell of being responsible for Marie’s fictional pregnancy.
May Bannister was planning to blackmail two men into supporting two nonexistent babies. There was one detail. At some point May had to produce a real baby.
Evidence given by Frances Bannister further incriminated her brothers.
She stated that, with Arthur and Daniel, she arrived at the Lake house around 7 p.m. the night of the murders. Arthur went in the house. When he came out, he passed her the baby and she started home alone. She heard a scream.
Shortly after, her two brothers caught up with her.
During their investigation, the RCMP heard rumours that big, tough Phil Lake could not have been overpowered by a boy with a piece of wood. Phil’s body was exhumed. Doctors removed a .22-calibre bullet from his brain.
Now, the cane-like marks in the snow beside the tracks took on a new significance. Maybe they were made by a rifle. Volunteers shovelled snow from the area along the trail. The rifle was recovered and proved to be the murder weapon.
Daniel and Arthur Bannister were tried for the murder of Phil Lake. Both were found guilty and sentenced to death. On Sept. 23, 1936, the two brothers were hanged in the County Jail at Dorchest, N.B. No one claimed their bodies.
May Bannister, who no doubt hatched the plot, and ordered her sons to carry out her evil scheme, was found guilty of harbouring a stolen child.
She received the maximum sentence of three and a half years imprisonment. May served her time and returned to Berry Mills, where she was a rather feared curiosity until 1971, when she died of natural causes.