The Murder of my Birth Father
by Heather Elton
The first time I speak with my birth mother, she tells me my father is dead.
“He was murdered by the Satan’s Angels bike gang.” Bludgeoned to death. I hear those words as if they are inside a bell jar, they echo inside my head and the rest of the conversation tinkles against the glass, unheard. Silence sounds like thunder.
Who was this generous and flamboyant man whose intoxicated dreams led him on a walk on the wild side?
I want to vomit. His murder takes on the symbolic force of my own darkness: violent thoughts, fear and depression. Like some child prodigy following their genetic code to greatness, do I have a bad seed inside me that will lead to my destruction? Will I too die a violent death?
I am guilty. I have no entitlement to these thoughts. No right to grieve his death because I never knew him.
Yet, his death has been psychically imprinted upon me. The Stoney Indians say that when a father dies his spirit goes into the youngest daughter. That’s me. I am haunted.
“He was murdered by the Satan’s Angels bike gang.” Suddenly, my life falls to pieces. My relationship of 12 years is over. I lose my home and business. The original rejection trauma of adoption returns, as do the critical voices. I’m fatally flawed and destined to be alone. I feel like an empty shell. All that remains is my skin. I go underground, inside Pandora’s black box, and imagine eagle talons, jaguar claws ripping me apart so I can be reborn. With owl eyes, I learn to see through the darkness. I visualise the brutality, delve deep into my own shadow to release my fear. I no longer believe I’m going to die violently. Unlike him, I live past the age of 50. I believe that in healing myself, I will heal the spirit of my dead father.
[PNG Merlin Archive]
I research his murder in the library archives, scroll through newspaper clippings imprinted on to microfilm. I read the Devil’s Butler by Canadian journalist, Simma Holt, about the notorious Satans Angels bike gang and in it is a chapter on the murder of my birth father. The story is front page news on the Vancouver Sun in 1968.
“Sidney Albert MacDonald, 50, was found bludgeoned to death in a car in Burnaby.” The photo of the ‘slain man’ is Sid. He is elegant and dapper in a black and white suit with a tie. Handkerchief in top pocket. Cocktail in hand.
“Savage beating of former Calgary oilman who had worked on million-dollar promotions in B.C. … He was seen with two young men Thursday night. One man has a deformed and shriveled arm. 30 years old, 150 pounds. Slim build and a foreign accent. Straight, jet black hair. Another man around 21 years. Shorter, blond hair, fair complexion. 150 pounds. …”
I meet the Chief Justice of the British Columbia Courts who generously gives me a photocopy of the murder trial proceedings — with a harrowing testimony by the murderer’s ‘old lady’ of one week. Seventeen-year-old Donna, had vacillated between hippies and bikers since she was thirteen, and was eye witness to the murder in the clubhouse living room.
I take the B.C Ferry to Vancouver Island and find myself on board with the Hells Angels. I wonder if the murderer, Robert David James, is here. I approach an elder biker and ask if he knows him. He doesn’t but he remembers the Satan’s Angels and says the chapter no longer exists. If there was one good thing to result from the murder, it was the end of the Satan’s Angels, a sadistic bike gang who kidnapped and tortured hippies off Davie Street in Vancouver in the late sixties. I don’t meet Robert David James that day and my life takes me away from Canada for 20 years. If I’d stayed, I would have tracked him down. And I still might.
Above, Pierre Elliot Trudeau and journalist Simma Holt.
I promise to write Sid’s story. I make a few attempts but the content is just too difficult. Only now, 25 years later and, after decades of yoga, meditation and therapy, do I have the emotional stability to work with the material. I take a Micro Lit course at Cit Lit University in London to kickstart the project. Each week I produce a scene from the murder in the short condensed Micro Lit style – little descriptive prose, present tense, verbs and dialogue, the total opposite my long essays. ‘The Murder’ section in this piece is the result of my efforts. During my research into the murder, I request a file from the archives of the University of Manitoba. Canadian journalist, Simma Holt, donated her writing to the library and in it are the research materials from her book, The Devil’s Butler, about the Satan’s Angels bike gang and the police investigation into the murder of my birth father. I receive an envelope with photos from the crime scene including a photograph of my father lying dead in his car.
Above, My birth father on the left in his infamous boat, the Shepherd.
I first got to know my father from a photograph. I recognise myself in him.
A wild synchronistic event occurs one day. I show my adoption photographs to a friend and he recognises his father in one. It turns out that his father and my father were good pals, much like we are, one generation later. His dad is vacationing in Kelowna and I’m invited to meet him. During our visit I’m taken to see the stylish house that my birth father built on the lake.
I tour the elegant ‘50s bungalow made of wood and glass. I’m inside a dream, walking though a still photograph. Is this really possible? Two years ago, he was just a character in a photograph who I got to know through details of his death. Now I’m standing in his bedroom, the room where I was conceived. I feel his presence and am overwhelmed that my journey has led me here.
I look out the window to the lake where the gentle water laps the shore. There, at the end of the dock is his legendary Shepherd motorboat. Is it a mirage? I walk along the wooden dock, a fragile border separating water from sky, holding back the ghost world from reality. I enter the mystic.
I slide into the boat, into the same cream leather seat where he sat. I have finally come home, even though it isn’t my house and he is no longer here. Last time we were in this place, together, I didn’t exist. Now, I exist and it is he who is insubstantial. We have exchanged places. I leave him in his boat to dance in the chimera of light on water. I walk back towards the house and transform this spirit world into reality.
A Liquid Day
Vancouver. January 11, 1968.
Castle Hotel. 5 PM
Sid had been drinking most of the afternoon. Frank Pappas, a waiter at the Castle Hotel on Granville Street, remembers serving him three or four glasses of beer around 5 pm.
“He was sitting alone, but talking to a couple of guys at the next table. It was so busy and I was alone … it was the supper rush hour. He was there for about an hour. Sid is always well behaved. He’s been in the beer parlour quite a few times. I recognised him right away because the bottom of his lip is kinda thick and hangs down a little bit. He never causes any trouble. He gives me a tip and minds his own business – he’s what I call a good customer.”
It’s hard to piece together the chronological events that led to Sid’s murder later than night, but it seems likely that the ‘guys at the next table’ included the murderer Robert David James. Sid invited them back to his mother’s house in West Vancouver.
Whytecliff. 7 PM
Since the demise of his second marriage, Sid lives with his 84-year-old mother and younger brother, Douglas, in Whytecliff. Doug recalls Sid entering the house “accompanied by a dark-haired man with a withered arm, and a younger fair-haired man around 5’8”.” He remembers the men as unsavory characters. Not the kind of people Sid usually associated with. They went into the den to discuss business. “I heard snippets of conversation about developing a multi-million-dollar hotel complex at Point Roberts on the US side of the border.” Doug was so displeased with their behavior that he poured their bottle of gin down the kitchen sink and insisted they leave the house.
Above, Georgia Hotel, downtown Vancouver.
Cavalier Room. 7:45 PM
Sid was next seen at the Cavalier Room at the Georgia Hotel before 8 pm. The Georgia has been a cultural hub in Vancouver since 1927. A perfect product of the Roaring Twenties, it was caught up in boom time illusions, something far richer and more imaginative than Vancouver had ever seen before. Behind the building’s simple façade was an interior tastefully designed with elegant walnut-paneled rooms, handcrafted cornices and furnishings from around the world. It attracted celebrity guests like as Bing Crosby, Katharine Hepburn, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.
Tom Capozzi, a friend from Kelowna, was in the bar that night and had a drink with Sid who introduced him to an American from the Los Angeles area. “Sid was talking about a scheme to build an exclusive fishing resort somewhere up the coast and the American was advising him on technicalities. He was still at the bar talking when I left.”
Above, New Fountain Hotel on Cordova Street, Vancouver.
New Fountain Hotel. 9:30 PM
I step into Cordova Street and pull up the collar of my beige raincoat. Blue and pink neon lights splash onto the pavement. Skid Row. The silver façade of the New Fountain Hotel is a beacon of excitement, or oblivion. I stumble into the tavern and look for Bob among the prostitutes and barflys, needle freaks, queers and bikers.
It’s not exactly the Cavalier Room, but I like the roughness, the raw brutality of desperate lives. Anything can happen. The soft wool of my Italian suit instils a sense of entitlement I don’t deserve. Everyone has a dark side. I need to rattle the cage of my gilded life. ‘The End’, plays on the jukebox.
Satan’s Angels occupy the rear of the tavern. Rowdy outlaws with unkempt hair and scraggly beards, clad in their ‘colours’ – a uniform of jackboots, grease-caked Levi’s, lumberman shirts, sleeveless denim jackets with an embroidered patch of the devil’s face. Sexy ‘mamas’ in stretch pants and uplift bras, half-undressed with bright lipstick, flirt with the bikers. I have daughters the same age.
Bob is out of his mind and jabbering with wild demeanor.
“A double Jack Daniels for me, and one for my friend.” I order from the bartender and sit down at the table piled high with glasses. I joke than Bob barely looks legal age and he says, ‘Yeah . . . The fucking pigs ID-ed me earlier.”
Bob leans back in his chair, handsome with steel-blue eyes, blond hair and the wiry body of youth, working class abs under a black t-shirt, his crotch bulging, legs stretching from Levis into cowboy boots, wreathed in an aura of violent and erotic mystery. There was a flirtatious innocence to his drunken smile.
“So . . . you like ‘em young?” Bob leans in and his rancid breath lingers like intimacy.
“I’m married. Or was. Twice.”
“Yeah I’m into pussy too. . .but always up for a good time.”
“Let’s party. I can rent a room.”
“Gimme a sec. Gotta talk to my bros.”
Bob puts his arm around Herb Spivey, or ‘Doity Hoib,’ the dangerous gang leader. There’s mutual admiration of their hyper-masculine toughness. Herb sticks his tongue in Bob’s mouth, an act of ‘class,’ or defiance of the white straight male outlaws.
Bob whispers, “That guy’s a real fuckin’ queer, man, and I’m gonna’ whack him,” as he pokes a finger into Spivey’s chest. “Yeah… well. Why not?” Spivey grabs a shank of his blond hair. “You’re already awaiting trial for aggravated assault. He’s a bit old to be a butler.” The crest of the devil’s face on his sleeveless denim jacket has a sinister grin.
“Let’s go back to the clubhouse.”
Above, Crime scene. Satans Angels clubhouse on Napier Street, Vancouver.
3604 Napier Street. The Clubhouse. 10:30 PM
“Pull over here. My woman is inside, but she’s cool. She’s into partying.”
Bob knocks on the backdoor. “It’s me.”
Donna opens the door and Sid and Bob stumble into the house. Sid barely misses the empty beer bottles stacked high in the narrow hallway. A TV flickers on a Nazi flag. The place is a mess. Broken glass windows. Floorboards torn up leaving a gaping hole, and layers of paper stripped off the walls to feed the flames in the dilapidated fireplace.
Donna lights a joint and offers it to Bob. He sits on the wine-coloured chesterfield beside Sid.
“Hey man, Donna is a dyke. She’s totally cool with you and me.” He passes Sid the joint.
“Baby, can you grab us a couple of beers?”
Donna hears them talking about queers and homosexuals.
“Where’s the toilet?” asks Sid.
“Down the hallway on the right.”
Above, Crime scene. Living room in the Satans Angels clubhouse.
Bob goes into the kitchen and grabs Donna, his 17-year old girlfriend of one week.
“He tried to get me to go to bed with him.’
“I’m gonna fucking’ kill him.”
“You don’t know what you’re sayin’.”
“I do know. He’s fuckin’ queer. He’s a faggot.’
“You’re drunk and on bennies.”
“It’s somethin’ I have to do.”
“I wanna feel what it’s like to kill somebody.”
Sid comes out of the bathroom. “Is everything all right?”
“Sure”, says Bob. I’m comin’.”
Bob feels a manic rush of hatred riding his earlier amphetamine high. His mind is made up and he pulls her clawing hand off his arm. Her pleading gets on his nerves. He rips a two-and-one-half-foot-long club off the wall. The Ugly Club is etched on it.
Chuck Matthews knocks on the back door. As Donna opens it she hears a crash.
“Shit!” She runs to the living room. Bob whacks Sid on the head. His skull caves in. Sid doesn’t move.
“Stop. Please. Fuck.’ Donna grabs his arm but Bob jerks away. He beats Sid to a pulp. Blood splatters her clothes. Brain tissue explodes on the wall. Instant Death. Sid doesn’t cry or say anything, not even a moan.
“He’s fucking dead Bob. Gawd. I’m covered in blood.”
Chuck stands against the doorframe. Stunned. “I’m getting’ the hell out of here,” he says. You’ve got a murder on your hands.”
“Well remember that you didn’t see anything.”
“All right, Bob. ”
“See you later.”
“I want to come with you,” says Donna.
Donna runs out the back door. Bob is already waiting for her.
“Baby, don’t leave. I need you more than ever . . . now.”
Those ice blue eyes. I always do what I’m told.
“Give me a cigarette. I can’t go back into the house right now. I just need to sit in the car for a bit.”
A cold January night in Vancouver. Snow covers the ground. The cold metal of the car bites into my back and I feel my body tense up. I must calm myself down.
“All right. I’m going back inside.”
I inhale the smoke and follow its trajectory through my body. It soothes my nerves. I no longer feel the effect of the bombers. My mind is razor sharp. I don’t feel cold. I’m numb. I sit for what feels like forever.
“I wish I could disappear,” I whisper.
Through the windshield I see a dark blurry shape. Bob is dragging the body out the back door and lugging it into a car. “Fuck, fuck, fuck . . . tell me this isn’t happening. I’m so stupid.”
“I’m trashing the body, says Bob. You need to get back in there and clean up the blood. Be careful with finger prints.” I try to smile.
Above, Crime scene. Nazi flag in the Satans Angels clubhouse.
Eventually I get it together to go back in. A dark red streak winds from the kitchen into the living room. Fucking mess. The blood smells sweet. I retch. I fill a filthy bucket with water, the warmth comforting on my hand. A mop leans perilously against the fridge. I’m grateful for the long handle.
“Why am I doing this? I’ve only known him a week. Leave.”
The mop head absorbs the blood. Its tendrils turn the colour of wine. I dunk it into the pail. The water disgusts me. My mind turns red. I can’t stop seeing a slow motion film of Bob smashing Sid’s skull. A pulpy, bloody mess. There is brain tissue on the walls. I feel wobbly, lean against the wall and slide to the floor holding my head. I can barely breathe.
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
I pick up the phone and call Sue.
“It’s me. Donna.”
“Are you OK? Chuck’s here.”
“I’m fucking freaking out. I don’t know what to do. Bob is gone. Blood everywhere. Fuck. I hate it. “
“I’m supposed to clean up the blood. I can’t. I feel sick.”
“Brutal . . . but I guess he needs help. Get out for a bit. Come over.”
“Fuck. Why did this have to happen? Things were going so well.”
“It’s a fucked up crazy world.”
“I feel dirty. . . cold. . . my body feels weird”.
“How many bombers did you have?”
“Only two… it’s not that. I‘m not even stoned. This is different. . . . I fucking need something, that’s for sure.”
“Maybe you’re in shock? I would be.”
“I can’t stay here.”
“Come get me?”
“I can’t . . . the baby. Just walk over. You’ll be fine. I’m here waiting for you.”
I run through the night swallowed by cold darkness.
A black and white photograph of Sidney Albert MacDonald’s Buick Skylark, parked in Burnaby at the crime scene where he was murdered.
Above, Crime scene. Sid’s Buick Skylark parked in Burnaby.
Burnaby. January 12 1968. 1 AM
Bob likes the smooth drive of the Buick Skylark. He turns on the chrome radio. It’s a rain-soaked night and the traffic lights look like an abstract painting. The car drifts like a ghost through the empty Burnaby streets. Bob remembers his family home in Kamloops and is glad he got the hell out of here. He parks outside a suburban home and walks along the pavement past darkened houses with honest people sleeping in their beds.
“Fuck . . . his wallet.” Bob gets back in the car and turns on the light. He moves Sid to the floor in front of the passenger seat and turns him over, rifling through his pockets and takes his wallet, watch and jewelry. It takes 15 minutes. Victor Perella sees him.
Victor Perella drives home from work. At the corner of Venables Street he slows down when he sees a car parked in front of his house with the lights on. A young man walks away. Victor parks behind the Buick station wagon and goes into his house. Turns the lights on and looks out the window. Something is not right.
The young man is back in the car. Victor reads a newspaper, turns off the kitchen light, and looks out the window again.
Bob gets out of the car, locks the door on the passenger side, and walks down the lane. Victor goes to bed. A neighbor hears the sound of a car screeching off in the distance.
The Clubhouse. 2 AM
Back at the Clubhouse Donna is nowhere to be found. Bob calls the Spivey’s.
“Bob . . . I’ve been calling the Clubhouse all night. Are you OK?”
“I need you, baby. Please help me clean up this mess.”
“I can’t come until most of the blood is gone.”
“OK. I’ll clean it. Bring Sue with you.”
Donna arrives with Sue and her 8-month old baby girl. They spend the next two hours cleaning blood off the walls, furniture and floor. Brain plasma is spattered over the speakers. An innocent child sleeps in the murder site. Doity Herb arrives and takes his wife and son back home.
Bob and Donna crawl onto a sleeping bag on the living room floor and have sex. He feels powerful and in control. She is soft and vulnerable.
“How does it feel to make love with someone who just murdered a man?”
“You’re so powerful, baby. But why kill an innocent man?“
“No one’s innocent. He was a faggot … and I wanted to feel my power. I felt nothing.”
The alarm goes off.
“Let’s go over to Sue’s. It’s not safe to be here.”
Donna stays a few days at the Spivey’s before heading to Ernie Small’s house in North Surrey. Gang member, Bob Pearson, drives her. The last time she sees Bob is before he left to go to Kamloops for a court hearing about 3 days after the murder.
Above, Crime scene. Sid’s Buick Skylark parked in Burnaby.
Body Found. 955 Ingleton Street. 10 AM.
Victor wakes up and his first thought is the car. He looks out the window. It’s still there. A red colour stains the bottom of the passenger door. He’s a car mechanic and finds this strange, as the 1964 station wagon is too new for rust. He puts on his dressing gown and goes outside. His wife walks behind. A body is on the floor, clothes stained with blood. Mrs. Perella sees the blood and averts her gaze. Victor calls the police.
Above, Crime scene. Sid’s body found.
955 Ingleton Street. January 12, 1968. 10:30 AM
Wilfred Stanley Petkau with the RCMP observes the vehicle. All the doors are unlocked except the right front passenger door. The keys are in the ignition. A brownish red colour stains the passenger’s seat, front window and bottom right front door. A man lies on the floor in front of the passenger seat. His body is twisted. He is on his right side, knee resting on the brake pedal, but his torso turns upwards and his head pushed against the right passenger door. A coagulated pool of blood hardens on the floor. A green branch from a Cedar tree lies under the driver’s seat.
Morgue. 11:30 AM
Doctor Frederick Lindsay Sturroch pronounces Sidney A. McDonald dead at 11:30 AM on January 12, 1968. The body is removed to the morgue at the Royal Columbia Hospital where it undergoes an autopsy. The cause of death is due to multiple skull fractures, brain damage and hemorrhage.
Above, Crime scene. Fire at Satans Angels clubhouse.
Clubhouse. January 14, 1968. 11 AM
A policeman in an unmarked car drives past Napier Street and observes a fire burning at the rear of the clubhouse. Flames are about two feet high. Bob burns his clothes, boots and the chesterfield in the backyard. Later the police find remnants in the rubble. A fabric with a zipper still smolders. Sofa coils. The blackened head of a wash mop and plastic pail. A pair of boot heels. And what appears to be the burned leg of a chair – The Ugly Club.
The police break down the door of the clubhouse, a swat team of a dozen men swoop through the house. They make abusive comments to the occupants, fire off flash bulbs and take pictures without permission. A Hudson’s Bay credit card in the name of Robert David James, and a letter signed by Bob, are found in the kitchen at 3604 Napier. Witnesses in Burnaby are illegally held. A postman finds a wallet, on the corner of Boundary and Douglas. It contains the drivers’ license of Sidney Alfred MacDonald and membership cards to the Kelowna Yacht Club and Palm Springs Health Spa.
The trial takes place in the Vancouver Courthouse and lasts for 3 months. Satan’s Angels intimidate witnesses. Robert David James is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for 10 years.¨ ♦
In terms of where I’d like to see this piece of writing develop in the future, I see it expanded to include more details of Sid’s life, a psychological profile of Robert David James, the trial and sentencing, as well as placing the story into a larger essay that explains biker culture (think of Hunter S Thompson’s Hells Angels) and what it was like to be gay in the late 60s in Canada. If you’re interested in reading other adoption-themed articles that I’ve written, check out All in the Family which chronicles my search for an identity and the meeting with the birth family.
© 2020. Heather Elton