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A Story of Bravery, Daring-do, Murder and Mayhem!

Thanks To Edward Villiers For This Article Written By Him For The Savona Historical Society


THE STATION AGENT'S RIFLE



In the spring of 1948, British Columbia was suffering its greatest flooding since 1894. Dykes were bursting in the Fraser Valley and rivers were overflowing their banks everywhere in the Interior.

On Sunday night, May 30, 1948, the engineer of Canadian National Railways' westbound passenger train felt a distinct bump as his steam locomotive passed over the Thompson River bridge west of Deadman's Creek. When he arrived half an hour later at Ashcroft, he reported the bump to the night operator who passed the report along to the engineer of an eastbound freight train waiting at the Ashcroft siding.

The engineer of the eastbound freight stopped his train when he reached the bridge and climbed down out of the cab. In the beam of his locomotive's headlight, he walked part way across the deck of the steel span and saw a distinct dip in the track over an undermined concrete pier. The swollen Thompson River had begun to erode the riverbed around a huge cement pier near the eastern end of the bridge. The engineer returned to his train, asked the other four crew members to get out and walk across the bridge, then climbed back into the engine's cab and slowly took his train across alone.

His was the last train to cross that bridge for a year.

During the night, the pier continued to lean further over and it became apparent that the bridge was soon going to topple into the river. Sectionman John McLeod vividly remembers what happened the following morning, May 31, 1948, when his four-man section crew arrived by a motorized track car from Savona:

"By this time, the pier was leaning over so bad that the tracks were almost on edge. We disconnected the rails at the east end and when the last bolt was driven out of the fish plate, the track jumped two feet toward the bridge. Now the rails had to be undone at the west end.

I took a track wrench and a spiking maul and a tool to drive out the last bolt and started across. The bridge was now on a 60 degree angle. I walked hanging on to one rail with my feet down on the bottom rail.

When I drove the last bolt out on the west end, the track jumped three feet. Contrary to my foreman's warning, I decided to walk back across the bridge. When I got over to the other side, I rolled a smoke and took only two puffs on my cigarette when she went out.

The pier tipped over and the steel rails - screaming like banshees - whipped from each end! Spikes rained down! And two ninety-foot steel spans crashed into the river! One was carried two hundred yards downstream. (Webmaster's note: see the photos of the collapsed bridge)"


In addition to the rails, the bridge also carried valuable telegraph and telephone wires that connected Vancouver with Eastern Canada. The taut wires had been dragged down to the surface of the river and were in danger of being snapped by logs and other debris swirling downstream.

Each wire had been connected to a glass insulator mounted on a small, round, wooden bracket attached to a cross-arm that had been bolted to the bridge.

All of the wires had broken free except one. That one wire, still attached to its insulator connected to the cross-arm, was holding the rest down. If this one wire could be freed, then all of the wires would spring up - well above the surface of the water - and communications across the country could be saved. However, there was no way anyone could get out to the middle of the river to free it.

John had an idea. He suggested that someone take the motor car back to Savona and borrow a rifle and a box of bullets from the station agent. He would try and shoot in two the thin wooden peg that held the insulator.

Within half an hour, the foreman returned with a rifle and John lay down on the embankment and carefully took aim. The target was about an inch and a half in diameter. As each bullet hit the small round peg, the wood splintered and weakened. Suddenly, it broke in two, releasing all the wires into the air. The communication lines had been saved.

The rifle John had used was a .22 caliber, Winchester semi-automatic - an expensive gun for its caliber and rather uncommon since it was fitted with a brass tube in the stock that could be pulled from the butt for reloading. At the end of the day, the gun was delivered back to Savona's CNR station agent, Robert Dillabough.

***

Fourteen years later, on October 16, 1962, at 6:45 P.M., a pretty, nineteen-year-old girl named Diane Phipps walked out the front door of her parents' house in Nanaimo and waved goodbye to her mother.

"Don't be late", her mother called out as Diane walked toward the front gate.

"Have a good time", shouted her father who was working in his garden at the side of the house.

Diane had a date with Leslie Dixon, a young man she had been going steady with for about six months. She had recently started a new job as a practical nurse at St. Paul's Hospital over in Vancouver, working three days straight and two days off, and this was her third trip back home to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

Wearing a new black sweater and skirt, Diane walked to a girlfriend's house where she spent the next couple of hours visiting before her boyfriend called around and picked her up. Dixon was tall and good-looking and, like Diane, was also 19 years old. He had quit school in grade ten and was working as a service-station attendant in Nanaimo. His big interest were bowling and cars.

The couple drove to a gas station where Dixon bought two dollars worth of gas, then drove through Nanaimo, tooting the horn to various friends. They stopped briefly to talk with a mechanic at the garage where Dixon worked. A little after ten o'clock, they were seen by two of Dixon's friends heading down Departure Bay Road toward Piper's Lagoon, five miles north of Nanaimo. Piper's Lagoon was a favourite parking spot for young people - a lovers' lane.

They hadn't seen each other for a week and, as they sat in the car laughing and talking, they were unaware that a man was standing nearby in the shadows watching them. He observed them for a while and listed to Diane laugh. Then, quietly, he slipped away and returned with a gun.

The following morning, when Leslie Dixon didn't return home, his mother sent his two brothers, Vic and Ron, to search for him. At ten A.M. they found Leslie sitting in his car at Piper's Lagoon. His head was lying back and they thought he was asleep. When Vic shook him, he fell over. He had been shot twice in the back of the head at close range.

There was no sign of Diane although her purse and coat were in the car beside her boyfriend's body.

The police brought in tracking dogs and called in investigators from Victoria but they were unable to locate a murder weapon or determine the whereabouts of Diane Phipps. Dixon's wallet was still in his pocket, its contents untouched. Robbery, obviously, was not a motive for the crime.

At two o'clock that afternoon, Darrell Morgan, a Nanaimo resident, was in a rubbish dump four miles south of Nanaimo retrieving a hacksaw he had left there on the weekend while searching for scrap metal. As he walked by a stack of old car parts, he saw two feet sticking out from under a pile of rusty fenders. He lifted a fender and saw a body. It was Diane Phipps. He fled the scene and called police.

Police believe the girl had been forced from Dixon's car, driven seven miles south by the killer, then murdered on a lonely bush road. She had been shot once between the eyes, then beaten with a boulder. She had not been sexually molested and the contents of her purse were still intact.

Police ruled out the theory that the killer could have been a jealous lover since the couple had been going together for about half a year.

The killings would become known as the Lovers' Lane Murders and created headlines in the Vancouver newspapers for the next week. The RCMP had little to go on - no motive, no weapon, no suspects. They believed that they were looking for a criminal psychopath.

The police received a call from a young woman living on Harewood Road, not far from where Diane's body was found. She told police that she had been watching a late night television show when a man knocked at her door about one A.M. on the night of the murder. He told her that his car was stuck in the ditch just up the road and asked for the use of her truck to pull him out.

The man climbed into the box of the truck and she drove a couple of hundred yards down the road where the man hooked a chain from her truck to his car. She pulled it out of the ditch and, as the stranger unhooked the chain, he told her to go home. The next day, she heard about the double murder and called the police.

Officers examined the piece of gravel road and noted that tire tracks had swerved suddenly off the road and hit a rock. They theorized that the driver of the car was the murderer and that Diane Phipps was still alive at that time and had yanked at the steering wheel. With a description of the stranger and of his car, they felt certain it wouldn't be long before they made an arrest.

The Nanaimo City Council offered a reward of $3,500.00 - later increasing it to $5,000.00 - for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murders of Diane Phipps and Leslie Dixon. The reward was equivalent to a year's wages. But, despite the most intensive murder investigation in the history of British Columbia, the reward went unclaimed and the police were completely baffled.

Three months following the murders, the weather turned bitterly cold. For the first two weeks of 1963, the temperature on Vancouver Island seldom rose above the freezing mark. Lakes everywhere were frozen over.

On January 29, a young boy was playing on the ice on Long Lake, five miles north of Nanaimo, when he saw a gun lying in the mud beneath the clear ice not far from shore. He loosened a rock from the beach, smashed a hole in the ice and pulled out a .22 caliber rifle. Excitedly, he ran home with the gun and asked his father to clean it up and let him keep it.

As he wiped the mud and water off the gun, the father noted that it was a Winchester semi-automatic rifle in excellent condition. Why would anybody throw away such an expensive gun? He was suspicious. He took it down to the Nanaimo detachment of the RCMP which immediately sent it to Regina for ballistic tests. A short time later, a report came back that this was the gun that killed Leslie Dixon and Diane Phipps.

The police were sure now that the case could be solved quickly. They had a description of the murder suspect, a description of his car and now the murder weapon. But, a year passed and the gun's owner could not be traced. The police remained baffled.

On Saturday, April 18, 1964 - almost a year and a half after the gun was found - the Vancouver Sun published an article in its Weekend Magazine describing the murders and appealing to people across Canada for information on the rifle used in the two slayings.

The newspaper included, with its story, three photographs of the gun, including a close-up picture of the butt end of the stock showing where a brass tube could be pulled for loading. The gun was described as a Winchester .22 caliber, semi-automatic, rifle, Model 63, serial number 41649A, manufactured on October 5, 1940, and sold in 1942 - but the purchaser's name was unknown.

The article added:

"The rifle is expensive for a weapon of this caliber and is, consequently, rather uncommon. Anyone having knowledge of persons who have possessed rifles of this description is requested to inform the nearest police department or R.C.M.P. detachment immediately. Any information offered will be held in the strictest confidence."

The newspaper story resulted in a flood of tips. One of those tips led police to the original owner of the gun - Robert Ralph Dillabough, a former Canadian National Railways station agent at Savona, B.C.

When police arrived at Savona, they learned that Mr. Dillabough had died ten years earlier on March 15, 1954. The disposition of his estate, including the rifle, had been handled by D.T. Rogers of a Kamloops law firm. Some assets of the estate were sold privately while other assets, including this rifle, were sold at a public auction. The auction had taken place in Kamloops on February 19, 1955.

The auctioneer was George Shelline, but when police went to interview him, they learned that he had been killed in an accident a year after the auction took place. They searched his records but were unsuccessful in finding the name of the gun's buyer. Once again, they had come to a dead end.

The police checked 60,000 vehicle registrations seeking a car described by the witness. They screened every rental car in British Columbia. They interviewed thousands of people, took 200 written statements, examined 2,000 gun invoices and sought the help of the FBI in the United States and Interpol in Europe. They toted up more detective manhours on this murder than any murder probe in B.C. history. But they still did not have a suspect.

So, the Vancouver Sun ran another story about the case. This time, the newspaper asked for persons who had attended the Kamloops auction to come forward. The story was carried across Canada by the Canadian Press news service.

Again, police received a flood of tips. This time, one of them led to the arrest of a suspect, at 35-year-old, North Vancouver baker named Ronald Eugene Ingram.

Ingram had formerly lived in Nanaimo and, together with his brother, Wallace, owned Parklane Bakery on Harewood Street. In early 1965, he and his wife and three children left Nanaimo and moved to North Vancouver where he was taken into custody on August 7, 1965. He had never been a suspect in the case nor had he ever been interviewed by police.

Equipped with a chain saw, police went to the Parklane Bakery and cut out a section of retaining wall at the rear of the building where Ingram used to shoot at rats. Slugs retrieved from the wall matched those in the murder weapon. Ingram's car was also examined and, although two years had elapsed since the murders, human blood stains were found in the vehicle.

Ingram was taken to Oakalla Prison in Burnaby. A few hours later, he attempted to commit suicide by plunging his head into a plugged, water-filled toilet bowl. When found by a guard, he had no apparent pulse but responded to inhalator treatment.

Six weeks later, on September 20, 1965, Ingram, through his lawyer, confessed that he had shot Diane Phipps between the eyes and then beat her head in with a rock. The admission was made to an all-male Assize Court jury minutes after a previous jury had found him fit to stand trial for capital murder. He was charged only with the girl's murder.

Following his admission of guilt, three psychiatrists told the Court that in 1962, Ingram would have been suffering from a disease of the mind. The Crown Attorney suggested to the jury that they had no alternative but to find Ingram not guilty by reason of insanity, stating that "Ingram was in such a deranged state of mind at the time of the killings, he was not able to appreciate the nature and quality of his acts and could not have formed an intent."

The following day, a judge ordered Ingram to be held in close custody indefinitely - or as Section 545 of the Criminal Code put it - "until the pleasure of the Lieutenant Governor is known."

Ingram was transferred to maximum security confinement at the Forensic Psychiatric Institute of Riverview mental hospital - then known as Essondale - at Coquitlam, B.C. and remained in close confinement for the next six years.

In 1971, doctors considered that his mental condition had improved so dramatically that he was granted unsupervised ground privileges. In May, 1974, he escaped from the hospital but returned voluntarily after being free for four days. He escaped again in August, 1975. But this time, he was not recaptured for eight months.

In November, 1976, the Vancouver Sun reported that the doctors at Riverview Hospital ruled him sane and that a Provincial Review Board recommended he be released. Despite pleadings from his lawyer, the Provincial Cabinet refused to grant him his freedom.

I have searched through subsequent newspaper archives without being able to learn whether Ingram was finally released and allowed to rejoin his wife and family who were now living in Edmonton. Nor did I learn who, if anyone, received the reward for his arrest.

I do know, however, that the clue that solved this case was a rifle - the same rifle once owned by a station agent in Savona - the same rifle that saved the trans-Canada communication wires from being broken following the collapse of the Thompson River bridge in the flood of 1948.