You do remember Wilson Nepoose, don’t you?
In the early 1990s, the Cree Indian was top news story in Canada when he was suddenly released from a federal prison in Edmonton. The reason: oops, wrong guy!
Turns out, Wilson Nepoose had been serving hard time for a murder he had nothing to do with. It was yet another screw-up with Canada’s judicial system, which has had far too many ‘oops’ moments with murder convictions. Like two dozen.
In 1986, 43-year-old Rose Marie Desjarlais of Edmonton was strangled, her nude body dumped at a gravel pit near Hobbema, southeast of Edmonton. Based on false testimony from a drunk, no less, Nepoose was picked up and charged with murder.
Nepoose thought the charge was ludicrous, but not those on his jury. In 1987, a dozen of his peers found him guilty of second-degree murder. Seconds later, an officer walked over to Nepoose in the prisoner’s box, snapped a pair of cuffs on him … and off to the Big House he went. The jurors bought whatever the Crown fed them, unaware they were being served a plate of steaming Bull.
You’ll soon discover why I capitalized the word ‘bull.’
Here’s a tip from a lawyer who wouldn’t want their name mentioned: Avoid being judged by people who weren’t smart enough to avoid jury duty.
Wilson Nepoose was given a life-sentence with no chance of parole for a long time, putting an end to his days of drinking and drifting.
Mounties may always get their man, but this time they got the wrong guy. The real crime is that they should have known it. But when the accused is a Native, why worry, eh?
Wilson Nepoose had been eating prison food for several years when along came former RCMP Corporal Jack Ramsay …
Cover photo: Early 1990s, the Author [left] with Wilson Nepoose at the Edmonton Institution.
The years have slipped by and most have forgotten about Wilson Nepoose, the shy man with a scarred face from a reserve southeast of Edmonton. But not Jack Ramsay of Camrose, Alberta. In the early 1990s, at the request of Nepoose’s brother, Lester, and his sister-in-law Debbie, the former Mountie reopened the murder file.
The man who never really hung up his badge discovered a can of worms … then went fishing.
Ramsay learned that RCMP investigators had coerced drunken Crown witnesses to tell some tall stories — as in they “witnessed” Nepoose murder Desjarlais. That was total bull … they hadn’t seen a darn thing. The stories were alcohol-induced with the most damaging tales coming from a key Crown witness, Delma Bull.
Ramsay also discovered some officers withheld critical evidence from the defence. That’s not only sleazy, but unlawful.
If that wasn’t bad enough, key officials in the Crown’s office — well aware of shenanigans by their key witnesses — chose to look the other way. In an article in Alberta Report, Ramsay pointed out that wouldn’t have happened if Nepoose was Caucasian.
Debbie Nepoose claimed jurors didn’t make their decision based on evidence … they went along with whoever put on the “best show.” And that would be the Crown.
To Ramsay’s surprise, maybe not, he came across a series of screw-ups including perjury by two key Crown witnesses. Combing through internal documents that were never made public, Ramsay also learned that some very senior people — top Mounties and a judge — had also dropped the ball.
The Nepoose case had been a judicial gong show, though it was no fault of Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Bob Sachs. Sachs was a bulldog.
It’s always an uphill battle if the system is weak, broken or corrupt.
Evidence Ramsay uncovered allowed Nepoose to be released from the Edmonton Institution in the early 1990s.
At the time, I was a crime reporter with CBC Radio. Using prison contacts, I managed to snare an exclusive interview with the ‘killer’ on his final day behind bars. Naturally, CBC TV wanted in on the action, which is why there’s archival video footage of the interview done in the prison visitor’s room.
I did not hold onto my audio recording [remember, we’re talking three decades ago] … but I do recall Nepoose being somewhat subdued, as if he were on drugs. Actually, he was — on medication prescribed by a prison doctor.
Nepoose spoke slowly and carefully. Was that because he was Native? Stoic perhaps? I wonder, because I’ve found so many Aboriginal people to be soft-spoken.
I would have been pissed too if I’d been put away for five years for a crime I didn’t commit. Without displaying any bitterness, Nepoose maintained he had not killed Desjarlais, hadn’t even met her. Still, here he was … doped up, wearing a green prisoner’s uniform and labelled a killer. Only Wilson’s relatives and ex-Mountie Jack Ramsay seemed to believe his version of events.
By this time, Ramsay was making headlines by uncovering evidence that proved “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Wilson Nepoose was innocent. He had what we call bombshell evidence.
There was a touching scene in an Edmonton courtroom in 1992. A judge had just overturned Nepoose’s murder conviction, paving the way for his release when an RCMP officer walked up to Jack Ramsay, looked him in the eye and shook his hand.
Back to Wilson Nepoose’s final jailhouse interview … the prisoner shared that he looked forward to being released, clearing his name and getting on with his life. Strange, but I don’t recall him ever bringing up money as retribution for a wrongful conviction. But as I say, he was heavily medicated.
I also didn’t bring up his history with booze and petty crime, and perhaps I should have, I don’t know. I’m of the opinion that too many in the media live in glass houses. When dealing with prisoners, it’s so easy to become jaded and think the worst of them. When dealing with anyone, I try to remain as ‘non-judgmental’ as I can. It’s not always easy.
The very next day, there was a news conference in downtown Edmonton with dozens of reporters and ‘shooters’ [camera folk] on hand to hear what the just-released Willy Nepoose had to say. I was there as well. I recall setting up my microphone on a table directly in front of the former prisoner. Nepoose looked up, smiled and simply said, “Hi Byron.” I shot back, “Willie, what the hell are you doing here?”
That’s the last time we spoke. I don’t remember doing another story on Nepoose until the spring of 1998 when his skeletal remains were found in a wooded area near Hobbema. The official story was that a few months earlier, Nepoose had been drinking heavily at his sister’s house and wandered off into a blizzard. The unofficial story is that he was attacked and left to die in the snow. Take your pick.
Let’s go back even further … to July 1972. That’s when an RCMP graduation photo of a young Jack Ramsay graced the cover of Maclean’s, a popular weekly news magazine in Canada. The disillusioned corporal had quit the Mounties, laying his grievances right out there in a lengthy, eye-opening article.
It not only shook up the RCMP, but all of Canada. An editor at Macleans put it this way: “Shattering a great Canadian legend.”
I was living in Europe at the time and so wasn’t aware of the Ramsay story … but after I returned to Canada and got back in the media, I discovered that because of the widely-read article, Ramsay had been hit with mysterious ‘job losses.’ Turns out, his sudden unemployment was the direct result of secret meetings between the RCMP and his employers. Blackballed. KGB-wannabes.
Nice country we live in, I thought.
Gotta say, I admire whistle-blowers for having the guts to go public about wrong-doing in the workplace. I felt for Ramsay after he was blackballed; the man had a family to support. I was living in Toronto at the time and when I moved out West to Edmonton, Jack Ramsay and I would finally meet. He was one of my heroes, although being a reporter, of course I couldn’t share that with him.
Over the yeas, Ramsay and I have maintained contact and [full disclosure here:] when Jack phoned this summer inquiring about publishers who might be interested in his book, I suggested he self-publish on Amazon, and I showed him how to do it.
Meanwhile, Jack was being nudged by family and long-time friends like Jim Tarapaski to get the Wilson Nepoose story out. And now he’s done that.
In late November 2021, Jack Ramsay — now 84 — released his book simply called ‘The Wilson Nepoose Case,’ detailing why an innocent man spent five years in the slammer.
The 400-page paperback is an autopsy of a murder investigation that seriously went off the rails. The book is fact-based without a lot of drama and flair, not unlike formal police reports.
At the heart of the scandal was coercion by the Mounties of drunken Crown witnesses who lied through their teeth and — here’s the tough part — are you sitting down? — a criminal justice system that was more interested in protecting itself than ordinary Canadians. Especially Natives.
Ramsay’s book is in both paperback and hard cover, available at Amazon in a dozen countries — including Canada and the US. Paperback price is $17.99 CDN, but the hard cover considerably more. I do not know if Ramsay will release it as an ebook.
It’s a great read because Jack searches for the facts and names names. To locate the book on Amazon, Google: The Wilson Nepoose Story Jack Ramsay Amazon.
Wilson Nepoose’s grave is marked by a wooden cross in a cemetery at Hobbema. RIP Willy. I hope you’re doing okay on the Other Side.
Desjarlais’ murder remains unsolved.
And in spite of Jack Ramsay’s negative experiences with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the man doesn’t knock the force. He salutes the good work individual officers have done. He’s just never been a fan of corporate sleaze and corruption.
Ramsay says all proceeds from his book will go to Nepoose family.
To end this blog piece, a light story about Bob Sachs, the lawyer. Over coffee one day, Bob shared that in the 1980s he and other lawyers and oil executives dropped into the prestigious Petroleum Club in downtown Edmonton. When Bob went to the washroom, he dropped a $1 bill in a urinal. Before leaving, he returned to the washroom and — lo and behold — the money had always disappeared!