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On January 14, 1953, a Stanley Park Board Employee stepped on a patch of leaves that made an unusual crunching sound. Upon closer inspection, he realized that under the layers of leaves and dirt were numerous bones. This was the beginning of an investigation that has baffled Canadian police for the past seventy years.

Stanley Park is to Vancouver what Central Park is to New York. As the third-largest park in North America, it brings in thousands of tourists to explore its luscious woods and admire the view of the Vancouver skyline. Unbeknownst to many visitors are the secrets that the Stanley Park woods hold.

An aerial image of Stanley Park taken around the time of the crime.

Investigators arrived at the scene the next day. They discovered that the bones were those of two children. A doctor determined that they were a boy and a girl, roughly aged 5-7 and 7-9. They were wearing shoes and were fully dressed- although only rags remained of their clothing. Near their bodies, police found a blue and white lunch box, two child-sized aviator hats, a woman’s size 7.5 shoe, and a fur coat that had been placed over the bodies. Lastly, they found a hatchet which was determined to be the murder weapon.

Detectives looked at the layer of bush and determined that the bodies had been there for about six years, meaning they had been murdered in 1947.

The case was widely talked about in the media and given the name “The Babes in the Woods.” Police received hundreds of tips from the public- one even came from the mother of then 13-year-old Clifford Olson who grew up to become one of Canada’s most prolific child killers- but they all lead to dead ends. Police even went as far as to track every brother and sister who had stopped attending school in 1947 but that also lead nowhere.

Moulded busts of the childrens’ possible appearances were created shortly after their remains were found by anthropologist Erna V. Van Baiersdorf.

The evidence led police to theorize that the children had been murdered by their mother or female guardian, whose shoe got caught under debris as she was fleeing the crime scene. The jacket being placed over the bodies strongly pointed to this theory as this is usually an act of compassion, not of cold-blooded murder. Police note that this was the post-war period, where many Vancouverites were suffering financially and it wasn’t all that uncommon to hear of desperate mothers killing their children and then themselves. Furthermore, within walking distance from the site of the murders is the Lions Gate bridge which is known to be a common location for suicides.

Other theories weren’t so forgiving, such as a mother wanting to restart her life with a new man in America without having to worry about the burden of her children.

As the years passed by, the case turned cold and some evidence was turned over to the Vancouver Police Museum. This evidence, which included one of the children’s bones and skull, was put on display at the Pacific National Exhibition, which is a large summer fair that takes place annually in Vancouver.

The approximate location of the crime scene.

In 1996, Detective Brian Honeybourn was appointed as head of the Provincial Homicide Unit. With the freedom to chose which case he wanted to work on, he decided on the one he had grown up hearing about- the Babes in the Woods. He managed to gather up all the evidence, including the bones at the Vancouver Police Museum, and started fresh. He decided to examine the evidence with technology that hadn’t been available decades earlier, including DNA testing.

Honeybourn sent bone and teeth samples for DNA analysis by Dr. David Sweet, a forensic dentist at the University of British Columbia. The results were astonishing- the unidentified children were not brother and sister like police had thought for the past fifty years. They were both boys, more precisely, half-brothers with the same mother and different fathers.

“Had we known at the time they were both boys, it might have made a world of difference,” said Honeybourn.

Honeybourn also found that the children’s shoes were made and likely purchased before World War II, meaning that the brothers could have been murdered years earlier than police originally thought. Honeybourn recalled a tip that had been discounted because the events took place in 1944, three years earlier than the original theorized year of death. In this tip, a couple walking through the park saw a woman come out of the bushes and let out a wailing sound before running off. The woman had only been wearing one shoe and no coat, which is significant because a woman’s coat and a single shoe had been left behind at the crime scene.

The last case update came in 2018 when Staff Sergeant Dale Weidman of the Vancouver Police Department said that he had plans to put the boys’ DNA samples into online databases, such as 23AndMe and Ancestry.com, to see if their identities can be discovered. Honeybourn is on board with this plan and remains hopeful.

“The boys’ mother is probably long-deceased, so nobody’s living under the illusion there’s ever going to be a court case or anything like that,” Honeybourn said.

“But if we can give the boys their names back, that would be good,” he added.

Several years ago, Honeybourn decided to put the young brothers to rest. He cremated most of their remains, except for a few bone fragments that are integral to DNA testing, and spread their ashes in the sea.

The Babes in the Woods await the day that a fateful tip or DNA match comes in. For now, File number 53-636 sits in the basement of 312 Main Street, unsolved.

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