The murder of Sing Mah and On Lee by VDFHS Cemetery Committee

A province wide police search for two days resulted in the capture of Joseph Arthur Oullette in a Vancouver east end hotel room by two Vancouver city police detectives.

The search began on Thursday afternoon of November 24, 1949 when Sing Mah and On Lee were found dead in their shack on their vegetable farm, adjacent to the south side of the airport. Sergeant A.J. Knox and Provincial Constable Edward Dunk made the gruesome discovery after they broke into the shack that was padlocked from the outside.

In the shack, the bodies of Sing and On had been covered up by bedding. Both men had been shot in the midriff by a 12-gauge double-barrelled shotgun. The barrels of the gun were bent and believed to have been used to beat Sing. The motive appeared to be robbery. The cabin was thoroughly ransacked.

Both Sing and On were market gardeners and farmers. Little is known about Sing except that he had been born in China and had lived in Vernon for around 14 years. On’s brother Lin Lee provided details on his death registration including that he was born on April 9, 1880 in China, the son of Joe Lee and See Houie. On arrived in Canada around 1911, moving directly to Vernon.

The police were immediately on the lookout for Oullette who had arrived in Vernon less than two weeks before. Oullette was a mulatto who the police had been checking on daily since his arrival in the city. He worked for Sing.

It was two days prior on the Tuesday when a flat rack truck with the name of Wing Lee vegetable company and usually driven by Sing was found along Schubert Avenue (present day 32nd Street) between 25th Street and Pleasant Valley Road. It was hampering the flow of traffic and police moved it to the side of the road believing Sing would return for it. Two days later the truck was still there and police went to Sing’s cabin and found the macabre scene.

Police soon learned that Oullette had been seen leaving the truck at Schubert Avenue carrying a large brown suitcase, a knapsack and a black grip. He tried to hitch a ride to Swan Lake with one of the witnesses to his leaving. However he only got a ride as far as the local cemetery along Pleasant Valley Road and then walked to a house about a quarter of a mile further, leaving his entire luggage.

Oulette then walked to Hunter’s Store where he hitched a ride to Armstrong, he then got another ride to Salmon Arm. There he picked up Mary Tomma, a 16 year old Indian girl that he had known previously and took a taxi to Chase. From there the couple took another taxi to Kamloops and checked into a hotel under a different name. Later that evening they took a train to Vancouver.

The double murder trial began shortly after Oullette was transported back to Vernon. They called 22 witnesses in two days and presented over 40 items of evidence. Oullette’s defence was that he was only defending himself from the two elderly Chinese men who had attacked him. Sing was about 60 years old and On, 69 years old. Oullette was 21 years old.

Magistrate Smith ruled a short time after the trial ended that the evidence presented warranted further trial in a higher court. In the meantime, Oullette was transferred to Oakalla. His trial was held, 11 months later, in 1950 from October 30 to November 2. Oullette was found guilty and hanged at Oakalla on May 29, 1951, 18 months after the murders.

In Canada from 1867 to 1962, 691 men and 11 women were executed. From 1869 on only murder, rape and treason were punishable by death. Only two men, Thomas Scott [Orangeman against Riel provisional government] and Louis Riel were executed for treason.

Until 1869 executions were public and from 1892 to 1961 the mandatory penalty for murder was death by hanging. The last execution in Canada was December 11, 1962. Capital punishment was abolished on July 14, 1976.