TAXI-L Gallery of Cab History

The Murder of Jo Johnson, 1946.

(Winnipeg, Manitoba - 27)

Six months after the murder of Arthur Badger, another taxi driver, Johann (Jo) Johnson, was killed in very similar circumstances. Once again the scene of the attack was a sparsely- populated suburban area, and once again the victim was savagely beaten with a blunt instrument.

On Sunday morning, March 31, 1946, two bored war veterans awaiting discharge at Fort Osborne barracks decided to go for a walk in the freezing drizzle. As they passed a clearing in the bush along Kenaston Boulevard, about half a mile south of the barracks, one of them noticed Johnson's dark blue 1940 Chrysler stuck in the mud about 70 yards east of the road. (In the photo above, Johnson's car is the dark sedan parked beside the open garage door.)

On closer examination the two soldiers discovered the body of the taxi driver lying on the ground about 18 feet from the car. Johnson's skull was badly injured and marked by eight deep lacerations. His trouser pockets had been turned out, but a wallet containing $35 was still in his jacket. The coroner estimated the time of death as 3 or 4 a.m.

The 43-year-old Johnson was a native of Iceland who came to Winnipeg in 1922. (The first Icelanders settled in Manitoba in the 1870's and their descendents still make up a significant part of the population.) He had been an owner-operator with United Taxi since 1937.

The evidence at the murder scene indicated that Johnson's killer or killers had dragged his body from the car and tried to drive away, but became stuck in the mud. Tire tracks showed that a second car or truck became stuck at about the same time and had been extricated with considerable difficulty.

In the two weeks following the discovery of the murder, several pieces of evidence turned up. A woman's footprints were found about half a mile away from the body, and near the prints was a receipt for $79 made out to Jo Johnson for the care of his estranged wife in the Selkirk mental institution. Subsequently a second wallet, containing papers belonging to Johnson but no money, was picked up in the same area.

The murder weapon, an 18-inch-long bridge construction bolt weighing nearly three pounds, was retrieved from a pool of water about 70 feet from the body. It was wrapped in several sheets of newspaper and tied with cord.

A second set of footprints was discovered, apparently left by a woman running away from the murder scene and wearing only one shoe. Near these prints was a discarded handkerchief bearing the initial "J".

Noting that the footprints seemed to head toward some distant dairy farms, the manager of Royal Dairies interviewed several farmers in the area and his efforts resulted in the identification of the shoeless woman as Mrs. Helen Berard. Mrs. Berard spent the next month locked up as a material witness, under close questioning by Winnipeg police detectives, and it was her testimony that eventually convicted Lawrence Deacon of Jo Johnson's murder.

In the meantime, Jo Johnson's funeral became a public event. Ninety people packed the small funeral chapel, and two hundred more stood outside. It was estimated that almost a third of Winnipeg's 300 licensed cabs took part in the procession. United Taxi shut its doors from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and company's four-foot wreath was the centrepiece of many floral tributes. All the pall bearers were United drivers. Photos of the funeral appeared on the front page of the Winnipeg Tribune.

The Greater Winnipeg Taxicab Association offered a reward of $500, later boosted to $750, for information leading to the conviction of Johnson's killer. Crimes against taxi drivers suddenly became big news. Some cabbies told reporters that they were refusing to work the night shift; others told of carrying wrenches and knives to protect themselves. There was a debate about the need to equip cabs with protective shields, and a family of drivers installed a wire mesh screen behind the front seat of their cab after one of them was assaulted.

Two serious incidents grabbed the headlines. Five days after Johnson's murder, Moore's Taxi driver Sam Walsh had to flee from his cab when a young man threatened him with a revolver. Police quickly apprehended the culprit, who openly boasted about his intention to shoot Walsh.

Three days later, a McMillan Taxi driver became suspicious of the three passengers in a United cab and followed it to its destination. The United driver, Donovon Clayton, had also anticipated a robbery attempt and jumped from his cab as the three men were on the point of attacking him. Clayton and the driver and passenger of the McMillan cab subdued one of the suspects and held him for police.

However, interest in Johnson and other cabbies quickly waned with the arrest of Lawrence Deacon. An entirely new drama now began to unfold.

On the night of the Johnson's murder, Lawrence Deacon had attended a party at Helen Berard's residence. During the party Mrs. Berard drank heavily and quarreled with her husband before storming out of the house sometime before 3 a.m. Deacon left the party shortly afterward.

According to Mrs. Berard, Deacon met her by prearrangement a short distance from the house and the two flagged down a taxi, intending to go back to Deacon's apartment. However, they quarreled on the way and Mrs. Berard stopped the taxi, walking home from the point where her first set of footprints was first found. Her description of the cab and driver did not tally with Jo Johnson and his Chrysler.

Mrs. Berard subsequently made a whole series of increasingly elaborate and contradictory statements. In the statement that sealed Deacon's fate, Mrs. Berard claimed that he returned in the cab a few minutes after letting her off, and when she approached the car she saw, first, the murder weapon on the floor; then Deacon with his left arm poised to strike the driver from behind; and finally, the driver lying across the front seat. At this point she fled the scene and lost one of her shoes.

In later statements Mrs. Berard claimed that the man in the back of the cab was not Deacon, but a stranger wearing a hat. For his part, Deacon denied sharing a cab with Mrs. Berard, claiming that he had hailed his own taxi and gone straight home from the party by himself.

In the trial that followed, Deacon was found guilty of murder primarily on the most incriminating version of Mrs. Berard's story. His defence counsel took the case to the Manitoba Court of Appeal based on the judge's controversial charge to the jury. Four of the five justices denied the appeal, but a lone dissent allowed the case to be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court granted the appeal and ordered a new trial.

At his second trial, Deacon was once again convicted of murder. A second appeal was turned down unanimously by the Manitoba court, and the absence of a dissenting vote meant that no further appeal could be made to the Supreme Court. The only avenue now open to Deacon was a request for clemency.

During the two years that Deacon spent behind bars, public opinion began to shift in his favour. He had no previous criminal record, and apart from his war service -- he was wounded while serving with an armoured unit in Europe -- he had worked for ten years at Gray's Auction Rooms in Winnipeg. The Gray family was convinced of his innocence and footed the bill for his defence.

Mrs. Berard's credibility as a witness dwindled as she continued to change her testimony. Many people came to believe that Deacon was convicted on highly dubious evidence, and that the very apparent hostility of the judges in both trials had unduly influenced the juries to return guilty verdicts.

A committee led by several lawyers and including some members of the Manitoba legislature gathered 10,000 names in support of clemency for Deacon. Mrs. Berard, recanting her earlier statements, flew to Ottawa to appeal to the Minister of Justice on Deacon's behalf. Nevertheless, the federal cabinet refused to intervene and he was hanged at Headingley Gaol on April 16, 1948.

Deacon's story is detailed by William E. Morris in his book "Watch the Rope" (Watson & Dwyer, 1996). Morris was a Free Press reporter during the 1940's and 1950's and covered the trials of the last seven men to be executed in Manitoba. He makes a strong case for Deacon's innocence, and his account of the judicial process that led to Deacon's execution makes depressing reading.

Deacon's execution went off without a hitch, and that may have been his only good fortune in the final two years of his life. Two of Manitoba's last seven executions were horribly bungled, with one man strangling to death at the end of the rope and another being partially decapitated. Morris is not the first to point out that Canada's executioners have a well-deserved reputation for incompetence.

Hence the title of Morris's book. Assigned to his first execution at Headingley Gaol, the green young reporter was cautioned by Sheriff Murray Kyle about being too quick to follow the attending physician down under the scaffold.

"Don't close your eyes," advised Sheriff Kyle. "Watch the rope. If it begins to jiggle around, don't go downstairs, at least not for some time. If it snaps back, for God's sake don't go downstairs. You can get the details from someone else."

Picture source: University of Manitoba Archives, Winnipeg Tribune photo # 18-1465-2. This photo is reproduced in "Watch the Rope" by William E. Morris, who identifies the car as belonging to Jo Johnson. Evidently it was stored at the Northern Taxi yard following the murder. The muddy yard, with its delapidated outbuildings, line of washing, derelict truck, and litter of car frames, has a charm all its own.

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Revised February 13, 1998