© Bruce Edwards,
These red and orange trees in the Grande Prairie area, shown in July 2007.
Amateur historian Wallace Tansem spent a decade looking into the biggest unsolved mass murder in Alberta history, a case his father and uncles had talked about for years.

As Tansem learned more about the killings near Grande Prairie, Alta., in June 1918, he was haunted by one thought, the same question another man had asked an undercover police officer more than 70 years earlier.

"How is it that six men are killed and no one knows anything about it?"

It was first assumed to be a murder-suicide. The bodies of Joseph Snyder and his nephew, Stanley, were found in the remains of their burnt-out shack near Grande Prairie. Both had been shot, likely with the .38 revolver found near the bodies. The Snyders were quiet and had always seemed to get along well, but 1918 had been a hard year, and killings were not unheard of.

Six days later, people noticed a bad smell emanating from the farm down the road.

The first bodies were found inside the shack. Ignace Patan, the owner of the farm, lay on the floor beside John Wudwand. Both were on their stomachs, close together and fully clothed, a tarp over their bodies, the floor beneath them stained with blood. Patan was still wearing the moccasins he had made from moose skin.

Inside a wagon in the yard was Charles Zimmer, his head visible under the sacks of flour and sugar that had been piled on top of his body, recognizable to the men who found him by his dark, bushy beard and the bright gold tooth shining at the front of his dentures.

Frank Parzychowsky was found lying on his back in the log storehouse, one hand in his overall pocket, the other raised over his head as if he'd been trying to protect himself.

Patan had his throat slit. The other three men were each shot, a single bullet in the back of the head or in the eye. Three men, three shots.

Suddenly, the deaths of the Snyders took on a new significance.

The gun found at the burning Snyder shack belonged to Patan, and there were five empty shell casings inside. A ring of keys from the Patan house was also found at the Snyder farm.

"It has been the belief of the police that either Snyder or his nephew had slain the other and then committed suicide," a newspaper story noted at the time, "but this new development may throw an entirely new light on the entire series of tragedies."

The last time anyone saw Patan, Zimmer and Wudwand alive, they were about to leave for Fort Vermilion, Alta., to buy a new ranch. The men had saved up $5,000 for the purchase, and had withdrawn all the money in cash from the Union Bank in Grande Prairie before their trip.

The men also had some wood alcohol, and their friend Parzychowsky joined them for a drink to say goodbye.

After the murders, police found only $108 in the house. The rest of the money was gone.

The bills started showing up in September. Ones, twos, fives and 10-dollar bills, all stained unmistakably with blood. The money was traced back to the Union Bank in Grande Prairie, but the teller couldn't remember who the money had come from. Some in town thought the bloody bills could have come from the butcher, but there were just so many of them, all stained the same deep crimson.

By the spring of 1920, police still hadn't made an arrest. Even an undercover police officer sent to Grande Prairie to "get in with the foreigners" came up empty-handed.

Despite having a long list of potential suspects and a new $5,000 reward, the best Det. John Nicholson could come up with was a circumstantial case against Dan Lough, the neighbour who discovered the Snyders' bodies.

Nicholson wasn't confident about the case - especially since there was absolutely no evidence linking Lough to any of the killings - but he decided to charge Lough anyway.

A jury took less than an hour to find Lough not guilty.

Nicholson then charged another man, Richard Knechtel, with the murders, based on information he got from Lough. Those charges were dismissed after a preliminary hearing. Lough was charged again in July 1921, but the charges were quickly withdrawn.

Nicholson admitted investigators had been stumped by the sophistication of the crime.

"The party or parties who committed these murders are not ordinary people," he wrote.

In 1951, a Grande Prairie man wrote a letter to the police with a thought that had been weighing on his mind.

"Maybe a backwoods man did it," he suggested. "Slipping in with moccasins and leaving no trace."

RCMP officers who read the letter decided the man, like many others in the area, had merely treated the case "as a murder mystery, and had figured out a storybook solution."

He was not the only one still looking for an answer.

More than 90 years later, the murders of those six men near Grande Prairie on June 18 or June 19, 1918, remains the largest unsolved mass murder in Alberta history. Provincial government historian David Leonard said he has long been intrigued by the case, describing it as the ultimate "whodunit," a mystery that will probably never be solved.

"I guess it's all just speculation," he said. "I don't see how any more information could come forward now."

Tansem, the amateur historian who started looking into the case in the early 1990s, investigated the murders for about 10 years, even working on the case in hospital right up until his death.

Tansem's wife, Doris, said her husband had his own theory about the killer or killers, but he preferred people to come to their own conclusions.

"He thought people could go through the facts and decide for themselves," she said.