Original article by Gord Tolton. Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.
On August 2nd, 1920 three passengers boarded the day-coach of an westbound Canadian Pacific Railway Train #63 in Lethbridge, Alberta and calmly took their seats. Before they got off, they had initiated one of Alberta’s most audacious and sensational crimes. The conductor, Sam Jones, was only concerned for schedules, delivery of freight, and the safety of the passengers. Mundane was the expected norm – on the Lethbridge to Cranbrook run, nobody expected surprises or excitement. By 1920, rail travel was a safe and reliable utility, time and settlement having conquered the vagaries of its wild frontier days.
That is why train #63 wound westward through the string of coal-mining towns in the Crowsnest Pass and as it approached the Sentinel train station, Jones could only look dumb-founded when one of the passengers stood up and pointed an Mauser automatic pistol at him. Train hold-ups were a thing of the past, not in the living memory of Canadian railway men! Jones dismissed the gunman as an idiotic prankster, and reached to pull the emergency brake cord. But before he could pull the cord, the gunman’s nervous finger pulled the trigger. The train did brake, but only because it had reached its regular stop at the Sentinel train station. The locomotive engineer and brakeman were oblivious to what was happening a few cars back, but outside an road worker by the name of Charles Uresenbach seen the raised hands through the windows, and ran ahead to warn the crew. The crew scoffed Uresenbach’s attempts until shots rang out. The bullet only grazed the conductor’s forehead, but two other gun-wielding passengers joined the lone gunman. The railway baggageman entered the coach to investigate, and much to his surprise three fugitives were waving their pistols wildly, and yelling in a thick foreign accent for the stunned passengers to be quiet.
Within minutes, the three gunmen were moving down the rows of seats, reliving the passengers of watches, wallets, jewelry, etc. An executive by the name of Donald, was the manager of the Alberta – British Columbia Power Company, and upon seeing the incoming bandits, he rolled up his money and hid it in a fold in the seat. Female passengers and children were left untouched. One of the gunmen approached Conductor Jones and admired his watch, which he soon took for himself! As quickly as they started, the trip ended the event. They stepped off the railway car, fired an warning shot to not follow them, and ran off into the surrounding trees. The passengers on board could only watch as they left with a sackful of valuables, and $400 in cash.
Subsequently, the law arrived on the scene – the combined forces of the newly-formed Alberta Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the CPR’s own police force. Interviews with the victims exposed the criminals were not exactly careful in their plot – they didn’t wear masks, and that several on the train knew who they were – they were Russian migrant laborers who were working at one of the local coal mines in the region. They were; Tom Bassoff (who shot the Conductor) was 45 years old, with an large black mustache, and had an glass eye; George Arkoff, and 20 year old that was clean shaven and had an shock of white in his hair, and; Alex Arloff another 20 year old.
As news relayed of the daring daylight robbery, rumors began to start that the robbers missed their intendant target – the wealthy rum runner Emillo Picariello (Emperor Pic). Tongues wagged that Emperor Pic (known to carry $10,000) was the actual target of the gunmen, and had sneaked the money in the train seat cushion while the gunmen robbed the passengers. We know that it wasn’t Pic on board who did this trick, but the manager of the power company! The Russians appeared not to know what to do next. Despite the nearby mountains or the vast prairies to the east to hide in, they lingered nearby the crime scene. Four days later, they were spotted in Coleman, Alberta. The trio had argued about escape plans and it was decided that Arloff would take most of the loot and head south to the United States. They never saw him again. Bassoff & Arkoff decided to head east but for reasons unknown, they weren’t too fast in leaving and were often spotted at local bars and dances in the area. The local labor clubs were loyal to their patrons, and many times didn’t tell the law that they were hiding the two criminals.
Not long after the robbery, Bassoff & Arkoff arrived in Bellevue – ambling past the local court house and pausing at the window to look at their own wanted posters, before heading across the street to the Bellevue Cafe. Inside the courthouse, justice of the peace J.H. Robertson was alarmed by the pair’s curiosity towards their own wanted posters, and watched them from his window cross the street to the cafe. He then quickly phoned the Alberta Provincial Police (APP) detachment in Blairmore to get the police out to arrest the two. As the two sat down for breakfast in the cafe, Constable James Frewin commandeered a train for the short trip to Bellevue. In minutes, he was met by Constable Fred Bailey of the APP, and Corporal Ernest Usher of the RCMP. The policemen met at the courthouse where Robertson confirmed the fugitive’s identity. Approaching the cafe slowly, Frewin, out of uniform, offered to enter the cafe first to check out the situation. He walked into the cafe, and nonchalantly walked over to the booth were the two fugitives were sitting and pulled back the booth’s curtain, oblivious to the pair sitting there. Bassoff & Arkoff looked up from their breakfast – Frewin apologized for disturbing them, re closed the curtain, and retreated from the cafe.
Quickly a plan was formed – Bailey would enter the cafe from the rear, and Frewin & Usher would enter from the front. What happened next only took seconds, but became a moment of terror. With gun drawn, Frewin whipped back the booth curtain and informed the fugitives they were under arrest, and to have them raise their hands. Bassoff holding a coffee cup, feigned disinterest. But instead of raising his hands, Bassoff dropped his cup and pulled the muzzle of Ferwin’s gun down, as Arkoff went for the pistol in his coat pocket. His life now threatened, Frewin fired, his gun wounding Arkoff in his neck. For some reason Usher never fired his weapon, as Frewin emptied his. Hearing the shots, Bailey rushed into the rear of the cafe – and knowing his gun was empty, Frewin backed away to let Usher take over. In that split second, both bandits were armed and began shooting back, with Bassoff shooting with two guns. Usher, badly wounded, retreated through the front door but was hit in the back and fell dead into the street. Bailey was following Usher, but in backing out tripped over Usher’s body and knocked himself out on the concrete sidewalk. As both Usher and Bailey fell, the fugitives both wounded slunked along the wall of the cafe to the front door. Arkoff was the first one out of the door, and ran 86 feet down the street before collapsing under the weight of seven bullets in his body. Bassoff, wounded in his legs, was the last man standing in the doorway of the cafe. At this time, Bailey was waking up and seeing this, Bassoff turned and shot him fatally in the brain. Confused and angry, Bassoff emptied his gun into Usher’s body and then limped off towards Frank Slide. Justice of the Peace Robertson exchanged some shots with Bassoff from behind a telephone pole, but the killer managed to get away. Before he did, one of the newspapers reported that Bassoff shot Arkoff in the head to put him out of his misery.
Frewin, unhurt, was unable to stop Bassoff. As he tried to reload his gun, Frewin was struck with ‘Shell Shock’ (now known as Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disease) which Frewin got from serving in the First World War. In mere seconds, the situation went beyond a trivial stick-up to an gruesome capital crime. Bassoff escaped into the woods, as the manhunt for the robber-turned killer escalated. The police put every available man on horseback into the back country, searching for a wounded and desperate fugitive. A trained dog tracker from Washington State, an sheriff Lee, gave chase with his three bloodhounds through the limestone rubble of the Frank Slide. The trail through the rubble led towards the Holloway Ranch, but an sudden thunder shower washed away the scent. The sheriff didn’t realize that he was within feet of apprehending his prey. Bassoff recalled later that the trackers came close enough for him to almost reach out and touch them. Nerves in the Crowsnest Pass, with the Bellevue Cafe riddled with bullets and blood was fragile. That evening, an pair of special APP Constables by the name of Kyslik & Hudson were searching some abandoned houses nearby the crime scene. Kyslik entered the front door of one building, and for reasons unknown jumped out the rear main floor windows startling his partner enough to accidentally shoot him dead. Bellevue’s death toll mounts.
On August 9th, Bassoff left his hideout in the Frank Slide and walked to the Holloway Ranch cabin, where he walked in on the ranch owner’s wife and child. Mrs. Holloway didn’t panic, as she fed Bassoff who soon left. As soon as he left, she alerted the APP who renewed the manhunt for Bassoff. Still Bassoff eluded his trackers, but a break came on the evening of August 11th. A CPR train engineer by the name of Hammond was driving a westbound train near the Pincher Station siding, when he noticed a man fitting Bassoff’s description lurking near the train station. As soon as the train stopped at Lundbreck, he got on the phone with the Canadian Pacific Railway Police on his find. Four railway detectives were dispatched to Pincher Station on an eastbound train. Upon arriving at Pincher Station, one of the detectives noticed movement an slight ways behind the depot by an boulder. From his vantage point in the moonlight he yelled out ‘Throw down your hands’ – but the figure didn’t move, although it brought the other detectives over. The figure reached into his pocket but only pulled up some food. As the detectives closed in, Bassoff weak from his wounds, began eating and then surrendered. He was then handcuffed and turned over to the APP.
The prisoner was remanded at Fort Macleod – after an hearing on August 17th, Tom Bassoff was charged for the murder of Constable Fred Bailey, in which he plead not-guilty. Bassoff was then transported to Lethbridge for his trial, where witnesses stated that Bassoff shot Bailey six times, but the autopsy only showed one bullet in his brain. As well, witness stated that the police failed to identify themselves and fired first. But no matter, as Bassoff emptied his gun into Bailey’s body! It took the jury only an hour to determine Bassoff’s fate – an verdict of guilty! On December 22nd, 1920 Bassoff was taken to the Lethbridge Jail gallows and hanged for his crimes – the 5th to die from the August crime spree in the Crowsnest Pass.
The death of the bandits left one member unaccounted for. The APP flooded the continent with descriptions of Alex Arloff and the description of the missing CPR conductor’s watch. But not an trace was found until January 18th, 1924 when an man walked into an Portland, Oregon pawnshop seeking quick cash on an CPR conductor’s watch. The pawnbroker was wary and checked the serial numbers – and sure enough it was the same watch! The officials were notified, and the APP tracked the sale of the watch to Butte, Montana where Arloff was finally arrested. He was extradited back to Alberta, and was sentenced to seven years in the Prince Albert Penitentiary. He would die in prison in 1926.
The Bellevue Café still stands – it was originally built in 1917 by Joe Mah, who had emigrated from Canton, China to Canada in 1908. Mah lived originally in Vancouver Island, but moved to Bellevue in 1909 to operate a restaurant. The original building was a small shed-roof wood framed structure with clapboard siding. It burnt down in the fire of 1917 and Mah was one of the many Bellevue resident’s forced to rebuild its businesses. The Café remained in the Mah family until being sold in 1975. The bullet holes from the shootout remained visible for several years afterwards. In December 1989 the building was designated an registered historic resource by Alberta Culture. The original clapboard siding and window details of the front elevation were reconstructed in 1990 by the Alberta Main Street Program.
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