UNSOLVED: The death of Nora Wheeler
An excerpt from Ed Arnold’s new local true crime book
This is the second of five Examiner exclusive excerpts from Ed Arnold’s 20th non-fiction book “Peterborough 1970s Crimes.” Book One: Unsolved, Death of Nora Wheeler.
Jean Elliott had telephoned her mother around 1 p.m. but didn’t get an answer as she had always done before. She called another half dozen times before telephoning Bell Telephone to see if there was anything wrong with her mother’s phone. There wasn’t. She had been talking with her at 7:30 the night before deciding, as usual, to go shopping that day so she headed from her house in the city’s north end arriving shortly before 2 p.m.
There were no car tracks in the driveway of the two storey home, but footprints could be seen as the snow fell. She saw no signs of a break in but noticed the storm door was unlatched from the inside which was unusual. Jean had a key to get in but “I called my mother and knocked first” before entering. She noticed the key that was usually on the other side of the door, wasn’t there, she would later tell an Examiner reporter. When she entered the dining room she saw her poor mother lying on the floor in her night clothes. Strange because she never came downstairs without getting dressed first. As she moved closer she saw a pair of scissors protruding from her heart area. Jean Elliott went into shock, shaking until gathering her senses and calling the police telling them, “My mother’s been killed.”
She stayed in the house to wait their arrival noticing a rug in the hall was rumpled and a tablecloth in the dining room misplaced, so she figured “there was a struggle.” A nearby desk with papers had been disturbed, but yet nothing else appeared out of place, “It was such a shock to me — you couldn’t look around to know what’s what.”
Imagine those minutes waiting for police. Had she yelled to see if anyone was in the house, and carefully, although full of fear, checked the rest of the house, to find out if the killer was still there? Had police told her to stay in the house? Maybe she had just decided there was no way she was leaving her mother alone like that.
“They weren’t very long in coming. They were pretty good.”
A cruiser was there in minutes, the most terrifying, shocking minutes of her life. The Const., while racing to her home, noticed a long haired male hitchhiking and radioed the station to tell them he might be a person of interest. Detective Sgt. Earl McDougall
who helped investigate most of the major crimes for the local OPP detachment was also on his way and knew the OPP’s Criminal Investigation branch in Toronto would have to be told. They were lucky because Insp. Casey Kotwa from the branch was on another case near the city so he would get to the scene as early as possible.
Within a half-hour at least 30 members of both city and OPP were at the scene, blocking off road exits and entrances, stopping cars for any suspects and witnesses. They were also at the scene stomping on the grounds, walking, driving and parking along the road in front of the house, removing any possible tire tracks which would become important later when a driver came forward saying he had seen a car parked on the road that morning in front of the farmhouse.
Police told Examiner reporter Malcolm Aird that robbery was a suspected motive, but nothing appeared to be stolen. The estimated time of death was late morning or noon. The killer was long gone. He had entered in broad daylight. Had he been there before? Did he know Mrs. Wheeler? Was it the same person who attacked her 12 years before? Had she heard noise downstairs and came down surprising the culprit? Was he that loud that the elderly person with poor hearing could hear him? Did he think she wasn’t home? Was there more than one person? Was he a he?
There were also police officers from Newcastle and Cobourg working on the case that day although the next day only six police remained at the scene after the roadside checks stopped. Police said a number of people had been questioned. Kotwa told the media he believed only one person was involved.
Casey Kotwa, was of Polish heritage, a 22-year-veteran of the force who not only spoke Polish but loved to sing Polish songs. He was a man who set standards for himself and expected others to follow. Those who knew him on the force said he was very “unforgiving” but owed him their careers. Constables and higher-ranking officers respected his work calling him a gentleman who knew his job and did it well.
Two days after the murder he told the shocked public that the scissors were still in Mrs. Wheeler’s body when she was discovered. He said the OPP settled on two main investigation avenues, a matter of hard leg work and tracking down leads, tips that people had given and would be giving them, said Kotwa. He said the media had assisted, “We have gotten some useful information” from phone tips. He also said they were looking outside the area for the suspect, not just in Peterborough. Detective Sgt. McDougall said with tips and leads, “You never know which is good and which is bad — you have to follow them all” and “up to this point nothing has been reported missing. There is no indication she had any amount of money in the house.”
Kotwa said Mrs. Wheeler was “the victim of a vicious assault, no doubt, and that may be using a moderate word in this case.” He said the victim’s chest had been “caved in” but would not speculate on how the wound was made.
“Maybe someday we’ll put the pieces together and be able to tell how it was done.”
Copyright Ed Arnold. The $25 book is available at The Peterborough Examiner office on Hunter Street East, Trent Valley Archives on Carnegie Avenue, Happenstance Books in Lakefield or for local readers at [email protected]
OPP officers take part in the investigation at Nora Wheeler’s home on Old Norwood Road, outside Peterborough, on Feb. 19, 1974.