June 20th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 25
Looking Back - John Kinnear
A Lighter Look at the Russians
Looking Back
courtesy Glenbow Archives
Reenactment of Bassoff shooting Bailey from doorway - circa 1920's
This last weekend many determined Passites toughed it out in the driving rain to participate in the always fun Bellecrest Days. I’ve seen a lot of parades in my day but never have I seen such panache as was displayed by those committed paraders in Bellevue as they leaned into the tempest that rolled down Main Street. Everyone got soaked.

Part of the festivities après parade was an unannounced re-creation of the famous 1920 shoot-out at the Bellevue Café. The intention of this clandestine show was to catch everyone off guard just like it probably did 98 years ago. The Bellevue Café was turned into an artist’s outlet for the day so I had wandered in there out of the rain to check out the offerings. It was only by accident that I happened to be inside talking to a gifted photographer about his display when all hell broke loose.

There was a lot of hollering and jostling and guns going off and lines like: “Drop it or I’ll shoot” and then several very young banditos burst out the front door into the street, guns a-blazing. I quickly followed and discovered, as I stepped outside, a group of period dressed Crowsnest Pass High School students blasting away at each other while an astonished crowd looked on. It was great fun and kudos to the students and their teacher Cole Happell for reenergizing Bellevue’s equivalent of the O.K. Corral. Later, after the bodies were cleaned up, I posed them up against the café wall and as I prepared to shoot them (with my Nikon) the teacher hollered to all 24 of them to: “Look sombre.”
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My February 2015 column entitled “Usher, Bailey, Kyslik and Wynn” took a “sombre” look at this event and coincident with it the murder, in 2015, of Constable David Wynn in St. Albert. It was designed to remind everyone about the thin blue line that stands between us and chaos. So what say, for a change, we take a lighter look at the whole Bellevue Café story using a sort of conduplicatio (repetition of a common word) to inject some humour into it. So it’s “off” we go.

It seems there were these three Russian jokers named Arkoff, Bassoff and Auloff who planned to pull "off" a full blown train heist August 1, 1920. The word is the "Off" gang had heard that the famous entrepreneur and rumrunner Emilio Picariello was heading off on CPR train No. 63, the Lethbridge to Fernie express, and figured he'd probably be packin' a fistful of greenbacks which they intended to take “off” of him.

This nasty Russian trio bought tickets and boarded that train and when it was in an isolated spot west of Coleman around the old Devon sulphur plant area, sounded ‘off” in the baggage car. With pistols drawn they confronted the conductor Sam Jones who was packing a brand new engraved CPR gold pocket watch. One of the Off’s decided to make the definitive point that they were serious robbers by firing his pistol “off” into the train car’s roof right by the conductor’s head. They then relieved him of his watch and set about taking valuables off of its passengers.

Emperor Pic and his wad of cash were nowhere to be found which really browned them “off”. Once they had cleaned out the train they jumped "off "at Sentinel, just east of Crowsnest Lake and beat it "off" into the bush.

Two days later two thirds of the "Offs", Bass and Ark, were observed in the Bellevue Cafe having lunch, like nothing had happened. They were, in fact, preparing to hit the bank in Bellevue which they heard had an unusually large amount of payroll cash on hand to pay the local coal miners “off”.
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Enter then, RCMP Corporal Usher and Alberta Provincial Police Corporal Bailey and Constable Frewin who had been tipped “off” that the Russians were in town. A bizarre inside/outside shootout followed in the cafe in which Bailey, Usher and one third of the Off gang, namely George Arkoff, perished. There were Lugers and Mausers going “off” all over the place. Bassoff was winged by Frewin and headed “off” for the Frank Slide, just about the best hiding place a fleeing criminal could ask for. Bassoff evaded continuous police searches and volunteer posse’s, armed with rifles and guns of various descriptions, for five days until he was grabbed “off” the train tracks just west of Pincher Station.

Side note: The day after the Bellevue shootout a special constable named Nick Kyslik or "Big Nick", who was of the same nationality as the Off's, was accidentally killed by A.P.P Constable Hidson when his gun went off after hollering at what he thought was Bassoff for refusing to halt when ordered.

Apparently the townsfolk were more afraid of the posse's guns going “off” than of the gang, as these special constables staggered from one blind pig to another with loaded guns and topped off with illicit booze. That trigger happy constable got off incidentally following a juried inquest and "Big Nick" was buried in Hillcrest leaving behind a wife and two children.

Bassoff, meanwhile, was tried some months later in Fort Macleod on two counts of murder and one of train robbery, found guilty and went “off” to meet his maker by hanging three days before Christmas of that year.

But what of the third "Off", namely Alex Auloff? Alex took “off” to the U.S. after the train holdup and remained at large for five years before he was picked “off” by an A.P.P. named Schrappe in Portland, Oregon. He may well have never been caught but for that specially engraved CPR pocket watch he had pawned “off,” leaving a trail to follow. Auloff was returned to Canada and subsequently sentenced to seven years jail for armed robbery. The last "Off", Alex, died “off” mysteriously in prison four years before his sentence expired. According to the distinguished journalist Ted Moser he died of phthisis which is another word for tuberculosis. I wonder how many convicts back then contracted that deadly disease while in prison before we finally figured out how easily this highly infectious disease was spread.
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As an aside I had the opportunity many years ago to talk to a long time Bellevue resident by the name of "Orestes Serra" about the downtown shootout. Orestes was 13 at the time and heard the shots fired and rushed to the scene to find two local businessmen propping up Arkoff's body in the street. He claims a fella named Harry Peters opened Arkoff's shirt to check his heart thus exposing a terrible lung wound. Arkoff had been shot in the back as he fled and Orestes heard Peters say "Il est fini" (he is finished) shortly after he arrived whereupon Peter's and his friend packed the body “off” over to Wolstenholme's warehouse. Orestes then proceeded to the Bellevue Cafe where Joe Mah,the Chinese owner, was busy chasing “off” onlookers. He allowed Orestes into the cafe because Orestes always cranked his ice cream machine for him and Joe liked him.

Orestes discovered a bullet hole in the booth which he subsequently traced through to a wooden stave barrel used for shipping soda pop. With his trusty pocket knife he made “off” with every boy's dream, a real live slug from a shootout. When word got to the RCMP that Orestes had a slug from the crime scene he was hauled off to the chief’s office. On request he produced the bullet from his pocket and held it out in the palm of his hand whereupon he claimed the officer swiftly took it off him and replaced it with a thin dime. He was then told: “get the hell out of my office”. So it seems that the last "off" of this bizarre saga was a "payoff".

Author’s Note: The most recent release in the Frank Slide’s comic book series – Shoot-Out at the Bellevue Café- tells this story from young Orestes Serra’s perspective. The artistry of renowned comic book artist Claude St. Aubin injects a classic comic book feel to Serra’s memories. Copies are available at the center and are literally flying “off” the shelf. (Sorry, had to get one more off in there.)
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June 20th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 25
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