A history of arrest … a murder, and a double hangin’

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Did you know Alberta is home to a somewhat infamous prohibition-era crime story? It’s true! Read about this historical story that led to a sting operation and eventually took down Emilio Picariello, an illegal liquor importer well known in Alberta.

A strident voice cut through a dense blanket of fog: Stop! Police!

Out of the enveloping snowy mist, a uniformed officer stepped forward. Behind him, an Alberta Provincial Police (APP) Checkstop banner came into view. The tour bus stopped, and a wave of deep concern and foreboding swept through its passengers. Hushed voices faded into utter silence.

The officer boarded the bus and checked its passengers for illegal liquor. Most were spared the indignity and shame that befell one lady, caught red-handed with a bottle of booze that exceeded the alcohol limit for “temperance beer.”

This is the scene that played out recently at the Alberta-British Columbia border after the Fernie Museum, Crowsnest Museum and the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre partnered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Prohibition.

The arresting officer stayed on the scene and provided a tour that took participants a century back.

During Prohibition, Alberta and Montana were “dry”, where drinking was outlawed while British Columbia continued to allow alcohol. During this time, illicit liquor flowed uphill, climbing up and out of the Elk River valley, spilling into thirsty Alberta.

One of the best known illegal importer was Emilio Picariello, nicknamed “Emperor Pic.”

The Crime Story: Emilio Picariello

On Sept 21, 1922, a sting operation set up by police at the Alberta Hotel attempted to trap infamous rum runner Emilio Picariello, as he brought in a load of liquor from B.C.

The Emperor was armed with three fast McLaughlin “Whiskey Six” vehicles he and his crew had driven from Fernie, B.C. to a hotel in Blairmore, AB to drop off the cargo. An underground tunnel allowed bootleggers to discreetly take the liquor downstairs without disturbing patrons. To hide the noise, a player piano flooded the hotel with music.

When he arrived at the hotel, Picariello spotted the police. He honked his car horn in order to warn his son Steve (16), who had the load, to abort the planned drop off and drive back into B.C. Constable Lawson, alerted to the fleeing vehicle, waited at Coleman and stood in the road to apprehend the rum running lad. When Steve sped past and failed to stop, Constable Lawson and the Coleman police chief commandeered a car and chased after Steve. Lawson shot at Steve’s car and hit him in the hand but the boy escaped.

Picariello, aware that his son had been shot, drove west with his business partner’s wife, Florence Lassandro, to the APP barracks in Coleman. Cst. Lawson, unarmed, came out to talk.

There on the street, something went terribly wrong. Cst. Lawson was shot and killed. It was never clear who fired the bullet. The story was tragic. Cst. Lawson was a lawman, a war hero and family man, highly respected within the community. Picariello was an admired businessman. He was also generous to the poor, civic-minded, and he had a family.

There was a trial and, despite the lack of hard evidence, Picariello and Lassandro were both hanged for the crime. Ironically, Prohibition ended just a few months later.

Join in on the fun! Upcoming Prohibition events in Crowsnest Pass

A series of Prohibition-related events are being held in both Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass and in Fernie, B.C for the remainder of the year until 2017.

This past September, the Fernie Museum opened a new exhibit, “AN IMMIGRANT STORY: THE RISE AND FALL OF EMILIO PICARIELLO.” It tells the story of the main players in the Picariello story and explains the background to the fatal shooting.

The second event was the bus tour reported at the beginning of this article. It took place on October 3, and transported participants from Fernie to Crowsnest Pass, with the APP stop at the border, a look at the Coleman barracks where the fatal shooting took place, a tour of the Crowsnest Museum, lunch, and a tour of the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. There, participants were treated to an interpretive program in which they became the jury in “The Trial of Emperor Pic.”

Coming up next:

  • TBA: A companion book to the Picariello exhibit in the Fernie Museum will be launched at various venues in Alberta and B.C., including the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre.
  • Summer 2016: Crowsnest Heritage Initiative, a society that includes the major heritage and cultural attractions of the Crowsnest Pass, will focus on a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Prohibition. The Doors Open – Crowsnest Pass Heritage Festival will also feature activities following this theme.
  • Summer, 2017: The Crowsnest Historical Society will open the APP Barracks Provincial Historical Resource, complete with exhibits. The days of rum-running are over, but its arresting history lives on.

For more information about the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, visit their website or like them on Facebook.

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