The East Cordova Street Murder Factory

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When I was going through John Vance’s personal files for Blood, Sweat, and Fear, a small article torn from the pages of the long defunct Vancouver Star caught my eye. Vance’s handwriting dated it October 23, 1931 and it mentioned the murder of Naokichi Watanabe. Vance had clearly kept the clipping because he had testified that blood found on the suspect’s clothing was human.

I looked up other stories around that date to find out more about the case and was intrigued to find that it was much bigger than one murder and revolved around a house that still exists on East Cordova Street, about a block or so over from the former Japantown.

Historical Map-Guide, Japantown. Courtesy Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

In the heart of the Depression, Shinkichi Sakurada, a 40-year-old Hastings Sawmill worker, set himself up as a medicine man and started a private hospital in the six-room East Cordova house. Problem was, people would enter the hospital, take out an insurance policy, name him as their beneficiary, and shortly after, die.

The site of the murder factory
629 East Cordova Street. Eve Lazarus photo, 2017

The scheme began to derail when Watanabe’s body was found by Sakurada behind the American Can Company. Sakurada told police that Watanabe lived at his house and when he had gone out that night and not returned, he had became worried and went to search for him.

Watanabe, had injured his back on the job the previous year and was about to receive a cheque from the Workmen’s Compensation Board. He planned to return to Japan the following week. Knowing that if Watanabe left the country he would never recover the money from his insurance policy, Sakurada became desperate and told Tadao Hitomi, he would forgive a debt and share some of the insurance money if he was willing to kill his friend Watanabe.

Naokichi Watanabe’s body was found lying across the CPR tracks behind the American Can Company at the foot of Princess Street. Hastings Sawmill  is visible. Photo courtesy Vancouver Public Library, 1926

The koroshi (killing) was reported widely in the Japanese papers, but the mainstream press took little interest until police called Sakurada’s modest house “a murder factory,” and the Globe and Mail ran a national story headlined “Murder Syndicate Collects Insurance on Victims’ Lives.” The newspaper reported that police suspected an “organized assassination ring” operated in Japantown and was responsible for as many as 20 deaths.

Sakurada and Hitomi were quickly dispatched to the gallows on December 30, 1931 at Oakalla Prison Farm.

You can read the full story in Blood, Sweat and Fear: The Story of Inspector Vance, Vancouver’s First Forensic Investigator, it’s one of the ten chapters in the book that follows individual crimes that Inspector Vance helped to solve during his 42-year career as head of the Police Bureau of Science (1907-1949).

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