In January 1968 a Canadian Forces Otter aircraft broke through the winter ice of Memphremagog and sank to the floor of the lake. Several recovery efforts of the military aircraft were attempted, none succeeded. Then in 1976, a five man crew from Montreal managed to locate the wreckage and raise it 280 feet to the surface from the lake bed. Who were these guys?
This story was told to me while having a bowl of coffee in Sherbrooke. When I first heard it, I didn’t believe the guy, I thought he’d made it up. At best, he probably conflated a series of events. When I got back from Canada and researched it, I was amazed to find – word for word – it was pretty much exactly as he had told it to me.
January 7, 1968, a Canadian Forces Otter aircraft from the 402 Axillary Squadron, 11th Wing out of St. Hubert airport near Montreal was practicing ski landings on Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. 18-year-old Real Bernais was on the wharf at Georgeville, a village 12 miles south of Magog. He watched the aircraft go halfway across the lake when suddenly one of the ski landings broke through the ice.
The aircraft was sinking fast, but it slowed when the wings touch the surface of the ice. Flight Lieutenant Morrow escaped first, momentarily plunging into the frozen water before climbing back on the ice.
The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Evans wanted to stay with the aircraft. He then realized he couldn’t get his door open. Morrow yelled at Evans to get out fast, by this point the aircraft had sunk to its fuselage. Evans managed to exit along the wings of the plane, joining Morrow on the frozen lake.
Risking his own life, Bernais jumped on his snowmobile and rode out onto the lake through blowing winds and snow to rescue the men. “They only asked me, is the ice safe” before they climbed on, he later said.
The snowmobile deposited the two airmen at the Georgeville boarding house where owner Henry McGowan gave them some hot coffee and a change of clothes. McGowan was discussing ways of salvaging the plane with the two airmen when they heard a tremendous “whoomp” which rattled the windows of the house. The men ran to the window and saw the visible portion of the aircraft above the ice in flames:
“There was a terrific fire for a while but within three or four minutes, the plane had disappeared beneath the ice.”Henry McGowan
In the summers, Georgeville was a popular Eastern Townships tourist stop (it still is). Because of the depth of the lake, McGowan doubted the wreckage would disrupt summer boating. The two airmen returned to Montreal the following day, leaving McGowan to wonder if he would ever get his clothing back.
A Routine Job
Over the years the aircraft became the focus of several salvaging operations including one by Marine Industries of Montreal, which reportedly spent $30,000 to located and raise the aircraft. With that kind of money you could buy a brand new airplane.
Then in 1975 Lafitte Salvage, also from Montreal, located the plane and purchased the salvaging rights for $1,000. In June 1976 Lafitte sent a mysterious five-man crew to raise the wreckage and haul it onto dry land. This latest crew appeared better equipped for the job using sophisticated closed-circuit television cameras for deep water searching. The salvage crew refused to comment on motives for attempting the recovery. Some claimed the skis alone could fetch anywhere from $6,000 to $17,000, substantial money in the 1970s, but it hardly appeared worth the effort.
After hauling the tail section and fuselage of the De Havilland on shore in Georgeville, the wreckage was towed to a hotel parking lot in Magog. Lead salvager, “Brian Power” boasted, “The best salvage company in Canada tried, and they couldn’t do it. But we did.” Powers said he and his crew – Robert Chou, Michael French, Michel Veiellette, and Jean Paul St. Michel – took the “routine” job for the challenge, refusing to comment on unconfirmed reports of a safe still being on board in the fuselage.
“Brian Power” is, of course, Brian Powers. And by now you should recognize the names Michael French and Bobby Chou. I wouldn’t call anything undertaken by members of the Satan’s Choice Motorcycle Club as “routine”.
Recall that it was only about six months after the salvage operation that Powers, French, Chou and two others – a crew of about five – were involved in a bar fight where Chou stabbed two patrons at the Moustache Club near the Montreal Forum. There was also speculation that Michael French could have been the subject of the mysterious tattoo, “F.V. Frenchy I Love You”, carved on the stomach of the murdered 14-year-old girl, Teresa Martin in 1969. (this is all detailed in last year’s series of episodes on the Teresa Martin case).
Brian Powers would die two years later, gunned down outside his St Genevieve home in the summer of 1979, a victim of another biker war that pitted Satan’s Choice – Outlaws against their rivals, The Popeyes – Hells Angels. Chou died in 2018 at the age of 68 of chronic liver failure. What happened to Michael French is the stuff of biker legend.
French was last seen at the Cavalier Motel bar in NDG in November 1982. West End Gang hitman Jackie McLauglin lived at the Cavalier where his girlfriend tended bar. Montreal police suspected McLaughlin assassinated French. According to Eddie Collister of the Montreal Gazette, French was found dead with a bullet in his head near a South Shore Kahnawake graveyard.
French’s murder was rumored to be “a sort of community service” for his allegedly murdering 16-year-old Sharron Prior in late March 1975. Other versions say French was killed for raping the daughter of a cop, or possibly a Mafia boss. In 1984, McLaughlin himself was murdered, his remains alongside those of his bartender girlfriend and pet dog were found in a shallow grave outside Saint John, New Brunswick.
At the time of the plane salvage in 1976, Satan’s Choice – with Powers, French and Chou as members – was allied with the West End Gang, one of the most powerful organized crime outfits in Montreal. Their rivals,The Popeyes motorcycle club were backed by the Dubois Brothers. The Dubois supplied the Township region with drugs, and controlled organized crime in the region.
“Lafitte Salvage” appears to be a front, there’s no record of any such company. Jean Lafitte was a French pirate who along with his brother Pierre ran a smuggling operation trading stolen coins and goods in 19th century Louisiana.
So what were these rivals of the Popeyes and Dubois Brothers doing in Magog? Maybe they were looking for Memphré, the elusive, serpent -like cryptid rumored to stalk the waters of Memphremagog. Better still, what were the contents of the plane’s safe that salvage outfits would risk time and energy, and spend $30,000 to attempt to recover it?
What was the Canadian military doing on the lake in the first place? Did it have anything to do with the recently completed ballistics laboratory in nearby Highwater, Quebec? If you cross the lake and go a little north toward Magog you’ll come to Chemin Giguare, the road off of which the body of Louise Camirand was found in 1977. Now I’ve visited this place many times. And on one occasion, a bunch of us came upon a cache of military documents stashed in the woods. I’m talking about a small mountain of purchasing records that someone had attempted to burn and destroy. So what was that about? What was the Canadian military’s relationship with Lake Memphremagog?