In New Hazelton, B.C., the Greco family is known and remembered, not only for being a large, hard-working Italian immigrant family, but also for a tragic event that shook the community and changed the lives of the Greco family forever.
In 1949, Antonio (Tony) Greco was four years old when his four brothers, mother, and father boarded a steamship bound for Canada from Southern Italy, at the request of his grandfather, also named Antonio, to join him.
Although uncertain of the actual dates his grandfather immigrated, Tony knows from researching his family history, his grandfather had come to Canada from southern Italy around 1904 or 1905, landing in Quebec first and making his way west by 1911.
Antonio settled in New Hazelton on 72 acres of land he purchased with one side on the edge of the Hagwilget canyon and the other offering an expansive view looking straight at the Roche de Boule mountain range.
Antonio worked for the Grand Trunk Railway by day and cleared his land and built a small cabin during the evenings and any spare moment he could. Both endeavours were back-breaking, labour-intensive work, which gained Antonio respect within his adopted community.
At the time, immigrants were generally not favourably looked upon by many people, as most did not speak English. They kept to themselves, or within their own families and others who had immigrated. Many thought immigrants to be uneducated, lower-class citizens.
But Antonio worked hard, and saved every penny he could to send first for his wife Rosa and daughter, in 1913, and then for his son Lorenzo and his family in 1949.
The elder Greco may have told his family of his “wealth” but perhaps did not fully explain what that meant as they boarded the ship bound for a place with a “wealth” of land and opportunity, and visions of living a much better life.
In Italy, 72 acres of land was an “estate,” so surely their father had had great success in Canada as he had paid for all of the tickets, rail tickets and provided travelling money for the large family to travel west once in Canada, they thought.
They could not have been more shocked upon their arrival in New Hazelton, according to Tony, and it was from that moment forward their dreams began to shatter.
The “estate” was acres and acres of trees, rough land, and a cabin with little more than two rooms, no running water, no electricity, and an outdoor privy.
The family was isolated on their land and found the farm yielded little more than rocks and potatoes.
They learned Antonio’s wife and daughter had lasted barely a year after their arrival and returned to Italy without the family knowing.
In the wilds of British Columbia, the Grecos began to understand Antonio’s idea of “wealth” was far different than the traditional term, or even of their own definition. They began to seriously regret having left Italy.
The summers were beautiful, but the winters were brutally cold and dark, and though the boys made the most of the new adventure, their mother Saletta, was miserable, homesick, and still unable to speak English. She was lonely.
Lorenzo was able to secure work with the B.C. Public Works department, with Antonio continuing his work on the railroad. Both worked on the farm in between, and it was unending hard work.
The boys attended school in Hazelton, made friends easily, and seemingly adjusted to their new life with greater ease than either of their parents.
The boys would recall their parents often saying “we have made a big mistake leaving Italy.”
The family would have no way of knowing just how big of a mistake it had been.
In the winter of 1951/1952, the Grecos endured a horrendous winter and the start of a year of hardships, ending in tragic heartbreak.
A group of vagrants they had allowed to seek shelter in their barn from the freezing cold, left a fire burning when they departed, a fire that burned the barn to the ground; a valuable sow and her piglets then froze to death.
The spring brought a rash of brash thefts of several of their calves, and a beloved family workhorse needed for almost everything on the farm from transportation to working the land, broke its leg and had to be shot.
The final cruelty of the year was July 7, 1952, when the Greco family’s world came crashing down.
After 5:30 p.m. Lorenzo headed to town to pick up a few groceries and the mail, in which he was expecting his paycheque.
According to eyewitness accounts and police reports, Greco went to the combined general store, post office and bank, where he bought a few supplies and cashed his cheque. He then went to the New Hazelton Café where he bought a few more supplies and sat down at the counter to have a soft drink.
The people at the counter were known to each other and the shopkeeper, as the village population was only approximately 300 at the time.
Around 6:50 p.m., Greco paid for his soft drink and purchases with a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. The contents of Greco’s wallet were reported to be visible to those at the counter, and the stranger next to him took special interest as it was quite full from his paycheque. He grabbed a cardboard box for his supplies, and a gunny sack with the supplies from the store, and departed, waving goodbye.
On his way through the railyard leading to a shortcut through the forest to the Greco property, several youths recognized him and called out greetings. They reported him to be happy and relaxed heading home.
Approximately ten minutes later, a stranger came through the railyard heading up the same shortcut Greco had taken, the children reported to the police later.
Lorenzo Greco never arrived home.
At approximately 7:30 p.m. a friend and neighbour taking the same shortcut to town came upon the badly beaten and comatose Lorenzo on the path, bleeding badly from the head.
By 8 p.m. RCMP Const. Tony West was summoned and brought the town doctor with him. They located Lorenzo at a bend in the forested trail, breathing heavily, unconscious, and badly beaten about the head. The gunny sack containing his supplies from the store was lying five to ten feet away from Greco and his wallet was lying beside him, empty.
The doctor immediately took Greco to Wrinch Memorial Hospital, where he remained in a coma, from at least two crushing blows to his skull. The RCMP later found a bloodied large rock at the scene which had been used to crush his skull behind his left ear and the back of his head.
The sons have remarked that one image they can never shake is the sight of their unconscious father, head wrapped in bandages, badly beaten, looking frail, and barely breathing. It haunts them to this day. They wanted to know who did this to their father.
Lorenzo Greco died July 13, at 6 p.m. without ever having regained consciousness. The Greco’s collective world fell apart, and a lifelong quest for the truth of what happened in the murder of their father began.
Part II will be published in the Dec. 23 edition of The Interior News