“Life is a slaughterhouse,” Rabbi Green said to the nearly 200 people who gathered at the Adas Israel Synagogue on January 25, 1993 to mourn the death of Hamilton scrap dealer Morris Lax the month before. Like many European Jews of his generation who had once lost everything, Morris Lax found life so brutal he could face it only with persistent humour, religious faith and the relentless desire to work and protect his family.
“He found the tragedy of life was so hard that he banished that reality. When someone laughed it made him feel good,” the Rabbi said. “It took thousands of years of Jewish history to create that personality.”
This October the warehouse and office buildings of Morris Lax Scrap Metals at 446 Burlington Street East were finally demolished. Nothing remains to remind the city of this colourful man; the drawers of police files and yellow newspaper clippings about the murder — unsolved to this day — are out of sight and mind.
Morris Lax was a man of paradoxes: kind but gruff, ruthless yet generous, unscrupulous but loyal. His murder and the subsequent investigation were equally flawed and paradoxical. The police obsessed over scant physical evidence of a robbery and neglected information about possible motivations to commit murder. Innocent people were eventually jailed (and later released) because police pressured unreliable witnesses to recall facts that fit their theory.
Today, the person (or persons) who committed this heinous crime remains unknown and unpunished.
Morris Lax was born into a comfortable peasant life in Poland in 1921. But the Germans murdered and dispersed his family during the Second World War, engendering a lifelong mistrust of Gentiles. The 23-year-old holocaust survivor then endured Communist persecution and life in a Russian labour camp. He served with the Jewish underground before fleeing to Palestine with Menachem Begin, the future Prime Minister of Israel. The two envisioned a Jewish homeland and remained lifelong friends.
During these years Lax developed his persona as a tough guy and survivor, a man once described as “an Old World character” who had to fight for everything he got.
At the end of the war he married Goldie — the love of his life who also happened to be his cousin. They had four children the first of whom — Rose — was born in a refugee camp where they stayed until 1948. (In addition to the other tragedies in Lax’s life, the other three children were born with mental or physical handicaps.) The couple immigrated to Hamilton, Ontario that year and Morris went to work for his uncle Max’s scrap business. In just ten years, Lax secured a $20,000 bank loan to form his own company.
The street-smart immigrant was well suited for the ruthless all-cash subculture of the scrap industry where deals are sealed with a handshake and disputes are sometimes settled with fists, or worse. Scrap is easy to sell; it’s acquiring the material in the first place that’s difficult. A foreigner like Lax could easily have found himself shut out. Instead, Lax became an industry leader. By 1969 he was at (or close to) the middle of most big deals.
Even Lax supporters don’t deny he was crooked (though perhaps not more so than some others in the business). He pled guilty to criminal charges in the early 1960s after being caught with stolen brass. On February 16, 1977 he was fined $34,000 after pleading guilty to three counts of falsifying company records. Lax had issued 180 fraudulent invoices (worth a total of $188,600) in an elaborate scheme to help business associates evade taxes and hide kickbacks. (Lax took a 10 per cent commission on each invoice.) The scam was discovered when police uncovered a kickback paid by another firm to former Hamilton harbour commissioner Ken Elliott as part of a dredging contract.
Another time police found a portion of four tonnes of stolen copper at Lax’s property. With her husband charged with possession of stolen property and facing jail time, Goldie implored the rightful owner of the copper — another scrap dealer — to help work out a settlement. Lax would only repay what he paid the thieves (about one quarter of the metal’s value). The dealer told him to go to hell. But Rose claims her father was set up and that the dealer had offered to drop the charges in exchange for $350,000.
Whatever really happened, such vignettes capture the tenor of the business. Lax was shot and wounded by two masked gunmen during a heist in 1968. The thieves left with only $400. Again in 1978 two men burst into his office and beat him with baseball bats.
Despite the ferocious competition, Lax maintained a very sweet and gentle private side; he was a devoted family man and lively to a fault. People remember him as an oddball who was physically filthy and would inadvertently spit upon listeners when he became animated in conversation. (This was normally Yiddish; Lax avoided speaking English throughout most of his life in Canada.) Though Lax laundered money he was known to be as good as his word in a business deal. Lax worked ten to twelve hours per day, seven days a week. He loaned money to numerous people and helped many dealers get started. He paid the market price promptly for metal, whether the amount was a few hundred dollars or tens of thousands.
Lax spent very little on himself, owning few possessions and eschewing creature comforts of all kinds. When he died his personal fortune was worth just over $6-million, but he’d bought apartment buildings and other real estate with cash. These holdings were purchased in his wife’s name and topped $50-million.
Money allowed Morris Lax one important luxury. He was a prominent supporter of Israel and, in stunning contrast to his usual crudeness, moved easily in the highest circles of Israeli political life, counting among his friends Mr. Begin (with whom he’d fled Russia) and Yitzhak Shamir. While he was as abrasive as metal polish in Hamilton, in the Jewish homeland Lax was accepted as a wealthy philanthropist of poise and aplomb. Lax received awards from institutions and hospitals to which he gave money and was a successful fundraiser, obtaining over $100,000 each year for the Hamilton Supporters of Israel.
A degree of murder
And so it must have been with some excitement that 71-year-old Morris Lax set off to work on the morning of Saturday, December 19, 1992. He was scheduled to fly to Israel the next day to receive the Crown of Charity award from the Shilo Institute for his work on behalf of immigrants — a highpoint in Lax’s troubled life.
In fact, Morris Lax would be flown to Israel three days later — to be buried in a Jerusalem cemetery after his brutal murder.
Following his usual routine, Lax got up around 5 a.m. and set off for work a while later in his Lincoln Town car. He arrived at his scrap yard on Burlington Street in the bay-front industrial area at approximately 6 a.m., took out his keys and proceeded to open the office door.
At this moment, Lax was struck across the back of the head with what police would later determine was a large and weathered wooden two-by-four. The force of the blow deeply crushed his skull, nearly severing his head from his torso according to some accounts.
A friend discovered Lax’s body shortly after at about 7:15 a.m. Badly shaken, the man went straight to his synagogue and recounted what would become an increasingly gruesome and bloody scene in people’s imaginations. (Apart from the head injury, there was no other damage to Lax’s body.)
It was ironic that this man who had survived the Nazis and Russia’s Gulag should die so many years later in peace-loving Canada. His daughter Rose arrived at the murder scene by coincidence shortly after the police and was devastated by what had happened.
Strangely, many people who attended the crime scene — including some police — recall that it rained heavily that morning. It was as if people expected the scrap dealer to die in dark dismal circumstances. But weather records and TV news footage show that Morris Lax died beneath a cloudless sky.
The police quickly
surmised that Lax was murdered in the course of a robbery and this became the modus operandi of their subsequent investigation.
A broken pane of glass suggested to them that Lax’s arrival had interrupted someone’s attempt to enter the building and get at valuable metal. Alternatively, police speculated that a robber might have lain in wait, knowing that Lax would come to work early on a weekend when there would be no witnesses. The thief killed the scrap dealer with a handy piece of lumber and took off with about $2,000 in bills from Lax’s pocket.
Sadly, there are many problems with the robbery/homicide theory, and a reasonable observer has to wonder why the police set on it so quickly.
Lax’s wallet was found on his body; it was rumored to contain as much as $3,000. It’s strange that a thief would leave this untouched, even if he took the other wad of bills. The car wasn’t rummaged, either.
The building where the murder took place didn’t contain valuable nonferrous metal; this was stored in a warehouse that wasn’t broken into. The police explained that the thieves might have planned to carry metal to a truck parked on a nearby street. But it’s difficult to imagine that yard thieves wouldn’t know where the valuable metal was kept and would try to whisk away heavy quantities of low-value steel or tin to a faraway vehicle. Or that they’d do so at the very time the owner was due to arrive according to his routine. And why didn’t they wait until Lax was inside the office so they could get at the safe?
In any case, wallet or no wallet, metal or no metal, the police looked at the broken window and the discarded two-by-four, then drew the conclusions that governed their subsequent investigation.
But there’s another explanation for what occurred that starts with motive.
Between $2-million and $3-million was owed to Lax when he died, much of it in the form of cash advances on receivables. After his death, some former business associates defaulted on loans. But, contrary to popular belief, Lax didn’t just keep the amounts owed to him in his head. Instead, he kept meticulous written records and these assisted his wife and daughter in quickly settling most debts.
But there may have been other agreements that weren’t recorded. Any number of people might have wanted the feisty merchant dead, including people who were involved in his various illicit schemes. Police had evidence of these (as we shall see) and might have discovered more.
If someone sent a professional killer to the Lax property, this person — wanting to throw the police off the scent — could have used the two-by-four precisely so that it would not look like a premeditated attack. Following this theory, the contract killer broke a window to enhance the appearance of a break in. (It’s worth noting that the window break was small and didn’t set off the alarm.)
If this was the killer’s ruse, it worked like a charm.
A magazine article from the spring of 1994 quotes Detective-Sergeant Glyn Wide saying, “People want to turn this murder into a hit, but a professional doesn’t use a two-by-four to kill someone. I believe Lax surprised a couple of thieves, who panicked, attacked him and then ran. They were probably just as shocked by his death as everyone else.”
The brothers grim
In April 1996 the police came to believe that fresh leads would culminate in an arrest. Veteran Detective Frank Harild and partner Matt Kavanaugh began to “follow old information in a new way” after talking to Lax’s daughter Rose.
The next year the detectives arrested two men. On October 8, 1997, brothers Louis (Neil) Majore, 34, of Perth and Kenneth (Lee) Majore, 40, of Smith Falls, Ontario appeared in court and were charged with murder.
The brothers proclaimed their innocence, but they certainly looked dangerous. Both were physically slight and wore their hair long. They were given to wearing jeans and black tee shirts with crossed-rifle or heavy-metal insignia.
Raised in a large Catholic family near Perth, Ontario, they moved to Hamilton in the early 1990s, eventually renting a small row house on Hillyard Street (about three blocks from Lax’s Burlington Street yard). With the help of an older brother the pair soon became regulars at the half-dozen or so scrap yards nearby. They were often seen hanging out on their porch or sitting in the back yard stripping rubber from copper wire. They sometimes spent time in a log cabin they’d built for themselves in the bush.
In other words, they looked like “trailer trash” that police — under pressure to solve the case — could blame for the robbery homicide.
However, on October 26, 1998 Neil Majore was released on $25,000 bail after spending a year in custody. This unusual action (for an accused murderer) suggested weakness in the case against him.
On March 4, 1999 the police issued a press release advising media to attend Ontario Court (general division). The next day, the Crown announced it was dropping the charges against the two men.
The lawyers for the accused tried not to criticize the police, but it soon came out that the police had virtually set the men up and had questioned witnesses in a way that influenced their reliability. The lure of a well-publicized $50,000 reward tainted some witnesses. (People came forward who had been silent for years.)
In transcripts from the Majore brothers’ preliminary hearing, one witness said he felt pressured by the police to remember things he didn’t actually recall and to write down what he thought the police wanted to hear. He said the police kept referring to the reward money as an enticement.
The overall quality of the witnesses was poor; many had only partial recollections of their own lives, let alone the murder. One lawyer described them as people who consumed “staggering quantities” of drugs and alcohol and several had long criminal records. The Crown’s case unraveled when it emerged that the key witness had committed perjury in another proceeding earlier that year.
The public only learned after the Majore brothers were released from jail that both men had insisted from the beginning on taking a lie detector test. They had done so and passed. There was never any evidence that the Majore brothers even knew Morris Lax.
On March 13, 1999, a Hamilton Spectator article entitled “Contract killing probed in Lax case” disclosed information that stemmed from two police documents which became exhibits at the Majore brothers’ preliminary hearing. One was a 1991 report from the Hamilton-Wentworth fraud squad; the other was a 1993 Ontario Provincial Police intelligence file. Both reports describe an alleged conspiracy involving roughly $3-million in scrap copper in which Morris Lax was implicated as well as other prominent members of the scrap metal industry.
It’s worth noting that none of the evidence for this conspiracy came to the police first-hand and the reports would have been inadmissible in court. Also, certain allegations were suspect since they originated from Morris Waxman and his son Michael and were made against Chester Waxman and his son Bobby at the time when both parties were embroiled in a protracted and bitter business divorce. (See cover story, SW&R October/November edition.)
But the documents indicate the sort of midnight dealings in which Morris Lax was involved that the police could have looked into more deeply had they not been preoccupied with their dubious case against the Majore brothers.
According to the OPP report, the fraud investigation stalled because of the closed-shop nature of the scrap business and also because Chester Waxman and his son wouldn’t cooperate without carte blanche immunity. One may only guess at why investigators balked at this and how much more progress might have been made in the Lax case had such immunity been extended.
The OPP document was a bit unclear about the details of how the fraud was supposed to work, but it ventured that it involved Lax purchasing scrap metal on behalf of a failing company, Usarco. The material was then to move between Usarco,
and I. Waxman & Sons in order to “defraud the creditors of Usarco,” the report says.
The document states, “It may be later determined that the rapid financial plunge of Usarco into receivership was indeed a carefully orchestrated and mutually lucrative venture among the conspirators.”
The police qualified their reports as “pure speculation” and the reports do differ in certain respects. But their focus is a key allegation; specifically, that Lax agreed to purchase between $3- and $4-million worth of copper on behalf of Usarco, which had bad credit. He would then resell it to Usarco at a higher price, netting around $60,000. Bobby Waxman purportedly guaranteed the money. (Again, this allegation was never fully investigated or proven in court.)
Interestingly, the Toronto Dominion bank forced Usarco into receivership in late 1989 and filed a $21-million civil lawsuit against Usarco’s owners Frank and Monte Levy, among others. The bank claimed that Usarco’s collateral scrap inventory had been deliberately overvalued. (The Usarco site was later leased to Plastimet — the plastics recycling firm that was destroyed in a spectacular blaze in 1997.) No one ever found out who got the copper.
The “conspiracy theory” implies that Morris Lax was killed after the deal fell apart, or because he threatened to go public with the information. No one will ever know because the police investigation stopped.
At the preliminary hearing, Rose Lax testified that she originally thought her father had been killed by a hit man and that she actually wanted to believe the story involving the Waxmans and Usarco. But she said she later changed her mind and came to accept that her father died during a robbery. She no longer suspects the Waxmans or the Levy’s.
But it’s worth noting that Rose Lax did inform the police a few years after her father’s death about another scam in which someone working for I. Waxman & Sons made up fake bills for tin purchases and Morris Lax was paid by Waxman for metal that he never supplied. The two men split the profits that Rose estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000.
So what can one conclude?
At the very least — even leaving the Waxman and Usarco scenarios aside — Morris Lax was involved in schemes to bilk people (including other scrap dealers) out of large amounts of money by faking invoices and inventory. This is certainly fertile ground for the motivation to commit murder and any number of people could have had it in for him. But police downplayed this possibility at the hearing, just as they did all along.
Their reason for doing so is hard to fathom, but Beth Bromberg, a defence lawyer for the Majore brothers, got close to it when she questioned the police at the preliminary hearing. She wanted to know why the police dropped the alleged fraud as a possible murder motive so quickly.
“Wouldn’t you think it would be important to have a specific investigation to find out if there was a fraud, so you would know if there was a motive?” she asked Sergeant Robert Jamison, who was part of the initial murder investigation.
Sergeant Jamison’s answer spoke volumes.
“A fraud of this nature, we as a police department, we just don’t have the financing or equipment to handle it.”
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine.