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Jack Knox: The difficult life of Bonsai Bob

Now that he is dead, apparently by his own hand, you wonder if Bob Deryk — Bonsai Bob — just couldn’t stand the idea of going to prison, of losing his wilderness home.
Bob Deryk with some of his bonsai trees near the Sooke River.

Now that he is dead, apparently by his own hand, you wonder if Bob Deryk — Bonsai Bob — just couldn’t stand the idea of going to prison, of losing his wilderness home.

A childhood in a Japanese concentration camp had left him with a lifelong fear of being locked up again. The experience shaped his life, and brought him to the unfenced, uncrowded refuge he carved out of the forest beside the Sooke River almost 20 years ago.

His body was found just a stone’s throw from his cabin on the weekend, less than two weeks after it was learned he had, at age 74, been charged with sexually assaulting two minors.

News of his arrest bewildered some of his friends and outraged others. “He was a popular man in the community,” Staff Sgt. Stephen Wright, the head of the Sooke RCMP detachment, said Monday.

In truth, without knowing more about the case — privacy rules prevent police from saying much — it’s hard to either defend or condemn Deryk.

What is known is that his story had a sad start and a sad end. He told the tale seven years ago, surrounded by the hundreds of bonsai trees that gave him his nickname.

He was just three years old when the Japanese invaded Indonesia in 1942, rumbling down the road in trucks into which the confused Dutch colonials were herded.

Males over 14 were stuffed in one camp, women and children in another. Deryk, his brother and mother ended up in a sealed-off corner of Jakarta, six families to a house.

They almost starved, mostly ate mung beans. Without medicine, beriberi, dysentery and other diseases were rampant. “My mom said six more months and we would have died.”

Every day at noon, the prisoners were herded into the square to stand and bow before the commandant (later executed as a war criminal) in the scorching sun. Sometimes, the guards would keep the women and children standing all night, seemingly on a whim. Sometimes a woman would be forced to bunny hop along the line of prisoners, and, prodded by rifle butts, keep on bunny hopping until she dropped from exhaustion. Then the guards would beat her to death. “They did horrible things. The women were beaten left and right.”

Deryk said the experience left him, and the other survivors, scarred. “We’re known as the Forgotten Ones,” he said. “We’re all totally screwed up.”

Even at his Sooke Potholes cabin, he kept a bag packed with essentials, just in case he needed to flee again. “We all live with a little suitcase in a corner of the room,” he said. “I’m always looking down the road, wondering: ‘Are they coming to get me today?’”

Deryk immigrated to Canada in 1957, ending up in Victoria as the gardener at Fable Cottage before it was barged off to Denman Island in 1993. In 1994, he came to the Sooke Potholes, where then-owner Albert Yuen wanted him to grow food for the lodge Yuen was building there. Deertrails lodge was never finished — towering stone chimneys are all that remain of that dream — but Deryk remained in the nearby cabin, which he gradually transformed from a dilapidated shack into a rustic idyll, albeit one with no electricity or running water. He stayed on as caretaker after The Land Conservancy bought the property.

He also patiently tended the hundreds of bonsai trees (“living art,” he called them) that brought a fame he didn’t really want. Deryk was private — though hardly a hermit, those who knew him say. It was hard to remain reclusive with all those boots tromping through Sooke Potholes regional park.

In a grim aside to a grim story, Sooke RCMP were told Sunday night that someone had stolen some bonsai trees from the property. That was just a day after a friend found Deryk’s body in a barn-sized CRD shed near the cabin — a home he had stood to lose.

He had been reported missing last Tuesday, prompting a search that included more than 50 people on the ground, an RCMP helicopter, Mountie divers and the Cowichan Valley swift water rescue team, among others. The sprawling structure in which Deryk’s body was found had been among the first sites searched by a police dog.

Deryk had disappeared days after police issued a statement saying he had been charged in relation to incidents last September involving children who were 12 and 13 at the time. The RCMP were looking to see if other complainants wanted to come forward. Wright said Monday the investigation remains open.

For Bonsai Bob, though, it’s all over. “It’s a sad ending,” Wright said.