A documentary titled Highway of Tears premiered on March 6th, 2014 at the Human Right Watch Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. The film director, Matt Smiley, announced that additional screening dates will be posted on their official Facebook page ‘Highway of Tears.’
It is the story of the women who went missing or were murdered along a 720 kilometer stretch of highway in northern British Columbia. There are 18 cold cases dating to the 1960’s and most of them went unsolved until a special division of the RCMP (project E-Pana) managed to link DNA from an American drifter from Portland called Bobby Jack Fowler to the 1974 murder of 16-year old hitchhiker Colleen MacMillen.
If you talk to the local people, they will tell you that many more than 18 girls and women have disappeared; some say the number is 33, others 43 and it could even be higher. In Canada, over 600 aboriginal women have been reported missing or murdered since the 1960’s and some are tied to the Highway of Tears. The documentary explains the circumstances of their victimization.
The long stretch of highway between the towns of Prince George and Prince Rupert being dubbed the Highway of Tears is officially named the Trans-Canada Highway 16.
Because public transportation is very limited in that region and money does not grow on their trees, many young people through the years have been extending their arm and sticking their thumb to hitch a ride to neighborhood towns.
Signs have been posted along the road to warn girls not to hitchhike because it is extremely dangerous. It makes for a strange ménagerie to see a Moose or Bear crossing sign followed by a Killer on the loose billboard!
The warning signs are impossible to miss but you still see the odd hitchhiker on the road; usually young girls feeling invincible and willing to gamble to escape their neck of the woods.
Eventually, a car or a truck pulls over to give them a ride. The small towns located off the highway are very secluded and the local young folks probably feel very isolated and disconnected from their friends and activities. Not old enough to drive, they chose the open road and dare travel on Highway 16, convinced no harm could ever befall them.
Having driven on that highway several times, I can attest to the sinister gloom that falls upon you while riding in your car in the middle of this majestic wilderness. A strange overwhelming eerie feeling permeates the air and I can only compare it to listening to Wagner’s music; a penetrating darkness mixed with great beauty. It is a spiritual wailing that can literally be heard if you pay attention and it is gruesomely intertwined with the scenery.
Even if the disappearances started in the 1960’s, a pattern specifically emerged between 1988 and 1995. Young girls mostly aboriginal and aged 15 to early twenties went missing after having been seen hitchhiking along the highway. The murder of Monica Ignas, age 15, was among the first official reports. She vanished on December 1974 and was later found dead discarded in a gravel pit. In 1988, Alberta Williams, age 24, was also found murdered a month after her disappearance.
It wasn’t until 1994 that things really started to happen at an alarming pace. The latest of that series of incidents at the time, was Ramona Wilson, age 15, who was hitchhiking to a friend’s place in June 1994. Her remains were found near the Smithers airport a year later. Roxanne Thiara, age 15, went missing and her body was later found near Burns Lake. There were three murders in a row until they also found Alishia Germaine, age 15, in December 1994.
Six months went by until Delphine Nikal, age 16, from Telkwa disappeared somewhere between Smithers and her home. She has yet to be found. Lana Derrick, age 19, was a forestry student in Terrace who went missing while walking down a street in Terrace in October, 1995. She has never been heard from since. It took another seven years for any other disappearance to be reported officially. Was the murderer in jail? Or perhaps he moved away?
The next casualty was the first Caucasian, Nicole Hoar, who disappeared in June 2002. She was a young tree planter hitching her way from Prince George to Smithers, hoping to attend the Midsummer Music Festival, but she never arrived.
Her family reacted quickly to report her missing to the media and police. Maybe because she was white, a massive poster campaign started, rewards were offered and a fund established to find the 26 year-old. The RCMP used aircraft and helicopters, and there were 200 volunteers plus 60+ professional search and rescue members, all to no avail. She remains on a list of women missing along the Highway of Tears.
In the fall of 2005, ceremonies named “Take Back the Highway” were held in the concerned communities. Marches, minutes of silence, local speakers and prayers to promote awareness and protest violence against these women were organized. But, days later Tamara Chipman, age 22, went missing. She had taken judo for years and was considered a strong girl but she also fell victim to this invisible darkness.
Crystal Lee Okimaw, age 24, vanished from Prince George in January and Aielah Saric-Auger, age 14, was discovered dead east of town in February 2006.
The police drew a list of possible suspects including the possibility of a travelling salesman dressed in a suit who would seem like a trustworthy person to catch a ride with. Maybe a hunter who comes to the wildlife-rich area. Maybe a trucker who is driving in and out of town. Or could it be someone who lives here? Someone who always seems to be at the right place to pick up young women. But when you think of the odds, it could also have been multiple people cruising the area to find a lone and vulnerable female prey.
In an effort to help stop violence, Amnesty International eventually asked the population to write to the Minister of Public Safety asking him to implement new protocols for action on missing person cases, particularly along Highway 16.
The case of Madison Scott is also a mysterious disappearance that took place in the area more recently, and that the RCMP is still trying to elucidate. This 21 year-old young woman from Vanderhoof went camping to Hogsback Lake and was reported missing in May 2011. They did search by land, by water and by air with the help of more than 170 people and could not find her.
Six months before Madison vanished, 15 year-old Loren Donn Leslie had disappeared in November 2010. Her ID had been found so police knew something was array and alerted her father. While searching for her, the officers had come upon a young suspicious man who was speeding away from an unused logging not far from the main highway.
They were able to retrace his tire tracks all the way to Loren’s dead body. She had to be identified by a tattoo on her wrist that said Grip Fast because her face had been beaten up with a pipe wrench and disfigured. Her throat was cut and she had been sexually assaulted.
Grip Fast was the family motto meaning ‘Hang on tight’ that her dad had come up with to unite them during tough times. Loren excelled at karate and surprisingly, was almost legally blind but had managed to live life to the fullest with the help of thick glasses and a strong will.
The suspect was 20 year-old Cody Alan Legebokoff and Loren’s friends suspected that she had met him online where he was very active under the nickname 1Countryboy. Loren was too trusting for her own good and her mother worried about her constant trips from Vanderhoof to crime ridden Prince George via Highway 16. She enlisted friends and usually hitched a ride to her destination in spite of her parents’ warnings.
She probably trusted Cody because at first glance, he looked like the boy next door. He worked as a mechanic at a Prince George car dealership and for a time, lived in a house with 3 female roommates. He was popular, had graduated from high school, got along with everybody and had by all accounts, a good upbringing and family.
Forensic evidence from his truck led police to suspect him in the murders of Cynthia Frances Maas, age 35, Natasha Lynn Montgomery, age 23, and Jill Stacey Stuchenko, age 35. All three were mothers who apparently worked in the sex trade industry.
‘’He had a good upbringing – everything was perfect, said Mr. Legebokoff’s grandfather, Roy Goodwin. ‘’I hunted with him. I fished with him. We did everything and he was a perfectly normal child. He was no different than you or I when we were younger.’’
When I read what Cody’s grandfather had to say, I could not help thinking that if his grandson started hunting as a boy, it would have been difficult for him to determine if he had any inclination towards cruelty to animals, which is usually a sign of things to come.
Loren’s best friend did not like Cody from the very beginning and had noticed a coldness in his eyes but aside from that, he was the typical small town jock. It turns out that hindsight is not always 20/20.
His friends rallied around him ‘’Cody has always been in the wrong place at the wrong time, this could have been one of those moments,” wrote someone identifying themselves as CJRM on the website for CPKG-TV, the news channel in Prince George. “He is a great buddy of mine, and I wouldn’t hesitate for one seconde [sic] to get in a vehicle with him and go cruising. He was my two stepping partner nights we would go out dancing, I have seen him in bar fights and I have pissed that boy off a few good times, and not once had he ever shown any signs to lose his mind and kill me or anyone else.”
The ‘boys will be boys’ mentality is often very convenient to justify one’s idiosyncrasies.
But one of his friends admitted that Cody had disappeared for a few weeks right before Loren’s murder and never told them where he was.
One year after Loren’s murder, the RCMP held a conference to announce they had caught a homegrown serial killer in the person of Cody Alan Legebokoff. He was charged with three counts of first degree murder. His other victims had vanished in 2009 and 2010. The police believed that he might have murdered other women. That meant he would have started his killing spree at age 19 which is very young for a serial killer.
They continued asking help from the public to try to get any information concerning the other missing girls.
Even if the community felt some relief, it was obvious that Cody was far too young to have been responsible for all the murders and disappearances in the area. Other killers were cruising the highway to pick up vulnerable girls and they had to be stopped.
Madison Scott went missing after the arrest of Legebokoff so investigators had to try to find clues about her killer. Sgt. Wayne Clary was in charge of the investigation and he was determined to solve the case.
Several people are convinced that Madison fell victim of a group of young people who showed up at her camping ground to party and not a serial killer cruising the highway.
Clary had to go through over 750 boxes of evidence with thousands of pages of documents; forensic reports, lab reports, witness interviews from all the cases linked to the area. Sixty thousand people had been interviewed and it was a massive undertaking but he knew the truth was buried there somewhere.
They had 1,400 persons of interest and a few of them were driving trucks with no handles on the inside and duct tape and plastic restraints in the trunk. So imagine the task at hand and the several possibilities of men willing and able to commit this kind of crime against women.
The staggering endless wilderness where the attacks took place did not facilitate their job. How do you patrol and search such landscapes from the Interior all the way to the sea? They used helicopters to fly the 500 miles of highway where some of the missing had been laid to unrest. Clary declared the area ‘’the perfect killing and hunting ground’ for predators.
The youngest victim of the Highway of Tears was Monica Jack who was 12 year-old. She disappeared in 1978 and was last seen riding her bike on the side of the road.
In April 1995, two men hunting moose off the main road discovered the remains of Ramona Wilson who had vanished from Smithers in 1994.
Tamara Chipman was 22 year-old when she went missing in 2005 and she left behind a 2 1/2 year-old son. Her father still deplores the fact that her body was never retrieved and that he could never know what really happened to her. He spent weeks searching all the logging roads to try to find his daughter but to no avail.
All of a sudden in 2012, the RCMP got a break in the case of Colleen MacMillan who disappeared in 1974, and it turned out that the culprit was an American. Their task force had matched DNA recovered from Colleen’s clothing to Bobby jack Fowler, a Texas native who had worked as a roofer in Prince George.
Her family had been waiting 38 years for some answers. The members of the task force were convinced that Fowler was probably responsible for 9 of the murders but they had to tie all the loose ends before claiming victory. Fowler was married with 4 children but his life was nomadic and he drove from motel to motel and town to town.
It made it easy for him to pick up girls in bars or hitchhikers he would sexually assault and murder. In his troubled mind, he believed they were ‘asking for it.’ He lived in 11 states from Texas to Oregon and Newport investigator Ron Benson looked into his past over there to try to establish links to some similar types of violent incidents.
The police believes he may have left another Highway of Tears in the US. Two girls left Beverly Beach State Park one night to come out on the highway where Fowler used to travel, and their bodies were found in the woods five months later in similar conditions than the ones in BC. Benson believes Fowler might have committed as many as seven murders in Oregon.
The notorious case of a woman being attacked in an Oregon motel in 1995, led to the end of Fowler’s rampage. After being assaulted and tied up, the victim had jumped out of the motel window naked into the street. She had been lucky enough to escape her attacker. The police rushed to the motel and caught him packing and ready to flee the scene.
He was charged with assault and kidnapping. He died in prison in 2006, but his incarceration allowed the RCMP to make a DNA connection tying him to the MacMillan murder. Her family never had the satisfaction to see him brought to justice for the murder of Colleen but it allowed them to close this sinister chapter of their life.
Because Madison Scott disappeared long after Fowler died, it meant that there was one or several more predators roaming Highway 16. So far, the RCMP has been able to identify two serial killers but how many are still out there?
It is of small comfort to the families of the victims still missing and not reassuring for the vulnerable girls still tempted to hit the road to get to their local destinations. It is very hard to instill fear in teenagers who by nature, often opt for their way or the highway.
For the RCMP, it is still a marathon they intend to pursue till the finish line on this spectacularly beautiful and haunting Highway of Tears.
”Out in the Backwoods down in the haller
Out in the backwoods working hard for a daller
In the backwoods, yeah we got it done rite
Work hard, play hard, hold my baby tight
Lordy have Mersey
It’s a real good life in the backwoods”
Click here to read about bus service coming to Highway 16.