Don’t hitchhike on the Highway of Tears

Highway 16, known officially as the Yellowhead Highway, is part of the Trans-Canada roadways system. It begins in Manitoba and crosses the southern portions of the country, through Saskatchewan and Alberta, before turning northwards into British Columbia, a region roughly the size of Germany and France with a population of 4 million. It ends at the ferry terminal at Prince Rupert, a coastal town nestled close to the border with Alaska.

The mountainous province is, like the rest of the country, once you leave behind all the cosmopolitan cities and large towns, awe-inspiringly gigantic. Vast tracts of it are inaccessible. It is wilderness pure and true. Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, Ray Milchalko, today a private investigator running Valley Pacific Investigations, who works the Highway of Tears cases in his own free time, described the route to CBC News (May 2015) as “the perfect place to go missing forever.”

The RCMP has been investigated 18 cold-cases, but Amnesty International Canada puts the figure of missing or murdered women at 33. The murders began way back in 1969. Until 1994, given the sheer size of the region, the disappearances and murders were treated as separate incidents. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that a comprehensive and in-depth historical investigation was finally launched. The fact is: British Columbia’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police are hunting for more than one serial killer.

A History of Fear and Violence

The murders must be contextualised by cumulative social horrors stretching into Canada’s past. The Highway of Tears is entwined around the still-lingering effects of colonialism, social injustice and endemic poverty among First Nations people. Lack of suitable transportation links and services is one reason hitchhiking has become a cultural standard. Families belonging to indigenous tribes involved in the Highway of Tears saga have not only had to deal with a loved one vanishing without a trace or found dead (sometimes, years later), they’ve put up with systemic racism and callous indifference.

When daughters and sisters went missing, the RCMP would brush off the need for an investigation by informing concerned relatives that they’d probably run off to Vancouver, or some other big city. It’s not as if they had much going for them on the reservations, they’d argue. Successive governments have been unwilling to offer hard cash and programmes to alleviate the woes of people traumatised firstly by colonialism, then by compulsory assimilation and, finally, because high levels of drink and drugs dependency exist, acting as if their problems were a self-inflicted product of failing to integrate, and not what they are and have always been: psychological traumas of indigenous people forced into the role of the outsider.

A deep-seated mistrust of authority figures also stemmed from the generational effects of the sickening Indian residential school programme. Children were forcibly removed from their homes on the reservations, forced to speak English and made to reject their own rich cultural heritage, in place of the European-Christian one. The aim was to “kill the Indian in the child.” Interviews carried out by the Humans Right Watch organisation, in an 89-page report titled ‘Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada’ (Feb 2013), attest to police disinterest in their well-being, as well as cases of assault and brutality, even rape.

One report into aboriginal female disappearances and murders across the whole of Canada, beginning in the 1960s to the present day, estimated the total runs close to 582. The numbers actually fluctuate, depending on the report. Historical, geographical and social factors created a pernicious perfect storm of circumstances for a murderer, or indeed murderers, to thrive and act without impunity. “Impunity is a double murder. It’s like killing the dead twice.” Chilean poet Raúl Zurita was referring to the crimes of the Pinochet era, but his words hit upon a truth known to all unsolved murders, and they echo very loudly throughout the Highway of Tears.

The sobriquet, by which these cases have become known, both locally and globally, was coined in the mid-1990s, and invoked the appalling treatment meted out to Native Americans by the expansionist policies of 19th century US governments. When the Cherokee nation was forced to surrender its lands and resettle elsewhere, the episode in their history became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. The appropriation and play on words might look a touch melodramatic at first, but, to quote a truism written by author William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

Gloria Moody: The First Victim

The youngest person on the list of eighteen, Monica Jack, aged 12, disappeared 6 May 1978, riding her bike home from a shopping trip. Her remains were found in 1995, in ravine on Swakum Mountain, some 20km from her home.

Gloria Lavina Moody (27) is generally considered to be the first Highway of Tears victim. She was walking back from a pub crawl in Williams Lake on October 25 1969 with her brother, Dave. He lost sight of her and went to his hotel room, thinking nothing of it. The family weekend away was, up until the next day, a fun trip. Less than twenty-four hours later two hunters, following a cattle trail about 10 km from Williams Lake, chanced upon her naked corpse. Gloria had been severely beaten, stripped naked, sexually assaulted and died from wounds sustained in the attack. Her clothes were found a short way from the body.

1994: Three Go Missing

Ramona Wilson, circa 1995

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s teenagers and women were reported missing or found dead along Highways 5, 16 and 97. In 1994, Leah Germaine (15), Roxanne Thiara (15) and Ramona Wilson (16) were killed within a six-month time period. This represented something of a spike in activity, in relation to the timeline of the murders. The cops began to wonder if there was a serial killer on the loose or was it just grisly happenstance?

Roxanne Thiara was a known sex worker with a drug habit from Prince George. She was missing for just over a month and was dumped by the side of Highway 16 about 227 km away near Burns Lake. Her body was discovered on 17 August. Ramona Wilson was an ordinary teenager making her way to a dance on 11 June and decided to hitchhike the 75 km to the town of Hazelton. On 27 January 1995, the RCMP had received a mystery phone call from an unknown man informing them where the body could be found. They searched the area, but couldn’t find Ramona. In April 1995 her remains were discovered only a few kilometres from her house on Railway Avenue, near Smithers airport. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted. Leah Germaine was another victim known to have worked as a prostitute. She was found behind an elementary school in Saint George, 9 December. Germaine been stabbed to death.

 

2002: Nicole Hoar Disappears

The Highway of Tears murders broke into the wider mainstream media, when Nicole Hoar vanished on 21 June 2002. Miss Hoar, aged 25, intended to hitch a ride on a summer’s afternoon at a gas station outside of St. George. Hailing from Red Deer, Alberta, the student intended on starting her MA in the autumn, and had found temporary employment as a tree planter. Her aim that day was to visit a sister in Smithers, 370 km away. She chose to hitchhike, as if the social norm in that part of the world.

Friends dropped her at the Gauthier Road gas station, a popular spot with hitchhikers. Nicole was last seen at this gas station. It is stated by a witness report, that a man with children initially offered a lift, but he wasn’t heading as far as Nicole’s destination. She chose not to accept. At 14:50pm another witness reported that she saw a woman of Nicole’s description approach a yellow car, with the driver of the vehicle detailed as a white male, aged anywhere between twenty and thirty-five, and wearing a white t-shirt. The witness, however, did not see the person she believed to be Nicole actually get into the car. Nobody did. Nicole’s visit to the sister was intended as a surprise during a week-long vacation she’d intended to take. So nobody, friends or family, thought it was weird that she hadn’t been in touch. When Nicole failed to report for work after a six-day absence, her employers contacted the police.

Nicole Hoar did not fit the typical profile of Highway of Tears victims

Nicole Hoar was wearing wire-rimmed octagonal glasses, a red long-sleeved t-shirt and greenish-brown pants. She was carrying a black and purple backpack made by Mountain Equipment and a green shoulder bag with an orange dragon embroidered on it. As a white middle-class college graduate and non-aboriginal, her unknown fate drew the attention of the media.

The search for Miss Hoar is said to be the largest ever undertaken in British Columbia’s history. The RCMP combed over 24,000 km of land between Prince George and Smithers. After four days of scouting, the search was called off. But due to the media pressure and the campaigning by Nicole’s family, the Highway of Tears began to enter the news more frequently and it became part of the cultural lexicon outside of British Columbia. It also finally spurred indigenous support groups and charities into raising their voices about the social ills haunting the region and mounted concerted efforts to badger the authorities into getting off their keisters and apprehend and bring to justice the perpetrators of these evil acts. Things had to change. No more excuses and half-assed leg work would be accepted from the families of the victims.

 

THE INVESTIGATION

The cops began taking the disappearances and murders seriously in 1994, when Germaine, Thiara and Wilson were killed. FBI profilers were brought in during 1995 (for one week). They did not think the deaths of the three girls were connected. But even after Nicole Hoar’s vanishing, the RCMP took their sweet time in taking coherent action (as a whole investigation).

In 2005, support groups began an awareness campaign, which involved walks of solidarity and other social activities. Under the banner ‘Take Back the Highway’ organisers held demonstrations, the largest of which took place on 17 September along the entire 724km section of Highway 16. And yet in a cruel twist, four days later, Tamara Chipman (22) disappeared from an industrial estate near Prince Rupert.

The Highway of Tears Symposium was also held in 2005, and a list of recommendations drawn up (long-term and short-term aims) and handed over to the authorities. Calls for public inquiries were – and continue to be – dismissed. There is a ray of optimism: First Nations spokespeople and families have acknowledged the RCMP’s change in attitude. Communications between officers and relatives have since struck a more positive tone.

20 year-old Cody Legebokhoff was pulled over in 2010 by a RCMP officer: the bloody wrench found in his pickup led the cops to the shallow grave of 15 year-old Loren Leslie

In 2006 Project E-PANA came into existence. The name E-PANA was derived from a combination of the task force emanating from the E Division of Criminal Operations and the Inuit word for the goddess Pana, who, in Inuit mythology, watched over the souls of the dead in the underworld, known as Adlivun, before undergoing reincarnation.

Project E-PANA initially focused on nine cases. On October 11 2007, the list grew to eighteen. They were selected from a small set of criteria, which ensured E-PANA did not get out of hand or overwhelm the fifty law enforcement officers before they’d even begun. E-PANA investigators decided that victims must be female, undertaking what is deemed high-risk activity (hitchhiking or prostitution) or they were last seen within a one-mile radius of highways 5, 16 and 97. Since launching E-PANA, the RCMP have gathered info on 1,413 persons of interest, taken 750 DNA samples and 100 polygraph tests, and conducted 2,500 interviews. Only two cases have been brought to a conclusion: the cases of sixteen-year-old Colleen McMillan, abducted and slain in July 1974, and Monica Jack.

McMillan, a strawberry blonde teenager, disappeared off the face of the earth while hitchhiking on Highway 16 from her home in Lac La Hache to a friend’s house. One month later, in August 1974, her body was found on a logging road south of the town 100 Mile House. In September 2012 the DNA of transient construction worker and known felon, an American hailing from Texas named Bobby Jack Fowler, was found on McMillan, after he became a person of interest and forensic testing was carried out. There would be no dawn bust or trial, however. Fowler, a guy with a violent temper and a mean amphetamine habit, was never brought to stand before judge and jury.

He had passed away from lung cancer in 2006, while serving time on a sixteen-year stretch for assault, attempted rape and kidnapping. He was put away in 1996. Fowler emerged as a key suspect in the disappearances of Gale Weys (19) and Pamela Darlington (19). The RCMP has not discounted his involvement in other murders and cops across the border in Oregon also believe he was the culprit in the murders of sixteen-year-olds Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas, last spotted hitchhiking along the road near Newport. Their bodies were discovered a month later in woodlands outside the city.

In December 2014, sex offender and ex-con, Garry Taylor Handlen, was charged with the deaths of Monica Jack and another girl unrelated to the Highway of Tears, Kathryn-Mary Herber (11).

 

THE AFTERMATH

E-PANA has endured cutbacks, funding issues and no further cases have been added to the list. The number of officers assigned to the task force has quietly diminished. In 2015 a former government worker, Tim Duncan, spoke to the media about how at least a dozen e-mails related specifically to the Highway of Tears case had been (deliberately) permanently deleted by British Columbia’s Ministry of Transportation, after a freedom of information request was lodged in late 2014.

Yet women have continued to disappearance in British Columbia. At some point in the early hours of Saturday 28 May 2011, Madison Scott (20) was abducted at Hogsback Lake, 24.5 km south-east of Vanderhoof. She’d been partying with friends on the Friday night and decided to pitch her tent and stay there by the lakeside. The last people, stragglers at what was said to be a boisterous and sometimes violent shindig, saw her alone in the early hours. Having not returned home by Sunday, her parents began to worry. They went out to Hogsback and found the tent, the pickup truck, their daughter’s belongings, but Madison was nowhere to be seen. Her mobile phone and wallet were missing.

The party Madison had attended was shared on social media channels and it is said people unknown to the party organisers showed up. Madison’s friend Jordanne Bolduc was so inebriated she fell into a fire and was taken home. (The original plan was for both of them to camp out.) Jordanne asked Madison to come back to town with her, but the offer was declined. Police continue to be baffled and the search goes on.

It is highly doubtful the RCMP will solve every case belonging to Project E-PANA, let alone the others that are not even within the investigation’s purview. As activists and support groups continue to raise awareness and highlight the risks of hitchhiking along the highways of British Columbia, the fact remains the State has failed some of its most vulnerable citizens and a culture of racism has enabled some killers to have their fill. Will the Highway of Tears ever stop weeping?

This article featured in issue 6 of Real Crime magazine. Want to read more chilling cold cases? Subscribe to Real Crime and save up to 25% off the cover price.