“There was [sic] two occupants in the vehicle who had similar descriptions to the suspects who are wanted in the BC murders,” Coulombe said, adding there was only one witness.
“All our frontline members and resources conducted a search of that area with negative results.”
The confusing, unthinkable tragedy began when the bodies of Deese, from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Fowler were found along the Alaska Highway in a remote area of northern British Columbia. Authorities discovered the couple near the blue 1986 Chevrolet van in which they had been exploring Canada.
Days later, a bizarre twist led authorities to confirm the teens as suspects in the deaths. They found a burnt-out truck, with a camper attached, hundreds of kilometres away. They also found the body of Leonard Dyck, of Vancouver, nearby.
The teens were on a killing spree, it seemed. Schmegelsky’s father told media he believed his son was suicidal and determined to “go out in a blaze of glory”. The families of all three victims were grieving and McLeod and Schmegelsky remained at large.
The teenagers have evaded capture since they were named as suspects over a week ago. But according to some reports, they haven’t completely vanished. Some friendly Canadians may have inadvertently helped the teens.
Canada’s National Post newspaper reported on Tuesday that Tommy Ste-Croix posted on Facebook about his encounter with the two. He said he helped Schmegelsky and McLeod pull their car out of the mud on July 21. He said it wasn’t until later he made the connection.
“Can’t see those kids killing anyone. Can’t even shake a hand properly, lol. Soft baby hands,” Ste-Croix posted.
Ste-Croix said his “big heart” might have almost got him killed. He later posted that he was working with authorities to describe his interaction.
Travis Bighetty said he was driving along the outer edge of York Landing, Manitoba, with another volunteer from Bear Clan Patrol, a Winnipeg-based group, on Sunday. The Indigenous neighbourhood watch organisation was asked by the Grand Chief in Manitoba to serve as police liaisons for the small communities near Gillam, in north-east Manitoba, where one of McLeod and Schmegelsky’s vehicles was found, engulfed in flames, on July 22.
The group helped answer questions and provide peace of mind to the approximately 400 residents of nearby York Landing, Manitoba, as a manhunt raged nearby.
Bighetty and a few of the other volunteers were driving through the outskirts of York Landing, admiring some black bears before they were set to leave later that day.
But on their way back, two men scrambled across the road in front of them.
At first, he assumed they worked for the nearby water treatment plant on the edge of York Landing, near the dump, where the bears were congregating. But when they didn’t see a water treatment truck that the pair would have been expected to be using, the group decided to go back and take a second look around.
In the close-knit town, and especially in that region and its unforgiving landscape, it would be strange for people to be walking along the road and not ask for a ride.
“No one really runs away from you,” Bighetty said of York Landing. “No one really goes out of their way to disappear.”
Bighetty said it was when he stared into the thick forested area nearby, unable to see more than 10 metres in front of him, that he began to worry.
What if someone was watching them at that very moment? What if something terrible was about to happen?
The group rushed to call the local constable, and Bighetty wrote down what he had seen. Once the constable arrived, they phoned the Manitoba RCMP. The Canadian authorities arrived in droves with assault rifles and dogs, telling everyone in the York Landing to remain inside, on lockdown, as they searched the area.
York Landing is not an accessible town. There’s no phone service and no internet. And you can really only get there by plane, or potentially by ferry in the northern summer. But the area is frequented by hunters and fishers, so a rail line and the cleared areas near hydro lines are passable by foot. Still, the terrain is rugged. Bighetty, who is from a different part of northern Manitoba, said he couldn’t imagine anyone would last long without a map.
The search continued through the night and into the following Monday. The Royal Canadian Air Force helped from the sky, but after a “thorough and exhaustive search”, Canadian authorities couldn’t find the teenagers.
On Tuesday, authorities withdrew from York Landing.
And by Wednesday, the Manitoba RCMP announced they were scaling back the entire search in the area. Manitoba RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy thanked the communities of Fox Lake Cree Nation, Gillam and York Landing during a news conference.
“You have shown incredible strength and courage during a time of uncertainty,” MacLatchy said.
“You came together and looked out for one another. I applaud you and thank you for all the help you have provided to our officers during these challenging times.
“I know that today’s news is not what the families of the victims and the communities of northern Manitoba wanted to hear,” MacLatchy said on Thursday morning.
“But when searching for people in vast, remote and rugged locations it is always a possibility they won’t be immediately located.”
Bighetty, a restorative justice worker at the First Nations Family Advocate Office, said it was challenging to leave the close-knit, predominantly Indigenous communities after four intense days, but he had to return to work. His group was only prepared to stay a single day, and he was turning his shirt inside out each day they stayed.
“I was sad to leave,” Bighetty said. “But at the same time, I’m exhausted and my body and my mind and my spirit, they need rest.”
The Washington Post, with Matthew Knott