A string of murders and disappearances over the past 43 years along a northern British Columbia road that has come to be known as the “highway of tears” is not the work of a single killer, police have revealed.
In a rare public update from Project E-Pana, a task force that has been working on the cases since 2005, police said on Tuesday that they have definitively resolved one of them, and they put a name to the killer: a deceased U.S. sex offender named Bobby Jack Fowler.
DNA testing in 2012 led to the oldest match in Interpol history, they said, linking Mr. Fowler to 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen of Lac La Hache, B.C., who was found dead in 1974 a month after she tried to hitchhike to a friend’s house. Mr. Fowler died of lung cancer in an Oregon penitentiary in 2006 while serving a 16-year sentence for kidnapping, assault and attempted rape.
“Fowler with certainty is responsible for Colleen MacMillen’s death,” RCMP Inspector Gary Shinkaruk told reporters at a news conference in Surrey.
Inspector Shinkaruk said Mr. Fowler is “a strong suspect” in the 1973 deaths of Gale Weys of Clearwater, B.C., and Pamela Darlington of Kamloops.
“After 40 years, I don’t think it really makes a big difference. It’s good to know. …” Gale’s mother, Rowna, said on Tuesday from her home in Kamloops. “We loved her and she was wonderful.”
Police said the cases become more complex beyond Mr. Fowler.
“We’re confident a single killer is not responsible for all the cases,” RCMP Staff Sergeant Wayne Clary told the news conference.
Since the late 1960s, more than two dozen women have been killed or gone missing in northern British Columbia, many of them along an 800-kilometre stretch of Highways 5, 97 and 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert – a region dubbed the “highway of tears.” E-Pana is focused on 18 of those cases – 13 homicides and five missing women.
Staff Sgt. Clary said police have linked three individuals he declined to name – two dead, and one living – to one case each, but there isn’t enough evidence to warrant criminal charges.
He said there are many suspects beyond Mr. Fowler. “We have numerous persons of interest and they could be the person, but we just haven’t found that link,” he said. “We haven’t found the right bit of evidence to tell us some things. We have to keep looking.”
In the case of Ms. MacMillen, DNA tests conducted on evidence in 2007 elicited only the profile of an unknown male, but advances in technology this year prompted new tests that led to the match.
But Staff Sgt. Clary said it may take further scientific advances to crack the three cases he mentioned.
“We’ve wrung out as much DNA as we can, but we’re fully aware the processes are getting more and more refined. This is what happened in this case. I can tell you we were so happy when it happened, working these files without some conclusion and then we get this and we’re ecstatic, and it keeps us going.”
Mr. Fowler has been ruled out in eight other E-Pana cases, but is a person of interest in others and police hope an appeal as part of Tuesday’s briefing could lead to public tips to help provide a sense of what Mr. Fowler was up to in British Columbia.
At this point, police have an incomplete timeline of Mr. Fowler’s travels through Canada in the 1970s, including confirmation he worked in 1974 for a roofing company – now out of business – in Prince George.
Police painted a disturbing portrait of a loner and transient – in a single day he might cross three U.S. states – who roamed North America. He has no known relatives or close friends and often crossed states and borders, picking up hitchhikers.
Officials in Lincoln County in Oregon said he is also a suspect or person of interest in the killings of four U.S. teenaged girls in two separate incidents in the 1990s.
Mr. Fowler had an extensive criminal record in the United States, but none in Canada, Insp. Shinkaruk said. A consumer of speed and amphetamines, he believed female hitchhikers or women he met in bars “had a desire to be violently sexually assaulted,” Insp. Shinkaruk said.
A statement from the office of Rob Bovett, district attorney for Lincoln County, said Mr. Fowler was arrested in June, 1995, after taking a woman to his motel room in Newport, Ore., and trying to rape her. He had tied up his victim and she escaped by jumping out of a second-floor window, naked, with a rope tied to an ankle.
- With a report from Andrea Woo in Vancouver