They are worlds apart: the small, dusty communities of Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and Australia’s most populous city, Sydney. But on Friday, they were united in a search for answers and healing as an RCMP manhunt for two fugitives wanted in three B.C. killings remains at an impasse.
That manhunt has centred on Northern Manitoba for the past 11 days, after the SUV that police believe the pair were driving was found burning in a ditch near the Fox Lake reserve on the evening of July 22. But without a confirmed sighting of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, since then, police on Wednesday announced that they would be scaling back their search until new leads emerge, leaving residents of the remote region and the families of the three victims filled with uncertainty.
“It’s the worst-possible outcome,” said Karen Donnellan-Fisher, general manager of Gillam Co-op, which includes a grocery store, gas station and liquor outlet. “We’re all left hanging.”
On Friday, residents of Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation were invited to an evening barbecue and community meeting at the gazebo by the ball diamond to hear from local political leaders and the RCMP.
“We’re organizing the meeting so the community has all the answers that they want,” Gillam Mayor Dwayne Forman said as plans for the gathering were being made. “Everybody is asking questions and no one is giving answers and I think it’s important that communication is given.”
The meeting was closed to reporters. The RCMP search has drawn intense media attention from Canadian and Australian media organizations.
One of the homicide victims was Australian Lucas Fowler, 23, the son of the chief inspector for the New South Wales police. He was found shot to death on July 15 along with his American girlfriend, Chynna Deese, 24, near the Liard Hot Springs, south of the B.C.-Yukon boundary.
Four days later, the body of Vancouver resident Leonard Dyck, 64, a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s botany department, was discovered on a road near Dease Lake, about 500 kilometres southwest of the hot springs. RCMP have identified Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod from Port Alberni, B.C., as suspects in the three deaths.
A funeral for Mr. Fowler was held at a Sydney church Friday and broadcast by an Australian television station.
Stephen Fowler said his son, the youngest of four children, led a rambunctious, free-spirited life that included an inspiring love story. Almost always wearing a white T-shirt and low-hanging jeans, the long-haired Aussie met Ms. Deese while travelling in Croatia.
Ms. Deese has been described as a big-hearted American who volunteered at a camp for special-needs families in Charlotte, N.C., and loved to travel. Lucas Fowler was quickly smitten.
“We never had a chance to meet Chynna, but the day she stole Lucas’s heart, she became part of our family. We were so happy he had met a life partner,” his father told mourners.
He said his son secured a two-year working visa in Canada, and went to work on a ranch in British Columbia where he often spent his downtime talking to Ms. Deese on Facetime.
He wanted to buy an old school bus to travel in, but settled on a van that he fixed up for the pair’s latest adventure to Northern B.C., Yukon and Alaska. He sent photos of his progress on the van to his family in Australia and was “proud as punch” when he finished it, Mr. Fowler said.
“Lucas lived a life that many of us envied. He didn’t just dream of travelling. He worked and saved and made it happen,” his father recounted. “He lived off the smell of an oily rag to get to places we had never heard of, and, along the way, forged many friendships. He met the love of his life and was at his happiest.”
The scaled-back police search for Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod continued on Friday. RCMP Inspector Leon Fiedler said officers had returned to where the torched SUV was found to again scan the dense, insect-laden bush for clues.
The manhunt had drawn 40 police officers to Gillam. About half that number now remains. An RCMP detachment is also based in Gillam, but there is no permanent police presence at Fox Lake Cree Nation, a community of about 500 people.
Tips about the suspects continue to pour in across the country. The Ontario Provincial Police have received so many calls that they’ve set up an investigative team under the Criminal Investigation Branch to more closely investigate the reports. None of the sightings has been substantiated.
In an eight-hour span on Thursday alone, OPP Staff Sergeant Carolle Dionne said, the police service received 30 calls from across the province.
“There is no way to know if they came into Ontario. But we don’t want to discredit that information, so it’s important to follow up on those tips,” she said.
Residents of Gillam and Fox Lake hope that the next confirmed sighting of Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod is far from their communities. And Gillam resident Johnathon Sandberg, 22, a member of Fox Lake Cree Nation, hopes the fugitives are found alive.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” he said over lunch at the lone restaurant in Gillam. “It would be nice to have some answers.”