It’s the wildness of the place that draws people here. An area almost unfathomably vast, some of the emptiest terrain remaining on the continent. In the height of summer traffic, you can easily go half an hour or more without approaching another vehicle. Areas of highway have no centre line, no shoulder. There is no cell service for hundreds of kilometres. Hospitals and police are hours away.
Some people, like American Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler, are drawn by the adventure, romance and freedom of these endless highways. Others, like Leonard Dyck, a 64-year-old botany lecturer at the University of British Columbia, may be pulled by a passion for the natural world and the untrespassed wilderness, the richness of the foliage and forest.
When teenaged best friends Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod drove north out from Port Alberni, B.C., around July 13 in a vintage Dodge Ram pick-up truck and Bigfoot camper top, they were heading to Yukon and Northwest Territories in search of work, better jobs than they had working the night shift at their home-town Walmart.
Or, that’s what they told people.
Instead, the two men have been identified as suspects in the killings of Ms. Deese and Mr. Fowler, who were found shot to death along the highway near the Liard River hot springs, and of Mr. Dyck, who was found dead beside the road outside Dease Lake five days later.
In the days since, an unsettling picture has emerged of Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod, their interest in Nazism, Soviet Russia and survivalist video games, and, in particular, Mr. Schmegelsky’s history of making disturbing and violent comments about killing people and then himself.
Suddenly, behaviour that some who knew the teens had dismissed as simply odd or unsettling has taken on a grave new meaning. A teen in Port Alberni described hanging out with Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod while they camped at Sproat Lake this spring, and said Mr. Schmegelsky was wearing a swastika armband and military fatigues, and using a replica Nazi knife to crush Ritalin tablets and snort them.
“I’m so dumbfounded that Kam would be a part of this,” said the teen, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying by name because of his youth and his concern about being associated with Mr. Schmegelsky. (The Globe conducted the interview with the knowledge of the teen’s father.) “If it is true, I’d be surprised about Kam, but I would not be surprised about Bryer. Let’s just put it this way, he was a little bit [messed] up in the mind.”
As of Friday evening, Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod were on the run, subjects of a nationwide manhunt, and last seen in the wilds of northern Manitoba.
“They’re going to go out in a blaze of glory,” Mr. Schmegelsky’s father, Alan Schmegelsky, told a reporter this week. “Trust me on this. That’s what they’re going to do.”
‘Stuff like this does not happen up here’
Two highways skirt the mountains in B.C. heading north. Highway 37, or the Stewart-Cassiar, runs in the west, through the Stikine Ranges and the Cassiar Mountains up to Yukon. Coming from the east is Highway 97, the famous Alaska Highway.
Trust is required in a place so empty and extreme. Every person is vulnerable to weather and animal attacks, to car crashes or medical emergencies, so people look after one another. It’s understood that someone may enter your home or cabin in an emergency and take what they need. If people have trouble on the highway, others stop and help.
“We do look after each other,” says Steve Simonovic, sitting outside his family’s business, Jade City, along Highway 37. “That’s how we exist. Otherwise, we couldn’t exist.”
“Stuff like this does not happen up here,” added an employee of the business, Kylee Ryan. “I live here because it’s quiet. No crime, no violence.”
Mr. Fowler, 23, and Ms. Deese, 24, were about 15 minutes out of the Liard hot springs when their 1986 Blue Chevy van broke down on Sunday, July 14.
The two met backpacking in Europe and quickly became what Mr. Lucas’s father would describe as “an inseparable pair.” Photographs show them atop a mountain range, in a forest, on a fishing boat. The last known video of them, from a gas station surveillance camera, showed them embracing lovingly after they gassed up their van at Fort Nelson.
At least one couple stopped to make sure they were okay as they sat with their van that evening and found them relaxing along the side of the road in lawn chairs. Seeing they were fine, and that Mr. Fowler appeared to be knowledgeable about the vehicle, the passersby moved along.
The bodies of Mr. Fowler and Ms. Deese were found the next morning.
Road worker Trevor Pierre later told reporters the bodies were a short distance apart and seemed to be positioned oddly, lying north and their heads tilted noticeably west. He said he waited 3½ hours for police, waving people past so they would not stop to help.
The area is a popular with international travellers such as Mr. Fowler and Ms. Deese, and news that the young couple had been found dead – and that the deaths were homicides – made headlines around the world. Mr. Fowler’s father, an Australian police inspector, flew to Canada.
“It’s a love story that’s ended tragically,” Stephen Fowler said at an RCMP news conference. “It’s the worst-ever love story, because we now have two young people who had everything ahead of them tragically murdered.”
The situation worsened when the pickup truck Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod had been driving was found on fire along Highway 37 outside Dease Lake at the end of the week. The young men were missing, and the body of a man who was later identified as Mr. Dyck was found two kilometres away.
Along the highways, rumours and speculation grew.
Some believed a serial killer was operating. Others wondered if the situations were connected to the Highway of Tears, which connects to Highway 37 to the south.
Police released a sketch of a man seen speaking to Mr. Fowler and Ms. Deese, and some speculated it was a murder suspect from Texas who was the subject of an RCMP warning.
People along the remote northern highways locked their doors, some for the first time.
Randi Ball, a cashier at the Super A store and gas station in Dease Lake, slept with a knife beside her. Another cashier, Crystal Adams, slept with her shotgun.
“It was the first thing like that ever happening around here,” Ms. Ball said.
The two men were recognizable, as was their truck. Some residents of Dease Lake recalled them camping in a lot outside town, and RCMP searched there. Ms. Adams’s said her mother saw the men hitchhiking along the highway, each thumbing in a different direction.
People stayed together and indoors, even while the summer sun hung high in the sky late into the night.
On July 23, RCMP announced the two young men were no longer considered missing or possible victims. They had become suspects in all three homicides.
‘Some weird, edgy, internet kid’
Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod were also known to be an inseparable pair. They are physically similar – each is described by RCMP as 6-foot 4 and 169 pounds – and so close that one woman who worked with them described them as “sticking together like glue." Mr. Schmegelsky is 18, Mr. McLeod 19. They had been friends since childhood.
When many of their classmates left town this summer for jobs or schools elsewhere, Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod stayed behind, getting hired at the local Walmart, a five-minute walk from Mr. Schmegelsky’s grandmother’s house. They worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and quit abruptly earlier this month.
Co-worker M.J. Pelletier recalled Mr. McLeod was nice enough, but said he seemed uncomfortable in close contact with people other than Mr. Schmegelsky at work.
“Usually, people are shy, but the whole not-standing-next-to-you or getting-close-to-you? That’s the odd part,” she said.
Mr. McLeod was brought up a “laker,” on five acres across from Sproat Lake, where his tight-knit family saved up enough to build their dream house on a wooded lot. Sybastian Findlay, a former classmate at the local alternative school, described Mr. McLeod as calm and likeable.
“Whenever you’d talk to him, you’d kind of get sucked into conversation and you’d almost feel at home speaking to him,” Mr. Findlay said.
Members of the McLeod family declined media interviews this week, but in a statement, Keith McLeod said he and his family are trying to wrap their heads around what is happening, and “hope Kam will come home to us safely so we can all get to the bottom of this story.”
“This is what I do know – Kam is a kind, considerate, caring young man [who] always has been concerned about other people’s feelings,” the statement read.
Neighbours and childhood friends say Mr. Schmegelsky’s home life was less stable and that he grew up splitting his time between the house where his mother and her boyfriend lived and his grandmother’s place in Port Alberni, and spent a brief period in Victoria with his father.
In an interview this week, Alan Schmegelsky said his son struggled after his parents’ divorce and found negative influences online instead of the support he needed.
“He hasn’t been nurtured,” he said. “He doesn’t have a driver’s licence. He never learned to ride a bike. He craved love and affection. His influences haven’t been good. His influences have been YouTube and video games.”
He said his son was interested in the Russian heritage he believed he had, supported U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said he didn’t think his son was actually into Nazi beliefs, only that he thought the memorabilia were “cool.”
He said his son asked for an airsoft gun for Christmas two years ago, and he and his friends would “battle” one another with them in the woods.
Rylan Lucas, who grew up three doors down from Mr. Schmegelsky’s grandmother, said he remembers Mr. Schmegelesky spouting Nazi rhetoric as early as Grade 6.
"He was totally supportive of all that, he praised it," Mr. Lucas said. "He'd make weird comments, inappropriate things, violent things some times. He never specifically talked about hurting one of us, but he'd promote violence."
Since 2015, the two men – then in their early teens – played video games online with fellow gamers from the area, joining multiplayer matches and sometimes broadcasting the sessions on streaming platforms Twitch and YouTube.
A video posted to Mr. McLeod’s YouTube page last year shows the men running through the digital countryside, battling other players in the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike. In the game Rust, where Mr. Schmegelsky clocked more than 500 hours in recent years, the goal is to survive in the outdoors and to “protect yourself from other players, and kill them for meat.”
Kevin Bailey, a 24-year-old Seattle resident, said he met Mr. Schmegelsky online playing Counter-Strike, and recalls him making jokes on Snapchat about cutting people’s heads off and, once, pretending to masturbate to a framed photo of Hitler. “I just thought he was some weird, edgy, internet kid,” Mr. Bailey said.
Another online friend in the gaming community who asked not to be named to avoid being associated with Mr. Schmegelsky said the teen talked often about Nazism and sent photos of himself in military fatigues, another of himself in a gas mask and one with a swastika armband and a replica knife similar to those issued to the Hitler Youth.
Accounts connected to the two men show Nazi, Communist and far-right iconography.
The online friend says he jokingly told Mr. Schmegelsky, “Don’t start killing people,” and Mr. Schmegelsky replied: “I would never do that.’”
A funeral suit
In northern B.C., RCMP investigators descended on the two homicide scenes, more than a six-hour drive apart. Officers canvassed the gas stations and motels that dot the highways in between looking for surveillance video, interviewing people who had seen the men and trying to follow their path.
Mr. Simonovic said that, when he saw Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod at his family’s business, he immediately had a bad feeling about them in his gut. After 50 years living and working along one of the continent’s most desolate stretches of highway, Mr. Simonovic says he has learned to trust his instincts and that he didn’t like them on sight.
“When I see people like that I usually go by the back door and make sure my shotgun is loaded and ready. Fifty years I’ve been around here and I always have a gun in behind. You see this kind of people, you want to be ready if something happened,” he said.
“But I tell you something, they come back here, they’ll never make it alive out of here.”
The teens fled east through Alberta, where RCMP say, a resident in Cold Lake found them in the RAV 4 stuck on a trail, and helped them get free.
The teens were then captured on a store security camera in Meadow Lake, northwest of Saskatoon, on Sunday, July 21. Images released by the RCMP show Mr. McLeod wearing a T-shirt, Mr. Schmegelsky in buttoned-up camouflage.
They were spotted the next day in the remote northern community of Gillam, Man., about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
The Toyota RAV4 Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod were believed to have been driving was found burned just outside the community and RCMP have said no other cars are missing. There is only one road into the community, and all around are dense bush and swamp, voracious bugs and difficult northern terrain.
RCMP have said tips continue and heavily armed officers, drones and community patrols have been searching the area, and as far north as Churchill.
Police have also cautioned the teens may be gone, possibly helped by someone who didn’t know who they were.
Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod have been charged with second-degree murder in Mr. Dyck’s death, and are identified as suspects in Mr. Fowler and Ms. Deese’s murders. RCMP have repeatedly warned the public not to approach the men, but to call 911.
Mr. Schmegelsky’s father has said he believes it’s a suicide mission and that he now understands the black suit his son bought with one of his Walmart paycheques was a funeral suit.
Unease in a beautiful place
The teams of forensics officers and major-crimes investigators have left the highways in northern B.C. The teens’ burned pickup and Mr. Fowler’s van have been hauled away, and the crime scenes cleaned up.
On the desolate highways, the usual RVs and motorcyclists pass. There are tourists and hunters and hippies. Bikers and cyclists. Bear and bison roam and root along the side of the highway.
“It’s a one-off, and these people were from outside. We’re always concerned about people from outside,” said John Wright, sitting at a table in his lodge, Tatogga Lake Resort, south of Dease Lake. “I mean, people from here are very responsible. When you live here, you have to be.”
But for locals and for travellers along the highways of northern B.C., a new sense of unease lingers in a beautiful place.
And for many others, along these roads and beyond, the nagging questions about Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, and what they are alleged to have done. Whether it is radicalization or racism or video games or drugs, or something else altogether. Wondering what brought two young men here.
And where, in this wild country, they are now.
With reports from Ian Bailey, Andrea Woo and The Canadian Press
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