Tour guide Clint Sawchuk was cruising on the Nelson River, taking a group of tourists to the national historic site of York Factory on Friday, when he spotted a blue sleeping bag in the water, tangled up in some willows.
He knew the sleeping bag could be significant because he was one of handful of local residents who had been helping the RCMP scour the river and shoreline for any sign of fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod.
Mr. Sawchuk’s find, it turned out, led police to spot a wrecked rowboat later that day, which then triggered a concentrated police search on an area where two bodies were found Wednesday. The RCMP said they believe the bodies are of the two wanted men.
“I’m so happy that I made that call,” a relieved Mr. Sawchuk said Wednesday on the way to Winnipeg, where his wife and two young children are staying because he was afraid to leave them alone while he was away touring on the Nelson River. The police search for the fugitives has centred on this region since July 22.
It’s not known whether the sleeping bag is connected to Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod, who were suspected of killing three people – American Chynna Deese; her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler; and Vancouver resident Leonard Dyck – in Northern British Columbia.
The sleeping bag was spotted around 11 a.m. floating near Port Nelson, where the Nelson River spills into Hudson Bay.
“They were on their way to Port Nelson to find the sleeping bag and that’s when they [spotted] the boat,” Mr. Sawchuk recounted.
The aluminum rowboat was severely damaged and had gone through Lower Limestone Rapids, RCMP Inspector Leon Fiedler told The Globe and Mail on the weekend. Police had last scoured the area by air three or four days earlier.
It’s not yet known whether Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod used the rowboat, but Friday’s discoveries touched off an intense police search of the shoreline and surrounding bush.
That search involved dozens of officers and several sniffer dogs. ATVs and a helicopter were used to help scan the rugged terrain and a dive team was brought in to scour the muddy Nelson River. A professional tracker was tapped to aid the manhunt, a source familiar with the investigation, who was granted confidentiality because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, told The Globe.
The exhaustive effort led police to find items linked to the pair, although the RCMP will not reveal what those items are.
As a resident who has been living in Gillam, Man., through the anxious time, Mr. Sawchuk, 40, had said last week he felt uncertain about police scaling back their search effort when they weren’t making headway in the manhunt.
"If they are here and just waiting, you never know what they’re going to do,” he said, after taking his wife and young children to the airport so that they could head to Winnipeg.
He’s going to bring his family back to Gillam now.
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