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'A terrible wait' along B.C.'s Highway of Tears

Doug Leslie operates a massive shovel that loads trucks in the open pit at the Endako molybdenum mine, 160 kilometres west of Prince George in northern British Columbia. It's a tough job and it has hardened him.

But nothing he's done in that job over the past 20 years prepared him for the emotional blow delivered by RCMP officers blocking the entrance to a lonely logging road north of Vanderhoof, on Highway 27.

"They said it was a homicide scene and I couldn't go in. Then I knew," said Mr. Leslie, who two weeks ago awoke to a police call asking if anyone might be using the identity of his blind daughter, 15-year-old Loren Donn Leslie, who had gone missing that night.

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"They wouldn't say why they wanted to know, but I knew it wasn't good," said Mr. Leslie, who lives in the small town of Fort Fraser. His daughter at the time was living with her mother in Vanderhoof, about 40 kilometres away.

"They told me they had found something… but they never called back and so I just drove out to the scene," he said. "I had to know."

There, on a spur road off the Highway of Tears, where 18 women have vanished or been murdered over the years, Mr. Leslie saw the police cars all pulled over, and he got out and walked towards them through the snow, a cold fear growing inside him.

Police told him to go home and wait. It wasn't until 3:30 the next afternoon that they confirmed the identity of his daughter.

"That was a terrible wait," said Mr. Leslie, who was left numb with shock.

Prince George resident Cody Legebokoff, 20, has been charged with murder. His truck was stopped when an alert RCMP officer saw it swerve onto the highway from the logging road. A provincial Conservation Officer who was called to the scene traced the tracks back into the bush and found Loren's body.

Last week, a memorial was held for Loren in Fort Fraser, population 950, and Mr. Leslie said when he stood up to face the huge crowd, the sense of not only what his family had lost, but what the community had lost, struck him full on.

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"That was tough, getting up to talk. First of all, there's not 2,000 people in Fort Fraser, so that turnout was something," he said. "We were in the Stellako Hall, the biggest building around, and it was full and they were outside the door, and people were driving by on the road because they couldn't find a place to park.

"And the casket was empty because Loren was gone to Pennsylvania," he said, referring to an extraordinary decision by the RCMP to send the girl's remains to a forensic specialist in the United States last week. Police have not said why they did that.

"I had to get up and explain that to everyone," said Mr. Leslie. "It was hard, really hard."

But he said he found strength in the outpouring of love and support from the community, and from Loren's larger circle of friends, many of whom knew her through Facebook and by e-mail chats.

"E-mails have been coming in from all over the place… I just heard from one boy who said he was e-mailing back and forth with her and he was thinking about suicide, and Loren talked him out of it," said Mr. Leslie. "You know, she was just 15 and a bit naive, very trusting, but she was a special person. You may think this is just a dad talking, but she really was the most amazing kid I ever met."

Loren was fully blind in one eye and had such little vision in the other that "in classroom lighting she was effectively totally blind."

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But Mr. Leslie said she often went out by herself and functioned so well strangers never guessed she couldn't see.

And her blindness, he said, gave her a special quality.

"She was quiet, but she listened loud," said Mr. Leslie. "She could hear people's feelings."

He read at the memorial service something she'd written that summed up her belief that people need to be more tolerant and accepting of one another.

"I do hear well," she wrote. "I hear others cutting their friends apart, saying unkind things, just to make themselves feel better. I hear people's feelings being hurt by those ignoring them. I hear when no one speaks to me because I choose to be more considerate of others and not follow the crowd. I hear tears on people's faces who aren't accepted because they don't have the right look, the right clothes, or they aren't cool enough to be popular."

Mr. Leslie said he has pictures of Loren with some of those words printed on them. He's going to be handing them out to people, and he hopes to go out on a speaking tour, maybe visiting schools across the country, just to get out her message about the importance of tolerance and kindness.

"I don't know how I'm going to do that, but I just feel I've got to," he said.

Mr. Leslie said when Loren's remains are returned from the forensics lab, she will be cremated.

A pine coffin he had made by a friend, which has a peace sign engraved on it, and which all her pals have signed, is sitting now, full of her teddy bears.

"I don't know what to do with that," he said. "It's a beautiful coffin."

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