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Signs for Highway 16, also know as the Highway of Tears, near Smithers, B.C., on May 10, 2014.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The head of the RCMP's Highway of Tears investigation says police are moving forward and have identified a number of people of interest – though it's been nearly two years since the last big break and arrests in any of the cases do not appear imminent.

"We have some files where we have strong persons of interest. As far as I'm concerned, we're going to work those until we gather the evidence. These are very tough investigations. They're unsolved for a reason," Staff Sergeant Wayne Clary said in a rare interview Thursday.

The RCMP launched Project E-PANA in fall 2005 to investigate the decades-long string of homicides and disappearances involving young women near northern B.C.'s Highway 16. The team is investigating 18 cases – 13 homicides and five disappearances – from 1969 to 2006.

The number of investigators has been scaled back. It peaked at roughly 60 and is now between 12 and 15. The number of tips coming in has also slowed – a couple dozen were received over the past six months or so.

The last major development was in September, 2012, when Mounties announced Bobby Jack Fowler was responsible for the 1974 death of Colleen MacMillen. Police said at the time that Mr. Fowler – who died in an Oregon prison in 2006 – was also believed to have killed Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington. Staff Sgt. Clary said the force has not been able to definitively link Mr. Fowler to the two additional killings, though he believes the convict was responsible.

The lack of police updates on the Highway of Tears investigation has led some to speculate the work has stalled. Staff Sgt. Clary said the officers involved are giving it their all despite the investigative challenges. He said the lack of progress has at times been "frustrating."

"We've pounded through a lot of work," he said. "… There's still more work to do, but clearly more work is behind us than what is in front of us."

He described the investigation as comprehensive and massive, and said one tip can keep investigators extremely busy. For instance, he said investigators recently examined hotel records for one of the cases – a process that is branching off in a couple dozen directions.

While the force has identified some people of interest it strongly suspects were involved in the killings or disappearances, the number of overall persons of interest highlights the difficulty of the investigation. Staff Sgt. Clary said there are more than 1,400 persons of interest in all.

He said the team still does not – as it has often stated – believe the killings and disappearances are the work of just one person.

Matilda Wilson, whose daughter Ramona went missing in 1994 and was found dead the following year, said the force has dramatically improved its relationship with the families of the missing and deceased. Some of the families had complained their cases weren't taken seriously enough when they were first reported.

She praised the RCMP – and Staff Sgt. Clary in particular – for keeping her and her family informed. The family holds an annual march, which the head of the investigation attended earlier this month.

Staff Sgt. Clary said he doesn't expect the Highway of Tears investigation to wrap up any time soon. He said there will always be tips coming in that have to be followed up on.

"Our investigators work hard and they've worked hard over the years and I think the family members know that," he said. "We like to have successes and we want to have success in this. We want to sit down with family members and tell them, 'We've solved this case involving your loved one.'"

The B.C. government has been criticized in recent months for not doing enough to enhance safety along the Highway of Tears, despite the fact a lengthy missing women's inquiry called for improved bus service along the stretch of road.

Staff Sgt. Clary said more does need to be done to improve safety along the highway, and enhanced bus service would undoubtedly be used.

"They need something up there. What that is is some kind of transportation, I think. I guess that's others' responsibility. I do know, practically, when we get young people that don't have modes of transportation, they're going to hitchhike. It happens all over North America; we're not going to change that.

"But I think we as a community and society – of which the police are a part of – we need to sort of mitigate those risks absolutely as much as we can," he said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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