Sixteen years ago, handyman Kevin Vermette vanished into the dense woods around the isolated northwestern B.C. community of Kitimat after allegedly shooting three young men to death and leaving a fourth gravely wounded.
While the initial thinking was that he died in the forests around Kitimat, the police believe he may still be alive.
For that to be true, the 43-year-old experienced outdoorsman would have had to outwit RCMP officers, tracker dogs and helicopters used to hunt him. After the shooting, he was thought to be boxed in by the dense forests around the community, pinpointed these days as the endpoint for the Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands.
Mr. Vermette, who abandoned his vehicle at the hotel where he lived and went on foot into the woods with his labrador, would have had to survive a gauntlet of daunting wilderness conditions with only the resources he could carry as he fled the community of about 9,000, located 600 kilometres north of Vancouver.
Still, when asked this month about where things stand in the unsolved case, the RCMP concede that the loner with an affection for photography, guns and the outdoors may have survived.
"Although investigators believe there is a possibility Mr. Vermette took his own life or succumbed to the elements of the forest, the fact remains that he has not been located," the RCMP said in an e-mail exchange about the unsolved case, which continues to occupy the attention of an investigator with the Kitimat Serious Crime Unit.
"Kevin Vermette may still be alive," the RCMP said in the exchange.
The RCMP declined to make the current investigator available for interviews. Instead, the media-relations officer for Kitimat responded to a series of written questions submitted by e-mail about the case.
Mr. Vermette became a wanted man on the evening of July 12, 1997. He had reportedly been at odds with the young men over a dispute linked to loud music they played at a weight room in the community. That night, the group of young men were driving to a party in Terrace, about 60 kilometres north of Kitimat.
They ended up at the Hirsch-Creek Park. Somehow, Mr. Vermette was there too. A group of nearby campers heard shots and called police. RCMP found the three deceased victims and the survivor. The dead, all in their early 20s, were Mike Mauro, David Nunes and Mark Teves. A fourth man, Don Olivera, was flown to Vancouver for treatment after suffering severe injuries but survived.
The shootings stunned the community – small enough that everyone knew everyone else. To this day, there is a memorial garden in the park to remember the victims.
Kitimat Mayor Joanna Monaghan says there has been such a turnover in Kitimat over the past 16 years that many would not be aware of the tragedy she finds difficult to talk about. "We're getting so many new people in town because of economic development that they have never even heard of him before," she said in an interview.
"At the time, it had a huge impact. Time heals things," she said, but added memorial notices in the newspaper bring it all back.
Today, the RCMP say it is possible that Mr. Vermette "may have reached another area of Canada or North America." In recent years, the RCMP says it has investigated 30 tips largely prompted by police media releases, and media stories on the anniversaries of the killings.
The case has been the subject of episodes on TV programs such as Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted. Kitimat RCMP have been in touch with police across North America following up on reported sightings.
The bespectacled Mr. Vermette is among the faces on the "Wanted by the RCMP" website – described as armed, dangerous, violent and sought on a Canadawide warrant for murder and attempted murder.
There's a $25,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest. No one has ever filed a bid to claim the reward, they say.