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18 women, 13 homicides, one breakthrough Add to ...

A two-hectare property dominated by a mobile home and shaded by spruce trees has become the focus of a mystery that has haunted the province for years - the fate of 18 women missing or murdered since the late 1960s along a two-lane road known as the "highway of tears."

Owner Robin Tomah, 70, is not a suspect. RCMP officials moved her to a motel this week at their expense as they began a search of the property. They have said it is a hunt for the remains of one of the women.

Nicole Hoar, 25, a tree planter, was last seen hitchhiking on nearby Highway 16 in June, 2002. Ms. Hoar, a resident of Red Deer, Alta., was headed to Smithers, B.C., to visit her sister.

Police said they are interested in a former resident of the property, about 800 kilometres north of Vancouver. Ms. Tomah bought it three years ago.

Though officers were vague yesterday about what brought them to the area, the search raises the possibility of a breakthrough in the mystery.

"We just pray that this is the conclusion to what has been going on, on Highway 16," Ms. Tomah, a born-again Christian, said as she returned to the property yesterday to pick up some household items to make things more comfortable at the motel.

"This could be the catalyst for solving the whole thing."

Ms. Tomah said she has been praying for an end to the mystery, "believing the Lord is going to bring the whole thing to a conclusion once and for all and bring rest to the families."

RCMP officials were more reserved in their comments.

Corporal Annie Linteau, a senior Vancouver-based RCMP spokeswoman relocated to Prince George to deal with the media on the case, refused throughout yesterday to be more specific about how the police came to focus on the property, describing the interest as an outcome of the investigation.

"We're definitely progressing," Cpl. Linteau told reporters, referring to the overall investigation called E-Panna. "For a number of months, we have been conducting an extensive review of all these files involving the disappearance or homicides of these women."

Police are open to the possibility that one person or more people are responsible for the killings.

But Cpl. Linteau said she could not comment on whether the new developments take police closer to cracking the case, because such disclosures could compromise the investigations. Although the Mounties were being discreet in their messaging, they almost invited reporters to the scene, flagging the search with a press release on their website, and providing the address of the property.

Ms. Tomah's land is more than a dozen kilometres north of Highway 16, a two-lane roadway that runs hundreds of kilometres between Prince Rupert on the Pacific Coast through Prince George and on to Edmonton. Thirteen cases, between 1969 and 2006, have been classed as homicides because the victims' bodies have been found - police have not released the causes of death. Five women, including Ms. Hoar, remain missing.

Cpl. Linteau was equally guarded about the relevance of the fact that a former owner of the property, Leland Switzer, was convicted in the killing of his brother in 2002, two days after Ms. Hoar disappeared. He was charged in 2004 and given a life sentence.

At his 2005 trial, Mr. Switzer claimed he was traumatized by a lifetime of bullying and beatings from his brother, and only meant to fire a warning shot in self-defence after grabbing a rifle from a workshop at the family home on Pinewood Road because he was afraid.

Cpl. Linteau said a previous owner was a person of interest in the case, and had been spoken to by police, but she refused to go further. She said she did not know if investigators have interviewed suspects in the other cases.

The property was surrounded by yellow police tape yesterday. One massive RCMP trailer was parked on the dirt road out front. Another was parked on the property. Officers in casual dress milled about throughout the day. Cpl. Linteau would not detail what evidence might have been found.

The area is more than 30 kilometres east of the region's largest city, Prince George. Some residents, including Ms. Tomah, say they relocated here from larger communities for the quiet.

Ms. Hoar's family said yesterday they hoped police efforts would further the investigation into their daughter's disappearance.

"Our thoughts continue to be with Nicole. Nicole is just one of many missing persons in that area and our thoughts continue to be with their families as well," Jack and Barb Hoar said.

Ms. Tomah said her brother-in-law met Ms. Hoar while she was tree planting many years ago. But she never met Mr. Switzer.

She said the RCMP asked her to leave on Wednesday. The search is expected to last several days.

Neighbours took notice of the police activity, but seemed unflustered.

"It doesn't bother me at all. I am just wondering what's going on," said Faye Dennis, who lives a few doors down from the property.

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