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With his thatch of silver hair and relaxed manner, Ray Michalko could be just another grandfather as he opens a folder and slides a pair of photographs across the table in a busy Tim Hortons, near the Guildford Mall, in Surrey.

But Mr. Michalko is not sharing pictures of a beloved grandchild, as might fit the scene where friends are meeting over coffee and Timbits on a weekday morning. Instead, under the stark heading "Murdered & Missing," he has offered a sheet of paper with head and shoulder shots of two young women he has never known. They both vanished in Prince George and their cases, in which he now has a burning interest, remain among the most troubling unsolved crimes in British Columbia's history.

"I've got three kids of my own and I just can't imagine losing any of them like this and just not knowing what happened," says the former RCMP officer, turned realtor, turned private investigator, who at age 59 has taken on a string of murders that has confounded police for decades.

Alisha Germaine, a 15-year-old with a pageboy haircut who was photographed looking coyly at the camera, was found murdered near an elementary school on Leslie Road in Prince George, in December, 1994. She was last seen alive on a sidewalk downtown.

Nicole Hoar, a vibrant young tree planter with an open and joyous smile that seems to radiate happiness, was last seen in June, 2002, on the outskirts of the city, just a short distance from Leslie Road, hitchhiking west on Highway 16.

Both of them are on a list of 12 names of young women who disappeared on, or whose bodies were found along Yellowhead Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears, that cuts for 724 kilometres across northern B.C. between Prince George and Prince Rupert. Seven of the missing women were never found. All are presumed dead.

Mr. Michalko put Ms. Germaine and Ms. Hoar on a poster together because they were last seen so close together. He had the flyer delivered to every house in the area.

"If you know anything at all ... please do the right thing. Call Ray," it says.

"I think it's somebody in that area, or somebody who visits that area," he says.

It's just one of the approaches he has taken. He's also had posters put up in every prison in B.C., figuring who better to know a killer than a criminal.

Asked if he's doing the investigation because he thinks the RCMP are falling down on the job, Mr. Michalko smiles and says he's not interested in bashing the police.

"But 12 murders? All of them unsolved? There's got to be something wrong with that picture," Mr. Michalko says. He acknowledges that it seems unlikely he can break a case that has stumped the RCMP, but he just keeps plugging away, persuaded that an old guy with a friendly manner and a firm handshake can learn things the police with all their formidable investigative powers cannot.

Mr. Michalko arrives for an interview in an older model black Ford sedan and his unpretentious manner allows him to slide into a table without attracting anyone's attention. He's just another Tim Hortons regular stopping for a morning coffee. That ordinariness is something he's cultivated as a private detective for the past eight years, mostly investigating insurance cases for legal firms.

"Usually when I do an investigation I come and go and nobody knows," says Mr. Michalko, who won't allow his picture to be taken by the media.

On the Highway of Tears case, however, Mr. Michalko has broken his anonymity. He has been granting interviews to stimulate public interest in a cold case that some say has all the earmarks of a serial killing, although police have never officially linked the slayings.

"Every time I give an interview to a reporter, I get more calls from people who know something, or who know someone who knows something," Mr. Michalko says. "Sooner or later, someone who really does know what happened will talk. This case won't be broken by computer analysis or forensics, it's going to come from good old-fashioned police work - just getting out and talking to people and getting in their faces until you find out what happened. Somebody out there knows."

Mr. Michalko's interest was drawn to the cases by a news report about the unsolved murders a little more than a year ago. When he complained out loud about the lack of police progress, his wife challenged him.

"Well, why don't you do something about it?" she asked.

So he opened a file, and between paying assignments as a P.I., he added bits and pieces of information. As he pecked away at the case, his name got out and eventually reporters started calling to ask what he was doing.

After one radio interview, he got 25 phone calls from people offering information.

"That's when the light really went on for me and I realized how the media could help," Mr. Michalko says.

Since then, he's been readily available for reporters, though he still defers on the photo requests.

"I much prefer to be anonymous. To just fit in like this," he says, looking around the Tim Hortons where people are busy talking about hockey, family and work and ignoring the elderly gentleman dressed in black, who seems to be just killing time over a coffee, but who's really working a murder case.

Nobody would have guessed that just a few days earlier he was on a logging road north of Prince George, organizing 100 volunteers to do a grid search of an area where tips had led him to believe he might find evidence of Nicole Hoar's death.

"We came up empty. Found some bits of clothing that weren't related. Found a few bones that turned out to be from animals.

"No, I'm not discouraged," he says. "It was a bit of a long shot and I said before going up there if it didn't yield anything, I would still keep going on the other leads I have."

Ms. Hoar's family was there and he sensed how badly they need to find out what happened to her. "I was sorry to disappoint them," he says.

Mr. Michalko has talked to hundreds of people along Highway 16 in the past year. From women who routinely hitchhiked when they were younger, he has heard harrowing tales of rapes, or attempted rapes. Others have told of physical assaults. From these stories has emerged a list of suspects including a few names that have come up several times.

He passes on any important tips to the RCMP, but doesn't get any feedback on what, if anything, they have done to follow up. So he just keeps on slogging, hoping for a breakthrough - the location of a body, or any hard evidence. His method, he says, is simple.

"You just knock on the door. Introduce yourself ... That's all it takes and people start talking."

Do they invite him in?

"Yeah. Often they do," he says with a laugh. "A lot of people genuinely want to help. Some are afraid for their safety. Some want to find out how much you know ... you get a sense after a while who's telling the truth."

Mr. Michalko says he's never felt threatened even though, in the small towns strung out along Highway 16, word has got around quickly that he's the private detective working on the Highway of Tears murder investigation.

"But people know I am not a police officer and that works in my favour," he says. "People feel more comfortable talking to me than they would to the police."

Mr. Michalko is working the case without pay. But several months ago, a women's group contacted him. They wanted to support his project by helping pay expenses. That, and the thanks he keeps hearing from people in the north, has persuaded him to keep going on the case.

"I got to the end of year one and I thought, now what? Do I do this for the rest of my life? After thinking about it, I decided to put one more year in, then we'll see where we go from there."

He turns 60 soon but retirement doesn't appeal to him.

"I have to keep moving," he says. "And this is really interesting work."

Mr. Michalko says he has developed some theories about the Highway of Tears cases but doesn't want to go into them in detail, except to say he believes more than one killer is involved. One thing he is certain of, is that whoever is responsible has talked about the crimes. There is an ever-widening circle of knowledge out there in the community, and he is tapping into it.

"When I was about 19," he says, "I realized I had this ability to get people to relax and open up. People like to talk if you let them."

Now he's counting on that charm to help solve some murders.

"I believe if we can just get a break on one of these cases it will really open things up. That's what I'm hoping anyway, and I know a lot of people along Highway 16 feel the same way," he said, before getting in his non-descript Ford, and fading into the traffic.

TWO KEY CASES

The two cases Ray Michalko has doggedly been trying to solve involve Alisha Germaine, left, a 15-year-old found murdered in 1994 near an elementary school on Leslie Road, and Nicole Hoar, 25, a tree planter who went missing in 2002 while hitchhiking on Highway 16, a short distance from Leslie Road.