Mysterious Murders and Vanishings on the Highway of Tears

Some places in this world seem to be magnets for evil. Often lying on the fringes of civilization, they pull to themselves a thick air of menace, murder, and woe. Here are the hunting grounds of maniacs, monsters, and the haunts of grim mysteries we may never solve. One such place is a road that lies unfurled amongst the cold expanses of rough, unforgiving wilderness sprawled across Canada. It is a place that is at once beautiful and deadly, a vein through the land that courses with inexplicable murders, vanishings, and indeed perhaps evil itself. This is a hungry, bloodthirsty place, which seems to draw to it violence and death even as it hides itself within natural splendor. It is a road through some of the most remote, rugged terrain of the country, and which has been ground zero for some of its most numerous and unsolved crimes.

Across a 720 km (450 mi) stretch of remote, heavily forested expanse of rugged land in British Columbia, Canada spans a road that on maps is called Highway 16, which is a section of the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway, also known as the “Park-to-Park Highway,” that itself meanders across a vast swath of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This is rough, untamed country, where wild animals outnumber humans and the nearest settlement could be miles away through a thick, dark sea of trees. It is a tangle of unkept wilderness that despite its breathtaking beauty is permeated with a certain sense of foreboding and bleak desolation, where one certainly does not want their car to break down. This unavoidable ominous shadow that seems to hang low over the land is only empowered by the fact that it is here that dozens of people have gone to vanish of the face of the earth, or to even end up dead under mysterious circumstances, earning this wild slash of highway the sinister nickname “The Highway of Tears.” Investigative Journalist Bob Friel perfectly explains this place quite perfectly thus:

The road’s called Highway 16. It’s part of the Trans-Canada Highway system. … There are places in this road where you will see more bears than you will see cars. The road can take on kind of a sinister aspect to it. It’s a place that can be a good friend to evil. The locals know it as the Highway of Tears. And it’s called that because there’s been a — a series of disappearances and murders of women and girls that date back four decades, and a large number of them are still unsolved.

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A section of the Highway of Tears

It is perhaps not surprising that people would disappear in this place. The area is sparsely populated, with only scattered logging settlements and villages belonging to the Twenty-three First Nations that the highway cuts through. There are vast stretches where there are no people at all, and the lack of public transportation and crippling poverty here conspire to make hitchhiking the most common way to get around. With this remoteness and the inherit dangers of hitchhiking, it seems a perfect storm for murder and vanishings, yet what is shocking is just how many there have been in this area and how few of them have ever been solved. Since 1969, dozens of people, mostly indigenous girls and women, have either gone missing or turned up brutally murdered along the road and its adjacent routes. There have been 18 officially listed murdered or missing persons between 1969 and 2006, with the actual number likely much higher and rising all the time, and authorities have been largely completely baffled by the cases, which are often surrounded by weirdness and strange clues.

The trail of missing people and murder attributed to the Highway of Tears officially begins in 1969, when on October 25; 26-year-old Gloria Moody was seen alive leaving a bar in Williams Lake, British Columbia. The next day, her dead body was found 10km away stashed in the thick woods near a cattle ranch. The very next year, in July of 1970, 18-year-old Micheline Pare was dropped off at the gates of Tompkins Ranch by two women who had given her a ride, after which she proceeded to vanish off the face of the earth to never be heard from again. She is still missing. 1973 would see the mysterious murders of two young women, Gale Weys (19), Pamela Darlington (19), both of whom had disappeared while hitchhiking and their bodies found unceremoniously dumped in muddy ditches by the side of the road.

In August of 1974, 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen went missing as she was hitchhiking to go see a friend. Her brutalized body would turn up in the wilderness one month later. Later that year, in December of 1974, 14-year-old Monica Ignas vanished while walking along Highway 16 in Thornhill near Terrace, BC, and it wasn’t until 4 months later that her decomposed corpse would be found a few kilometers away from where she had disappeared. The 1970s streak of death would continue in 1978, with the disappearance of young, 12-year-old Monica Jack, who was last seen riding her bike along the road. At the time, Monica had just totally vanished of the face of the earth, and extensive searches turned up nothing. It would not be until 17 years later that her skeletal remains would be discovered at the bottom of a remote, forest choked ravine by forestry workers.

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The shocking deaths and disappearances did not abate, and continued right on into the 1980s. 33-year-old Maureen Mosie was last seen hitchhiking near Salmon Arm, BC, on 8 May 1981, and her severely beaten body would be found at the end of a run-off lane leading to Highway 97 by a no doubt startled woman out walking her dog. In May of 1983, Shelley-Anne Bascu (16) vanished and was never seen again. 24-year-old Alberta Williams wandered off and disappeared after leaving a crowded bar with her sister and a group of friends in September of 1989. No one was quite sure how she could have just vanished, and she had been there one moment and gone the next. A few weeks later, her lifeless body was found near Prince Rupert, BC near some old railroad tracks by the Tyee Overpass. The body showed evidence of strangulation and sexual assault. Also in 1989 was the mysterious disappearance of 15-year-old Cicilia Anne Nikal, who was last seen on Highway 16 near Smithers, B.C. and hasn’t been seen since.

Perhaps the most chilling disappearance here from the 1980s involves not just one lone hitchhiker, but rather an entire family. On the night of August 2, 1989, a man by the name of Ronald Jack allegedly was drinking at a bar in Prince George, BC, when he met a man who offered him 2 weeks of work at a logging camp. Since he had been desperately looking for a job, Ronald gladly accepted, and he reportedly made preparations for him, his wife Doreen, and their two children 9-year-old Russell and 4-year-old Ryan to make the trip to his new place of temporary employment. At 1:30AM that evening, Ronald called his mother from a resort area along Highway 16 to inform her of his plans. It was the last time anyone would ever hear from him, and Ronald Jack and his entire family simply disappeared off the face of the earth.

Tragically, and not a little spookily, Cicilia Anne’s cousin Delphine Nikal (16) would mysteriously vanish into thin air the following year, on June 13, 1990, as she was hitchhiking on Highway 16 between Smithers, BC, and her home in Telkwa, BC. Like her cousin, Delphine was also never seen again. The 1990s certainly saw plenty of sinister activity along the Highway of Tears, and in 1994, Ramona Wilson (16) vanished without a trace as she was hitchhiking on July 11 of that year on her way to a graduation party. For 7 months intensive searches turned up nothing, and then Ramona’s mother received an anonymous call claiming her daughter’s body could be found in a field near the airport. Strangely, a search of the area turned up no corpse. It was not until 10 months later, in April of 1995, that her remains would finally be found by two moose hunters lying under some trees in the woods well off the road.

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Another case from 1994 was the disappearance of a 16-year-old prostitute named Roxanne Thiara, who in July of that year told her friend that she was going to meet a customer and was never heard from again. Roxanne’s corpse was found by chance stuffed within some dense underbrush near Burns Lake on August 17, 1994. This was a busy year for the seemingly bloodthirsty road, as in December of 1994 we also have the case of Alishia Germaine (15), whose body was found stabbed to death behind Haldi Road Elementary School off of Highway 16 W. outside of Prince George. The following October, 1995, 19-year-old Lana Derrick would vanish without trace as she was heading along Highway 16 from Northwest Community College in Houston, BC to visit her home in the Hazelton area. Lana was last seen on October 7, 1995 at a gas station near Terrace (Thornhill) in BC, and has never been seen again.

The list of missing and murdered people on the Highway of Tears has grown well into the new millennium. On June 21, 2002, Nicole Hoar (25) disappeared while hitchhiking from Prince George to Smithers on Highway 16 West. She has not been found and is unusual in that she does not fit the overall pattern because she was not an indigenous woman. In 2005, Tamara Chipman (22) also vanished along the Highway of Tears in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and in February of 2006 the body of 14-year-old Aielah Saric Auger was found in a ditch by a passing motorist shortly after she disappeared.

Even more recent is the mysterious disappearance of 20-year-old Madison Scott in May of 2011. Madison had last been seen camping at Hogsback Lake, around 25 km southeast of Vanderhoof, BC, and according to witnesses there had been a big party with her friends at the campground on the evening of her vanishing. Madison was last seen in the early hours of May 28, 2011, and after that no one has any idea of what became of her. She failed to return home and all attempts to contact her cell phone met with failure. A subsequent search for the missing girl found her pickup truck parked right where she had left it, with her purse and backpack left behind but her cell phone missing. Madison’s tent was also found, and it proved to be undisturbed. An extensive ground, air, and water search was launched to try and find her, but no trace could be found.

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The Highway of Tears

The RCMP also intensively interviewed every person who had been at the party, but could find no one who disliked her, held some sort of grudge, or would have had any reason to harm her. However, some amount of suspicion was aroused when it was learned that everyone else who had been at the party had ended up going home rather than camping out with Madison except for one, her friend Jordy Bolduc, who as far as anyone knows was the last person to have seen the missing woman. Bolduc claimed that she too had eventually gone home that evening and that Madison had been set on camping there alone. Police questioning of Bolduc turned up no solid evidence that she had anything to do with the disappearance and she was released.

Another person of interest in the Madison Scott case was a man named Fribjon Bjornson, a 28-year-old logger who had been friends with her and had apparently told some people that he knew what had happened to her. A look into Bjornson’s past found that he was a degenerate drug user and had had run-ins with the law in the past, and it was found that the man was convinced that Madison had been abducted because he owned drug dealers money. He was considered a suspect and questioned, but he was found to be clear, even passing a lie detector test, and the RCMP released him. Chillingly, Bjorson then also vanished 2 days later and his severed head would be found at an abandoned house two weeks after that. The rest of his body was never found. Although certainly spooky, authorities came to the conclusion that Bjorson’s brutal murder was unrelated to the disappearance of Madison Scott. Although other suspects have been questioned in connection with the strange case, Madison Scott’s disappearance remains unsolved and she has not turned up anywhere.

One thing that remains shocking is just how little progress police have made in any of these cases, especially considering that a special task force, called Project E-Pana, was set up in 2005 committed to pursuing them. The task force has collected hundreds of reports, tips, and leads, as well as interviewing around 60,000 people, 1,400 of which were considered actual persons of interest linked to the disappearances and crimes. Despite all this, most investigation leads nowhere, and success stories on the Highway of Tears are few and far between, with the vast majority of these cases remaining completely unsolved. Additionally, the cases mentioned here so far are only the tip of the iceberg, and organizations from the area’s indigenous people say that there are many other such crimes and vanishings that are not part of the official record.

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One of the problems in getting to the bottom of these cold cases is the difficult terrain of the area. This is a vast expanse of remote, rugged country far from prying eyes and where cell phone reception is often spotty at best. There is no one to help a victim of foul play out here, and plenty of places to stash a corpse where they would never be found. This is a wild land of sprawling forests which one task force member, Sgt. Wayne Clary has called “a perfect hunting ground,” a fact which is only compounded by the number of out of state truckers and travelers passing through, which all makes it very difficult to investigate these crimes.

This is not to say that there has been no progress whatsoever in pursuing the mysteries of the Highway of Tears, and a scant few of the cases have seen some major breakthroughs over the years. One such moment came in the wake of the murder of 15-year-old Loren Leslie in 2010. On November 27, 2010, an RCMP constable made a routine traffic stop along the Highway of Tears. The driver of the black pickup truck he stopped was a 20-year-old young man named Cody Legebokoff, who the constable described as acting suspiciously. After questioning and IDing him, it was suspected that Legebokoff had been poaching, and the constable retraced the tracks of the truck through the snow, expecting that he would find the man’s stash of poached deer, moose, or elk, but rather than animal carcasses, the constable was met with the macabre sight of the fresh corpse of a murdered girl who had seemingly just been dumped into a ditch. The body, which had been assaulted, beaten, and the throat cut, would be found to be that of Loren Leslie.

Cody Legebokoff, a local man who was up until that point considered to be an upstanding model citizen would be charged for the murder, and an investigation would tie him to three other murders committed along the Highway of Tears between the years of 2009 and 2010. Authorities believe the number could be even higher, causing them to label him a “homegrown serial killer,” and at only 19 years old at the time of his first killing, the youngest serial killer in Canadian history. Legebokoff would be found guilty of these gruesome murders and sentenced to life in prison. While the arrest and conviction of Legebokoff was a significant achievement and went some way toward solving some of the cases and providing peace of mind for the scared locals, he nevertheless could not have possibly been responsible for all of the disappearances and murders, especially considering his young age and that these things had been happening since 1969. He also could not have been responsible for the disappearance of Madison Scott, as he had been in police custody at the time. This means there were likely other ruthless killers out there prowling the road.

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Another significant development was made in 2012, in connection with one of the earlier murders that had occurred, that of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen in 1974. When tests were run on the girl’s clothing using advanced, modern DNA analysis, a match was made between male DNA found on the clothes and a man named Bobby Jack Fowler, a drifter who proved to have a long criminal history of sexual assault, violence, and firearm possession. He was strongly suspected to be behind the murder and was believed to have been responsible for the deaths of Gail Weys and Pamela Darlington as well, both also along the Highway of Tears, in a addition to possibly even up to 6 other murders in the same area.

Unfortunately, Fowler was never able to answer for his sadistic murders, as he had died in prison in 2006 while doing time for an unrelated charge of kidnapping and assault, and so we may never know the true extent of his monstrous crimes. Again, although this evidence helps answer some of the questions hanging over the Highway of Tears, Fowler could not have been behind all of the killings and disappearances, and certainly not the ones that occurred while he was in prison or after he died, leaving much mystery still to solve. Another arrest in connection with the crimes along this sinister highway was made in the form of Garry Handlen, who was charged for the 1978 killing of 12-year-old Monica Jack.

However, these successes are ultimately overwhelmed by the large number of mysterious murders and disappearances along the Highway of tears that remain unsolved. The road has accrued such a menacing reputation that it is not uncommon to see signs posted along its length warning of the dangers of hitchhiking here, and announcing the presence of a killer on the loose. Yet these signs are largely ignored due to the reliance on the mostly poor people who live here on hitchhiking as a vital means of transportation. In recent years there has been more public awareness on the need for a proper public transportation system here, and there have even been plans put into action to open up a bus line along the route, as well as improved safety measure along the road such as security cameras and more lightning but this all remains largely on paper, and there has been criticism that action has been slow due to the largely indigenous population of the area.

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Warning signs along the Highway of Tears

Indeed, the lack of progress in investigating and getting to the bottom of the sinister mystery of the Highway of Tears has been cause for much accusation that the government is not doing as much as it can because the victims were mostly indigenous women. A scary statistic is that although indigenous women make up less than 4% of the total female population of Canada, they comprise 16% of all female homicides, and most of these have gone unsolved, causing many to cry discrimination. Worryingly, around 4,000 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered over the past three decades in Canada. Fittingly, British Columbia, where the Highway of Tears passes through, itself tops the charts for the highest number of unsolved murders of aboriginal women countrywide.

There are numerous accusations that the Canadian government mishandles these cases, downplays their gravity, or completely sweeps them under the carpet. There have been claims that the media coverage of these cases is limited due to the race of the victims, and much outrage over the fact that, although these killings have been covered since at least 1969 no task force was focused on them until 2005. Further damning evidence of this alleged discrimination can be found in the fact that the disappearance of Nicole Hoar, who was completely caucasian, gathered up the most publicity and resources towards investigation. Indeed, it is often pointed out that it is with the vanishing of this white woman that the Canadian government did anything about the situation at all. This outrage has led to outcries that government protection of aboriginal women is inadequate and constitutes a violation of human rights, which has inspired a government inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls, pledging $31 million (U.S.) to the cause, but how far this is to actually do any good remains to be seen.

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For now, most of the murders and vanishings along the desolate stretch of dark, wild road known as Highway 16, the Highway of Tears, are still unsolved. The ultimate answers to these missing girls’ fates remain clouded and hidden to us. This is an enigmatic place pulsing with both natural beauty and unseen danger. The investigative reporter Bob Friel once again adequately summed up this strange place thus:

It’s one of the most beautiful, most spectacular roads you’ll travel. So you can be there on the most beautiful day of the entire year, and suddenly you see one of these [hitchhiking warning] signs. And you feel this foreboding on the road … it’s a place that definitely has a personality, and a lotta times, that’s dark.

What lies at the bottom of the macabre mysteries of this lost highway? What happened to these young women and girls that the road seems hungry for? How many killers stalk along its remote, untamed expanse? For now these young women continue to hitchhike here, to walk along its stretches, and to perhaps die here. They make themselves targets for the nefarious agents that patrol it, and risk traveling along this grim stretch of road to keep on walking into the files of the unknown. There are truly rugged dens of death and mystery in this world, those hunting grounds of unseen, unknown horrors, human or otherwise, and among these one of those that shows no sign of stopping or letting up its secrets is the Highway of Tears. This is a place that seems to exist in almost another realm, and which may forever keep its secrets hidden.

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