MANITOBA, Canada — The manhunt for two Canadian teenagers suspected of killing three people is focused on a swampy, small town in rural northern Manitoba with just over 1,000 people and an inhospitable environment.
Canadian authorities converged Thursday on Gillam in their search for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, who are accused of killing a roadtripping couple and a university botany teacher. The search for the teens has taken authorities about 2,000 miles across Canada’s rural north — from British Columbia to Manitoba — in a case with victims with three different nationalities.
The suspects were reportedly spotted in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, on Sunday, and their Toyota RAV4 was found on fire and discarded in an area outside of Gillam near the Fox Lake Cree Nation reserve on Monday.
The two also were spotted twice in the area of Gillam, a town with one road in and out, before the burnt vehicle was discovered, Cpl. Julie Courchaine, a spokeswoman for the Manitoba division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said.
She said there are no reports of car thefts in the town that can be linked to the duo.
“We believe they are still in the area,” she told reporters. About 80 tips have come in in the past two days, she said.
The manhunt includes the use of aircraft and police dogs, she said.
Tough conditions in search area
The two are suspected of killing Chynna Deese, a 24-year-old American, and Lucas Fowler, her 23-year-old Australian boyfriend, whose bodies were found July 15 near Liard Hot Springs in northern British Columbia.
The duo is also charged with second-degree murder in the death of Len Dyck, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia, whose body was found July 19 near Dease Lake in British Columbia.
If the teens are on foot, they will be dealing with difficult weather and hordes of biting flies, Gillam officials said.
“We have sandflies, black flies, mosquitoes, horseflies,” Gillam Deputy Mayor John McDonald said. “Let me say if we were parked on a side street and we were having a conversation outside, and you didn’t have any insect repellent on, or any long sleeves — let’s just say that we would cut our conversation short.”
“And in the bush,” McDonald said. “Magnify that by 10-20 times. Forget it.”
Courchaine said the search was tough.
“This is very challenging terrain. … There’s lots of dense bush, forest, swampy area,” she said.
A tight-knit community locks its doors
The strong police presence associated with a manhunt is particularly noticeable in Gillam, a tight-knit community of 1,200 people not known as much of a destination.
“Most of us in Gillam are baffled as to why they would be here. There’s only one road in and one road out,” McDonald said.
A tactical assault vehicle sits outside the locked town offices, where the RCMP has set up their command center for the search.
“Everyone is keeping their door locked during the day,” McDonald said. “Just being a little more cautious than normal.”
The search has been focused on the rugged bush near Fox Lake Cree Nation. The weather conditions and biting flies in Gillam this time of year are intense, and are making it difficult for police — and, potentially, the suspects — to stay out for long.
“You have to hand it to the RCMP out there in all their gear in the bush,” McDonald said, noting that it was 31 degrees Celsius, or 88 degrees Fahrenheit, on Wednesday.
Suspect will go out in ‘blaze of glory,’ father says
Schmegelsky’s father said Wednesday that he doesn’t believe his son will survive the manhunt.
“Basically, he’s going to be dead today or tomorrow. I know that,” Alan Schmegelsky told The Canadian Press, according to CNN news partner CTV News. “Rest in peace, Bryer. I love you. I’m so sorry all this had to happen. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t rescue you.”
The father said his son has been dealing with mental anguish and plans to go out in “a blaze of glory.”
“A normal child doesn’t travel across the country, killing people. A child in some very serious pain does,” he said.
Alan Schmegelsky described his son as an introvert, saying he played a lot of video games. He said McLeod and his son were good friends and hung out together. Both had jobs at Walmart, but they said they weren’t making enough money and decided to go to Alberta to look for work, he said.
“I believed that’s what they were going to do, and I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn that two days later, and I found this out from the paper,” he said.
McLeod is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, 169 pounds and has dark hair, facial hair and brown eyes. Schmegelsky is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 169 pounds with sandy hair, police said.
A couple in love and a university lecturer
Deese and Fowler were on a road trip through Canada to Alaska, their families said. Fowler was living in British Columbia, and they were exploring the area while Deese was visiting, RCMP said.
Canadian police released surveillance video Monday of Fowler and Deese embracing at a gas station in Fort Nelson on July 13. Her mother, Sheila Deese, told CNN she watched that video over and over again.
The mother said she was struck by the size 12 boots that Fowler was wearing. When she visited Chynna’s apartment in Charlotte before the trip, Chynna was struggling to fit those same boots into her suitcase.
“I got Lucas these boots. I hope he likes them,” Chynna said at the time, her mother recalled.
Fowler’s father, New South Wales Police Force Chief Inspector Stephen Fowler, said his son was “having the time of his life” traveling the world with a woman he loved.
“I may be an experienced police officer, but today I’m standing here as the father of a murder victim,” he said Monday. “We are just distraught. This has really torn two families apart.”
Police found Dyck’s body Friday about a mile from where a vehicle and camper belonging to McLeod and Schmegelsky were found burning on the side of Highway 37.
Dyck was a sessional lecturer in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Botany and a research associate at the university’s DeWreede Lab, and his research focused on seaweeds.
“The UBC community is shocked and saddened by this news and we offer our deepest condolences to Mr. Dyck’s family, friends and his colleagues at the university,” the university said.
The RCMP did not say how Dyck was identified, but his family has been notified.
“We are truly heart broken by the sudden and tragic loss of Len,” a statement from his family said. “His death has created unthinkable grief and we are struggling to understand what has happened. While we understand there will be interest in knowing more about him and the impact he had during his life, we are asking for the public and the media to please respect our privacy during this difficult time.”