VANCOUVER—As police hunt for a pair of young men suspected in the killings of two tourists and the suspicious death of another man in northern British Columbia, one homicide expert says missing persons cases in their hometown need to be re-examined by authorities.
Tuesday morning the RCMP said 18-year-old Bryer Schmegelsky and 19-year-old Kam McLeod, both of Port Alberni, B.C., are suspects in the slayings of Australian Lucas Fowler and American Chynna Deese, who were found shot to death on July 15. They are also suspects in the suspicious death of another unidentified man found July 19 about 500 kilometres to the southwest near a burning truck that was last seen being driven by the two teens.
The two have not been apprehended or charged, but University of Western Ontario criminologist Michael Arntfield said police need to revisit a series of disappearances in Port Alberni and greater Vancouver Island in case there are connections.
“Given this has garnered international attention, I would think they would be remiss to at least not assemble some sort of task force that would involve local police, and any police that are not the RCMP, and oversee front line operations anywhere it’s confirmed these guys have been,” Arntfield said.
Arntfield also works with the Murder Accountability Project in the United States, a non-profit formed in 2015 to track homicide data throughout the country.
He said the “brazen” nature of the homicides of Fowler, 23, and Deese, 24, near Liard Hot Springs caught his attention. The couple were found shot to death last Monday on the side of the Alaska Highway near their blue van. According to media reports, a witness saw them pulled over the day before with engine trouble.
RCMP have issued a warning to the public to not approach Schmegelsky or McLeod if spotted. Manitoba RCMP said they had reason to believe the two may be in northern Manitoba in the Gillam area.
They had reportedly left Port Alberni earlier this month to head for the Yukon in search of work.
There are a number of outstanding missing persons cases on Vancouver Island, with three people in Port Alberni missing since 2016.
One of those people is Brandon Cairney, who has a brain injury resulting from a car accident when he was 19. The 31-year-old has been missing since September 2017 and was known to walk long distances along the highways near the small city of 17,000 on the south end of Vancouver Island.
Dan MacDonnell, 44, was reported missing in June 2017 and Shelly Jean Hofmann, 49, has been missing since June 2016. Both Hofmann and MacDonnell were known to access services for marginalized people in the Port Alberni area.
Being vulnerable, suggests Arntfield, means the three were more likely to be the victims of violence.
“When you see a wide range of convenient victims of opportunity, it’s clear that’s the motive you’re dealing with, versus young females and a sexual motive.”
RCMP Sgt. Peter Dionne of the Port Alberni detachment said it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on any connection between the deaths in northern B.C. and the missing people in Port Alberni, saying it remains “an unknown” at this time.
But Dionne said if any evidence surfaced, the RCMP would “absolutely” investigate.
“We’re open to any evidence pointing in the direction of a cold case file,” he said. “That’s always something that we’re looking for.”
Dionne added DNA is one of the best tools authorities have for cold cases.
Mark Cairney, the uncle of Brandon Cairney, said he “doesn’t know what to think” about the two suspects from Port Alberni, since he only heard the news when he was contacted.
According to figures from the Canadian Police Information Centre, British Columbia has a missing persons rate twice the national average with 2,500 unsolved cases since records began being kept decades ago. In the past five years, more than 150 people in the province have vanished.
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Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for Star Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports