EDMONTON—The hunt for two suspected killers in the northern Canadian wilderness has felt eerily familiar to some experts.
While the RCMP has called the hunt for Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod “pretty unprecedented” in size and scope, parallels can be drawn to a manhunt that gripped the nation nearly 90 years ago.
Rod Macleod, professor emeritus in history and classics at the University of Alberta, said the case, in some ways, echoes the 1931-32 pursuit of Albert (The Mad Trapper) Johnson, who killed a Mountie and wounded two others.
Johnson evaded police for 48 days, surviving on the run through the dead of winter across the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
Like the search for Schmegelsky and McLeod, the “Mad Trapper” case dominated newspaper headlines across North America and fuelled rumours and speculation as to the suspect’s whereabouts.
“It was certainly North America-wide. All the major newspapers were following it,” said Macleod, who has taught criminology and has written books about the RCMP.
“Certainly (similarities include) the fact that it was a very isolated northern place, and it just sort of happened out of the blue, and then they extended a manhunt,” Macleod said.
Mounties showed up at Johnson’s cabin in December 1931 on a tip that he was tampering with residents’ hunting traps. After Johnson refused to talk, they returned with a search warrant, and Johnson shot and wounded an officer.
They returned again with nine officers and a team of dogs and blew up Johnson’s cabin with dynamite. To their surprise, Johnson opened fire from a dugout under the ruins, sparking a 15-hour standoff in -40 C weather and causing Mounties to retreat again before Johnson went on the run.
Police caught up with him after 16 days, when another firefight ensued in which Const. Edgar Millen was fatally wounded.
RCMP regrouped, enlisting help from local Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people, and a pilot to search for footprints from the air. In mid-February 1932, they tracked Johnson down one last time. In his final firefight, Johnson wounded another officer before being fatally shot.
Michael Arntfield, an Ontario-based criminologist, professor and ex-police officer, said the Mad Trapper case bears many similarities to the recent pursuit.
Schmegelsky, 18, and McLeod, 19, have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Vancouver man Leonard Dyck and are suspects in the double homicide of American Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler.
All three were found dead on highways in northern British Columbia late last month. The nationwide manhunt focused on the area around Gillam, Man., for more than a week and was scaled down this past Wednesday after days of combing thousands of kilometres of wet, densely forested terrain with the help of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“It recalls the Johnson case in the way that it reminds us that Canada is still very much a frontier country, and there’s a lot of places where traditional police tactics that are rooted in built environments and urban encounters almost don’t apply,” Arntfield said.
He said active manhunts across multiple jurisdictions are more common in the United States, where suspects are usually spotted more quickly because even remote rural areas in the U.S. have more people and infrastructure.
In Canada’s North, even nine decades of technological advancement is not enough to guarantee success for police.
“Since the Johnson case, technologies have obviously grown by geometric proportions. But at the same time, in that area, your technology is only as good as your ability to track an offender accurately to a location where you can use it,” he said.
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Macleod said the time of year is a key difference between the two cases that might work out to the 2019 suspects’ advantage. With few trees up North, it was hard for Johnson to move without leaving footprints.
“Whereas, as these guys have demonstrated in the last few weeks, it’s pretty easy to move around without leaving visible traces, except on cameras in stores,” he said.
“The other interesting thing is we know a great deal about the two kids now, and to this day, nobody knows about Albert Johnson or whatever his name actually was.”
Johnson had the benefit of people knowing only the name he used, which was believed to be a pseudonym. Even plastering “Wanted” posters throughout Canada’s remote North was unfeasible for Mounties at the time, Macleod said.
Dave MacDonald, president and lead survival instructor with the International Canadian School of Survival, said it’s reasonable to believe McLeod and Schmegelsky could survive for months in the summer in northern Manitoba — eating as they go, filtering water through cloths or boiling, potentially fishing and foraging berries — if they have the skills to do those things.
But even then, their health is likely to be declining if they’re still outdoors.
“They would be getting probably pretty weak by now. As time goes on, their chances of survival are less and less of coming out of the bush,” MacDonald said.
Johnson was able to evade police so long in large part because he was an experienced wilderness traveller with strong survival skills.
Schmegelsky’s father has told media that his son is a self-taught survivalist who used to play war games in the woods with his friends in British Columbia. But if the pair plans to survive the winter in the wilderness, MacDonald said they would have to be already drying and preparing food, which would mean finding a place to hole up.
They could theoretically occupy an old trapper’s cabin like the one Johnson might have lived in, but that would likely lead to their capture in the fall, when hunters and trappers invade the area. In the winter, their prints would become visible and finding food would be much more difficult.
Macleod sees echoes of the Mad Trapper’s determination in the two suspects and has a chilling prediction for how it might end.
“We’ll see what happens, but one thing seems to me to be clear that’s probably going to be a parallel is that Johnson was determined not to be taken alive,” he said.
“And I kind of think that it’s the same thing with these kids.”
Kevin Maimann is an Edmonton-based reporter covering education and marijuana legalization. Follow him on Twitter: @TheMaimann