Three killings in northern B.C. last month sent the RCMP on a manhunt across the country. Leonard Dyck, Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese lost their lives. Now, Star Vancouver takes a look back at who the victims were, and how each ended up on the remote highways where, authorities believe, they crossed paths with two killers.
VANCOUVER—It lies at “the edge of agriculture or the beginning of wilderness,” depending on how you look at it.
Stretching over a wild medley of fields, trees and creeks in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Spirit View Ranch occupies a largely untamed parcel of British Columbia’s north. Cattle and bison raised for meat graze on the same land as deer, and periodically grizzly bears amble through.
Pictures of such vistas, some 400 kilometres north of Prince George, were part of what drew a 23-year-old Aussie who had never experienced -40 C weather to apply to work there in January.
Lucas Fowler lived out the last six months of his life in this remote landscape before embarking on a road-trip adventure with his American girlfriend, Chynna Deese, to soak up the north.
The young couple died on the side of the Alaska highway last month, shot to death under circumstances that remain unclear. The RCMP found their bodies about 20 km south of Liard Hot Springs, near the B.C.-Yukon boundary. The Mounties would later name Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, as suspects in the deaths, and also charge the two young men in the killing of botanist Leonard Dyck.
Fowler and Deese, who met while travelling in Croatia, kept in constant contact over the phone. But for most of his time at Spirit View Ranch, where he lived and worked, it was the owners he saw most often.
Erika and Christoph Weder got an email from Fowler in January, responding to their ad asking for help. He had just been awarded a two-year working visa for Canada and was staying in a Calgary hostel while looking for jobs.
Even though he didn’t have any ranch experience, the couple decided to take a chance and hire Fowler. He’d done a mechanical apprenticeship in Australia and they thought he could be handy at fixing things.
So Fowler showed up to the wilderness ranch with a backpack and no winter clothes or boots. The lack of preparation didn’t faze the Weders, who had extra gear to spare and were familiar with the backpacking lifestyle.
Erika and Christoph met 20 years ago while backpacking in Guatemala. For two years after that, they lived on separate continents — she in Switzerland, he in Canada — until they settled in Canada to start a ranch and a family.
It immediately struck Erika that here was a rare young man not at all preoccupied with material wealth or image, and who was intent on experiencing life’s simple wonders.
She recalled him walking hand-in-hand with their nine-year-old daughter, Luna, out to a shed, and the pair of them returning, enthralled at having found a pair of deer antlers on the property.
“He really got it; he saw that stuff,” Erika said. “I said that to Christoph a few times: This guy’s like a little boy. The little joys in life — he gets it. This guy gets it.”
Soon Fowler settled into a routine of feeding calves in the morning and working in the shop in the afternoon. Erika loved having someone who devoured her home-cooked lunches and shared her distaste of small talk in favour of deep conversations. The young man joked around with the Weders’ four children, and Luna, the only girl, took a particular liking to him.
Plus, “He was absolutely, completely in love with the buffalo. They’re just so pure,” Erika said.
It was a fit.
Fowler texted his father a photo of his beard frozen from working in -40 C weather — amazed anywhere could be so cold. He planned to take some time off for a road trip in July with Deese, then to return at the end of the month to work for the rest of the summer before going back to Australia for a visit.
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The Weders enthusiastically agreed. They even offered the blue van they acquired from a former employee, which Fowler spent his spare time fixing up before leaving.
Deese arrived at the ranch a week before the couple left for the road trip, and she spent time helping Erika tag calf ears.
The Weders saw how the young couple adored one another; Deese had spent hours working overtime to pay for the ticket to see Fowler.
“It was just a beautiful, just an amazing love story. Two people from two different continents that meet and just want to be together,” Erika said. It mirrored, in a way, her own love story with Christoph. “It’s beautiful and it’s just destroyed. That’s the part I just can’t get over.”
The family roasted a sheep and had a celebration before Fowler and Deese took off, inviting folks who knew Fowler from the nearby town of Hudson’s Hope. Even though he rarely went into town, by that time the community was familliar with the tall, lean Aussie with “Jesus hippie” hair who, more often than not, was seen wrapped around Luna’s finger.
Days later, they got a call from the RCMP with the news the pair had been shot and killed. The Fowler family, including Lucas’s parent,s Stephen and Shaunagh, came to the ranch to collect his few personal items and to learn about the last months of their son’s life.
“All of a sudden they’re gone; he’s gone back to Australia in ashes,” Christoph said. “The whole region is shaken by it. Someone breaks down at the side of the highway here, it doesn’t take five minutes someone stops.”
On Monday, Erika got around to clearing out the remainder of Fowler’s bedroom. There wasn’t much left: just some clothes and the boots she gave him, which he’d worn down in his time working for them.
The Weders recently learned that a memorial had been set up on the side of the road where Fowler and Deese were killed. Along with Luna, they plan on making the five-hour drive there to leave some of Luna’s stuffed animals — and those boots.
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen