VANCOUVER — In their hunt to determine whether a serial killer is preying on girls and women along British Columbia’s roadways, investigators have identified 2,000 “persons of interest” in the so-called Highway of Tears investigation.
Project E-Pana, the joint RCMP-Vancouver police unit probing missing and murdered women along B.C. highways, has been tight-lipped about the high-profile investigation.
In his first extensive media interview, team commander Staff Sgt. Bruce Hulan revealed new details to The Vancouver Sun about a case that has generated much emotion and debate.
Until now, it has not been clear what criteria the RCMP used to draw up its list of 18 “Highway of Tears” victims, how it chose the geographical scope of the project and what headway has been made on possible suspects — including a person of interest targeted during a mysterious search this summer of a property in Prince George, B.C.
E-Pana began in 2005 with a review of three unsolved 1994 murders along northern B.C.’s Highway 16, but would soon expand its scope.
“We started doing the review but very early into it we recognized that, if we are looking for this serial killer, we’ll have to broaden our scope and have a look at other files,” Hulan said last week.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to say (whether there is a serial killer at play) until we’re at the point where we are satisfied that we have been successful in solving or charging in all 18 of the files, or the majority, or having determined what the circumstances were that led to the murders.”
To zero in on a suspect or suspects, police examined 619 unsolved files of violence against women along three highways, including murders and missing person cases, as well as sexual assaults and attempted sex assaults. A half-dozen of the cases are in the Hinton area of Alberta, about 280 kilometres west of Edmonton, while the majority are from B.C.
That file review, which wrapped up earlier this year, identified the 18 cases of missing and murdered women included on the official police list, as well as an additional 16 sex-crime cases that appeared very similar because the women were targeted on specific highways.
“Our purpose in reviewing the (sex crimes) files is to identify elements common to our homicide cases, which may assist us in identifying the person responsible,” said RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Annie Linteau, who attended interview with Hulan.
Victims’ families and women’s advocates argue the official list should be much longer than 18 names, suggesting as many as twice that number of girls and women have met similar violence in northern and central B.C. over the past 40 years.
A Vancouver Sun investigation has uncovered 13 other victims who went missing or were murdered near a major roadway in B.C. or Alberta, who appear to be similar to the 18 on the official list and, in some cases, had been linked in the past to the “highway murders” by previous police investigations.
In some of the additional cases identified, Hulan argued the victims don’t meet the criteria the RCMP set for inclusion on the list. Victims must be female and match at least one of the two following scenarios: they were involved in a high-risk activity such as hitchhiking or the sex trade, or they were last seen — or their body was found — within a mile or so from three specific B.C. highways.
Hulan conceded other victims might potentially be linked to one or more of the women on the official list, but he added the RCMP had to make its investigation manageable, so it focused on a certain geographical area.
“There are other investigations out there that, when you look at them, would cause you to be concerned whether there are connections between them, but as I said before, we are constrained by resources
,” Hulan said. “We couldn’t look at the entire province.”
The cases that are on the official list span: Highway 16 from Prince Rupert, B.C., all the way to Hinton; Highway 97 in British Columbia from Prince George to Kamloops; and Highway 5, which includes Merritt, B.C.
In addition to the 2,000 persons of interest identified in the cases reviewed by police, there is a secondary list of 5,000 people whose names surfaced in the files for various reasons. There have been common names in some files, Hulan said.
“With anyone identified in the files as a person of interest we do a background check and analysis on them, their criminal history and when they were in and out of custody and if they had the opportunity or not to commit the homicide.”
None of the 2,000 persons of interest has been identified, but in August police said a previous owner of a Prince George-area property they were searching was a person of interest in the disappearance of Highway of Tears victim Nicole Hoar.
Convicted murderer Leland Switzer, who has been in jail since 2005, previously owned the property.
Hulan revealed evidence was seized from the property and from a vehicle found at a nearby dump. The evidence is being analyzed for DNA and undergoing other testing.
E-Pana has also sent evidence recovered during the historical homicides to modern-day labs, which in some cases has created new leads and in other cases has ruled out past suspects.
It is often inaccurately reported that Nicole Hoar was the only non-native person on the Highway of Tears list, but The Sun determined eight of the 18 women and girls are non-native. Hulan estimated the list was half native and half non-native.
“These victims weren’t targeted because they were white or native or any other race, for that matter. They are victims because ... they were engaged in high-risk activity,” he said.
Hulan said it is possible detectives could provide some future answers for the families, but given that some files are four decades old, the perpetrators may no longer be alive.
“Is it likely we will be able to (make a) charge on all 18 of them? I’m doubtful about that.”
For some relatives, such as Kevin MacMillen, whose sister was killed near 100 Mile House, B.C., in 1974, being included on the Highway of Tears list has meant hope that the case is getting new attention.
“It was a great relief,” said MacMillen, who said he has always suspected the person who murdered Colleen had killed again, either before or after.
Brenda Wilson doesn’t like her sister Ramona’s name being on the list because of the negative connotations that her sister was doing something wrong the day she vanished from Smithers, B.C., in 1994.
“I think if there’s any justice that we receive it would be in finding answers to who did this to Ramona and why, and how can we prevent it from happening again, and just to see a change in the ways things are done with the investigation,” Brenda said.
For more, visit http://www.vancouversun.com/
I read another article that said the RCMP simply don't have enough funds to look for DNA matches in Cold Cases and that recent cases take priority. I have to say that with all the resources in today's society and the new forensics available. It is a sad state of affairs when money is stopping law enforcement from solving crimes.