All eyes were on northern Manitoba last summer during the hunt for B.C. teens Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky, as police searched for evidence to answer a crucial question.
Why were Leonard Dyck, Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese killed?
It’s a question that still haunts RCMP Supt. Kevin Lewis, the critical incident commander in charge of the manhunt’s tactical operations, nearly a year after RCMP discovered the bodies of McLeod, 19, and Schmegelsky, 18.
“This was such a senseless act,” said Lewis, commander for Manitoba RCMP’s northern district.
“At the end of the day, we’ll never know why [it happened].”
Police believe the teens murdered 24-year-old Deese and her boyfriend, Fowler, 23, and later Dyck, 64, in B.C. last July before going on the run, leading to what may be the largest manhunt in Canadian history.
It ended on Aug. 7, 2019, when police found the bodies of the teens — who had apparently killed themselves — about eight kilometres from where a burning Toyota RAV4 had been discovered more than two weeks earlier.
By the time the SUV — found on July 22 on Fox Lake Cree Nation, near Gillam, Man. — was linked to the fugitives, they already had a 24-hour head start.
“So it was a matter of playing catch-up,” Lewis said.
Meanwhile, the possibilities seemed endless. Did the teens go to the river, or the highway? Did they hop on a train? Could they have stopped at one of many nearby shacks or cabins?
“It created a bit of a challenge at first in determining which direction they went, how much time they had ahead of us and did they have access to any other vehicles,” Lewis said.
Investigators narrowed the possible to the probable as tips flowed in from across the country. With the suspects’ faces plastered everywhere, Canadians were vigilant, calling in possible sightings, Lewis said.
“It took a lot of weeding out at first,” he said. “We’re having sightings in Gillam, we’re having sightings in [the] Thompson area. And then, all of a sudden, you have them in the Maritimes, you have them back in B.C.”
Eventually, the tips started coming from further away, becoming less credible to investigators, Lewis said.
By then, police had a hypothesis. With no confirmed sightings in days, no heat signatures in the woods and no evidence the two had left the area, it was likely they were dead, somewhere in the dense brush of northern Manitoba.
Even if that theory proved accurate, the search wasn’t over — police still needed to find their bodies.
“Otherwise, you’re going to have forever ghost stories of these fellows being sighted anywhere in the world,” Lewis said. “We needed to find them to put some closure to this for everybody.”
The pivot in the objective of the search presented a whole new challenge.
“There’s no capability to really search for a deceased person in the woods,” he said. “They could’ve been anywhere. And it was, you know, a needle in a haystack at that point.”
Then, a potential break: Six days after the discovery of the torched vehicle, RCMP announced they were searching York Landing, about 90 kilometres southwest of Gillam by air, following a sighting of two men fitting the suspects’ descriptions.
Despite the working theory, investigators couldn’t ignore the tip, Lewis said. What if it was true?
“If you look at a map, it is probable that they could travel that route down to York Landing,” he said.
With a storm rolling in, police took helicopters into the community for an “intense” search with tactical officers and drones, Lewis said. But there was nothing; the tipster likely saw some bears, he said.
‘Sense of relief’
As the search dragged on, RCMP scaled back to basics and returned to the torched vehicle. But Lewis says he doesn’t believe their efforts had been in vain.
“That intense search kept those two suspects to ground, where they could not travel further, they could not navigate freely at night, and eventually led to them deciding that it just wasn’t feasible to continue,” Lewis said.
A week later, searchers made the discovery they’d been hoping for.
“It was a sense of relief,” Lewis said. “It’s over.”
It appeared the men had likely died sometime within the first week of the search, he said.
A different approach
Considering it was with the help of Fox Lake resident Billy Beardy that crews finally ended the search, should police have done more to tap into the knowledge of First Nations people?
“They know more about the land and about structures and about potential paths than we would,” Lewis said. “[But] we don’t want to put anybody in a difficult situation either, where now they’re at risk if we do end up finding the suspects.”
Lewis said there’s not much he would have changed about their strategy — a year later, that’s not what he thinks about.
Instead, his mind wanders to the families of Deese, Fowler and Dyck, forever missing a piece.
“I can only imagine how terrible it must be,” he said. “And I’m glad we could bring some closure.”
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