Span of killings 1969–2011
Location(s) Prince George, British Columbia, Prince Rupert, British Columbia
The Highway of Tears murders is a series of murders and disappearances of mainly aboriginal women along the 720 km (450 mi) section of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada from 1969 until 2011. Highway 16 is northern British Columbia’s east-west corridor, extending from Jasper in the east to Prince Rupert in the west. This route is a section of the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway, also known as the “Park-to-Park Highway”, which spans across British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There are numerous municipalities and twenty-three First Nations communities that border the Highway of Tears. The region is plagued with poverty and lack of public transportation, forcing its occupants to turn to hitchhiking as a form of transit. Police list the number of Highway 16 victims at nineteen, but estimates by aboriginal organizations range into the forties, largely because they include women who disappeared a greater distance from the highway. Thirteen of the nineteen victims were teenagers while ten out of the nineteen victims were women of aboriginal descent.
To date, only one murder has been solved, for which serial killer Cody Legebokoff was convicted, although American serial rapist and suspected serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler(died 2006), who died while imprisoned in the United States for other crimes, is a suspect in many of the murders. Authorities have persons of interest in several other cases, but insufficient evidence to press charges.
B.C. government email scandal
On October 22, 2015, Elizabeth Denham, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, published a 65-page report outlining how B.C. government officials had “triple deleted” emails relating to the Highway of Tears. In her report Access Denied, Denham describes the act of “triple deleting” as transferring an email to the “deleted” folder on a computer system, deleting the email from the folder and then overriding the backup that admits the system to retrieve deleted items. By deleting these files, Denham states the government had breached the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Denham became aware of the scandal in May 2015 after she received a letter from Tim Duncan, the former executive assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone. Duncan claimed that as he was responding to a FOI (Freedom of Information) application, ministerial assistant George Gretes ordered for Duncan to search his records for any files pertaining to the Highway of Tears and missing women. Once the files were located, Duncan testified that Gretes ordered for them to be deleted. When Duncan hesitated, Gretes allegedly took the keyboard and “triple deleted” all of the emails relating to the Highway of Tears. According to Denham, Gretes originally denied this claim but later admitted to the triple deletion during a second police interview. Denham states that Gretes—who resigned from his job in October 2015—would have then lied under oath. A year earlier in the summer of 2014, a team from the Transportation Ministry toured Highway 16 and conducted numerous meetings with Aboriginal leaders and communities. The significance of this project was to produce safer travel solutions for women living along Highway 16, many of whom had turned to hitchhiking as a way of transportation. In November 2014, the NDP made the FOI request seeking all government files pertaining to missing women, the Highway of Tears and meetings arranged by the ministry: the report Duncan would later respond to. Despite a two-month tour and multiple meetings, the B.C. government claimed the FOI request produced no files relating to the Highway of Tears. According to Denham’s report, these records did exist until government officials destroyed them in order to “skirt freedom of information laws”. In Access Denied, Denham called upon the RCMP to further investigate the triple deletion of government files. In November 2015, Vancouver lawyer Mark Jetté was appointed as special prosecutor within the RCMP investigation. Jetté will act as the RCMP’s independent legal advisor as well as administer an independent assessment of the evidence. He will also pursue any criminal charges that may be found appropriate.
In 2005, the RCMP launched project E-PANA which focussed upon the unsolved murders and disappearances of young women along Highway 16 throughout the past thirty-seven years. E-PANA sought to discover if there was a single serial killer at work or a multitude of killers operating along the highway. The unit investigated nine cases in 2006, but by 2007 its caseload had doubled to eighteen. The victims involved within the E-PANA investigation followed the criteria of being female, participating in a high risk lifestyle, known to hitchhike and were last seen or their bodies were discovered within a mile from Highway 16, Highway 97 and Highway 5. In the 2009/2010 year, E-PANA received over five million dollars in annual funding but has since dramatically declined due to budget cutbacks; receiving only $806,109 for the 2013/2014 year. In 2013, Craig Callens, the RCMP Deputy Commissioner, warned that further budget reductions from the provincial government would greatly affect the Highway of Tears investigation. A 2014 Freedom of Information request stated that the task force had dropped from seventy officers to twelve officers over the past few years. E-PANA is responsible for solving the murder of sixteen-year-old Colleen MacMillen, who was killed in 1974 by the now deceased American serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler. E-PANA now considers Fowler a suspect in the murders of two other highway victims, Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington, both of whom were killed in the 1970s. In 2014, investigations by E-PANA and the Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit brought murder charges against Garry Taylor Handlen for the death of twelve-year-old Monica Jack in 1978. E-PANA is still investigating the remaining unsolved cases although it is unlikely that all the murders and disappearances will be solved.
Some critics argue that the lack of results arising from this investigation is the result of systemic racism. This was also believed to be an issue in the case of Vancouver’s missing women and the Robert Pickton murders. The issue of systemic racism in these cases is explored in Finding Dawn, the 2006 documentary by Christine Welsh whose film includes a section on the Highway of Tears victim Ramona Wilson, including interviews with family and community members. Often overlooked in reports on the Highway of Tears is the fact that over half of the missing women are First Nation.
Activists argue that media coverage of these cases has been limited, claiming that “media assign a lesser value to aboriginal women”. Furthermore, despite the fact that these disappearances date back as far as 1969, it was not until 2005 that Project E-Pana was launched, investigating similarities between the cases. In addition, the individual case which has received the most media and police attention thus far is that of Nicole Hoar, a Caucasian woman who disappeared in 2002. Hers was the first of the Highway of Tears cases to be covered in The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, and Edmonton Journal. Gladys Radek, a native activist and the aunt of victim Tamara Chipman, “believes that if it weren’t for Hoar, the police would have invested less effort in investigating cases, and the media would have done little, if anything, to inform the public about the tragedies along the road.”
The Unsolved Murders of Indigenous Women in Canada
Highway 16 in Canada has become known as the “Highway of Tears” because dozens of women have disappeared along its route. Many of them have been killed, most of them First Nation indigenous peoples. The police have shown little interest in solving the crimes.
By Sebastian Moll
As we travel deeper into this idyllic landscape, the mood of our driver, Gladys Radek, becomes darker. She plays the Patsy Cline song “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child),” over and over again. It is a ballad about longing for a childhood like the one Gladys never had.
Gladys was born 56 years ago on the reserve for the Gitxsan indigenous people in British Columbia, but she never gets homesick as she drives along Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.”
“There are too many ghosts,” she says.
The ghosts are the women who have been disappearing without a trace along the 700-kilometer-long (435-mile-long) stretch of highway. Official police statistics list 18 women in all, 17 of whom are First Nation, as much of the indigenous population in Canada is called. Amnesty International assumes, however, that there are considerably more. Not a single case has been solved.
Locked up By Day, Abused at Night
That doesn’t surprise Radek. It speaks to her own personal experience. The life of a native woman like her doesn’t count for much here in northern Canada, some 200 kilometers from the border with Alaska. To her, it’s clear what must have happened: The women were picked up on the stretch between the reserves, the gold mines and the logging camps, raped, killed and dumped along the side of the road.
We arrive in Prince Rupert, where the Highway of Tears reaches the Gulf of Alaska. Unemployed indigenous people hang around in dingy coffee shops. Almost all of the fish-processing plants that once employed many in the town have shut down. There was too much competition from Japan.
Radek is uncomfortable. She doesn’t like this place. When she was a small child, her foster father spent the summer fishing in the harbor. Radek spent her days locked below deck on the boat, until he came for her in the evening.
It was here, at the entrance to town on Highway 16, that her niece Tamara disappeared five years ago. She was 18 years old. A ghost.
Vicky Hill’s Mother Disappeared in 1978
Vicki Hill, 35, has spent her entire life in Prince Rupert. She brings a folder with photos and newspaper clippings to our meeting in a greasy Chinese restaurant on Main Street. They are all that remains of her mother, who disappeared on the highway on March 26, 1978, when Hill was only six months old.
The photo in one of the articles shows a beautiful young First Nation woman in a neat summer dress. Three days after she disappeared from town, her body was found 30 kilometers away. She was lying naked in a bush a few hundred meters from the highway.
Her death certificate lists “pneumonia” as the cause of death. But the last line of the document contradicts this finding. It states it was a “homicide.” Still, there was no investigation. The body was buried at the cemetery in Prince Rupert, where it was never marked by a gravestone.
Who found the body? Who wrote the contradictory death certificate? Why didn’t anyone investigate her death? Vicki Hill wants answers to these questions. She wants to be rid of the feeling that anyone walking down the street in Prince Rupert could be the murderer. But she is running up against a wall of silence.
Each Result Would Only Produce Uncomfortable Questions
It is a three-day trip from Prince Rupert to Vancouver, where we meet with the private detective Ray Michalko. He was once a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties. Six years ago, the Mounties formed a special commission to look into the Highway 16 cases. They invested $11 million (Canadian) to investigate the murders, but without success.
Michalko is not surprised. “They put 50 people in front of computers and hoped that a serial killer would jump out at them,” he says. Data was collected and profiles were created. The only thing that is not being done, Michalko says, is real detective work.
He couldn’t stand by and watch anymore, he says. That’s why he drives along Highway 16 now, knocking on doors and asking questions. Michalko doubts that the special commission wants to achieve serious results. Each real result would only produce uncomfortable questions.
That’s what happened during the trial against Robert Pickton, who was sentenced to life in prison in Vancouver in 2007. When police officers searched for illegal weapons on his pig farm outside Vancouver, they found pieces of clothing belonging to a missing Native prostitute. When police then scoured the farm from top to bottom, they found the remains of 49 Native women.
Pickton made pornographic films of the women and then slaughtered them like the pigs at his farm. But the trial also raised questions about the police and the justice system. How is it possible that his crimes could have gone undiscovered for so long? Why didn’t anyone search for the missing women?
There was a public hearing on the Pickton case, and new details about corruption among the Mounties and justice officials emerged on a daily basis. Michalko believes that the special commission was formed so the debacle surrounding the Pickton case didn’t extend to the cases from Highway 16.
Michalko believes the situations are similar. In his mind, they both shed light on the dark side of British Columbia. “When you think about the problems up there, you’ll go crazy,” he says.
‘It is Unbearable, How Our People Are Forced to Live’
On the route from Prince Rupert to Prince George we pass Moricetown, the reserve where Gladys grew up. Her mother still lives here in one of the prefabricated houses that one can pick up at any home improvement store. The whole reserve is filled with them. The muddy street that connects them is littered with garbage — TVs, wrecked cars and empty beer cans.
When Gladys’ sister Peggy opens the door, a musty smell drifts our way. Peggy, Gladys explains to us later, has spent two years in prison for assaulting a man who was trying to rape her. Her mother is sitting silently on a sofa filled with holes, gazing absent-mindedly. Her hair falls in oily strands from her head, and her blind eye peers eerily around the room.
“It is unbearable, how our people are forced to live,” Gladys says, when we turn back onto Highway 16 an hour later.
It is almost a miracle that she escaped this misery. Her parents were almost always drunk. When her younger brother starved to death, they were in a bar. Gladys was five then. That’s when she was taken away from her parents.
Her foster parents didn’t provide her with a childhood she would have wanted either. Her foster father started raping her when she was eight. When she was 13, she had the courage to report him to the reserve police. They shrugged their shoulders in response. After that, she packed her bags and ran away.
Gladys could easily have become one of the missing on the Highway of Tears. But she survived, moved to Vancouver, and raised five children. Now she is working as a spokeswoman for an organization for “Missing and Murdered Women.” Her group estimates that there are 500 missing and murdered women in Canada.
“Someone has to give a voice to the many families who don’t know what happened to their loved ones,” she says. The worst, she says, is the feeling of being alone in your pain.