This week, Alanna tells us about the stretch of Canadian highways known as “The Highway of Tears”.
I’ve mentioned on other episodes that there is one of the biggest cases in Canada that I need to cover, but I’ve been a big baby – until now.
Today we’re talking about the Highway of Tears, and how this one stretch of road in Canada is home to the disappearance and/or murder of an unknown number of people.
I’m just going to do a brief overview, but if you want to deep-dive into this topic, there’s LOADS of resources, documentaries and podcasts dedicated just to the Highway of Tears.
The Highway of Tears is a 725-kilometre (450 mi) corridor of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada. This one stretch of highway has been the location of many murders and disappearances beginning as early as 1970, but could be even earlier.
The phrase was coined during a vigil held in Terrace, British Columbia in 1998, by Florence Naziel, who was thinking of the victims’ families crying over their loved ones. Which is just heartbreaking. Ever since then, cases of disappearances or murders in this area are referred to as Highway of Tears, although technically they may not be related (more on that later).
There is a disproportionately high number of Indigenous women on the list of victims in this area. Proposed explanations for the years-long endurance of the crimes and the limited progress in identifying culprits include poverty, drug abuse, widespread domestic violence, disconnection with traditional culture and disruption of the family unit through the foster care system and Canadian Indian residential school system. Sadly, there are a lot of factors fighting against Indigenous people, and women specifically.
Poverty in particular leads to low rates of car ownership and mobility; thus, hitchhiking is often the only way for many to travel vast distances to see family or go to work, school, or seek medical treatment.
Another factor leading to abductions and murders is that the area is largely isolated and remote, with soft soil in many areas and carnivorous animals to carry away human remains; these factors precipitate violent attacks, as perpetrators feel a sense of privacy, and the ability to easily carry out their crimes and hide evidence.
23 First Nations border Highway 16. The region is characterized by poverty and, until 2017, lacked adequate public transportation, which forced many locals to resort to hitchhiking as a form of transit.
All in all – it’s a perfect storm. High poverty rates, remote areas, hitchhiking. Indigenous people who, unfortunately, the police are worried about far less.
Accounts vary as to the exact number of victims in this area. According to the RCMP Project E-Pana list the number of victims is fewer than 18, but Aboriginal organizations estimate that the number of missing and murdered women ranges above 40.
Wiki has a list they state is “as comprehensive as possible”, including all women, within the Highway 16 corridor between Prince Rupert and Prince George, who went missing, were murdered or had an unknown cause of death. There are almost 80 names on the list.
To date, a number of people have been convicted in cases related to the Highway of Tears. Three serial killers are among those charged.
RCMP Sgt. Wayne Clary said they may never solve all of the cases and that it will be the “people in the communities that are going to solve these crimes.” They do have persons of interest in several cases, but not enough evidence to lay charges.
In 2005, the RCMP launched a provincially funded project, E-Pana, which started with a focus on some of the unsolved murders and disappearances of young women along Highway 16. E-Pana sought to discover if there was a single serial killer at work or a multitude of killers operating along the highway.
In 2005, the unit started with 3 cases, then the unit investigated 9 cases in the following year, but by 2007, its caseload had doubled to 18 and its geographical scope began spanning large parts of the province and not just Highway 16.
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 $5 million in annual funding but has since declined due to budget cutbacks; receiving only $806,109 for the 2013/2014 year.
A 2014 freedom-of-information request stated that the task force had dropped from 70 officers to 12 officers since 2010.
There are some successes.
E-Pana is responsible for linking the homicide of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen, who was killed in 1974, with 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 12-year-old Monica Jack in 1978. He was found guilty by jury and sentenced to life in prison in early 2019, thus Monica Jack’s murder becomes the first file in Project E-Pana to officially be solved with full court proceedings and sentence.
E-Pana is still investigating the remaining unsolved cases although it is unlikely that all will be solved.
Some critics argue that the lack of results arising from this investigation is the result of systemic racism. This was also reported to be an issue in the case of Vancouver’s missing women and the Robert Pickton murders, which we cover in its own 101 episode.
Often overlooked in reports on the Highway of Tears is the fact that over half of the missing women are First Nations.
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.
Nicole Hoar, a Caucasian woman who disappeared in 2002 received a disproportionate amount of media attention at the time of her disappearance. 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 one of the victims said, “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.”
Some of the victims
Traci Clifton – Missing – Prince Rupert – 1970–1979
Exact date that Traci went missing is not yet public knowledge. It was reported at an inquiry for murdered and missing indigenous women as some time in the 1970s. She had an argument with her mother and left home and started walking Highway 16 and was never seen again. No current suspect reported.
Monica Ignas – 14 – Homicide – Thornhill – 1974 (December)
She was believed to be going home from school when she was last seen at 11 pm on 13 December 1974 in Thornhill. She was walking home alone. Her body was found that following April. Two witnesses reported seeing a car pulled over to the side of the road the night Ignas vanished. The pair saw a man and a passenger who looked like a girl inside the vehicle. Monica had been strangled. No current suspect reported.
Cecilia Anne Nikal – 15 – Missing – Smithers – 1989 (October)
Cecilia Nikal was last seen in October 1989, a year before her cousin Delphine Nikal went missing. Reports of her last known location vary. Cecilia also had a cousin, Roberta Cecilia Nikal, who was murdered a few years after Delphine disappeared. No current suspect reported.
Ramona Lisa Wilson – 16 – Homicide – Smithers – 1994(June)
She was hitchhiking from Smithers to attend a dance and stay with friends in Hazelton, BC on 1 June 1994. Ramona’s remains were found April 1995 near the Smithers Airport. Several items were in a small organized pile a few feet away. Other objects nearby included a half-buried small section of rope, three interlocking nylon ties and a small pink “brass knuckles” type water pistol. No current suspect reported.
Aielah Katherina Saric-Auger – 14 – Homicide – Prince George – 2006 (February)
The body of Aielah Saric-Auger was found February 10, 2006 shortly after she went missing on February 2. After going to the mall with her brother and sister, Aielah went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Overnight, she was spotted walking north. Video surveillance shows Aielah walking towards her home and passing the Save-On-Foods gas bar around 1 a.m. It was reported that she was last seen getting into a black van. A motorist found Saric-Auger in a ditch near a turn off on Highway 16 near Tabor Mountain, nearly 20 km (12 mi) east of Prince George. No current suspect reported.
Jill Stacey Stuchenko – 35 – Homicide – Prince George – 2009 (October)
Her body was found in October 2009 in a gravel pit on the outskirts of Prince George. She had died from multiple blows to the head. She was known to be engaged in sex work. She left behind five children. Cody Legebokoff was arrested on 27 November 2010 and convicted of first-degree murder in September 2014.
He was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of:
- Jill Stacey Stuchenko
- Cynthia Frances Maas and
- Natasha Lynn Montgomery
- L- oren Donn Leslie
Legebokoff was just 20 years old when he was arrested. He was one of the serial killers found operating in this area.
Madison “Maddy” Geraldine Scott – 20 – Missing – Vanderhoof – 2011 (May)
Madison was last seen during the early morning hours of 28 May 2011 at Hogsback Lake. “Maddy” vanished after attending a party at Hogsback Lake with a friend Jordi Bolduc. According to her own testimony, Jordi left Maddy there because Jordi was drunk and injured, and Maddy, already settled in for the night, didn’t want to leave her sleeping bag.
Maddy last communicated with others at the party around 4 am and was never heard from again. The next morning Jordi went back to the campsite, but didn’t see Maddy. Jordi reported that she saw that Maddy’s tent door was open and the bedding was pushed to one side. Not thinking much of it, Jordi went to work.
More than a day later, Madison’s parents went to check on Madison and reported her missing to the police shortly after discovering her abandoned truck and flattened tent at the lake. Numerous items of value were found on, in and around the truck, which included unopened liquor, gasoline, motorbike equipment, camera and purse. Police said that there was no sign of a struggle and that foul play is suspected.
Immaculate “Mackie” Mary Basil – 26 – Missing – Tachie – 2013 (June)
Mother of a five-year-old son, “Mackie” had recently broke up with the father of the child, her common law husband. Her family described her as a “home body” who didn’t have drug problems.
The night she went missing, she was at a house party on Thursday 13 June 2013, a 20-minute walk away from her house in Tachie, she left at midnight. She was last seen after the house party, heading to a cabin in the Leo Creek area, north of Tachie. According to police reports from interviews with the men, Mackie was with two men, one her cousin Keith, and the other a man named Victor in a white truck, heading towards a cabin near Kuzche reserve. They had been drinking and were going to pickup tin. When the truck got stuck after an accident, she separated from the two and headed for the cabin alone. This is what was told to the police by Keith and Victor.
Mackie would usually call her sisters every day at 10 am. Her sister, Chrystal became alarmed after a few days of not receiving a call. Mackie didn’t bring an extra set of clothes or makeup, which she changed daily, and her family considers her disappearance to be out of character. The police had conducted a polygraph test of both Keith and Victor and reported that both were “cooperative.” A police psychologist also conducted an interview of both men, and reported to the public there was nothing suspicious.
Numerous witnesses reported seeing Victor in Tachie at 10 am, 14 June 2013, the day of Mackie’s disappearance, “walking down the road, clothes wet up to his chest.” Mackie went missing one hours drive away by vehicle from Fort St James, at a place called “16 kilometer.” It is not known how Victor got back to Tachie so soon without a vehicle.
And the most recent?
Crystal Haynes Chambers – 34 – Homicide – Prince George – 2020 (August)
Chambers’ remains were found on the afternoon of Saturday August 1, 2020, 40 km east of Prince George, near Highway 16. The remains were retrieved with the assistance of Prince George search and rescue society. One website indicated that Chambers was at one point in a relationship with a man named Ray Lorraine, who was described as a serial cheater. No suspect as been reported.
Documentary: Highway of Tears (2015) Canadian documentary directed by Matthew Smiley and narrated by Nathan Fillion.
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