The Highway of Tears, which is the subject of this week's Martinis & Murder podcast, is a 450-mile stretch that cuts through dense forests in British Columbia, from Prince George to Prince Rupert. But it’s not the rugged terrain that has earned the highway its sad name. Since 1969, women and girls—most of them indigenous—have been murdered or have vanished. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police officially link 18 cases to the Highway of Tears, but The New York Times writes that relatives and activists say the total is closer to 50. And the vast majority of the cases remain unsolved.
There are many small towns along the Highway of Tears, and a combination of poverty with a lack of public transportation has made hitchhiking one of the only ways that some people can get around, which has contributed to the problem. Among the victims:
Monica Ignas was 14. She was last seen walking home from school in December of 1974. Her body was found 4 months later. She had been strangled. Her case is unsolved.
- Maureen Mosie, 33, was hitchhiking in 1981. Her body was found the next day by a woman walking a dog. She’d been badly beaten. Her case is unsolved.
- Alberta Williams, 26, had just come out of a bar with a group of friends and her sister, Claudia. It was 1989. Her sister recently told 48 Hours: "I turn my head… And when I turned back again... I looked and I'm like, 'Oh my God. This is crazy…. Where did she go?" She was strangled to death and sexually assaulted. Her killer was never found.
- Delphine Nikal, 15, disappeared while hitchhiking in 1990. She was trying to visit friends. Her case is unsolved. Delphine’s cousin, Cicilia Nikal, vanished the year before, although not on the Highway of Tears. She was 18.
- Alishia Germaine, 15, was found stabbed to death behind an elementary school off of Highway 16 in 1994. Her case remains unsolved.
- Also in 1994, Romana Wilson, who was 16, indigenous, and played on her high school baseball team, left home one Saturday to go to a dance a few towns away. She disappeared. Romana’s mother told The New York Times that the police refused to act. “They gave us all these different excuses that she might be back tomorrow or next week.” Seven months later she received an anonymous phone call telling her that her daughter’s body was near the airport. Police did conduct a search but found nothing. Shortly after two men riding all-terrain vehicles by the airport discovered her remains. Her case was never solved.
- Tamara Chipman, 22, was hitchhiking in 2005 when she disappeared. She left behind a 2-year-old son. Her aunt said she grew up on her father’s fishing boat and loved the outdoors. Her aunt co-founded Walk4Justice, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
- Maddie Scott, 21,went camping for a birthday party with friends at a lake very close to the Highway of Tears. She played ice hockey and rugby. Her friends decided not to stay the night but she wanted to camp so she told them she’d be okay. According to a 48 Hours special, when her parents didn’t hear from her the next day they drove to the lake. They found that her purse and backpack were in her locked pickup truck. Her tent was a mess and her rings and earrings were scattered on the ground.
While the majority of cases have not been solved, a few perpetrators have been caught.
WHO IS SERIAL KILLER CODY LEGEBOKOFF?
One late night in 2010 a man named Doug Leslie got a call from the police, who asked if his daughter Loren was home. According to 48 Hours, which aired a special on the Highway of Tears, the police told him they’d found her ID in a vehicle. When he couldn’t find out more information he went out driving on the highway.
Earlier that night a police officer pulled over 20-year-old Cody Legebokoff, whom the officer suspected of poaching because he was driving on a remote road. A game warden followed the tracks of Cody’s truck through the snow, thinking he would find a dead moose or elk. Instead, he found the body of a murdered girl who’d just been dumped.
This is when Doug Leslie came upon the scene. “The game warden was standing there,” Doug told 48 Hours. “And he was white as a ghost and I told him who I was and I didn't wanna hear any bullshit and I wanted to know what was going on. And they said all they could tell me was they were investigating a homicide. So I knew right away."
Since the victim had been beaten over the head with a pipe wrench and her throat was cut, she couldn't be identified from her face alone. Doug was able to help telling police she had a unique tattoo on her wrist.
Cody, according to 48 Hours, seemed like the all-Canadian boy next door. He worked at a Ford dealership, played soccer, and a friend said that he was popular and got along with everybody and liked to joke around and party.
Yet police tied him to three additional victims who disappeared in 2009 and 2010 along the Highway of Tears.
Cody was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Loren Leslie and three others. He was sentenced to life in prison.
WHO IS SERIAL KILLER BOBBY JACK FOWLER?
Colleen McMillan was 16 in 1974. Her brother recently told 48 Hours that the day she vanished she had said to him: “Don’t tell mom I’m hitchhiking.” Her body was found a month later.
“It's a lifelong disaster is what it is," said her brother. "It was sad the day it happened and we're sad today and we'll be sad till the day we die."
When her body was discovered a month later in the woods she was still wearing a blouse. There was no DNA technology in 1974, but the police preserved the blouse as evidence. In 2012, using brand new technology, the police were able to match DNA recovered from her clothing to an American named Bobby Jack Fowler who was already in prison at the time.
He was an itinerant construction worker who traveled all over the U.S. and Canada. An alcoholic and methamphetamine abuser, Fowler spent time in bars and motels and picked up girls who hitchhiked.
His DNA was on file in an international database because he tried to kill a woman in a motel in Oregon in 1995. The woman told 48 Hours: "He was just weird, he just got weird and then he put the rope around my foot… He told me that he was gonna put me in the ocean ... I just was trying to scream and he just covered my mouth."
Somehow the woman managed to get to the window and jump out—despite being on the second story. Police arrived as Fowler was packing up his car to leave. He was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and rape. Investigators concluded that he'd also likely killed two other young women, both 19 years old, along the Highway of Tears, although there is no DNA evidence to back up this theory.
Fowler died in prison in 2006, but it is now believed that he murdered up to 20 women, including several teens in Oregon.
WHO IS SERIAL KILLER GARRY TAYLOR HANDLEN?
The most recent arrest was made in 2014, but the crime occurred way back in 1978. It’s the story of the murder of Monica Jack, who at 12 years old was the youngest Highway of Tears victim.
According to the Vancouver Sun, she was about to turn 13 in a few days. Her father had given her money to go shopping for some shoes and a present for her little sister, who was also celebrating a birthday. Monica rode her bike with her 14-year-old cousin into a nearby town. It was the first time her mother had given her permission to go such a long distance.
On their journey back, the two girls parted ways when they rode off to their separate homes, and Monica vanished. Her bike was found at the side of the road but it wasn’t until 17 years later that her skeletal remains were discovered by forestry workers in a ravine. Her family describes her as someone who always seemed happy. Monica’s sister told the Vancouver Sun that even at such a young age Monica knew she wanted to be a social worker to help kids.
A previously convicted pedophile named Garry Taylor Handlen, who was 67 when he was arrested in 2014, was charged with the first-degree murders of Monica Jack and one other girl, who was only 11—and discovered with her skull fractured and a broken jaw.
Garry had been sentenced to 18 years for a rape conviction in 1979. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the judge at the time said to him: “Your record at 32 is appalling. This is your fourth sexual conviction since 1969.”
But his sentenced was later reduced and he got out in 12 years. While Garry was arrested, he has not been convicted in Monica Jack’s murder. He is currently in jail and awaiting a trial.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
What’s the common thread in all of these cases? A majority of the cases involve indigenous girls and women and most of them have never been solved. The Washington Post notes that The Highway of Tears is emblematic of a phenomenon that has plagued Canada for decades: violence against indigenous women.
“A frequent complaint by native communities is that police don’t investigate deaths in their communities with the same rigor as crimes against other Canadians and often classify suspicious deaths as suicides or the result of natural causes,” writes The Post.
According to government statistics in Canada: Aboriginal women and girls make up about 4 percent of the female population of Canada but 16 percent of all female homicides. While the Highway of Tears became a political scandal in Canada, those cases represent a fraction of the number of indigenous girls and women who have been murdered. According to The New York Times, the Native Women’s Association of Canada suggests the total number could be as high as 4,000 over the past three decades.
Before the progressive Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada, the government was led by conservatives who were accused of not putting resources into solving the crimes. In fact, as The Washington Post reported, the former prime minister Stephen Harper insisted that most of the cases had been solved and that “the issue has been studied to death.”
But after Trudeau was elected he announced a national inquiry into the disappearances and murders, pledging to spend $40 million Canadian dollars.“The victims deserve justice, their families an opportunity to heal and to be heard," he said. "We must work together to put an end to this ongoing tragedy.”
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