Sarah: This time, last summer Canada was consumed with the story of two teens on the lam, wanted for murder. Police and military had launched a nationwide manhunt to try to find Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky.
News Clip: It’s rugged terrain. And somewhere in this vast Northern landscape RCMP believe Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky are on the run, two of the most wanted men in the country. These teens have been traveling through BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and now Manitoba. But now there are also concerns in Ontario.
Sarah: The pair had told friends and family in their small, coastal British Columbia town that they were leaving to find work. Instead they found and murdered Lucas Fowler, Chynna Deese, and Leonard Dyck. The killer’s bodies were eventually discovered in early August in the deep Bush Northern Manitoba.
News Clip: The end have a cross Canada manhunt that left the country on edge.
Sarah: Alongside the bodies, RCMP found video footage of the pair, confessing to the killings, and then pledging to end their own lives in a murder-suicide. Now, a year later, the RCMP are just finishing up some administrative tasks before they consider it case closed. But a huge, haunting question still hangs over the case: Why did they do it? I’m Sarah Boesveld, sitting in for JordanHeath Rawlings. And this is The Big Story. Alex McKeen is a reporter for the Toronto Star in their Vancouver Bureau. She reported on the teen manhunt as it unfolded last summer, and wrote about the one year anniversary with her Star colleague Douglas Quan. Alex, thanks for being with us today.
Alex: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: So this case absolutely consumed the country in the early part of last summer. Why do you think that is? Like, what was the really compelling piece about this whole narrative?
Alex: Oh, I think there were a few things that really stole people’s attention about this story in particular. One of course, being the news about these victims who were found dead on the side of the highway, all three of them, I think they were really shocking. These were people who seem to be. Living good lives. They were all on vacation. And they seem to have just run into some awful situation on the side of the highway. At first, there were very little explanations for why they died the way they did. Of course, Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese, they were on this road trip, going up to Liard Hot Springs together, this really happy young couple who were celebrating their time together. So that was incredibly sympathetic to people. They were looking at them and thinking, Oh, I remember when I was young and in love and wanting to travel around. So I think that was really heartbreaking to hear about that. And then Leonard Dyck as well, of course. He was this incredibly unique man who just had this absolute curiosity for the outdoors, and would often go on these trips, traveling on his own to remote places such as Northern BC. So I think people were really shocked to hear about those deaths in the first place. The other element to this that really captured people’s attention was who the suspects were. And to this day, there’s still a lot of blank spots in our knowledge about who Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky were, but we know that they were incredibly young. They were 18 and 19. They were. They were teen adults, but teenagers still. People were asking the question, and we’re still asking the question, what could have motivated them to do such a thing? And not only that, but then turn around and drive across the country, trying to evade capture by police, which they managed to do for quite a long time.
Sarah: Yeah. The idea of like kids on the lam, you know, with this capability in them. And then just the way that it played out over days. You know, no one knew what was going to happen next. They were, you know, suspects who were, you know, hiding in the bush, like the deep bush. Remember that? Like just…
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s it. People were really watching with bated breath. I think I certainly was watching with bated breath. There was a certain point where we know that they went into the Gillam area in Manitoba, and that was a remote spot where it’s one road in one road out. So everyone was saying, well, they’re cornered. They will be found eventually. And as the days went by, it just seemed less and less likely that they would be found alive. So I think that was something that everyone was really, really, really curious to see what would happen, I guess, for one part of it, but also, anxious about it. Because if the suspects are found dead, which ultimately they were, then that means all sorts of other things. It means there’s probably never going to be a full explanation for what happened. And of course, it’s another loss of life. So there was that as well.
Sarah: Yeah, with all complete due respect to the victim’s families, this did play out like a movie in a lot of ways. And you mentioned this tragic end, obviously for the victims families, because they don’t have ultimately have an answer for why, or sort of even just that comfort of like, okay, they’re caught and they’re going to have to be held accountable eventually. I’m curious to know, what is the status of this case now a year later, especially given the fact that these two young men were found dead?
Alex: Yeah, it’s a good question, and a fair question. When my colleague and I were contacting the RCMP last week to write about the anniversary of this case, the answer that we got back from him was that the case is practically and essentially closed. They’re not investigating anymore. Certainly, I don’t know exactly what these tasks would be, but they said that they do have some kind of administrative tasks that they’re tying up. For all intents and purposes, that the case is closed and they’re not investigating anymore. The most interesting piece of that being that they never did determine a motive for, for this case at all. So there is no motive, but they’re no longer looking for one.
Sarah: I guess they don’t have to find a motive? That seems like a really difficult thing to grapple with, you know, I guess, what’s their job as the police, I guess? To just apprehend the suspects? Or what? You know, it seems like a blank space as you characterized it before, to not know or even be curious about a motive.
Alex: Yes, they did looking for one. And you’re right, I mean, they’re not– their job is to determine who committed these crimes. And they said from very early on that these were the suspects who they believe were responsible. They determined with what they call the high degree of certainty that it was in fact, these two people, especially after their bodies were found and they had a couple of videos that they had made on a camera, a camera that actually belonged to Leonard Dyck, which I find very sad. And on that camera, they had confessed to the killings. So, the police from their point of view, have determined that. They were the suspects, and that they have died and there won’t be trial or anything like that. So, yeah, I mean, from that point of view I guess, from an investigative point of view, there doesn’t need to be a motive in order to prove what happened, to their standard. I think for a lot of those of us who’ve been watching pretty keenly, there is something that really does feel like it’s missing there. It’s not very– it’s hard to resolve, I guess, without knowing why on earth this happened the way it did, especially with such young suspects. And to be fair, to your point about the victims families and wanting to have answers, we haven’t ever made contact with the family of Lucas Fowler. But the other two families have mentioned that, you know, maybe that isn’t the most important information to them, especially Sheila Deese, who is Chynna’s mother. She told my colleague Doug last week that knowing what the motive was isn’t really the thing that’s important to her, it doesn’t change the outcome for her. And she just wants to remember her daughter.
Sarah: Yeah. It doesn’t bring her daughter back.
Alex: Certainly not.
Sarah: I want to return us now to this video that you mentioned, that had been taken on one of the victim’s cameras. The RCMP have it. They’ve not released it to the public, or it sounds like to very many other people without, you know, the signing of nondisclosure agreements and so on. It sounds very much under lock and key. Why have they not released it? Can you tell us anything about the decision making around that, I suppose?
Alex: This was something that produced a lot of questions about a year ago. So the background to this is that when the bodies of Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod were found in Gillam– not in Gilam, Manitoba, but in that area, in the wilderness, they were found with this camera, and the camera had multiple videos on it. I think there were six videos in total?
Sarah: That they had shot of themselves.
Alex: That’s right. Actually, one of them I think was, you know, like a pocket dial kind of video? Like they didn’t mean to make it. But yeah, most of them were intentional videos, things that were sort of documenting their journey, or seemed to be. So we didn’t actually hear about those videos right away. In fact, we didn’t hear about them from the police at all, until they released their investigative report about seven weeks after. And that was significant, and I raise that because these videos, as I mentioned before, were pretty significant in confirming that, okay yes, these two guys did confess to killing these three people. That was a pretty significant piece of information in the investigation that, that came from this particular form of documentation. But, you know, we found out about it– it was the case that one of the videos, which dealt with McLeod and Schmegelsky stating what they called their last will and testament, and they asked to be cremated in that video. That one, we found out a little bit earlier, because members of their families were allowed to view that one, because of the nature of the content that it contained. But the other ones we didn’t find out about until this investigative report was released. There was a lot of discussion at the time over should the RCMP release these videos? Should they not release them? You know, the argument against being that it could be not very sensitive to the victim’s families to release them. Perhaps there would be a risk of copycats, of course, that’s always something that police and the media, to be frank are wanting to be conscious of as well. But then there was, of course, this other argument that, well, how are we supposed to really put this to rest if we don’t have all the information contributing to what led police to make the conclusions that they did? So I guess that the compromise that the RCMP landed on was they did release a description of each of the videos. And the main takeaways from those descriptions are that they made one video in which they took responsibilities for the murders, all three, and then said that where they were heading was Hudson’s Bay. That that was their goal, of heading to Hudson’s Bay, and getting a boat. There was one in which they stated their intention to kill themselves together. And there were a couple other videos that dealt more with what I will say is, you know, their own preparations to carry that out. And so those descriptions were ultimately released by RCMP. They’re not detailed. They don’t give transcripts or anything like that, of what the two guys said. But they did release those descriptions as a way of saying, here’s a record of what was recorded by these two guys and why that information was significant.
Sarah: So I’m curious to know what, you know, people in the suspects lives, I guess the suspects– maybe don’t even need to call them suspects anymore– the killers’ lives. You returned in some ways to the community that they’re from in this piece that you wrote, to sort of grapple with that question of why and how this could have happened, how these two young men could have paired up in the way that they did and carried out the crime that they did– the crimes multiple. What did they say about the idea of this still being an open question of how and why this happened?
Alex: Well, the first thing I will say about Port Alberni and the people who knew Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, is that from the beginning of reporting on this story, the town has been very resistant to speaking about them. And there’s a real sense of town– and last year I went several times to report on exactly this, all of the updates and what was happening– there was a real sense of, we don’t want to talk about this, we just want to move on. A real sense of wanting to protect the privacy of families. And of course the families have been outward, I guess, would be the word, with their community at least, in asking for privacy, they’ve even asked friends and, and other family members and whatnot, not to speak to the media, not to speak about Bryer and Kam. So there’s a lot of wanting to put this particular episode behind them. Having said that there are, or I noticed some changes, I guess, in trying to reach out to people in Port Alberni now that a year has passed. And there are some folks who did know Kam and Bryer, who were kind of doing their own reflections on what happened and what it’s meant for their town. They’ve kind of gone back and said, when the investigation was first happening and the manhunt was taking place across the country, all the information that was really out about them came from their online presence and they did have a pretty significant online gaming presence. Both of them did, they were big gamers. That’s what they did. And some of the stuff that emerged from that was pretty– it seemed pretty violent nature. There were pictures of Bryer, for example, wearing Nazi armbands and stuff like that. And so that was kind of the only information about these two guys that was out there. The only way that we were really able to characterize them. And so looking back a year later, what the people I spoke to said was, yeah, they were online gamers, but so is everyone at that age. And a lot of people in this community would fit that description as well. And with the exception of perhaps maybe being a little bit odd sometimes, there was nothing that raised red flags about them. They were young, teenagers who were perhaps a little bit socially awkward sometimes, who socialized with the other people in the town, and who wanted to ostensibly, because what they told everybody, was that they were going to look for work. Ostensibly wanted to make better opportunities for themselves. So that, I think, for the people I spoke to, was pretty haunting. You know, the sense that these people who ultimately ended up committing these crimes, really– it would probably be more comforting if there was some sort of outward sign that that was going to happen. But the fact that there wasn’t, and that it seemingly came out of nowhere, it was pretty unsettling for the people that I spoke to. And humbling, I guess, that you never really know what’s going on in other people’s lives.
Sarah: That’s totally haunting, because especially if all you know about these people is a lot of what you maybe have is your own aspirations or your own backdrop or your own community connections, it kind of like washes over you, this sort of eerie feeling of like, this could be brewing in my own community amongst people I know. You know, it could happen to me in so many ways. I think that’s again, another really gripping concern.
Alex: I think you’re definitely right. And I mean, not to go too far off topic, but I think we often do that. I mean, it’s not just this particular crime or this particular case in which it came as a real shock that these suspects did what they did. It’s often the case that the people who are doing these things didn’t show any outward signs that they would one day take other people’s lives. And I think that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around. We would like to think that people who are capable of doing this kind of thing are fundamentally different from the rest of us. But the notion that they might not be is scary for people, I think.
Sarah: Absolutely. What has stayed with you with this case? I mean, it’s been a year since, it really consumed me or summer last year, I’m sure. What do you still think about?
Alex: There are a few things that I still think about. I really struggle with, you know, why this happened. I remember following this case really closely last year. In particular, that period of time, that couple of weeks that Schmegelsky and McLeod were being chased across the country, and the police and even the military were searching for them. I felt pretty, even just following the story as an observer, I felt pretty anxious about how they were going to be found, whether they were going to be found dead or alive. And I think I was hoping that they would be found alive. And I think a lot of people were, not just in order for answers to be had, but just because it seemed incredibly sad to me that two people could have gone down such an incredibly dark path. But I do find it challenging that they died before, you know, they could face the justice system, before they could give any answers to the victims’ families, and to the public who were so disturbed by what they did. And the question of course, of why. Every time I think about this case, it still sits with me, those questions of how on earth things went so sideways.
Sarah: Yeah. Completely compelling case. And Alex, thank you for your reporting on it and thank you so much for talking with us about it.
Alex: Oh, anytime it was nice to speak.
Sarah: Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Toronto Star. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca and also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And why don’t you write us to let us know what you think or tell us what you’d like us to tackle in a future episode? Our email address is email@example.com. I’m Sarah Boesveld. Jordan’s back tomorrow. Have a great day.
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