High-profile homicides reopen debate over police, privacy and the public's right to know
'Calling a murder a suspicious death lowers the alert level of the public,' former detective says
A former police officer is questioning why RCMP waited four days to reveal it was investigating a double homicide in British Columbia that would later turn into a cross-Canada hunt for a pair of men suspected of killing three people along remote northern highways.
Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, are suspects in the shooting deaths of a travelling couple in Northern B.C., and have been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of a Vancouver man, Leonard Dyck, whose body was found near Dease Lake.
But few details about the case were available to the public until four days after the bodies of Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese were discovered along a highway south of Liard Hot Springs, in B.C.'s far north.
RCMP say they found the bodies shortly after 7 a.m. PT on Monday, July 15, but their first public release didn't go out until the next day, indicating police were investigating the "suspicious deaths" of "two adults."
No information about the approximate age, gender or any identifying features of the victims was available.
It wasn't until Friday, July 19 — after Australian police announced the names of the victims — that RCMP distributed descriptions and photos of the pair. Police in New South Wales released Fowler and Deese's names because Fowler's father, Stephen Fowler, is an inspector with the police force and the case garnered substantial attention from Australian media.
And according to RCMP Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, public information started to flow in once the victims' names were publicized.
"It wasn't until they were identified that people seemed to take interest," Shoihet said.
But Kevin Bryan, a former detective with York Regional Police, said RCMP could have done more to get the public to pay attention.
"I'm very rarely critical of police. But the fact that they called the deaths 'suspicious deaths' ... They were obvious homicide victims," he said.
"That's going to put the area, including the entire north, on high alert."
Some residents of Northern B.C. also questioned why they were not told sooner that police were searching for a suspected killer or killers.
Peter Woof of Dease Lake said he had been visiting Liard Hot Springs days before news of the bodies came out, but police language was so vague he wondered if the pair had somehow succumbed to heat exhaustion from the springs.
"Certainly nothing to make one a little more alert," he said.
Echoing RCMP, Bryan said it's important to keep aspects of investigations private so as not to tip off suspects to police plans or potential evidence that could be used in pursuing charges.
But, he added, "I think calling a murder a suspicious death lowers the alert level of the public, and I don't understand that at all."
In response to an emailed question about why more information about the victims was not released sooner, Sgt. Shoihet said RCMP are limited by both the information they have, and the Federal Privacy Act.
"When the initial investigation was underway, we were taking steps to confirm who the victims were," she wrote. "These steps take time."
Then, she said, police had to notify family members before going public with the identities.
"In every investigation we must first determine whether breaching someone's right to privacy will assist us in advancing an investigation," she said.
This is a response that has been questioned by privacy experts and victims' advocacy groups ever since RCMP adopted the policy of not releasing victims' names four years ago.
Other Canadian police forces do not seem to be bound by the Act.
For example, Chief Dale McFee of the Edmonton police recently announced his force will begin releasing the names of homicide victims by default.
And in February, Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice said he wants police forces in that province to name homicide victims in public releases, citing the public's right to know what's happening in their community.
Asked whether RCMP would consider changing its policy, Sgt. Shoihet said that "we will continue to find the balance between a person's right to privacy and investigative needs."