'Some of us could have died': Unease remains in northern Manitoba following RCMP report on B.C. suspects
New details in RCMP report bring some closure but also chilling confirmation of danger during manhunt
The burning SUV was an unusual sight and initially, Billy Beardy worried that someone inside it might be hurt.
When the Fox Lake Cree Nation member first came across the abandoned vehicle near Sundance Creek in a remote part of northern Manitoba on July 22, it would have been impossible to predict that discovery would set off a massive RCMP search in the area for two men suspected of carrying out three homicides some 3,000 kilometres away.
Beardy was one of the first on scene that day, and the vehicle on fire was soon linked to the pair, Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky. Just over two weeks later, after a massive manhunt, Beardy was also one of the first people to find the suspects' bodies — a mere eight kilometres away.
While the intensity of that search has faded, some Fox Lake members say the sense of anxiety generated by the manhunt has not. And new details released by the RCMP about its investigation have confirmed just how close those residents came to danger.
"This will probably change everyone's lives forever," said Beardy.
On Friday, RCMP in British Columbia released a report outlining their investigation into the shooting deaths of Lucas Fowler, Chynna Deese and Leonard Dyck. It detailed the journey police say McLeod and Schmegelsky took across western Canada, which ultimately culminated in a massive search in northern Manitoba involving police and military aircraft, tactical officers, police dogs and a dive team.
Their conclusion: McLeod shot Schmegelsky, and then himself, in a suicide pact, using two rifles also linked to the three homicides. Dyck's digital camera was found near the bodies with a series of videos where police say the pair expressed a desire to kill again, and no remorse for the homicides — but no clear motive for the B.C. killings.
- Schmegelsky, McLeod admitted to northern B.C. homicides before killing themselves, video footage reveals
Beardy has lived in the area, and travelled along the formidable Nelson River, his entire life. So he says he did not hesitate when the RCMP asked for his help taking officers up and down it, beginning on July 27.
"It's unforgiving and unpredictable," he said of the river.
Beardy acknowledges the work was tense. He believed the pair were armed.
With the RCMP report, he learned Schmegelsky and McLeod indeed left hundreds of rounds of ammunition in the Sundance area.
Along with the pair's stated desire in the video to kill again, Beardy said those conclusions are "pretty heart-pumping."
"We were there," he said. "We were the first ones on site."
End of search leaves mixed emotions
For some in northern Manitoba, the physical end of the manhunt — coupled with the recent release of the report — has left lingering mixed emotions.
Fox Lake member Lynda Neckoway says life has returned to normal in many ways; people are hunting and fishing. Kids are playing outside. But others are struggling. Some elders remain afraid to this day.
"You're still looking out the window," she said. "I never used to lock my door before but now I'm locking it at night. You know, that's a big difference."
"It makes me feel sad for what happened, sad for the young men, and their families. They're going through a whole lot. And then we went through a lot with what they've done in our community," she said.
She said learning new information from the RCMP brought some relief and closure, but details about the guns and ammunition also highlighted the potential dangers during the search.
"Oh my god, they still had all that stuff with them," she said. "Some of us could have died in the community. Or somebody going down the road, or some of the police. Somebody could have died when they were doing the manhunt."
During the height of the search in the summer, Neckoway organized about a dozen community bonfires to help bring people together. She is one of about a dozen members who were recently recognized by the Fox Lake community for helping out during the search.
Even now, Neckoway says community members are still checking in with each other. She says sharing circles will begin soon in the community to help people focus on positive aspects of life.
Still, she adds it's hard to shake the unease that lingers from the summer.
"I think that trauma will always be there for a little while."
A fateful sighting
Throughout the search, Beardy suspected the pair did not get far from the area, a hunch that would later be borne out.
Police say some of McLeod's items were found on Aug. 1. Six days later, Beardy said he was heading back to an area where a sleeping bag and backpack were spotted, along with about four officers.
"The last day was a miserable day because the weather wasn't on our side," he said. "The water was so rough."
So was the shoreline. The banks are steep, says Beardy — as high as 30 metres — and difficult to climb.
But during that fateful day in the boat, he says he noticed a raven jump — and another officer spotted it, too.
Fighting the fast-paced and rough water, they turned around the boat, finding McLeod's body first.
Schmegelsky's was not apparent until they got off the boat.
"I couldn't believe it," Beardy said. "It was just like a big surprise when we found them."
He then simply adds, "I was glad I was there."