Life getting back to normal, but uncertainty keeps Gillam on edge as hunt for B.C. fugitives scales down
'It's just unknowns, unknowns, unknowns,' northern Manitoba town's mayor says as RCMP wind down search
For 10 days, all eyes have been trained on the small northern town of Gillam, Man., where RCMP have concentrated their search for two suspects in three killings in B.C.
Now, as the force begins to reduce its presence in the area, the community is split between a desire for continued security, and hopes life can soon get back to normal.
"Some people are feeling that it's time for them to put down their guard and go back to normalcy, and other people are still holding up … to the security of their house and locking the doors and staying safe," said Mayor Dwayne Forman.
The area around Gillam, about 730 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and home to around 1,300 people, has become the focus of attention from both Canadian media and the RCMP, as the location of the last confirmed sighting of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19.
On July 22, a burning Toyota RAV4 was found near the town. Police later confirmed it was the vehicle driven by McLeod and Schmegelsky — now charged with second-degree murder in the death of university lecturer Leonard Dyck, and suspects in the killings of tourists Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese.
That led to an extensive search that has involved participation from the RCMP and other police forces, along with the Canadian military, and even included door-to-door canvassing in Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation.
The search, though, has come up empty, and RCMP confirmed on Wednesday they are scaling back their presence in the area.
'Everyone was on alert'
The town's mayor, for one, is ready to see things calm down.
"Without the cameras in town and the high presence of RCMP, I think that's going to allow for everybody to get back to that sense of normalcy."
He wears two hats — running the town and working a full-time job — and says he's had little time to sleep as he talks with concerned residents and RCMP.
"It's been pretty hectic. I got a lot … on my table as far as work is concerned, and then this on top of it has been adding to my my docket quite a bit."
But for many in the town, like Gillam resident Jonathon Sandberg, the constant news cycle of reports on the fugitives has been unnerving.
He kept all his windows and doors locked, and kept his eyes on the news, desperately hoping for an update saying the search was over.
"I sat in my living room because I was home alone and I had just kept the news online because I wanted to I wanted to [have] closure," he said.
Sandberg, who moved to Gillam from the northern Manitoba city of Thompson, said he came to the area to escape urban life, but the past 10 days have been chaotic for the town.
"We're all close. We're a close community, we know a lot of people, everyone knows each other," he said. "There's hardly any crime here, so when we found out there were wanted fugitives here, everyone was on alert."
He says he was impressed with police efforts in the town, though.
"They came to my door and they briefed us on what they were doing," he said. "[They've] been here for a week so they probably must have done the best they could."
He's still hoping the two will be found.
"I hope they're still alive.… We need justice."
Forman doesn't believe the two men, if they are still in the area, could last much longer in the wilderness, given its boggy and brutal conditions.
"If they're not found in the area here in the near future, they can't survive in the forest for very long — not much longer anyway," he said.
The struggle for Forman now is trying to provide answers for people in his town about what happens next — especially when they don't know exactly where Schmegelsky and McLeod are.
"It's just unknowns, unknowns, unknowns."
While he understands some residents don't want the RCMP to leave town, he wants them to know there will still be a strong presence in the area even as the intensity of the search decreases.
"A hundred per cent, [I] support their decision, as well as a scaling down. They haven't removed themselves from the community," said Forman.
"They're still in the community. They still have way more staff than what we have on a normal basis."
On Friday, the town's council, Fox Lake Cree Nation and Manitoba Hydro will host a community meeting at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the events that have unfolded in the area, and what effect they've had on residents.
Forman said RCMP will be attending the event to try to answer lingering concerns or questions residents may have.
See what's happening on the ground around Gillam, Man.
With files from Karen Pauls