Inside the RCMP's cross-country manhunt for admitted killers Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod
Newly released court filings provide details, insights to last summer's 3 murders in northern B.C.
A ghosted girlfriend, a family home with guns and ammunition and french fries left scattered around a murder victim.
These are some of the puzzle pieces that RCMP investigators tried to fit together last summer in the wake of three killings in northern British Columbia, and the ensuing cross-country manhunt for Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19.
The details come from a dozen warrant applications, newly unsealed following a court challenge by CBC News and other media outlets. They help complete the picture of a sprawling and confused investigation into three homicides, one where the RCMP eventually got their men — found dead by their own hands deep in the Manitoba bush — but failed to ever uncover the motivation for their brutal crimes.
From the first instance, the remoteness of the crime scenes caused problems for police.
After a highway maintenance worker reported the discovery of two bodies and a shot-up van near the Liard River Hot Springs on Highway 97, near the B.C.-Yukon border, early on the morning of July 15, it took officers from the closest RCMP detachment in Fort Nelson, B.C., three hours to make their way to the site.
There, they found the bodies of a young man and young woman, face down in a ditch. Both had suffered multiple gunshot wounds and had been dead for hours — "cold to the touch," according to a trucker who was one of the first upon the scene.
Police quickly established that the van belonged to Lucas Fowler, a 23-year-old Australian citizen who was in the country on a work visa. And they found a bank card belonging to Chynna Deese, a 24-year-old American, on the ground near the woman's body.
But positive identification of the bodies took a full two days. A search warrant for the van, obtained from a Burnaby, B.C. court on the afternoon of July 15, wasn't executed until late the next morning. And then the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) demanded a warrant before it would hand over photos and passport information for the vacationing couple. (Fowler had entered the country on April 16 while Deese had arrived just days before their deaths, on July 6.)
The making of a manhunt
At the crime scene, investigators uncovered some disturbing details. There were gunshot entry wounds on both the front and the backs of the bodies. And a number of bullets were found lodged in the bloody dirt beneath — an indication that the assault had continued as the couple lay helpless on the ground.
The autopsies, conducted in Abbotsford, B.C., on July 19, catalogued seven separate injuries for Deese and five for Fowler, although the particulars have been blacked out in the released warrant applications.
At the time, the RCMP had no real leads. There was an hours-long gap between the last sightings of Fowler and Deese alive — from witnesses who had stopped on the evening of July 14 to offer assistance repairing their broken down van — and the discovery of their bodies early the next day. Investigators released a sketch of an unknown man who was seen talking to the couple around 10:30 that night, labelling him a "person of interest," but later determined he was just another would-be helper.
(After police later zeroed in on McLeod and Schmegelsky, they found footage from security cameras along Highway 97, or the Alaska Highway, that showed the pair were already long gone — hundreds of kilometres north of the murder scene on their way to Whitehorse — when the first 911 call was received early July 15.)
It wasn't until the morning of July 19, when police received a call about a burning pickup truck along Highway 37, 60 kilometres south of another northern B.C. community, Dease Lake, that the investigation started to mushroom into one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history.
The first officer found a still-smoldering Dodge parked beside a bridge with camping gear, including a stove, propane tanks and the yellow nozzle of a gasoline jerry can, scattered about the area. The partially charred licence plate revealed that the vehicle was registered to Kam McLeod.
The constable was preparing to leave when a motorist flagged him down to report that he had found a dead body in a roadside gravel pit, about 2.5 kilometres farther down the highway.
The older, heavyset man with a white beard was lying on his back, bloodied and burned, his torn clothes revealing multiple wounds. The fact that he had been shot wasn't readily apparent.
One thing that leapt out to the officer was the presence of what appeared to be scattered french fries and a red cardboard McDonald's container on the ground between his legs. The odd discovery is referred to repeatedly across the warrants, usually prefaced by a single, blacked-out word, suggesting there was something noteworthy about the state of the food.
There was no ID on the body, but the man's pockets were full of change. Investigators theorized that he had still been alive when he arrived at the gravel pit because of the mud on his shoes. They found 13 items near the body, including cigarette butts, a Molson beer can, a Red Bull can, and plastic flex ties — the kind that could be used to bind a person's hands together.
- Schmegelsky, McLeod admitted to northern B.C. homicides before killing themselves, video footage reveals
The RCMP now had three bodies and two crime scenes, some 500 kilometres apart. But the burned-out pickup made them fear that Schmegelsky and McLeod might also have fallen victim to a killer.
Another traveller alerted police to the presence of a substantial amount of blood on the floor and walls of a rest-stop outhouse on the other side of the bridge.
And there were more discoveries along Highway 37: A trash can that had been set alight, and at another rest stop five kilometres south of the third body, a black and yellow folding knife and Kam McLeod's employee ID from the Walmart in Port Alberni, B.C.
The warrant to search the torched vehicle makes specific mention of firearms, ammunition and "edged weapons," noting that injuries on the newly discovered body implied a knife and a gun had been used. It also expresses a belief that "biological samples" could be taken from the flex ties.
A failed romance and a jilted girlfriend
An officer from a local detachment on Vancouver Island visited the family homes of McLeod and Schmegelsky on the afternoon of July 20. He was told that the two young men had left Port Alberni on July 12, with plans to travel to Whitehorse in search of work. They had last contacted their families on July 17 via text message.
McLeod's parents described their son and his friend as "introverted loners and gamers." Schmegelsky's grandmother revealed that he had recently been upset about being rejected by a girl — McLeod's younger sister.
Police asked if either had a gun with them and were told no, and that no firearms were missing from the family homes.
However, there were also indications that the pair were cutting links with their hometown.
McLeod's girlfriend told the RCMP that he had left without saying goodbye. "Seriously sorry, but I'm not coming back," he wrote in a text message sent on July 13. And when she reached him on his cellphone the next night — a few hours before the murders of Fowler and Deese — McLeod refused to say where he was and abruptly cut off the call.
The police tried to trace the pair via their debit and credit card transactions, but McLeod's last purchase had come on July 12 at a sporting goods store in Nanaimo, B.C. (It would be days before the RCMP figured out that he had bought a gun, a 7.62x39-mm SKS, a non-restricted, semi-automatic rifle, along with a box of shells.)
Schmegelsky's last purchase was $20 worth of gas at a station on the Alaska Highway early on the morning of July 18.
Attempts to locate the friends by tracking their cellphones were similarly unsuccessful. Schmegelsky's phone had been out of service since July 15. And after the final text to Port Alberni on July 17, McLeod's cell remained switched off. Police would later find his bent SIM card on the ground near the third body.
From 'missing' to 'wanted'
The RCMP were still struggling to identify the third victim when a tipster in Saskatchewan reported that two young men matching McLeod and Schmegelsky's descriptions had purchased gas at a Co-op in Meadow Lake on July 21. A local officer reviewed the surveillance tape early the next morning and confirmed that it was the missing B.C. teens — and that they were driving a new vehicle, a silver Toyota RAV4.
By late afternoon on July 22, police had determined that the pair were now the prime suspects in all three killings.
A Vancouver woman had called the RCMP after seeing a composite sketch of the victim that had been released to the media and posted online. She said it appeared to be her husband, Leonard Dyck, a 64-year-old botanist who lectured at the University of British Columbia. He had left home on July 16 to watch grizzly bears in the wilderness.
His wife last heard from him via text on July 18. She told police that he often slept in his car while on roadtrips — a silver Toyota RAV4.
The hunt for McLeod and Schmegelsky spanned over five provinces and territories and grew to involve hundreds of officers and volunteers, as well as the Royal Canadian Air Force. A total of 19 warrants were obtained.
The court submissions built upon each other, layering new details over the old.
An Aug. 1 application for access to online gaming profiles reveals that McLeod sometimes used the handle "angelofdeath," while Schmegelsky at times went by "Bryerbrown123 [KKK]."
A different filing for Mac and SSID information made the same day outlines a July 25 search of the McLeod family home in Port Alberni, describing a number of long guns locked securely in a gun safe, but two more rifles left out in the open on a bed and two additional guns stored underneath it.
As the RCMP indicated in their September report on the homicide investigations, two firearms were used to kill Fowler and Deese and one was used to kill Leonard Dyck. The gun that was used on both July 15 and July 19 was the SKS purchased in Nanaimo. The RCMP have recently disclosed that they have since determined that the second firearm used — a "ghost gun" made up of scavenged parts of at least five different Chinese-made guns — was also legally obtained by McLeod on July 12, along with 750 rounds of ammunition, from a small store in Port Alberni.
A lucky escape
The warrants also provide the identity of a man who might well have been targeted by McLeod and Schmegelsky on the night of July 17, near Haines Junction, Yukon, two hours west of Whitehorse.
Kenneth Albertsen, a resident of Palmer, Alaska, told police that he had just pulled over and crawled into his back seat for a nap when a slow-moving truck inched to a stop 50 metres in front of his vehicle.
"They sat there for a little while and then the passenger door on the truck opened and someone stepped out holding a long gun. And that got my attention, right away," Albertsen said in an interview with CBC News.
WATCH | Palmer, Alaska, resident describes encounter with McLeod and Schmegelsky:
As the man with the gun walked into the woods and started to weave his way back through the trees like he was stalking prey, Albertsen decided to make a hasty escape, noticing another young man behind the wheel of the truck as he sped past.
The 54-year-old later came to believe that the pair were after the boat he was towing behind his own truck.
"God saved me," he said.
Albertsen's recollection of the make and colour of the vehicle didn't match McLeod's pickup, but RCMP have said that the timing, location and physical description of the men makes them believe it was Schmegelsky and McLeod.
The manhunt reached its apex following the discovery of the torched remains of Dyck's Toyota outside Gillam, Man., on July 22, almost 3,000 kilometres east of the initial murder scene.
As police and volunteers manned roadblocks and scoured the surrounding bush, and military search planes patrolled the skies above, police hatched a plan to deal with the pair after their arrest.
An Aug. 2 warrant application mentions a "cell mate undercover operation," with hopes that McLeod and Schmegelsky will "develop a bond" with the jailhouse operatives and implicate themselves in the murders.
But the Aug. 7 discovery of two bodies in the wilderness, just eight kilometres from the burned out RAV4, made such a ruse unnecessary.
The six videos that the pair left behind on a digital camera they had stolen from Dyck have never been released. The RCMP has described them as suicide notes, and last wills and testaments. The men admitted responsibility for the three murders, police say, but provided no explanation and expressed no remorse.
The mystery of the french fries found surrounding Dyck's body also endures. If McLeod and Schmegelsky brought them along, they must have come from Whitehorse, the closest McDonald's along their route, but an eight-plus hour drive from that scene.
With files from Andrew Culbert and Georgie Smyth