The hunt for two teens wanted in connection with three Canadian highway murders has shifted to long abandoned towns lining a treacherous river where police found several items “directly linked” to the suspects.
In a massive breakthrough in the marathon military scale search for Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod on Saturday, police recovered several items connected to the pair on the banks of the Nelson River in northern Manitoba.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) today reiterated they would not be discussing the nature of mystery objects to protect the integrity of the investigation.
The objects were found some 9km from where their stolen grey Toyota RAV4 was found abandoned and alight in dense bush close to a rail line near the tiny town of Gillam.
RCMP sent an Underwater Recovery Team to the area after a damaged aluminium row boat known locally as a “jon boat” was spotted during an aerial search on Friday.
RCMP Corporal Julie Courchaine said while police could find no evidence linking the vessel to the fugitives, investigators were able to “directly link” them to the items found on the riverbank.
Cpl Courchaine said police were examining all possibilities in relation to the suspects’ fate — including that they may have succumbed to the river’s notorious rapids.
“This is very challenging terrain,” she told reporters.
But soon after the mystery objects were found, RCMP Manitoba announced there would be no additional dives — suggesting investigators believed there was a strong possibility Schmegelsky and McLeod survived the river.
Officers then shifted operations to the nearby, long-abandoned town of Sundance, where they set up a roadblock at Sundance Creek.
Sundance was established in 1975 to house workers of the doomed Limestone Dam project.
It was shut down between 1978 and 1985 while construction of the Limestone Generating Station was postponed and decommissioned in 1992 following the project’s completion.
Police refused to say if they were led to Sundance by evidence or a tip but locals have warned the fugitives could be hiding out in the dozens of abandoned buildings and ghost towns lining the Nelson River, ever since the RAV4 discovery brought the manhunt to Gillam.
Earlier, police speculated the boat may have been damaged travelling through rapids on the river, raising the prospect Schmegelsky and McLeod were tossed into the water.
“It had gone through some rapids and had been significantly damaged,” RCMP Inspector Leon Fiedler told The Globe and Mail on Friday.
“We’re going to search in the area around where we found this boat just to make sure that there is nobody attached to it, whether that is our subjects or anyone else for that matter.”
Inspector Fiedler said police had not yet located the rowboat’s owner. There was no forensic evidence to gather from the vessel, he said.
Despite unconfirmed sightings of the duo as far away as the neighbouring province of Ontario, the RCMP continues to base the manhunt in the Manitoba region.
Last week a door to door search of Gillam and the even tinier settlement of York Landing failed to uncover any trace of the pair despite the deployment of heavily armed SWAT teams, helicopters, dogs, drones and hi-tech surveillance equipment.
The dive team is the latest attempt by the RCMP to bring closure to a manhunt that began more than 3000km on July 14 in Canada’s western province of British Columbia.
McLeod and Schmegelsky have been charged with the second degree murder of University of British Columbia professor Leonard Dyck, 64, and are suspects in the murders of Ms Deese, 24, and Mr Fowler, 23.
The couple was found shot to death alongside their campervan on the Alaska Highway on July 15. Mr Dyck’s body was found four days later on another highway — 2km from the teen suspects’ burnt-out Dodge pick up truck.
When the trail ran cold after the suspects seemingly vanished into the dense, swampy bushland that surrounds Gillam, locals speculated they could have made their way to Port Nelson, Churchill or York Landing and escaped in one of the many small boats and canoes that line the waterways and shorelines.
Survival experts predict the teenagers would struggle to stay alive if they attempted to hide in the swampy, bug-infested wilderness around Gillam without shelter and equipment.
Police had not ruled out that the two fugitives may have died in the inhospitable region.
While the area is populated with polar bears, black bears and wolves, locals say the suspects have most to fear from the sandflies, predicting they would get “eaten alive”.
But it’s believed the pair may have dodged the huge manhunt and escaped the area.
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) has set up an investigative team to follow up on potential sightings of the pair — including one claiming they were travelling in a white Ford Focus, and another placing them at a fast food restaurant.
The team was set up after OPP said it received more than more than 30 tips in less than eight hours last Thursday.
On Friday, hundreds of people gathered at a Sydney service to remember Aussie tourist Mr Fowler.
The details of the tragic circumstances surrounding Lucas and Chynna’s deaths and the ongoing search for their suspected murderers have made global news, but during the service these details were deliberately not touched on.
Lucas’s father Steven Fowler told those gathered he and his family never had a chance to meet Chynna, but “she stole Lucas’s heart and she became part of our family,” he said.
“They were full of happiness and joy just being together,” he said.
“We are so happy that they found each other and had such a great time travelling together. They touched the hearts of everyone they met. Lucas lived a life that many of us envy.”