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In wake of northern B.C. murders, residents say cell service needed along highways

WATCH: Three murders in Northern B.C. changes the 'code of the road'

Grace Phillips says she and her husband are being more cautious these days.

The couple owns the Water’s Edge Campground, which sits off Highway 37 just north of Dease Lake in northern B.C., and not far from where one of three murder victims was found more than a week ago.

Ever since, Phillips says she’s noticed a change among those who stop at her campground.

“It’s busier here than before” the bodies were found, she said. “No one wants to stop along the side of the road anymore.”

WATCH: (Aired July 27) Military support arrives in Northern Manitoba to assist manhunt for B.C. murder suspects

Military support arrives in Northern Manitoba to assist manhunt
Military support arrives in Northern Manitoba to assist manhunt

Tensions have steadily increased in the region since the bodies of Sydney, Australia native Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese of Charlotte, N.C., were found on the side of Highway 97 south of Liard Hot Springs on July 15.

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On July 19, four days later and more than 470 kilometres west of that scene, the body of Vancouver man Leonard Dyck was found off Highway 37 south of Dease Lake.

READ MORE: RCMP zero in on 2 people matching descriptions of B.C. murder suspects

The suspects in those murders, 18-year-old Bryer Schmegelsky and 19-year-old Kam McLeod of Port Alberni, B.C., have evaded police ever since, sparking a manhunt that has now stretched on for five days.

The pair were last seen in the northern Manitoba community of Gillam, where RCMP and members of the Canadian Armed Forces continue to search for them.

WATCH: RCMP officers are still on the hunt for two teen fugitives, suspected to be involved in the murders of three people in northern B.C.

RCMP search Via Rail for teen murder suspects
RCMP search Via Rail for teen murder suspects

Schmegelsky and McLeod have been charged with second-degree murder in connection with Dyck’s death. Charges have yet to be laid in connection to the deaths of Fowler and Deese.

All three victims were found in areas where cellphone service is virtually non-existent, with travellers unable to call for help if they encounter trouble.

READ MORE: ‘Military-style survival’ ⁠— How B.C. murder suspects may be faring in the harsh Manitoba wilderness

Phillips says she often encounters people arriving at the campground who have been out of touch with the rest of the world for days. Lately, she says those travellers are now getting an extra shock.

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“People will come here and say they haven’t heard of [the murders] because they’ve been travelling and they don’t have cell service,” she said. “They get more cautious when they hear what happened.

“I think that’s why we’re busier. People want to stay in groups and not be on their own.”

Asked whether more cell service is needed in the region, Phillips was clear: “We’ve been asking [the province] for years.”

No more stopping

There’s an unofficial code among people living this far north, Phillips said: if you see someone on the side of the road in trouble, you stop and help.

At least two couples reported stopping to offer help to Fowler and Deese, who were sitting outside their broken-down van just hours before police say they were found dead.

Both couples noted the lack of cell service in that area as a reason for stopping.

Now, some members of the RCMP have been telling people to maybe think twice about that, despite all reports suggesting Schmegelsky and McLeod have long since left the province.

WATCH: (Aired July 24) Community of Dease Lake on edge

Community of Dease Lake on edge
Community of Dease Lake on edge

At a town hall meeting in Dease Lake on Tuesday, Sgt. Steven Woodcox warned residents to be on alert.

“There are a lot of people driving through this community, on this highway, and we don’t know who they are,” he said, adding that extra long-term security measures and warnings may be needed.

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“I don’t know what normal is anymore, I don’t know when normal will come back. But it will take a while. And maybe in some sense it just makes us safer in what we do.”

READ MORE: At the centre of an RCMP manhunt, here’s how Gillam, Man., is coping

On Sunday, B.C. RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Manseau said telling travellers not to stop and help others is not an official RCMP policy.

“I spent the majority of my career in the north, and in my experience, people are good people,” he said.

“If they want to stop and help, they absolutely should if they feel safe doing so. If they’d rather drive by and contact RCMP or someone else when they have service, they should do that too. Either way, I think people still want to be helpful towards their fellow man.”

Manseau said police in the region have become accustomed to doing their jobs with the technology at their disposal, including police radios and satellite phones for communication.

READ MORE: It’s looking ‘less likely’ that B.C. murder suspects are still in Gillam, Man., expert says

At the same time, he admitted better cell coverage would help both investigators and the public at large.

“Would more technology be better? Absolutely,” he said. “It would be better for the travelling public, and better for police. But we have to work with what we have, and officers up there have done a good job with that so far.”

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Manseau wouldn’t speculate on whether more cell service may have prevented the murders of Fowler, Deese and Dyck, citing the ongoing investigation.

A map showing cellular coverage across B.C. According to the map, no coverage exists in the areas where the bodies of Lucas Fowler, Chynna Deese and Leonard Dyck were found in northern B.C.
A map showing cellular coverage across B.C. According to the map, no coverage exists in the areas where the bodies of Lucas Fowler, Chynna Deese and Leonard Dyck were found in northern B.C. B.C. Ministry of Citizens Services

More provincial investment

In a statement to Global News, the Ministry of Citizens’ Services said the province is “actively working” with the federal government to expand cell coverage and internet along its highway systems, particularly in the north.

The ministry announced on July 2 it is investing $18 million along with the federal Ministry of Rural Economic Development in three projects meant to expand or introduce high-speed internet access to eight rural communities, including Dease Lake.

The project will involve the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation building 139 kilometres of new fibre along Highway 37 to Dease Lake and Iskut, as well as between Gitanyow and Cranberry Junction.

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READ MORE: CRTC declares broadband Internet a basic service

A spokesperson for the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation said the chief of the Iskut Band was not available for comment Sunday.

The ministry added the province “continues to work with our federal counterparts to determine future funding options to expand cellular coverage along primary and secondary highways.”

That funding could come from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)’s new broadband fund, which put out its first call for applications in June.

WATCH: (Aired Dec. 21, 2016) Broadband internet access a basic service, CRTC says

Broadband internet access a basic service: CRTC
Broadband internet access a basic service: CRTC

The fund will provide up to $750 million over five years to support projects that improve mobile phone service in underserved communities.

But the initial call only targets the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, along with satellite-dependent communities.

That leaves many underserved parts of northern B.C., which already have landline service, to wait until a new round of applications opens in the fall.

Considering the selected projects from the first round won’t be announced until 2020, that could force B.C. to wait for some time for more cell coverage.

READ MORE: B.C. rural and Indigenous communities to get faster internet connections

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The CRTC has said it is working to expand internet and cellphone coverage to all corners of Canada since 2016, when it determined broadband internet to be a basic service.

Global News has reached out to the CRTC and the Ministry of Rural Economic Development for comment.

Until her community gets better coverage, Phillips says she is taking warnings not to stop on the nearby highway to heart.

“I used to stop for people many times, me and my husband,” she said. “I don’t think we’d stop for anyone anymore considering what has happened.”

—With files from Sarah MacDonald

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