It began with two bodies on the side a lonely stretch of B.C. highway.
Twenty-three days later and three provinces away, two more bodies were found: the suspects in those two murders, charged with a third, and targets of a Canada-wide manhunt that captured worldwide attention.
For the police investigators, RCMP spokespeople and Canadian journalists tasked with covering 2019’s most gripping story, those 23 days proved to be a unique and frustrating experience.
And like the families of the victims and the suspects, they’re left with several lingering questions that remain unanswered.
“I really wished we could have answers,” B.C. RCMP spokesperson Staff St. Janelle Shoihet told Global News in a wide-ranging interview looking back on one of the toughest assignments of her career.
“As police, we’re not in the business of theorizing; we’re in the business of using the evidence in order to tell us what the ‘why’ is. And there just isn’t evidence to say, ‘Why?'”
Three lives cut short
American Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler, were on vacation together.
The couple was travelling to the Yukon along the Alaska Highway in northern B.C., where there’s virtually no cell service and several long stretches without any sign of human life. They had been spotted at a gas station, appearing happy and in love.
After their bodies were found on July 15 next to their blue van, about 3.5 hours north of Fort Nelson, RCMP investigators and a small group of journalists joined the local detachment officers at the site to try and find answers.
The starkness of the landscape proved to be unnerving, Global BC reporter Nadia Stewart remembers.
“It was just myself and the cameraman, Justin Okines,” she said. “And we were driving for hours sometimes at night on a road where we were often there by ourselves.
“But those are the things that you cannot be afraid of, because you have to tell the story.”
Shoihet said investigators had difficulties trying to get their computer systems up and running in order to share information, which communications staff were relying on to give to the public.
“We would have to wait until the end of the day when they would come back from the site, get back to an area where there was cell phone coverage, and then be able to communicate the information that they had learned over the course of that day,” she said.
As the picture slowly started becoming clear, there was a new discovery on July 19: another murder scene, more than 500 kilometres away on the other side of the province, near Dease Lake. The victim turned out to be Leonard Dyck of Vancouver.
Police then asked the public to be on the lookout for two missing 18-year-olds from Port Alberni: Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod. Their truck had been found burning near where Dyck’s body was discovered.
At first, the RCMP pushed back on theories the crime scenes may be linked — and that the two missing men may not be innocent victims after all, but rather suspects.
Global BC journalist Rumina Daya, who repeatedly challenged Shoihet at a July 22 pass conference on the idea, said the denials were frustrating.
“We don’t want to derail an investigation,” she said. “But if you’re going to ask Canadians to be on the lookout and you’re going to ask this country to help you, then you have to give them the information so that they can do that.
“Had they have done that sooner, then maybe this wouldn’t have dragged out for the weeks that it did. Maybe Leonard Dyck would still be alive. Maybe those teens would still be alive and we’d have answers as to why this happened.”
Shoihet said she could only rely on the evidence she had at the time — and that it wasn’t until after that press conference when she learned what investigators had already determined: that Schmegelsky and McLeod were still alive, and were now suspects in all three murders.
“Honestly, I was blindsided,” she recalled “I felt like I’d been hit by a rock, a Mack truck.
A manhunt begins
By the time they were declared suspects and charged with Dyck’s murder, Schmegelsky and McLeod had a multi-province head start on police.
The pair were now in Gillam, Man., having travelled more than 3,300 kilometres in 72 hours.
As investigators pieced together reported sightings along the route in between — and RCMP in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan combed through hundreds of tips — police and the media descended on northern Manitoba and fanned out, looking for any trace of the suspects.
Quiet communities were suddenly hubs of bustling activity. Residents were told to stay inside for their own safety, forced to only listen and wait.
“It was remarkable how this small community was so changed over the days that we were there,” said Global Toronto reporter Sean O’Shea, who stayed in Gillam for weeks.
“Many people told us they were afraid to go out at night. They were afraid to let their children go and play outside in the daytime… And they told us that they would not feel safe again until these two killers were caught.”
Days turned into weeks. Potential sightings turned out to be fruitless. In York Landing, Man., reports of a potential arrest in the woods left officers empty-handed.
Back in B.C., investigators were still looking for missing puzzle pieces. Stories began emerging of close calls with the suspects, including one man on the Alaska Highway who said he may have been “hunted” by Schmegelsky and McLeod before he drove away.
Information was also pouring out about the two young men, particularly Schmegelsky: his tendency to make comments about killing himself and others, his love of guns and video games, pictures of himself wearing Nazi memorabilia and military fatigues.
The town of Port Alberni became quiet and anxious, bristling at the media attention focused on the suspects’ hometown.
All the while, Shoihet said she was waiting for a positive result just like everyone else.
“I was really in my heart of hearts hoping that they would be found alive, because there were so many unanswered questions,” she said.
“It was frustrating for the public, it was frustrating for us as police officers. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be for both the suspects’ families and the victims’ families.”
Search ends in tragedy
Suddenly, on Aug. 7, two bodies were found less than 10 kilometres from where Dyck’s vehicle was discovered burning more than two weeks earlier. Police later confirmed the bodies were those of the two suspects.
Global Winnipeg reporter Joe Scarpelli, the only TV reporter in the area with a camera at the time, ended up capturing the final sighting of Schmegelsky and McLeod.
“I remember trying to get onto a helicopter, I tried to get on a boat, I was flagging down locals, asking them for help. Nothing worked,” he remembered.
“And about eight, nine hours after searching for this scene, I remember passing by this marked RCMP cruiser. And I turned around and I followed him right to the scene.
“It was a chilling scene. I had goosebumps.”
Schmegelsky and McLeod had died by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, an autopsy confirmed.
Weeks later, RCMP revealed videos taken on Dyck’s digital camera included messages from the pair taking responsibility for the murders and announcing intentions to die in a suicide pact.
Other questions were eventually answered by investigators. One of the two murder weapons was legally purchased by McLeod at a Nanaimo hunting store. The burning vehicle found in Gillam belonged to Dyck. The pair had, indeed, made it to the Yukon before going on the run.
But with Schmegelsky and McLeod dead, the motive behind the senseless murders will forever be unanswered, leaving a question mark permanently dangling at the end of a story that brought so much frustration and heartbreak to everyone involved.
“Lots of times when I speak to victims’ families,” Shoihet said, “they say, ‘It’s not the justice I’m looking for. I just want an apology. I want to understand what drove that person to do that to my family member, to my loved one.’ And they will never have that.
“I think that’s the bigger issue: the fact that they won’t have the opportunity to have the answers that they potentially are looking for.”