VANCOUVER—An RCMP communications lag may have given a head start to two men suspected in three deaths in northern British Columbia, say experts in law enforcement and missing-persons cases.
News that Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, made it through a First Nations checkpoint — the day before they were named as suspects — sparked criticism that quicker and more thorough communications with Indigenous communities could have shortened what is now an 11-day manhunt.
At the root of the criticism is the sometimes fraught relationship between the Mounties and First Nations. In northern Manitoba, problems became evident when authorities brought in the military and drones to search for the men, said Naomi Sayers, an expert in Indigenous law.
“You could tell that there was very little engagement with the actual communities,” said Sayers in a phone interview Friday.
“Drones are a new technology, but relationship building isn’t. We’re using drones, we’re using planes — where are the people? People who are from communities know the land very well. People who have trap lines know the land very well and if you ask them, they can help you navigate that.”
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Schmegelsky and McLeod are charged with second-degree murder in the death of Leonard Dyck, whose body was found south of Dease Lake two kilometres from the burning truck the two had been driving. They are also suspects in the deaths of Australian Lucas Fowler and American Chynna Deese. The couple was found shot to death on the side of the Alaska Highway on July 15.
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Sayers said a relationship between Mounties and First Nations built on trust could have laid the foundations for better communications, which in turn could have meant a better chance of finding McLeod and Schmegelsky earlier.
Sayers isn’t the only one concerned about RCMP handling of the case.
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Kevin Bryan, a former police detective for 30 years, 16 of which were spent working for York Regional Police’s forensics unit in Ontario, has been following the nationwide manhunt for McLeod and Schmegelsky since it began.
Though he said he rarely criticizes police, Bryan said he’s perplexed as to why RCMP waited three days to list the discovery of Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese’s bodies as a double homicide, instead of suspicious deaths.
“If it’s an obvious double murder, especially from gunshot wounds like this one appears to have been, by all accounts, call the dang thing a double murder so the public’s awareness is heightened,” Bryan said.
The RCMP release on July 21, when Schmegelsky and McLeod were first reported missing, should have included more information about the two as well, he said.
Even if police didn’t have enough information to call the men suspects, Bryan argued, they could have called them persons of interest in a crime or issued a higher level of urgency to find them.
The proximity of Schmegelsky and McLeod’s burning truck to Dyck’s body should have sparked such urgency, he said.
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“At what time did somebody come up and say these guys look like they’re murderers?” Bryan asked. “There must have been some questions going on with what the heck’s going on with these missing persons? They’re supposed to be up in the Yukon … and they’re not.”
He also stressed that not getting the information out to the public as soon as possible creates a safety issue.
“You’ve got people out there looking for these two kids as if they’re missing persons and possible victims, as opposed to these guys are armed and dangerous perhaps,” Bryan said.
The manhunt for the two, focused on northern Manitoba, has been ongoing for 11 days.
Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal sits on the Interim Management Advisory Board for the RCMP, meant to tackle harassment and workplace dysfunction in the agency. Oppal said he’s reluctant to criticize the RCMP so early in the case, saying he has some sympathy for the agency considering the size of the task they’re facing with this manhunt.
But he said the criticism about RCMP lapses in sharing information rings some “alarm bells.”
Oppal headed B.C.’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, called after the murder trial and conviction of serial killer Robert Pickton in 2007.
During the inquest, communication problems between the RCMP and other police agencies was pegged as one reason Pickton, convicted of killing six women but suspected in many more murders, remained at large for so long.
“Had the RCMP and the VPD shared information, we know for certain lives would have been saved,” Oppal said, adding an investigation spanning several provinces would require significant information sharing.
Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for Star Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter covering inner-city issues, affordable housing and reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh