Hunting Down the Alaska Highway Murderers

27 Jul

Update: On August 2, authorities found a damaged johnboat that they'd spotted by helicopter along the Nelson River. At 10 A.M. on August 7, the RCMP found the bodies of two males in thick bush near the river. An autopsy is pending, but they are believed to be Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky. They were found approximately five miles from the burnt RAV4. The manhunt has been called off.

It started as an idyllic three-week road trip for an adventurous young couple. Chynna Deese, 24, of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lucas Fowler, 23, of Sydney, Australia set out in early July to drive from the northern Canadian Rockies to Alaska in a faded blue 1986 Chevy van that Fowler had bought from a buffalo and cattle rancher he’d worked for in British Columbia.  

On Sunday, July 14, the van broke down on a remote section of Highway 97, known as the Alaska Highway, about 12 miles south of Liard Hot Springs near the Yukon border. Motorists reported that the van was stalled on the shoulder with the hood up, while Deese and Fowler—both keen travelers who had met at a hostel in Croatia—cooked a meal and relaxed in lawn chairs. A mechanic and his wife from Fort Nelson stopped and asked the couple if they needed help, but Fowler seemed confident he could get the vehicle going again. 

On Monday, July 15, the bullet-riddled bodies of Deese and Fowler were discovered by another highway worker. The blue Chevy was parked nearby with a rear window broken out. Northern British Columbia and Yukon locals went on high alert—the homicides were heinous and appeared to lack motive. Deese’s brother, British, stated that the bodies were so violated that open-casket funerals were not feasible. 

Then things got even stranger and more upsetting. Four days after the highway worker discovered Deese and Fowler’s bodies, a burning Dodge pickup with a slide-in camper was found on Highway 37, 31 miles south of Dease Lake, south of the Yukon border and roughly 300 miles west of Liard Hot Springs. (Highway 37 and 97 are the only two highways in the massive northern part of the B.C. province.) Less than a mile from the Dodge, the body of a bearded man in his fifties or sixties was found by a motorist in a highway pullout. He was later identified as Leonard Dyck of Vancouver. Dyck, a husband and a father, worked as a botanist at the University of British Columbia. 

The Dodge had been driven by Kam McCleod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, according to law enforcement. Both teenagers are reported by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) as 6’4” tall and “approximately 169 pounds.” Both have brown hair, while McLeod has a scruffy beard. Family members told law enforcement that the boys had gone to Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory, to look for work, perhaps in the oil and gas fields. The two had worked at Walmart in Port Alberni, near Vancouver, together, but were looking to make more money and have an adventure, according to their family. Now they’d vanished. On Monday, July 22, the RCMP officially declared them missing persons. 

Theories immediately arose that British Columbia had a serial killer at large. Early speculation linked the three corpses and two missing teenagers to the Highway of Tears, Highway 16, the east-west route infamous for the murders and disappearances of over forty women—mostly First Nations—since 1970. But Highway 16 is 620 miles to the south and none of the victims were indigenous women.

McCleod and Schmegelsky, the teens from Port Alberni, didn’t stay missing persons for long. On Sunday, July 21, the RCMP announced that McCleod and Schmegelsky were seen on surveillance camera footage two provinces away in northern Saskatchewan. They were driving a grey 2011 Toyota RAV4. They were now the main suspects in the deaths of Chynna Deese, Lucas Fowler, and Dyck, according to the RCMP. “Take no actions—do not approach,” warned the RCMP. “Call 911 immediately.” 

At 7 P.M. on Monday, July 22, the Toyota RAV4 was reported burning off Provincial Road 290, along the Nelson River in northern Manitoba about 680 miles east of where they were spotted in Saskatchewan. PR 290 terminates halfway between the small Manitoba town of Gillam (population 1,300) and Hudson Bay. It’s literally the end of the road. 

As of Friday, the RCMP Manitoba as well as the RCMP Special Crimes Unit and the Ontario Provincial Police had highway checkpoints at the intersection of PR 280 and PR 290. Police have deployed dogs and drones as well as armored tactical assault vehicles. Law enforcement believe the teenagers are in the bush—no vehicles have been reported stolen in the area. It’s possible they slipped out in a vehicle, but more likely they’re waist-deep in the unforgiving subarctic bush of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. 

I spent a week backpacking in the bush of the Arctic Ocean watershed near here last summer researching a missing persons case. This is one of the world’s largest wetlands: swamps, bogs and fens with dwarf birch and stunted tamarack, waist-deep water and muskeg that is like walking atop miles of used, soaked mattresses. There are wolves and occasionally polar bears, but the biggest threat is being eaten by mosquitoes and a half-dozen varieties of biting flies. Gloves, bug netting, and highly-concentrated DEET are all but mandatory, and considering the way the teenagers were traveling, I’d be surprised if they were prepared for the bush. Could they have stolen a boat and floated down the Nelson River to the saltwater of Hudson Bay? Possibly, but the Nelson is not an easy river to navigate due to a series of dams and rapids.  

On Wednesday, McCleod and Schmegelsky were charged with second-degree murder for the killing of Dyck. (They remain suspects in the murders of Deese and Fowler.) If convicted—and if they don’t die from exposure in the bush or a firefight with Mounties—they will be sentenced to mandatory life in prison without possibility of parole.  

Schmegelsky’s father, Alan, told CTV that he believes his son may be on a suicide-by-cop mission. “A normal child doesn’t travel across the country killing people,” he said. “A child in some very serious pain does.” Alan and Bryer’s mother divorced in 2005. Bryer bounced between homes and was last living with his grandmother in Port Alberni. Alan says his son was consumed by YouTube and video games. A video game user provided photos from last fall showing Bryer in battle fatigues, another in a gas mask, and Nazi memorabilia including a swastika armband and a knife issued to Hitler Youth. 

“The Mounties are gonna shoot first and ask questions later,” Alan told CTV from his home near Victoria. “He’s going to be dead today or tomorrow, I know that. Rest in peace, Bryer. I love you. I’m so sorry all this had to happen.” 

How Maui Volunteers Found Two Missing Hikers in a Week

29 May

In the early morning hours of May 29, a helicopter circled Mauna Kahalawai, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, deploying Forward-Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) to detect any sign of life. The searchers were looking for a local hiker who had been missing for nine days.

The missing person was not Amanda Eller, the yoga instructor and physical therapist who now famously survived 17 days in the Hawaiian backcountry in a tank top and capris. It was 35-year-old local man Noah “Kekai” Mina who, on May 20, set out on the unmarked Kapilau Ridge Trail, also known as the Iao Valley Secret Trail, roughly 20 miles away from the command headquarters for Eller’s search.  

But the searchers—an unemployed arborist, a Special Forces Army Ranger and scuba instructor, and a female rappelling guide—were the same.

To paraphrase Robert Koester, a.k.a. Professor Rescue and the author of Lost Person Behavior, the Bible of search and rescue, a runner tends to run themselves out of the search area pretty fast. That’s just what Eller, 35, did on May 8. She’d intended to do a routine three-mile trail run in the Makawao Forest Reserve, a 2,000-acre rainforest that shoulders the massive Haleakala volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Eller, a local, ducked down a little side path for a meditation break. When she stood up to continue on the main trail, she got turned around, forgetting which way she’d come in. And as outdoor athletes can and sometimes do, she pushed herself swiftly and confidently in the wrong direction, determined not to backtrack, so that her hourlong outing turned into a 17-day bushwhack from hell.

After her boyfriend, Benjamin Konkel, reported her missing to the Maui police department on the morning of May 9, authorities located Eller’s white 2015 Toyota RAV4 at the Hunter’s Trail trailhead. Her phone, wallet, and water bottle were locked inside the car. Her car key was found hidden behind a tire. This wasn’t necessarily unusual—she wouldn’t need her phone on a short familiar route, and the only thing you can do with a car key in the forest is lose it. There was no immediate sign of foul play; Konkel took a lie-detector test and passed.

Amanda Eller speaks at a press conference after her rescue (The Maui News/AP)

According to the federal National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), Hawaii ranks eighth in the United States in number of missing persons. (Alaska is far and away number one.) Whereas in most of the United States the county sheriff is in charge of search and rescue, in Hawaii the sheriff division of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety acts more like a state police. On Maui, the county fire department is in charge of search and rescue. The Maui police department and the Maui County Department of Fire and Public Safety were joined by dog teams from the volunteer organization Maui Search and Rescue. In a matter of hours there were helicopters, drones, dogs, and trained boots on the ground. Dozens of volunteers showed up to help scour the trails.

“We would take anybody who could walk,” says Sarah Haynes, a friend who was deputized into helping organize the search and taking the role of family spokesperson while Eller’s parents, John and Julie, were unreachable for the first two days while on a diving trip.   

At first all those searchers were organized under the direction of Maui Fire, who are well versed in incident command. But on May 11, mandated by a 72-hour limit on rescue-personnel efforts, Maui Fire had to pull the plug on the official search. As of Sunday, May 12, the volunteers were on their own, an army without an officer. That’s when arborist Chris Berquist, 33, and Javier Cantellops, 37, an ex-Army Special Forces Airborne Ranger, scuba instructor, and free diver who’d taught scuba to Eller, stepped in.   

I’ve studied myriad missing-person searches while researching my forthcoming book, The Cold Vanish (Grand Central Publishing, 2020). Searches are like snowflakes in that no two are alike, but the hunt for Amanda Eller was special—only in part because she survived.

In most cases, after the official search is called off and the incident command goes home, the effort is left to family, friends, and sometimes a handful of locals who want to help. The lost person is at the mercy of familial and demographic privilege; in short, who looks for you when the pros go home is a crapshoot. Some searches get a figurative shot of vitamin B when an incident-command expert steps in to run an intensive two- or three-day ad hoc search. The Jon Francis Foundation, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that helps families of persons missing in the wild, will sometimes organize a skilled search of seven to ten days. Neal Keller, father of runner Joe Keller, who disappeared in the San Luis Valley of Colorado in 2015, would fly out from his home in Tennessee to take lonely hikes and horseback rides in the mountains until Joe’s body was found in 2016. Professional adventurer Roman Dial utilized his skillset to search for his son Cody, who vanished in 2014 in the Costa Rican jungle; Cody’s body was found two years later. Randy Gray, a surfer whose son Jacob went missing on his bicycle in Washington’s Olympic National Park in 2017, left his contracting job to turn over every rock in the Sol Duc River looking for his son.

But these are exceptions, not the rule. And what made the search for Eller especially unique was the army of fit, motivated islanders and the sacrifices made by Cantellops and Berquist, who didn’t even know Eller when she vanished. “We need people who are comfortable being outside six to eight hours a day,” Berquist told Maui Now from the operations yurt that was erected on site. There were 60 to 150 searchers there every day for two solid weeks. And the spirit was such that they would have stayed longer.

At first, after Maui Fire packed up, things were as DIY as homemade soap. But “Chris showed up and the next thing you know he’s on the other side of the table,” Haynes says of Berquist. “It quickly exploded and we got a small team of people together who then had hundreds of people under them.”

Soon the camp looked like an aid station at an ultramarathon—tables lined with energy drinks and piled with nutrition bars and donated sandwiches from local restaurants. A generator hummed behind the yurt. People shuttled in the most precious commodity for tropical emergency like this: ice, to keep searchers cool in the humid 90-degree heat. FAA-certified drone pilots flew cameras over the forest canopy. Experienced hikers and fast packers were able to cross off chunks of map. Rappellers spidered down cliffs; free divers checked ponds and pools. Hunters even killed boars and examined their intestines. Maui Search and Rescue ran dog teams. A GoFundMe site raised more than $70,000 to help offset private helicopter costs, which can run over $1,000 an hour. And Berquist is quick to point out that members of Maui Fire were still assisting behind the scenes even after they had to officially step down.

Who keeps track of all that activity, all that searching? Berquist and Cantellops started with a flip phone and a legal pad. With the help of Haynes and Elena Pray, 29, a rappelling guide for Rappel Maui, they began by handing out paper “pirate maps”—X marks the spot, with a hairball problem of solving for X. All volunteers had to be checked in, accounted for, and checked out. Their routes and notes had to be logged and added to the map. When needed, Pray would be called to rappel into an area. “One afternoon we assisted a group of searchers out of a deep gulch using technical rope gear just minutes shy of darkness,” she told me. One volunteer, Stephie Garrett, went from yurt ops to being a search-team leader. A Swiss tourist named Susann Schuh spent her vacation organizing data for stacked 12-hour days.

Gradually computers were plugged in and the team utilized apps that allowed coordinators to color in specific areas that had been scoured, aided by the tech expertise of Eller’s father, John, an executive in telematics, the intersection of communications and information technology. Troy Helmer, a local hunter, scouted the topography and consulted on the battle plan. “Troy knows that area better than anyone in Maui,” Cantellops told me.

Still, for two weeks the searchers found nothing. Surveillance cameras at a grocery store in Haiku showed Eller shopping the morning of May 8. A time stamp on a package placed her at the post office. Police reviewed video footage from doorbell security cameras on the road from Haiku to Makawao to see if she had been abducted or followed. “She was alone in the car and having a normal day,” Haynes says, “so we felt strongly that she took herself to the forest in unsuspicious circumstances.” Hikers reported having seen Eller—they chatted briefly and she pet their dog.

Still, it was hard to not think of foul play. When Occam’s razor doesn’t prove out quickly, the void left by a vanished person is quickly filled with speculation. Armchair investigators on Facebook and Websleuths figured that if she hadn’t fallen down a lava tube or been eaten by wild pigs, she’d surely been abducted. The boyfriend must have offed her, they theorized, and cheated on the polygraph. Or it could have been an ex. A jealous coworker. She probably stumbled across one of many illegal marijuana operations. Maybe there was a serial killer on the loose.

And out came the psychics. The trail of any missing person in the wild is paved with psychics. Most of them saw her dead. They saw men with tattoos. They saw her tied up and being thrown off a cliff.   

Eller’s case reminded me of Amy Bechtel’s disappearance in the Wind River Range of Wyoming in 1997. Both women were runners. Both left valuables in their white Toyotas at a place where they presumably parked to run. Both had partners who were suspected of foul play, and tip lines flooded by psychics. As with Bechtel, whose disappearance has never been solved, chances of Eller being found alive were growing increasingly grim.

As all these theories and leads swirled around him, Berquist kept disciplined. He was so dedicated to the search that his employer—a landscaping company—fired him. That didn’t deter him from showing up to look for Eller day after day. “We are nowhere close to stopping by any means,” he told Maui Now. “We have so much more that we can do out here, we’re gonna continue to push it.”

Lost persons, mainly deceased, are often found within an original search area. In this case, the computer mapping allowed searchers to see that they’d fairly saturated the original 1.5-mile radius. On the afternoon of Friday, May 24, Berquist realized he needed to plan for the Memorial Day weekend, when many more volunteers would show up to search. He thought they might need to move the yurt to another location, to push past the radius they’d been focusing on for the past two weeks. He, Cantellops, and Helmer climbed into pilot Pete Vorhes’s yellow Hughes 369D for a reconnaissance flight.

Rescuers show some of the technology used to find Amanda Eller (Bryan Berkowitz/AP)

This was the breakthrough. “I just felt that she was alive, man,” Cantellops would tell The Today Show the following Monday. “If we haven’t found her and we haven’t smelled her, that’s because she’s on the move, she’s moving out and she’s way farther out than we think she is.”

With only 15 minutes of fuel remaining, the men on the helicopter prepared to turn around. They were now outside the boundary of Makawao Forest Reserve, about seven miles from where Eller’s car had been found. That’s when they saw Eller on the riverbank, between two waterfalls, waving furiously.

Overnight, the story of Eller’s ordeal would erupt in newspapers and on morning shows. She could see and hear helicopters, she recalled, but they never saw her. Day three is when she went from panicked, lost-person mode into survival mode, searching for clean water and foraging for food. She fell 20 feet off a cliff, breaking her leg and tearing the meniscus in her knee. She was reduced to crawling. It rained, and her running shoes got swept away in a flash flood. Temperatures at night dipped to near 60, potentially hypothermic conditions when it’s wet. She had nothing but her yoga pants and a tank top. To keep warm, she covered herself with ferns, leaves, and forest duff. She slept in a boar’s nest.

She ate plants she didn’t know, some strawberries, and guava. For protein she swallowed an occasional moth. Maui waterfalls looks fresh on postcards but can contain Leptospira, a genus of bacteria that causes a whole buffet of problems including meningitis, kidney failure, and death. But to not drink meant certain death.

Eller lost 20 pounds in those 17 days. In addition to her broken leg, she had a severe skin infection from sunburn. But thanks to the determination of friends and strangers, she is expected to make a full recovery.

On Sunday, May 26, not 48 hours after Eller was found, I got a text from Javier Cantellops. He couldn’t talk, he said; they were getting in a helicopter to look for another missing person. As with Eller, local authorities had searched for three days for Noah Mina, after he disappeared on May 20 from the Kapilau Ridge Trail. But because the terrain was so technical, Mina’s father, Vincent, issued a statement advising against ordinary volunteers trying to find him.  

Searchers did find Mina’s flip-flops. But, Cantellops told me, “That’s not unusual. A lot of locals here hike barefoot.”  

I caught up with Cantellops on Tuesday morning, as he and Berquist were gearing up to search. Elena Pray was already in the helicopter. “This is a totally technical search,” he said. “Helicopters with FLIR, drones. It’s like Mina’s dad said: No boots on the ground.”

“This is not a place where people go,” he continued. “Sheer 2,400-foot faces. This is the most primal part of Maui. You’ve seen the mountains in maybe North Carolina or Georgia—smooth, round? This isn’t like that. This is Afghanistan, man.”

But with the help of technology, the efforts of Berquist, Cantellops, and Pray paid off. This time, however, the ending was not a happy one. “In the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 29,” read a family statement issued on the public Facebook page Bring Kekai Home, “a crew of searchers aboard a helicopter spotted the body of missing hiker Noah ‘Kekai’ Mina. Mina was found about 300 feet below a fall line in the summit region of Mauna Kahalawai. Recovery efforts are currently underway.”