The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have linked the DNA of a deceased American convict who had a history of violent offences against women to at least one victim from British Columbia’s notorious Highway of Tears.
RCMP officials with Project E-PANA announced the development at a press conference in Surrey, British Columbia, on September 25. Investigators said they linked the DNA of Oregon inmate Bobby Jack Fowler, 68, to Colleen MacMillen, 16, who was killed in 1974 after attempting to hitchhike from her home in Lac La Hache to a friend’s house.
Fowler was given a 16-year prison sentence in 1995 for kidnapping, attempted rape and assault in Oregon. He died of lung cancer in Snake River prison, Oregon, in 2006. At the time of his death he was also a suspect in the murders of four teenage girls that state.
The Highway of Tears investigation into female disappearances along the stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert began in 2005, when the RCMP looked into the homicides of Roxanne Thiara, Alishia Germaine and Ramona Wilson. The case has since grown to 13 homicides and five missing persons, most of them women of aboriginal descent. The killings are marked by their proximity to Highways 5, 96 and 16 between the two cities, and the cases form part of the larger controversy and tragedy over Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Fowler was identified after a DNA sample originally obtained from MacMillen's body was sent to Interpol and matched him. It is the oldest DNA match in Interpol history, police noted, adding that it left no question into who had killed the girl.
"Fowler is responsible for 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen's murder," Inspector Gary Shinkaruk said.
Police also consider Fowler a suspect in the deaths of Gayle Weys, who was found murdered in Clearwater, B.C., in 1974 and Pam Darlington, whose body was found by a Kamloops riverbank in 1973.
Police didn't specify what linked the killings but did say that Fowler owned a car that consistently matched the description of one sighted in all three killings.
“We're open to the possibility that Fowler committed other violent offences against women that weren't reported,” officers said.
Police have eliminated Fowler from eight Highway of Tears files, and there are strong suspects for at least four other victims, the officers said. Authorities don't believe that one person is responsible for all 18 killings, said RCMP Staff Sergeant Wayne Clary said.
Fowler was a transient living in Prince George, working as a roofer and doing odd jobs, when MacMillen died. Despite an exhaustive investigation, police can't say what brought him there or where else he may have traveled in the province. Despite having a record of violent sexual assaults against women in the U.S. Fowler didn't draw any police attention while he was in British Columbia, they said.
The development is bittersweet, said Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
“It's a relief that there is now closure for some families, but it's unfortunate that hasn't been the same kind of development for the aboriginal women who are among the missing,” Phillip said.
The fact that there has been no significant development with identifying a suspect in the aboriginal cases frustrates Phillip, who said he's going to raise it. “That's a very significant point, and I expect the RCMP to respond,” he said.