Bobby Jack Fowler killed Colleen MacMillen in 1974, but all other victims in the Highway of Tears investigation are still open questions.
Private investigator and former RCMP member Ray Michalko was driving past the sight where Colleen MacMillan's body was found in the 100 Mile House area as the news of Fowler was announced. He found the coincidence eerie, but it reminded him that he was on his way to Prince George to continue work on the many other cases of missing and murdered northern women, and he urged the public to keep their pressure on the police and the unnamed holders of evidence.
"I don't think it looks that good [for the emergence of Fowler closing other cases]," Michalko said. "Yes Fowler was in the North, yes he was a serial killer, but I am not jumping on a bandwagon. You still need proof. The other investigations have to carry on as before, without slowing at all."
Police confirmed they could rule Fowler out of eight cases under the Highway of Tears umbrella, but the rest were still possibly connected to him. Or not.
The transient American was working for a company called Happy's Roofing in Prince George in 1974 and police said Fowler was known to be violent, pick up hitchhikers and would frequently move from area to area. He died in 2006 inside a United States prison where he had been since 1995 on convictions for similar behaviour in Oregon. He is a key suspect in the murders of four young women in that state during the years just before his capture.
UNBC associate professor Jacqueline Holler is a researcher into the dangers and social circumstances of hitchhiking. She, too, cautioned the public about drawing any relief from the closing of one case.
"One thing we're learning from our studies already is, there are lots of bogeymen out there," Holler said. "What we hope to find out in the study is how frequent brushes with violence and fear do happen for hitchhikers."
Michalko was drawing this same conclusion while still with the RCMP.
"In theory, it is not a stretch of the imagination that a serial killer is responsible for some of the Highway of Tears cases, but it is also possible at least in principle that each case has a separate perpetrator," he said. "I spent most of my policing time in northern Manitoba, where there are multiple bad guys, but when I came to northern B.C. I got a shock. There were just so many more bad guys around than I ever experienced before, and I mean people with long criminal records and known histories of violence and dangerous antisocial behaviour."
Michalko was the subject of official derision by Operation E-Pana (the RCMP's name for the Highway of Tears project) investigators in recent years, but a leadership change within the RCMP has changed that, he said. About a month ago the professional threats he said the RCMP was making against him turned into warm invitations to come in, meet, talk, share, get past the previous roadblocks. It was a relief and an inspiration, he said. Now this announcement.
"The police deserve credit for this," he said, of the old DNA from the historic 1974 file to still be available and to be re-tested with newer methods after inconclusive results before. It was that DNA test that drew Fowler into the conclusions for MacMillan's murder. Police on both sides of the border said they had no hint of Fowler being of Canadian criminal interest before that DNA red flag went up. Michalko also had never heard of him, or anyone described like him, in the tips he has received.
"This announcement will give closure to this one family and I hope it will give hope to the other families that their case will also get solved," said Michalko.
"What this shows us is, closure is always a difficult thing," Holler said. "Colleen's family can never see Fowler brought to justice, but it is hopeful news for others. We may see some breaks in these cases and some elements of closure, perhaps even some elements of justice."
While en route to Prince George on Tuesday, Michalko heard from many families he has worked with over the years who are concerned about justice. They worry that the police will be so focused now on a serial killer, and checking out Fowler that they will lessen their attention on cases that don't fit that mode.
"The problem for the police is, they have to keep what they are doing close to their chests," he said. "We really don't know what they are doing and for good reason, so when they have an accomplishment like this it is a good sign, and I hope they have more."
Michalko has his own hotline for Highway of Tears clues. People can call 1-866-962-5585 to provide information.
Holler is collecting information from those who have hitchhiking experiences to share. Anyone with a hitchhiking story, good or bad, can go to the research project's website (http://unbc-hitchhiking-research.com/) to leave a comment, fill out the survey, or set up an interview.
Those wishing to tell the police information large or small can call the E-Pana official tips line: 1-877-543-4822.