I was beginning to wonder if the hitch-hiker in the back seat was a serial killer.

To be honest, a fairly standard part of any woman's day when in an enclosed space with a strange man is asking yourself whether or not they're a serial killer, but in this case, I had good reason to wonder.

You see, we were travelling along Highway 16, a remote road in British Columbia, some 800km north of Vancouver. This stretch of highway is also known as The Highway of Tears, a name it has earned over the last four decades, due to the high number of women who have been murdered or gone missing along it.

There was a cold, lonely beauty to this part of BC. Blue-grey mountains crowded the road, while the bare bones of winter trees flanked us on either side. There were signs of avalanches everywhere. I had an overwhelming urge to play the Twin Peaks soundtrack as we drove. 

Small villages – often not much more than a collection of houses with a gas station - were dotted along the highway, sometimes with hundreds of kilometres between them. In those spaces, the forest was so dense that crimes have been committed just steps from the main road, without anyone knowing.

Oh, and there's no mobile phone coverage. 

As if all that wasn't enough to make this place a drawcard for kidnapping and murder, there is also no bus service along this stretch of road, and the area is economically pretty depressed. That means that hitchhiking is a common way to get from one town to another around here. You could hardly ask for a better setup to abduct and murder women. 

The first victim was a 26 year old woman called Gloria Moody, who went missing back in 1969. She was last seen leaving a bar in William's Lake on October 25th. Her naked body was found the next day, 10kms away in the woods, having been sexually assaulted and then beaten to death.

They never found her killer.

Since then, the disappearances and murders have continued over the years; the official count is nineteen murdered or missing women and girls, ranging from 14 years old to 37. All of them were last seen on or near by the highway. Many of their bodies were recovered close by. Some of their bodies are still missing.

The last official victim is 20 year old Madison Scott. She went missing after a party at Hogsback Lake in 2011. Her truck and her tent were found camped by the lake, but she hasn't been seen since.

So far, the police know of at least one serial killer responsible for the deaths of women along the highway of tears, but that person, US criminal Bobby Jack Fowler, is only suspected of killing between three and ten of the women. Besides, he was in custody from 1995 and couldn't have been responsible for the last six victims.

Nearby, a home grown serial killer named Cody Legebokoff had, by the young age of 21, killed four women, and earned himself the dubious distinction of being Canada's youngest serial killer.  

He was found guilty of one of the Highway murders, but due to his young age, it's unlikely he was responsible for any more.

So, that means there was either at least one other serial killer at work here, or an unreasonably high number of one-off murders and abductions.

The entire population of that area is less than 100,000. Now, it's hard to come up with exact serial killer statistics (what with them not exactly filling in census forms, and all) , but the FBI's estimate is that in the US there is between one and two serial killers per million people. Having at least three serial killers for a population of only 100,000 is ridiculously high.

Is this simply an area that grows serial killers? Or do they come here because, as Sherlock Homes once put it, it is easier to do evil where no one can see you?

Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.

The RCMP have come under fire over the killings. No one began looking into connections between the killings until 2005, thirty-four years after the first murder – and only after a white victim went missing. Unfortunately, over half of the victims from The Highway of Tears are First Nations, which many believe contributed to the RCMP's lack of investigative vigour.*

There is, however, some good news. Recent publicity about the Highway of Tears has resulted in the provincial government committing to a bus network that will run along the highway, scheduled to start by the end of 2016. Of course, this was actually suggested back in 2006, but hey, 10 years and several missing women later, it's still better late than never. I guess?

So now, with all of this rattling through my overly-active imagination, I was wondering whether we'd done the right thing by picking up a stranger along such a tragic stretch of road.

We'd met him a few miles earlier when we'd stopped to have lunch. Unfortunately, the only place on the map for miles that looked like a town actually turned out to be just a private lodge. But, hungry and with nowhere else any time soon, we'd headed in, just in case the private lodge happened to also have a public restaurant.  

They didn't. What they did have, however, was the man who I was currently hoping wasn't going to kill us and steal the jeep. He was white, in his late fifties, and pretty nondescript looking. He'd approached us and asked for a ride eight miles up the road to where his truck had broken down.

Now we had gone twelve miles, and there had been no sign of any truck. And, as if to help my paranoia, man was beginning to act very strangely. 

The snow was coming down thickly now, and the visibility was poor as the daylight faded; the road was deserted. I realised how easy it would be for him to kill us here. He could dump our bodies just three metres from the main road and no one would find us until the snow melted, weeks from now. He would be long gone before anyone came looking.

Fortunately, just as all the worst things that could possibly happen started to meander their way through my mind, I saw the snow-covered mound of his truck appear through the gloom. The man clambered out, thanked us and quickly bid us farewell. Turns out he'd been nervous because his truck had broken down in a snow storm in the middle of nowhere. Which... makes sense.

But I was still relieved.

I returned along the Highway of Tears later that year. The snow was gone, and the land had sprung to life, lining the highway with thick, impenetrable forest.

As I drove, I noticed a group of girls on the other side of the road. They were hitchhiking to the nearest town.

*This problem isn't limited to just this stretch of road. Across Canada, over 1,200 First Nations women have been murdered or gone missing in the last thirty years, a rate that is roughly 4.5 times that of all other women in Canada.

For the last six years, there has been an art project in Canada called The Red Dress Project”. Red dresses are hung to symbolise the missing or murdered women. Why red? Because (according to the artist), in First Nations culture, red is the only colour that spirits can see. The dresses symbolise calling back the spirits of these missing women, and allowing them a voice, allowing them to be heard once more in Canada.

The current government has opened an inquiry into the high levels of violence against First Nations women in Canada. Unfortunately, it's a government inquiry, so right now they're in the “pre-inquiry design selection phase”. This could take a while.

 

Published by Sarah McLauchlan