A former Kamloops detective got excited about a possible break in the murder of Colleen Rae MacMillen, 16, when a U.S. man confessed to killing her.
MacMillen’s body had been found on a logging road about 25 kilometres south of 100 Mile House about a month after the she went missing in 1974.
But the man changed the details of how the murder was carried out, and police later concluded it was a bogus confession, said Ken Leibel.
The suspect, Edwin Henry Foster, 19, made the confession while serving an eight-year sentence for a gas station robbery. He hanged himself in a Washington state prison in 1976.
The prospect of resolution fizzled into yet another frustrating dead end in the unsolved murder of Colleen MacMillen.
Her brutal death is just one of a grim series of disappearances and murders of women in northern B.C. that have haunted Leibel and other detectives over the years.
Leibel said he got excited again when he began investigating another likely suspect, who lived outside of 100 Mile House in the 1970s.
“Somebody came to the detachment and said a man had tried to abduct them and they took down the licence plate,” Leibel recalls today.
Police ran the plate and saw that the man, Jerry Baker, had a history of sex offences, had done time in prison and had returned to the Williams Lake area around the time MacMillen was killed — the teenager was last seen hitchhiking to a girlfriend’s house about six kilometres away in Lac la Hache.
At the time, Leibel felt the man could have been responsible for other murders as well. His name had surfaced in several other investigations, including the murders of Pamela Darlington in Kamloops in 1973 and Gail Ann Weys in Clearwater in 1974.
He tried questioning Baker about MacMillen’s murder, “but he was extremely nervous and denied it.”
Fifteen years later, Baker became the prime suspect for the murder of a young girl named Norma Tashoots, 17, whose body was found on July 10, 1989 in a wooded area near 100 Mile House. She had been shot.
She was last seen about a month earlier being dropped off near 100 Mile House while hitchhiking to Vancouver.
A local resident suggested Baker was responsible for the Tashoots murder.
Baker, who had reported his Ruger handgun stolen to police the day after Tashoots was last seen, was interviewed and denied being involved. The investigation eventually dead-ended.
But it was re-opened in 2001 after a complete file review and a decision to try an undercover operation.
Baker eventually confessed to murdering Tashoots to an undercover officer and confided where he had disposed of the murder weapon — the gun he had reported missing — which was recovered. He was convicted in 2003 of the murder.
“Is he responsible for four or five [murders] or one? I don’t know,” Leibel said of Baker.
He said police considered the possibility of a serial killer being involved in the growing number of unsolved murders that occurred along highways in B.C.’s Interior.
“If you’ve got somebody driving, you could have one guy,” Leibel said. “You can cover a lot of ground in a day.”
‘It could be anyone’
There has been criticism levelled at police and RCMP over the years for failing to solve the majority of the highway homicide cases including those of the 18 girls and women on the Highway of Tears victims’ list.
Leibel said the cases were especially difficult to investigate because they seemed to involve a killer who was a complete stranger to the murder victims, many of whom were teenage girls trying to hitch a ride.
“It could be anyone,” he said of trying to find a suspect. “It’s different than when you’re investigating a jealous husband or boyfriend.”
There has also been criticism from native communities that police didn’t properly handle cases involving some of the aboriginal victims.
But Leibel said police treat every murder the same, regardless of the race, colour or socio-economic background of the victim.
“I always looked at the victim the same: You’re my client and I’m going to get some justice for you,” Leibel said. “You investigate it as if they were your own brother, sister or parent.”
He retired as a Mountie in 1992 and currently works on contract with the RCMP, interviewing people who apply to become Mounties. Even today, he still thinks about the unsolved murder of MacMillen.
“The odd time I’ll be walking with my morning coffee and I’ll think: Could I have done something different?” Leibel, now 58, recalled.
“I’m a proud sucker,” he said, adding he solved dozens of murders over his 21-year career. Those were the days when a murder file was kept in boxes, before computers and modern forensic science, including DNA testing.
“Overall, I had a pretty good success rate but there were ones that got away [with murder].”
Leibel says he still has his notebooks from those days, which he keeps in his basement, hoping one day to get a phone call, asking him to to testify about the cold case if it gets solved and goes to trial.
“One day, you hope for the call,” he said.
Keith Hildebrand, the commander of the Quesnel detachment until he retired last year, also finds it frustrating that he could never find the solution to the murder of Deena Braem, 16, who was last seen alive hitchhiking on Sept. 25, 1999. Her body was recovered three months later, on Dec. 10, northwest of Quesnel near Pinnacles Provincial Park.
Hildebrand said the unsolved murder file was already gathering dust when he arrived as detachment commander. He oversaw the Braem investigation and brought in detectives with the Surrey-based Integrated Homicide Investigation Team. They thoroughly went through the file and tried to find any tips that were not probed.
“We had some good leads but they ended in another dead end,” explained the 58-year-old retired officer, who now runs the community policing office in Quesnel.
“They are investigating tips,” he added about the state of the current investigation.
Hildebrand estimated that over the years, more than $1 million has been spent investigating Braem’s murder.
It was frustrating for him, when he retired in 2008, that the case remained unsolved.
“It bugs me the most of all my  years of service. It was like a loose end you leave behind,” Hildebrand said.
“Usually, when I took on a file, it had a good result to it,” he added.
“It was a frustrating investigation for everybody, including her parents,” he recalls. “It still bothers me.”
Asked if he believes a serial killer is operating along the highways of B.C.’s Interior, Hildebrand said he is uncertain.
“The evidence is that there is something,” he said. “Something unusual.”
‘They never leave you’
Retired Mountie Fred Bodnaruk, who was a staff-sergeant when he headed the investigations into the murders of Colleen MacMillan and Pamela Darlington in the early 1970s, admitted that even though he retired in 1977, he still thinks about the cases.
“They never leave you,” he said. “You dream about them, especially the ones you don’t solve.”
He always thought a serial killer could have been responsible for several “highway murders,” as they were called then.
At one time, Bodnaruk suspected U.S. serial killer Ted Bundy was responsible for Darlington’s murder.
The nude body of the 19-year-old was found at the edge of the Thompson River in 1973 with bite marks on her body — a Bundy trademark in some U.S. killings. But investigators concluded that although Bundy had been known to visit Canada, there was no evidence he was in the area at the time.
Bundy, a former Seattle resident, was caught and sentenced to death in Florida for three murders. Just before Bundy was executed in 1989, he confessed to committing more than 20 murders but investigators felt he was responsible for many more.
“Bundy didn’t confess anything until the end,” Bodnaruk said. “I felt police here should have gone down to talk to Bundy.”
Bodnaruk also compared notes “all the time” with Seattle detectives investigating the serial murder case known as the Green River killer. The man eventually caught, Gary Ridgway, pleaded guilty in 2003 to killing 48 women.
Now 78, Bodnaruk recently watched a TV documentary about a man named Wayne Clifford Boden and felt he might be a suspect. Boden was a travelling salesman who killed three women in Montreal before moving to Calgary, where he killed again and got caught in 1972.
He was known as the Vampire Killer because he left bite marks on all his victims, similar to Darlington.
The TV documentary detailed how Boden travelled through Kamloops to Vancouver.
Boden, however, was arrested in Calgary in 1972, convicted of four murders and died in prison in 2006.
Surrey private investigator Ray Michalko has been investigating the Highway of Tears cases on his own time since 2006.
“I was watching the news about the second anniversary of Tamara Chipman going missing [in 2005] and I complained to my wife that nobody seemed to be doing anything, and she said ‘You’re a PI, why don’t you do something’,” he recalled.
He started investigating the initial eight mysterious disappearances and murders along Highway 16. He estimates he spends up to 40 hours a month pursuing tips he receives by e-mail or on his toll-free line, which he publicizes using letters and posters, including some posted in federal prisons and provincial jails in B.C.
He said when he receives a paying job in the north, he stays a few days longer to do follow-up on the Highway of Tears tips.
Michalko, 62, a former North Vancouver Mountie, said there is no shortage of theories and rumours about who is behind the murders and disappearances.
Some say it’s a cop or a long-haul trucker preying on young girls walking along the highway alone, he said.
“I have seen no evidence of that,” Michalko said of the rumours. “There’s a million places to pull off and go undetected, but not in a tractor-trailer.”
One name popping up
He’s also been told that the girls were abducted and used in some sort of sex trafficking ring. Again, he discounts that theory because he has received no solid tips of it happening.
He initially believed there was a serial killer cruising the highway “but I don’t believe that now. But until you catch somebody, you don’t know.”
Despite “one name that keeps popping up” — he wouldn’t reveal the man’s name, other than to say he is linked to a community close to Prince George — there is little to link the unsolved cases together, other than the fact the girls and young women were last seen on the highway, many of them hitchhiking.
He now believes the murders were likely crimes of opportunity committed by various men living in the local communities where the tragedies took place or passing through those communities.
“That’s scarier than having a serial killer,” Michalko explained, adding it means more than a dozen men got away with murder and are still walking free.
60 people assigned
Currently there are 60 people, including retired homicide detectives working on contract, assigned to the Project E-Pana investigation, which is conducting homicide probes of 18 female victims along Interior highways.
Investigators descended last August on a piece of property in the Isle Pierre district west of Prince George looking for evidence related to the 2002 disappearance of Nicole Hoar, 25, who was from Red Deer and working as a tree planter when she was last seen hitchhiking near a gas station west of Prince George.
At the time of Hoar’s disappearance on June 21, 2002, the property searched by police was owned by Leland Switzer, a welder who told police in 2004 that the night Hoar disappeared he and a friend stopped and urinated near the Mohawk gas station — Hoar’s vanishing point.
Switzer told police about this because he said he didn’t know if police used a “fine tooth comb” to search the scene.
During his police statement, which was obtained by Global TV and provided to The Sun, Switzer provided the name of a friend and neighbour whom Switzer claimed had broken down crying when Switzer asked if he was responsible for all the “girls” going missing along Highway 16.
“My daughter heard a gun shot that night,” Switzer added. “When Nicole Hoar went missing, right?”
He said his wife and daughter were home that night but Switzer said he was at a dance and maintained 33 people saw him there.
Two days after Hoar’s disappearance, Switzer fatally shot and killed his older brother, Irvin Switzer, at his parents’ property, near his own home. He now is serving life for that murder.
Police confirmed last week that investigators seized a vehicle and other exhibits during the search related to Hoar. The exhibits now are being tested in the RCMP forensics lab.
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