VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The highway of tears
Seven young women murdered or missing on a lonely stretch of road
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Most people are busy shopping and preparing for Christmas, but a father in northwestern B.C. has been searching lonely stretches of highway and logging roads trying to find his missing daughter.
CREDIT: Mikael Kjellstrom, Calgary Herald Files
Tamara Chipman, 22, shown with her son Jaden, was last seen hitchhiking Sept. 21 along Highway 16 outside of Prince Rupert, presumably heading to her home in Terrace.
"We've pretty well covered every side road between Terrace and [Prince] Rupert," says Tom Chipman, sitting with his wife Christine in the Kitsumkalum Firehall, headquarters for the daily ground search for Tamara Chipman, a pretty 22-year-old with a lovely smile.
"We're up at six every morning and we quit at dusk. I know everybody's getting tired. I don't know how long we can carry on. I guess until the snow comes and the weather shuts us down."
It's a Friday night and they are tired after walking about 15 kilometres, searching for a shred of evidence of Tamara -- a piece of clothing, jewelry, an earring.
They searched a logging road on Mount Hayes, outside Prince Rupert, going as far up as they could before the road got too icy, forcing the search party to turn back.
About a dozen fishermen and volunteer firefighters join in the search each day. The searchers this day are heaping salmon and mashed potatoes on paper plates -- a dinner prepared by volunteers.
Tom Chipman has also walked along Highway 16, which runs between Prince Rupert and Terrace, looking in culverts for his daughter.
"It's scary looking into a culvert," says Chipman, who makes his living as a gillnet fisherman. "It's not a nice thing to go through.
"Every day we don't find a body is a good day."
Chipman searched for his daughter -- his only child -- six days straight last week. A heavy snowfall last Sunday closed the road to Prince Rupert and curtailed search efforts temporarily. He resumed the search this week.
His daughter was last seen Sept. 21 hitchhiking outside Prince Rupert, heading toward her home in Terrace, but she never showed up. She has a two-year-old son, Jaden, who is being cared for by the child's father, Rob Parker, who was the last to hear from her.
Since then, she hasn't paid the rent on her apartment. She hasn't touched her bank account and her credit card remains unused.
Tamara wasn't reported missing for almost three weeks, mainly because her relatives thought she might be avoiding the law.
She was facing three separate assault charges, one that included charges of forcible entry and assault with a weapon. Since she disappeared three warrants have been issued for her arrest for failing to show up in court.
Her father returned to Terrace from fishing the first week of November, expecting to find a phone message from his daughter, who was close to her dad. "It's definitely out of character for her," he said of her not calling.
During the last few weeks, rumours swirled about the case in the community -- rumours that sent Tom Chipman on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
A court worker suggested Tamara had shown up in court after she was reported missing and was acquitted of one of the charges she faced.
"I got all excited but it was a mixup in dates -- it was Aug. 30, not Nov. 30, that she had been in court," Chipman explains.
There were also rumours that her body had been found. "We had to have the police go on the radio and put an end to these rumours."
Tom's sister, Lorna Brown, who has also been searching the bush with her husband Frank, has plastered missing posters with Tamara's photo all over Terrace. Other relatives have put up posters in Vancouver and Campbell River.
The father recalls his daughter, since she was a baby, spent a lot of time on his fishing boat. He remembers her big smile and sassy nature.
"She was pretty spunky," Chipman says. "She took judo lessons for years, so she knew how to look after herself pretty good."
More recently, Tamara liked spending time on her former boyfriend's boat. She liked water-skiing. And she loved her little boy.
Tamara isn't the first young woman to go missing along Highway 16.
RCMP are investigating seven cases of teen girls and young women who vanished or were murdered along the "highway of tears," as it's often called.
"Something's going on," said Arlene Roberts, a volunteer firefighter who has been involved in the search. "It's getting spooky. It's scary."
She feels some of the disappearances could be connected. She is leaning toward the theory that a serial killer might be preying on young women along the highway. Six of the seven who went missing were native Indian. Three bodies have been found. All the cases remain unsolved.
Roberts, who lives on Highway 16 just west of Terrace, often sees people hitchhiking along the highway.
"It's male and female, young and old. But it's only the young women who are going missing."
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According to Amnesty International Canada, Tamara's disappearance brings to 33 the number of missing or murdered women along the highway -- all but one were aboriginal.
Other than the seven unsolved cases that RCMP investigators say they are actively investigating along Highway 16 (see map), The Vancouver Sun was only able to find two other murders of young women that remain unsolved in the area.
Monica Ignas, 15, of Thornhill, just west of Terrace, went missing Dec. 13, 1974. Her partially nude body was found in a gravel pit on April 6, 1975, about six kilometres from Terrace. She had been strangled.
Alberta Williams, 24, left Popeye's Pub about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 27, 1989 with her uncle and an unknown male. Her body was found by hikers a month later, Sept. 16, 37 kilometres east of town. Cause of death was not released.
One area resident, Janet Hultkrans, recalls that Ignas used to hitchhike from Terrace to her home just past Thornhill, on the outskirts of town.
"Maybe she was the first [to disappear]," she says. "She wasn't much older than my kids and I had picked her up once and driven her to school, so she is forever in my memory. She was a nice girl and doesn't deserve to be forgotten."
Shelby Raymond, an Amnesty International representative in Terrace who works at Northwest Community College, said she couldn't provide an entire list of names of the 33 women that Amnesty claims are missing or murdered.
"It's what's called a soft statistic," she said, using her fingers to make quotation marks around the word soft. "Much of it was anecdotal, gathered during the Stolen Sisters report."
In October 2004, Amnesty released its report Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada, which cited a shocking 1996 federal government statistic that native women between 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die as the result of violence than other women in the same age group.
The report also included a figure gathered by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), which estimates that more than 500 native women may have been murdered or gone missing over a 20-year period prior to 2004 -- again, the figure is based on anecdotal evidence.
NWAC says it is difficult to do a statistical analysis of violence involving native women because some police reports did not record whether the victim was a native woman.
The Amnesty International report also cited nine cases of violence against native woman, including the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old Cree student from northern Manitoba who dreamed of becoming a teacher but was abducted by four men and killed on Nov. 12, 1971.
It took more than 15 years to bring one of the four men to justice. A judicial inquiry that followed found the police investigation was sloppy and racially biased.
The inquiry, for example, found that police had long been aware of white men sexually preying on native women and girls in the town of The Pas but "did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance."
Warren Goulding in his 2001 book, Just Another Indian: A Serial Killer and Canada's Indifference, concluded that some lives seem to be worth more than others.
Quoted in the book is Justine English, whose sister Mary Jane Serlion was killed in 1981 in Lethbridge by Saskatoon serial killer John Martin Crawford. "It seems that any time a native is murdered, it isn't a major case. It's just another dead Indian," English said.
Crawford was convicted in 1996 of killing three native women and was suspected in the death of at least one and possibly other native women whose murders remain unsolved.
Goulding questions why Crawford's trial received scant attention from the national media, noting it took place at almost the same time as the trial of Paul Bernardo, which transfixed the national media. Bernardo was convicted of killing two teenage white girls, who were innocent, girl-next-door types the media could identify with, Goulding suggests in his book.
"The Canadian public's awareness of this case is virtually non-existent, even in Saskatoon where the crimes occurred," Goulding wrote of Crawford's serial killing spree.
Melissa Munn, who teaches criminology at Northwest Community College in Terrace and University of Ottawa, said she has looked closely at the Highway 16 cases and remains uncertain whether a serial killer is responsible.
"If it's one person, that's one thing, but if it's multiple people -- seven or eight killers -- that's much more scary to me," she says. "I think these cases speak to the vulnerability of first nations girls."
She said hitchhiking is a risky behaviour, but it's also a way of life for many poor native women living in remote communities who can't afford a vehicle or bus fare to town.
She said a full list of missing and murdered women in B.C. is contained on a website (missingnativewomen.ca).
Christine Welsh, who teaches women's studies at the University of Victoria, is making a National Film Board documentary that will focus, in part, on the young women who have gone missing along Highway 16.
"It's extremely disturbing," she says of the mounting number.
She was in Terrace last Sept. 17 to document an event called Take Back the Highway, which involved about 70 people -- native and non-native -- marching along the highway to draw attention to the missing women.
"What I'm interested in is the violence against women in this country and I see what's happening on the highway as a manifestation of that," says Welsh, a Metis living on Saltspring Island.
"It's the everyday systemic violence."
The latest disappearance along the highway happened four days after the Take Back the Highway march, she points out.
"It's a tragic irony," she adds. "I've travelled that highway a lot and it's a lonely stretch of road."
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Highway 16 West between Prince Rupert and Prince George is indeed a lonely stretch of road, especially at this time a year.
It is also exceptionally beautiful in places during daylight hours when the sun comes out and rays of light coming through the clouds play on the frozen lakes, creeks and vistas of mountains that disappear in the clouds.
Sometimes at sunrise and sunset, the snow on the mountain peaks glows neon pink.
On some stretches there is nothing but wilderness for miles, interrupted by the occasional ranch house with smoke trailing from the chimney.
There are signs warning: "Caution: Moose Next 20 km." While travelling through the towns along the way -- Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake, Burns Lake, Houston, Telkwa and Smithers -- the car radio announces meetings of the local knitting circle and the snowmobile club.
There are many sideroads off the highway, leading to remote logging sites, lakes and other rural recreational spots. It's the kind of sparsely-populated rural countryside that attracts tourists and sports fishermen from Europe and the U.S., including late-night talk show host David Letterman.
"David Letterman bought a fishing licence here one day," said Gordon Elmore, owner of the Trout Creek General Store, located on Highway 16 about 25 kilometres west of Smithers. He pulls out a copy of the licence, which was purchased last month. "We hear he bought property around here."
The store owner says the disappearances along the highway haven't made him feel nervous or threatened.
"I don't think the average population feels threatened," says Elmore, who has lived in the area for 41 years.
"The ones who should feel threatened are the ones who hitchhike."
Driving west, just past New Hazelton at the small town of Kitseguecla, Shirley Milton and Ron Sampson are standing at the side of the highway in 10-below weather, trying to hitch a ride to Terrace.
"Nervous? Yes. I won't hitchhike alone," says Milton, 47, when asked about the recent disappearance of Chipman.
"I wouldn't just jump in with anybody. It would have to be somebody I know. I look at the driver before I get in."
She mentions a man she saw in a pub in nearby New Hazelton who was exhibiting suspicious behaviour.
She phoned the police about him, thinking he might be dangerous. That's the thing about unsolved cases -- everybody seems suspicious until the killer or killers are caught and brought to justice.
Certainly the latest disappearance has renewed the grief of the families of the other girls and young women who were Highway 16 victims.
"Every time we hear of someone else missing, it just brings us so much sorrow because we know what the families are going through," said Matilda Wilson of Smithers, whose 15-year-old daughter Ramona went missing 10 years ago.
She doesn't believe her daughter's murder is linked to the disappearance or deaths of other young women.
Police have repeatedly stated that while they cannot rule out the possibility of a serial killer operating along Highway 16, there is no evidence to suggest a link between the murders and mysterious disappearances.
Retired RCMP officer Fred Maile, who helped crack the Clifford Olson serial killer case in B.C. by getting Olson to confess to 11 murders, is convinced a serial killer is working along Highway 16.
"I am 100-per-cent certain that there's a serial killer there," he said in an interview this week. "I went up there twice to look at the cases of Delphine Nikal and Ramona Wilson. We felt the same individual had grabbed them."
He was asked by the Calgary-based Missing Children Society to investigate the cases and found too many similarities.
"They were both native, both about the same age and they were hitchhiking in opposite directions," Maile recalls. "The whole situation smacks of someone driving that highway and living there."
The unusual thing about serial killers, he said, is that they can sometimes go years between murders.
"They look for an opportunity," he explains. "There's usually not two or three individuals in the same area that do this."
He also points out that a serial killer can appear normal and go undetected.
"They don't stand out as monsters. They blend in with the rest of us. Look at the Green River killer."
The Green River killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, operated for more than 20 years in the Seattle area before he was caught in 2001, when investigators linked his DNA to four murders. On Nov. 5, 2003, the truck painter pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women between 1982 and 1998.
Highway 16 also runs east to Edmonton, where police believe a serial killer might be connected to the bodies of 12 prostitutes found around that city over the last 16 years.
RCMP have offered a $100,000 reward and released a profile that suggests the killer or killers drive a truck or SUV which is cleaned at unusual hours, may be a hunter, fisherman or camper, is comfortable driving on country roads, and is likely connected to towns south of Edmonton.
Edmonton RCMP have admitted investigators have learned from the mistakes made during the investigation of accused B.C. serial killer Robert (Willy) Pickton, who is charged with killing 27 women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The number of missing women being investigated in that case now stands at 68, plus three unidentified DNA profiles found at the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam.
© The Vancouver Sun 2005
Updated: August 21, 2016