An Oregon inmate who died in 2006 has been confirmed as the killer of a 16-year-old B.C. hitchhiker, and may be responsible for as many as nine other slayings and disappearances along B.C.’s so-called Highway of Tears.
Colleen MacMillen was last seen in August 1974 when she left her Lac La Hache home, south of Prince George, to hitchhike on Highway 97 to a friend’s house nearby. Her body was found off a logging road. Investigators have not revealed the teen's cause of death.
MacMillen's death is one of 18 cases involving women who were killed or disappeared along remote highways in northern and central B.C. between 1969 and 2005. A special RCMP task force has been reviewing the cases, witnesses and evidence including taking advantage of more sophisticated DNA technology.
On Tuesday, RCMP confirmed that DNA evidence has linked MacMillen’s death to Bobby Jack Fowler, a violent criminal who died in an Oregon jail of natural causes in May 2006 at the age of 66.
"We are comforted by the fact that he was in prison when he died and that he can’t ever hurt anyone else," said Shawn MacMillen, Colleen MacMillen's brother, in a short statement on Tuesday. "Colleen was a lovely, sweet, innocent 16-year-old kid, and there are still not words in the world to express how terribly she was wronged."
"For those remaining families whose daughters and sisters were also victims, we hope this means they may yet have their own answers."
At one time, Fowler worked for Happy’s Roofing in Prince George. Investigators are looking for people who may have worked or socialized with him in B.C. between the '70s and the '90s. They released photos and video of him through the years in the hope of jogging people’s memories.
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Fowler is an “incredibly strong suspect” in the slayings of Pamela Darlington in 1973 and Gale Weys in 1974, but there have been no DNA matches, said RCMP Deputy Commissioner Craig Callens. The convict is also a person of interest in seven other remaining Highway of Tears cases, he said.
It’s also possible that Fowler committed other violent assaults that have not been reported to police, said RCMP.
COULD BE CHARMING
An alcoholic and a speed and meth addict, Fowler had a violent personality that could change abruptly, including turning on the charm when necessary, revealed Callens.
Fowler believed that women who hitchhiked and frequented bars had a desire to be sexually assaulted, said Callens.
Fowler has no criminal history in Canada, but an extensive record in several U.S. states including convictions for attempted murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, sexual assault, arson and kidnapping.
RCMP don’t believe a single serial killer is responsible for all of the Highway of Tears cases. During a media briefing, Staff Sgt. Wayne Clary said investigators have three or four strong suspects after identifying 1,413 persons of interest, reported CBC News.
The Highway of Tears originally referred to cases along a 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, but the RCMP Project E-PANA probe also includes cases on Highways 5 and 97 in the B.C. Interior.
While the Project E-PANA is officially looking into 18 cases, other groups say as many as 43 women have been missing or killed along those highways.