09/25/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/24/2012 05:12 EST

Break in B.C. murdered women still leaves many families waiting for answers

SURREY, B.C. - An American man who died in an Oregon prison after a life of violence has been blamed for the death of a 16-year-old girl in northern British Columbia almost 40 years ago, the first major break in a case that began with concern over the so-called "Highway of Tears."

But the discovery of DNA evidence linking suspected serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler to Colleen MacMillen, who died in 1974, brings police only a small step closer to solving the mystery of what happened to 18 women and girls who were murdered or who vanished along British Columbia highways in the past four decades.

"Will we solve the remaining 17? I'm not certain,'' Insp. Gary Shinkaruk told reporters in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday.

The RCMP announced Tuesday that DNA evidence from the MacMillen case produced a match through Interpol, the international police agency, earlier this year, identifying Fowler as her killer.

MacMillen, described as a shy but loving teenager, was among a list of murdered or missing women and girls who became the subject of a massive RCMP investigation launched in 2005, dubbed Project E-Pana.

The investigation was aimed at determining whether one or more serial killers were at work along three highways, including Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears.

Police also consider Fowler a "strong suspect" in the deaths of two other women in the mid-1970s — Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington, both 19 — providing the strongest evidence yet that a serial killer may have been at work in northern and central B.C.

"Until we solve the cases that we're investigating, we cannot say who's responsible or how many people they've killed," Shinkaruk.

"What I can say is that we strongly believe there is not one serial killer responsible for the 18 (women)."

MacMillen was last seen on Aug. 9, 1974, when she left her home in Lac La Hache, B.C., about 300 kilometres south of Prince George, planning to hitchhike to a friend's house. The teen's body was found a month later off a logging road 46 kilometres to the south.

Fowler is believed to have been in B.C. at that time, at some point working for a roofing company in Prince George, about 300 kilometres north of Lac La Hache. Police are still attempting to piece together his time in B.C. and are pleading with anyone who knew him to come forward.

He had a long criminal record for violent offences in the United States, including attempted murder and sexual assault, and police in that country believe he may be responsible for a number of other murders there, primarily in Oregon.

Fowler was described as a transient labourer who used drugs such as speed and was often violent. When he died in 2006 of natural causes at the age of 66, he was serving a prison term for kidnapping and attempting to rape a woman.

"He had a propensity to pick up female hitchhikers," said Shinkaruk

"He was extremely violent. ... He was of the belief that a lot of the women he came in contact with, specifically women who hitchhiked and women who went to taverns and drank, had a desire to be sexually assaulted."

MacMillen's brother, Shawn MacMillen, said the news that Fowler killed his sister was bittersweet for the family.

"Although this is a somewhat unsatisfactory result, because this individual won't have to stand trial for what he did, we are comforted by the fact that he was in prison when he died and that he can't hurt anyone else,'' MacMillen told Tuesday's news conference.

But there are many other women in B.C. whose deaths cannot be explained by Fowler, and those women's families are still waiting for answers that, in some cases, even the police admit may never come.

In two of the remaining cases, police say their primary suspect has died, and in another, a likely suspect has been identified but not yet charged. Police didn't identify those cases or the suspects.

Sally Gibson, whose niece, Lana Derrick, 20, is among the cases that are part of the E-Pana investigation, said Tuesday's announcement left her with hope she will one day learn what happened. Derrick disappeared from Terrace, B.C., on Oct. 9, 1995.

"Well, we're happy for the people that finally have an answer," Gibson said in an interview.

"I guess to me it shows that they (the police) are really, really trying, because sometimes it doesn't seem like it while you're are waiting. I guess they're doing what they can."

The Highway of Tears has long generated speculation that yet another serial killer — or multiple serial killers — have been at work in British Columbia, a province that has already lived through the horrors of Robert Pickton and Clifford Olson.

Like in the Pickton case, where police agencies' failure to quickly react to reports of missing sex workers in Vancouver prompted a public inquiry, the RCMP have faced criticism in the past for their response to the Highway of Tears.

Aboriginal activists in particular have complained police were too slow to move on the murders or acknowledge the possibility a serial killer was preying on vulnerable women in the province's north.

- With a file from Keven Drews in Vancouver