It will take some time for Iskut to recover from a tense week that left three people dead and two suspected killers on the run.
The Tahltan village of 330 sits 80 km south of the nearest RCMP detachment in Dease Lake, and just 25 km from the Stikine River Bridge on Hwy 37, the site where police found the abandoned, burning truck of two missing teenagers, and the body of an unidentified man down the road in a highway pullout.
|Iskut Band Chief Marie Quock|
“We felt incredibly vulnerable because of the unknowns,” says Iskut Band Chief Marie Quock. “Seeing Facebook posts about a serial killer on the loose didn’t help.”
Iskut stretches out along the side of Hwy 37, the only paved road in or out the area known for it’s wilderness and isolation. In the summer the highway is noisy with road-trippers and camper vans, a procession of unknown faces travelling to or from the Alaska Highway.
Villagers already suspected that whoever killed a young couple the week prior, half a province away, was probably using this route. When the burning truck and the body was found just north of them, all they knew for certain was three people were dead, two were missing, a murderer was at large, and Iskut stood in the path of where the violence was travelling.
“The fact we don’t have an RCMP detachment here, and being on the highway, was something a lot of people were thinking about constantly. There was just fear and uneasiness… It wasn’t good around here,” says Quock.
“It’s going to take a while for everybody to get back to normal, if we ever do, but yes there is a big sense of relief.”
That relief came Tuesday following the RCMP’s shocking announcement that the two Port Alberni teenagers, Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, were no longer considered missing and feared dead, but prime suspects in the shooting deaths 500 km away near Liard Hot Springs of the young couple Chynna Noelle Deese, 24, of North Carolina and Lucas Robertson Fowler, 23, of Australia.
To Iskut’s relief the suspects were no longer in the area, RCMP said, but now on the run in northern Saskatchewan. Later that afternoon witness reports placed them in Manitoba.
Late Wednesday afternoon, RCMP also connected McLeod and Schmegelsky to the highway pullout murder just north of Iskut. Police identified the victim as Leonard Dyck of Vancouver, and laid second-degree murder charges against the two teens in absentia, clearing the way for a Canada-wide arrest warrant.
Quock said the RCMP had not visited Iskut until the night before announcing to the press the suspects had left the province. To fill the security void the community was banding close any way they could.
Two Iskut men were also conducting car patrols of the streets and highway from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Other reports say residents were unlocking their hunting rifles and shotguns to keep them within arm’s reach.
“We had people not getting sleep at night,” Quock said. “We’ve got a number of women and children who are alone for two weeks because their spouses are in camp. These women were really having a hard time being alone.
“We can breathe easier now knowing no one’s lurking around. But there’s still the fact we’re on a main highway. We never know who’s passing through. I think now our people are going to be more vigilant, and when travelling I know they’re going to be very careful.”
For 20-odd years both Quock and the previous chief have pushed for an RCMP detachment in Iskut. For her community and the thousands of travellers every year passing through, Quock says it makes sense for increased police presence in such isolated territory with almost no cellular service.
In the wake of these murders, Quock says she and council will again make a formal request for an RCMP detachment or satellite office in Iskut, but she’s not hopeful.
“We’re so used to hearing ‘no.’ It’s always something,” she says. “They say the population is too low, and yes, it is low but we’re still people, we’re still at risk. The RCMP is over an hour away. Anything can happen here and by the time a police officer arrived it could be too late.”
– With files from Katya Slepian and Canadian Press