By Jeremy Hainsworth Associated Press
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Canadian police have linked a dead U.S. convict to the killing of a teenage girl nearly 40 years ago, one of 18 young women who were killed or vanished along three highways in British Columbia over several decades. Oregon authorities are also investigating the man for possible links to four murders in the U.S. state.
DNA tests linked Bobby Jack Fowler to the 1974 killing of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen, who was last seen leaving home to hitchhike to a friend’s house, said Royal Canadian Mounted Police Insp. Gary Shinkaruk. Her body was found on a logging road. Police called it the oldest DNA match in Interpol’s history.
Fowler, who died in prison in 2006, is a strong suspect in two of the other Canadian cases and a person of interest in seven others, but has been eliminated as a suspect in the remaining eight, Shinkaruk said.
Fowler was convicted in 1996 of kidnapping, assault, and the attempted rape of a woman he met at a bar in Oregon. He died of lung cancer at 66 while serving a 16-year sentence. A transient laborer with a long criminal record in the U.S., Fowler had worked in Prince George, British Columbia in the 1970s. Police are seeking the public’s help in finding out more about Fowler’s time in Canada, where he did not have a criminal record.
Canadian police announced in 2007 they were conducting an extensive review into 13 deaths and five disappearances connected to three highways in British Columbia. The cases date from 1960 to 2006 and involve hitchhiking women who were last seen within a mile (less than a kilometer) of the three highways. One of those highways has become known as the “Highway of Tears.” It runs about 450 miles (722 kilometers) between Prince George and Prince Rupert in British Columbia.
MacMillen’s brother, Shawn, described her as sweet and innocent and said he still had no words to express how terribly she was wronged. He thanked investigators.
“We are simply stunned and very grateful for their hard work,” MacMillen said. “It has been a long wait for answers, and although it 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 he can’t hurt anyone else.”
Shinkaruk said Fowler remains a strong suspect in the killings of Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington, both 19. Weys was last seen hitchhiking from Clearwater, British Columbia on Oct. 16, 1973 and was found dead six months later. Darlington was killed and found in a Kamloops, British Columbia park on Nov. 7, 1973. They have not ruled out Fowler in other murders.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Wayne Clary said they believe no single killer is responsible for all the Canadian cases. Police said they have very strong persons of interest in a few other cases, but are not yet able to bring evidence forward.
Rob Bovett, the district attorney in Lincoln County, Oregon, said Fowler is a person of interest in four unsolved killings of teenage girls there in the 1980s and 1990s.
Two of the girls, Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas, both 16, were last seen walking on a street in the coastal city of Newport, Oregon, in 1995. Their bodies were found almost three weeks later in a wooded area north of town.
“He’s a suspect in our 1995 case. I haven’t linked him — he’s a suspect,” Bovett said. “What makes him a suspect is his history, his M.O. and his location.”
Investigators are working on getting new DNA analysis for the double homicide, Bovett said. He also encouraged anyone with information on the case to come forward.
He said Fowler is a “person of interest” in the 1992 deaths of Sheila Swanson, 19, and Melissa Sanders, 17. They disappeared in May 1992 and their badly decomposed bodies were discovered five months later in a wooded area near Eddyville.
Bovett said investigators may not be able to get DNA evidence in that case.
Fowler was arrested in June 1995, five months after Esson and Leas went missing. He was convicted of the kidnapping and attempted rape of a woman who he met at a bar and took to a Newport motel. She escaped by jumping — naked and with a rope tied around her ankle — from a second-story window.
Canadian police said Fowler used drugs such as speed and was often 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,” Shinkaruk said.
Associated Press writer Steven DuBois in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.