Surrey, B.C. – He was an American drifter, a boozer, an amphetamine user. An habitual criminal who enjoyed picking up young women and sexually assaulting them. And now we know this about Bobby Jack Fowler: He slipped into British Columbia four decades ago and he murdered a beautiful 16-year-old girl.
B.C. RCMP announced Tuesday that new standards in DNA testing have allowed them to conclude “with certainty” that Fowler killed Colleen MacMillen, described as a friendly, level-headed high school student who went missing from Lac la Hache, a small town in the B.C. interior. Last seen alive in August 1974, Ms. MacMillen had decided to hitchhike a short distance from town to visit with a friend. Her body was found a month later, near a remote logging road.
Her murder was one of 18 cold cases filed under Project E-PANA, a large-scale RCMP investigation into murdered and missing women in the B.C. interior. Many of these cases involved women who vanished — or who were discovered dead — near Highway 16, an east-west route that’s become known as the Highway of Tears.
Project E-PANA was launched seven years ago, in response to mounting concerns and complaints from victims’ families that their dead and missing girls weren’t police priorities. More efforts were needed. Resources were identified and directed to a core group of officers. Criteria were established: Only cases involving murdered or missing women were to be placed under the new Project E-PANA umbrella. A victim had to have been engaged in risky behaviour, such as hitchhiking, prostitution or drug use. Finally, a geographical boundary was established, from Prince Rupert in the northwest, to Merritt in the south, and to Hinton, Alta., in the east.
Investigators first identified 18 cases of similar fact, and then collected and analyzed individual files. The MacMillen file is the only one that’s now closed. Twelve of E-PANA’s remaining 17 cases are clear-cut homicides; the other five involve missing women. Ten of the murdered and missing are aboriginal women; the other seven are Caucasian. The oldest case dates back to 1969.
Investigators have pursued dozens of “persons of interest.” it’s a big reason why solving the cases is taking so long. As one veteran Mountie said Tuesday, “lots of men” are capable of harming — even killing — young women, given an opportunity. A chance meeting inside a bar, a highway pitstop, a request for a ride, these are situations Bobby Jack Fowler seized upon.
He hadn’t appeared on police radar until earlier this year, when well-preserved DNA samples collected from the MacMillen murder scene were processed using new techniques and then sent to Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization that shares information with authorities all over the world.
They would have loved to confront him, but Fowler is no longer alive. He died from lung cancer six years ago, in an Oregon prison 10 years into a 16-year sentence for the brutal sexual assault and kidnapping of a local woman. He was 66 years old.
Police in B.C. still needed to retrace his movements, to try to determine if he might be linked to other E-PANA cases. No easy task, reporters were told during a two-hour press conference Tuesday at the RCMP’s E-Division operations centre in Surrey, near Vancouver. When not languishing in some U.S. prison, Fowler lived the life of a solitary itinerant, driving around in beat-up old cars, seeking temporary employment here and there. Florida, Texas, Oregon and Washington State were some of the places he stopped, sometimes committing serious crimes. He was once charged with murdering a man, but that didn’t stick. Police said Tuesday that Fowler was the sort of guy who believed that women who drank in bars “deserved to be assaulted.”
They still don’t know when he entered Canada, or where he crossed the line. Or when he left. What the Mounties did learn, after poring over U.S. probation documents, is that in 1974, Fowler was in Prince George and working for Happy’s Roofing, a small local company.
A good lead, but it offered up little. Happy’s no longer exists and a recent flood destroyed all of its employee records. If Fowler had made any impression on people in Prince George, those folks haven’t come forward. Police are asking them to speak up now, because they strongly suspect he may have murdered two other local girls.
Gale Weys was last seen hitchhiking to Kamloops in October 1973. Her corpse was discovered in a ditch six months later. In November 1973, Pamela Darlington was seen leaving the David Thomson pub in Kamloops. Her corpse was found in a river the next day. Both murder victims were 19.
Their families need to know what happened. The families of the 15 other murdered and missing women need that, too. They were all beautiful girls. The investigations continue.
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