Her name was Colleen MacMillen, and in 1974—a more innocent time it seemed—the pretty 16-year-old thought little of hitch-hiking from her family’s lakeside home to visit a friend in the central B.C. town of Lac La Hache. Her body was found a month later south of 100 Mile House on a logging road off Highway 97. Her unsolved murder was swept into an RCMP investigation of 17 other tragically similar cases of girls and women who vanished from highways 16, 97 and 5 in central and northern B.C. between 1969 and 2006. On Tuesday, RCMP announced that advances in DNA technology had identified her murder as Bobby Jack Fowler, an Oregon man who died in prison in 2006 at age 66, while serving a 10-year sentence for kidnapping, attempted rape and assault.
Fowler had an “extensive violent history” in several U.S. states, and travelled and worked, in B.C. in the 1970s and possibly in the 1980s and 1990s, RCMP Insp. Gary Shinkaruk, head of the major crimes special projects unit, told a news conference in Surrey Tuesday. He said that the U.S.-born Fowler is “an incredibly strong suspect” in two other of the 18 murdered or missing women in the so-called Highway of Tears cases. He has been eliminated as a suspect in only eight of the 18 cases, Shinkaruk said, but investigators are also looking at other unsolved cases elsewhere in B.C., and in other provinces and states. Fowler is also “a person of interest” in at least two sets of murders of teen girls in Oregon in 1992 and 1995 and his movements in the state show a possible link with three other unsolved cases with similarities to the B.C. murder, Lincoln Country Ore., District Attorney Rob Bovett told the news conference.
The findings open the chilling possibility that Fowler roamed B.C. and the U.S. Pacific Northwest hunting women before, during and after the murderous rampage of serial killer Clifford Olson, who killed 11 children and adolescents in B.C.’s Lower Mainland between 1980-1981. There are striking similarities between the two men. Both were heavy drinkers and drug users with extensive criminal records. Both frequently picked up hitch-hikers. Like Olson, Fowler had the ability to be “charming and disarming” when the need suited him, Shinkaruk said.
Coincidently, as the video below explains, B.C.’s E-Division RCMP launched E-Pana, a joint investigation into the Highway of Tears murders in 2006, the year Fowler died. (Pana is a god of Inuit mythology who cares for souls in the underworld until they are reincarnated.) The RCMP collected 750 DNA samples from potential suspects, discovering in the process that Fowler’s DNA implicates him in the strikingly similar 1995 murders of Newport, Ore., teens, Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas. Advances in DNA technology allowed police to post a DNA profile from the 1974 MacMillen case with Interpol, the international policing agency. The DNA matched Fowler’s profile, “the oldest DNA match in Interpol’s history,” Deputy. Commissioner Craig Callens told reporters.
Bovett, the assistant DA in Oregon, has been working jointly with the RCMP since the DNA hit in May. “If I had what I have now, plus DNA, I clearly would have enough to indict him on Leas and Esson,” he told the Oregonian newspaper. Bovett’s office is also looking at Fowler as a suspect in the 1992 murder of two teen girls from Sweet Home, Ore., who also disappeared after planning to hitch a ride. “This guy was a violent, violent, nasty guy. Horrible, ” said Ron Benson, an investigator with the DA’s office.
Police have asked the public’s help in piecing together Fowler’s movements in Canada and the U.S. They know for certain he worked in 1974 in Prince George B.C. at a now-defunct company called Happy’s Roofing. He also worked various odd jobs and frequented bars, restaurants and motels throughout northern B.C. Police posted a video on the RCMP website outlining the murders and containing photos of Fowler in the hope of gathering further tips.
Also at Tuesday’s news conference, was Shawn MacMillen, Colleen’s brother. He nervously took the microphone to thank the RCMP on behalf of his family. “We are stunned and very grateful for their hard work.” He said the family is disappointed that Fowler died before he could be brought to trial for Colleen’s murder. “We are comforted by the fact he was in prison when he died, and he can’t hurt anyone else,” he said.