The van was parked on the shoulder of the Alaska Highway, hood propped open, prompting mechanic Curtis Broughton to stop and ask the travellers if they needed help.
The young man and woman, sitting in lawn chairs on the grassy verge between road and forest, were friendly and seemed happy. The engine of their van had flooded, the man told Broughton, but he knew how to get it running. They had food and water — and they were only 20 kilometres south of Liard Hot Springs, a short distance to go in the middle of the vast wilderness on B.C.’s northern border.
“It’s an area where there’s more trees than people,” said Curtis’ wife, Sandra, who observed the couple from the passenger seat as her husband briefly engaged in “a little truck talk” with the young man.
It was about 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, and the Broughtons were headed south, returning home to Fort Nelson after a week of camping in the Yukon. The couple in the van appeared to be driving north in the direction of the hot springs. They didn’t need help, so the Broughtons carried on.
On Wednesday, Sandra came across an RCMP press release on Facebook. Two adults had been found dead on the Alaska Highway. Police wanted to speak with anyone who had seen a blue van with an Alberta license plate.
“I was shocked when I heard,” said Sandra. “We saw no other people around, no animals.”
On Friday, RCMP confirmed they are investigating a double homicide and identified the victims as 24-year-old Chynna Deese of the United States and 23-year-old Lucas Fowler of Australia. They believe the couple was killed sometime between 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon and 8 a.m. Monday morning.
Australian police said the couple appeared to have been shot at the location where they were found. The Charlotte Observer reported the killings were so “brutal” an open casket wouldn’t be allowed at Deese’s funeral.
At an RCMP press conference in Surrey, Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said she could not reveal how Deese and Fowler died, or if their bodies were found inside or outside the van.
Police, including investigators from the Lower Mainland, are still on scene and are trying to determine a timeline of events, as well as “all the details related to the van,” including whether it was being driven by the couple, she said. They are also working to determine if the couple’s deaths were targeted or a “crime of opportunity.” There is nothing to indicate they are linked to any other ongoing or previous investigation.
“We’re absolutely committed to this investigation and it’s a priority for us,” said Shoihet when asked what she’d like to tell the families of the victims, including Fowler’s father, a high-ranking police officer in the state of New South Wales.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Fowler family said they are travelling to Canada “to be with our boy and to bring him home.” They are being accompanied by several Australian police officers, who are coming to Canada to offer support to the family, not to aid in the investigation.
“To lose someone so young and vibrant, who was travelling the world and just enjoying life to the full, is devastating,” said the family’s statement. “To know his beautiful girlfriend … also lost her life in this violent event is too cruel.”
On his Facebook page, Deese’s brother, who goes by the name British Dwayne, said his sister left home to see the cattle branding at a ranch where Fowler was working and to “travel through the top half of the globe.”
Dwayne said he tried to text his sister earlier this week, but she didn’t reply. He learned of her death after the “most chaotic day of my life” and several hours on the phone with the U.S. Embassy and investigators.
“Chynna and Lucas’ lives were abruptly taken from a random act of violence while starting their road trip through Canada,” said Dwayne. “She is so deeply woven as a piece of my childhood and everyday life.”
Deese’s sister Kennedy Deese also posted a tribute on Facebook, saying the couple were “bright and beautiful souls.”
On her CouchSurfing page, Deese wrote that her “current mission” is to travel the world. She was a student at Appalachian State University, where her sorority sisters remembered her as a “kind and adventurous soul.”
The area where the couple’s bodies were found is remote and doesn’t have cell reception. The largest community in the area is Fort Nelson, about four hours south of Liard Hot Springs along Highway 97 through dense woods punctuated by lakes, parks and tiny settlements. Most businesses close before dark.
Because the homicide happened along Highway 97, Australian media speculated the deaths could be attributed to a serial killer and the Highway of Tears investigation. RCMP reiterated they have no evidence to indicate the homicide is linked to any other investigation.
A person who answered the phone at the Liard Hot Springs Lodge did not want to comment. A person at the Northern Rockies Lodge in Muncho, about an hour from the homicide scene, said she had no information about the couple.
RCMP are asking anyone who saw Fowler and Deese, or the blue van, or anyone with dashcam footage, to contact the Northern Rockies RCMP detachment at 250-774-2700. Police appealed in particular to people who may have driven the Alaska Highway last weekend and continued on to Alaska, Yukon or Alberta and may not have been aware of the homicide.
— With files from Scott Brown and The Canadian Press