Editorial: Conjecture about murder suspects is not helpful

By the time you read this, Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod might be behind bars, safely in jail cells after a couple of weeks on the lam. Or they could still be out there, somewhere, evading police and polar bears, or holed up in some spot well off the grid. Or, bluntly, they could be dead.

The two murder suspects from Port Alberni have been the subject of a massive manhunt for two weeks and, at this writing, it appears that the police are no closer to finding out where they are, or even where they have been since the last confirmed sighting in northern Manitoba almost two weeks ago.

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It could be said, based on the torching of that stolen Toyota, that Schmegelsky and McLeod are either remarkably smart or pathetically dumb. Dumb, for bringing attention to the car when they could have left it hidden in the bush, where it might have been found in a few weeks or months. Or smart, for keeping attention in that area after they were long gone.

But here is the catch: Comments like that one aren’t helpful. There has been far too much speculation about what the duo have been up to, most of it driven by social media as well as, sad to say, the established media. In the absence of hard information, there have been far too many theories and conjecture, quoting people who have only been guessing at what Schmegelsky and McLeod have been up to. Too much unconfirmed information has been taken as fact.

We can understand the desire to be first with the news, or to blurt out what you want to believe is true. But facts still need to be verified, a notion that appears to have been forgotten in this social media age, where everybody can pretend to be a journalist but too few seem to be willing to take responsibility for what they are putting out.

Case in point: The reported sighting of the two men at a garbage dump near York Landing, Man. It was a shaky sighting at best; even the men who called it in said they had to think about if for a few minutes.

As soon as the word about the alleged sighting was out, social media went into overdrive. The men who called in the sighting were hailed as heroes. It was said that the two suspects were rummaging for food. There were reports of shots fired, and then that the men had been captured. There was a lengthy discussion about the geography in the area around York Landing and Gillam, driven by people who it seemed had never been there.

A few days later, after the York Landing sighting had been dismissed, there were reports on social media that Schmegelsky and McLeod were in northern Ontario, based on a quick look at a vehicle passing by.

It’s no wonder that the police have called on the public to report possible sightings to the police rather than posting them on social media. And it’s no wonder that police have also urged the public to get their information from the police, not from the amateurs in the Twittersphere.

There are good reasons for this. One is that the spread of false information does not help anyone, and in fact can cause the police to put resources in the wrong spots. Another is that the unrestricted flow of information could help Schmegelsky and McLeod, assuming of course that they are still alive, still have phones with charged batteries, and still have access to wifi or cell service.

If the police get a tip that the two have been spotted, then set up a trap to bring them in, and those efforts were exposed through social media, the murder suspects could get away again. More lives would be put at risk.

The public has certainly helped with this case, providing to police video evidence that Schmegelsky and McLeod were in Meadow Lake, Sask., and reporting sightings in other locations in Alberta and Manitoba. That help from the public was crucial to tracking the pair to northern Manitoba.

With all of this in mind, some tips that should apply at all times: Don’t spread speculation. Don’t interfere with the police. Help, don’t hinder, a police investigation.

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