The victims of a tragic double homicide along the Alaska Highway this week were globetrotting adventurers who were "deeply in love" and had just begun a road trip in Canada, family say.
Lucas Fowler of Australia and Chynna Deese of North Carolina had visited Europe, Central America, and Asia after meeting in a hostel in Croatia in 2017, according to family. They were in Canada to spend time working on a cattle ranch and visiting the country's iconic national parks, Deese's brother, British, said.
“They were deeply in love,” he told the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
“They met traveling and that’s just what they did - travel. He was working in Canada and they were planning an extensive road trip there for three weeks. They were going to spend a week on the ranch and the second half of the trip going to national parks in Canada.”
Their travels had just begun when they were reportedly shot dead sometime after their van broke down just south of the Liard Hot Springs, a provincial park popular among locals and Alaska Highway tourists. It's prompted an international surge of media and police attention to the remote part of Northeast B.C.
RCMP have released few details, but have appealed for any witnesses who saw or spoke to Fowler and Deese to come forward and help investigators establish a timeline of their deaths sometime between the afternoon of Sunday, July 14, and the morning of Monday, July 15.
Officials said Friday they were "not in a position" to release details about how the couple was killed, however, Australian police have said they were shot.
"Our briefing has been that they were shot near the motor vehicle," Mark Jones, assistant commissioner for the New South Wales police, told reporters at the Sydney Morning Herald.
"[They were] fantastic young people who have met with what can only be described as horrific circumstances."
Deese's family told the Observer the killings were reportedly so brutal they won't be able to have an open casket funeral, and that Canadian police have been tight-lipped. It reportedly took three days for police to identify the bodies, according to family. Homicide investigators had to travel to the crime scene from Prince George — about 1,100 kilometres away — after the bodies were discovered early Monday around 7 a.m.
“Something happened on that road, some sort of conflict. We don’t know because they (Canadian authorities) are not telling us anything," British Deese told the Observer.
Witnesses say they last saw the couple happy, smiling, and sharing a meal on Sunday afternoon despite having broken down. The engine of their van had flooded, but Fowler reportedly knew how to fix it, they said.
"Obviously their van had broken down, but they were still happy and smiling. They were having lunch or a bit of a meal when we pulled up," Curtis Broughton, a mechanic from Fort Nelson, told the Australian Associated Press.
"He seemed like he had everything diagnosed properly. The vehicle was flooded out and they were going to try and get it going again."
Mounties said Friday they were trying to determine whether the couple were the owners and drivers of the van, a blue 1986 Chevrolet with Alberta licence plates, or whether it belonged to someone else. The Observer reported the van belonged to Fowler.
Fowler, the son of a senior-ranking New South Wales police inspector, was in Canada working at a ranch, though it's unclear where. His family arrived in Vancouver Friday night, accompanied by two Australian homicide detectives, according to the Herald.
"We will just be providing assistance to the police here and to the families here," Detective Chief Inspector Wayne Walpole told reporters at Vancouver airport.
Deese was a graduate of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, with degrees in business and psychology. According to her Couchsurfing page, she was "traveling the world and looking to meet new people and experience new places from a local's point of view."
Mounties have called the killings a "unique circumstance", and quashed international media reports of a possible serial killer, and ties to the Highway of Tears, the name for a section of the interprovincial Yellowhead Highway through the central interior of B.C. between Prince Rupert and Prince George. The Northern Rockies region hasn't seen a rise in crime, nor is there any evidence to suggest a link to any ongoing investigations in the area, officials said.
It's unclear whether the couple was targeted, or were victims of a crime of opportunity, RCMP Sgt. Janelle Shoihet told Canadian reporters on Friday. The investigation is a priority, Shoihet said.
"Our hearts and thoughts go out to all the families that are involved, and friends internationally and here nationally as well, because Lucas was living here," Shoihet said.
"We are working with our partners internationally in order to advance this as best as we can."
Deese's family doesn't believe the couple was targeted by a serial killer.
“I don’t think it’s a serial killer. I think of someone who has been convicted of violent crimes before, someone on drugs. That fits the profile better,” Deese's father, Dwayne, told the Observer.
“What worries us is that person is still on the loose and they have a head start. This is going to happen again. There needs to be some kind of a warning system in place for tourists.”
Tourism operators along the Alaska Highway said Friday they were shocked by the news, and that they remained open for business.
Lower Mainland investigators are helping officers from the Northern Rockies RCMP detachment and the North District Major Crimes Unit. More investigative resources will be brought in if needed, Shoihet said.
Police are looking to speak with anyone who may have seen Fowler or Deese between 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 14, and 8 a.m. on Monday, July 15.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Northern Rockies RCMP at 250-774-2700 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
— with files from CP, AAP, Charlotte Observer, and Sydney Morning Herald
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at firstname.lastname@example.org.