A dead U.S. inmate with a history of raping women has been named by RCMP as the murderer of one of the 18 young women in B.C.'s long-running Highway of Tears probe and is strongly suspected as a serial killer in more of those cases.
Bobby Jack Fowler died in an Oregon prison in 2006 but his DNA was matched this year to evidence from the killing of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen while she was hitchhiking near Lac La Hache in 1974.
Police say Fowler worked as a roofer in Prince George and prowled B.C.'s interior highways picking up young female hitchhikers.
Brother Shawn MacMillen said his family is "stunned" by the discovery and grateful to investigators for the knowledge Fowler can never hurt anyone else, even though he was not punished for any B.C. murders.
"Colleen was a lovely, sweet, innocent 16-year-old kid, and there are still not words in the world to express how terribly she was wronged," he said.
"For those remaining families whose daughters and sisters were also victims, we hope this means they may yet have their own answers.
RCMP Insp. Gary Shinkaruk said investigators on the Project E-Pana team "strongly suspect" Fowler also killed Gale Weys near Clearwater in 1973 and Pamela Darlington the same year in Kamloops.
He said Fowler has been ruled out as a suspect in eight of the 18 cases of missing or murdered women along B.C. highways 16, 97 and 5.
Police say a single serial killer cannot be responsible in all 18 cases, but are open to the possibility one or more serial killers murdered some women, while others were one-off murders.
RCMP now have what they call an incomplete timeline of Fowler's movements in B.C. and want public help in identifying where else he might have been in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Anyone who knew him during those years – people who socialized with him, worked with him or traveled with him – are urged to call 1-877-543-4822.
RCMP Dep. Comm. Craig Callens said Interpol's successful link this spring of 40-year-old DNA to Fowler was the oldest such match in its history.
An earlier 2007 test had turned up an unknown male profile but officers, wanting to take advantage of improved technology, obtained a better sample that Interpol was this time able to match.
Police have been under fire for years over their handling of the missing women investigations but Callens rejected suggestions the case could have been cracked sooner, adding Fowler was only found because of investigators' persistence in re-testing samples.
"For the RCMP, there is no such thing as a cold case," Callens said.
"We remain committed to seeking justice for the victims and getting answers for the families."
Fowler died of natural causes at age 66 while serving a 10-year term for a violent attack.
He had a history of violent crime in the U.S. – but not Canada – and police said he believed women who frequented bars wanted to be violently raped.
Fowler could be "charming and disarming" but suddenly turn violent, Shinkaruk added.
In B.C., Fowler is believed to have been transient, taking odd jobs, driving old cars and living in cheap hotel or rental rooms.
He picked up hitchhikers, was an alcoholic and user of speed and meth, and was prone to violence.
Police also went to three U.S. states trying to pump former cellmates for more information.
Oregon authorities suspect Fowler in unsolved murders of female teenagers there.
Shinkaruk said RCMP have three or four other strong suspects in the B.C. murders or disappearances after eliminating more than 80 per cent of the 1,400 persons of interest they've examined.
Police have taken more than 750 DNA samples of B.C. men as part of the investigation.
Shinkaruk said northern B.C. does not have an unusual number of such murders despite the high profile around the Highway of Tears, a name families and advocates tagged to Highway 16 West to push police for more action.
One of the loudest critics of the probe, Gladys Radek, said blaming a dead serial killer strikes her as a bit too convenient for police.
"I believe there are still 17 other perpetrators out there," she said, arguing more should have been done years ago.
"For the sake of the other families, I hope they do link them together and those three families get closure," added Radek.
Her dead niece Tamara Chipman was killed outside Prince Rupert in 2005, but not by Fowler.
"He was in jail in Oregon at the time Tamara disappeared."
View more photos of Bobby Jack Fowler