A young girl stands beside Highway 16 with her arm and thumb raised high. A car or truck pulls over, she hops in for a ride, never to be seen alive again. For more than a decade, young women have disappeared or have been found slain along Highway 16 in northern BC.
Posters bearing their pictures can still be found on hydro poles and laundromat post-it boards. "Missing," they shout in large letters under a photo of a smiling, unpretentious-looking young woman or teenager.
It's tragic. It's horrific. And it's happening along the quiet 720 kilometers between Prince George and Prince Rupert, a stretch now gruesomely dubbed the Highway of Tears.
Some consider the murder of Monica Ignas, 15, to be the first. She disappeared just east of Terrace on December 13, 1974 and was later found lying dead and discarded in a gravel pit. In 1988, Alberta Williams, age 24, was also found murdered a month after disappearing. But it wasn't until 1994 that things really began speeding up at an alarming pace.
The first of the latest series of incidents was Ramona Wilson, 15, who was hitchhiking to a friend's place on June 11, 1994. Her remains were found near the Smithers airport a year later.
Five months after that, Roxanne Thiara, also 15, went missing from Prince George only to be found dead - her body "dumped" near Burns Lake. The slaughter rose to three in a row when the remains of Alishia Germaine, again 15, were discovered December 9, 1994
Lana Derrick, 19, was a forestry student in Terrace who went missing while walking down a street in Terrace in October, 1995. She has never been heard from since. Thankfully nothing happened for almost seven years that police know about, or that has been reported. (Was the murderer in jail for a spell?)
Our next casualty was the first Caucasian woman, Nicole Hoar, who disappeared on June 21, 2002. Nicole was a young tree planter hitching her way from Prince George to her sister's home in Smithers. She was hoping to attend the Midsummer Music Festival, but she never arrived.
Her family and friends were instrumental in quickly getting the story out to every major news source. A massive poster campaign ensued, rewards were offered, and a fund established to help find the missing dark-haired 26 year-old from Red Deer. The RCMP used aircraft and helicopters, and there were 200 volunteers plus 60+ professional search and rescue members, all to no avail. Nicole Hoar remains on a list of women missing along the Highway of Tears.
On September 17, 2005, a number of ceremonies named "Take Back the Highway" were held in communities between Prince George and Prince Rupert. Activities included marches, minutes of silence, local speakers and prayers to promote awareness and in protest to the violence against these women.
But, four days later Tamara Chipman, 22, went missing somewhere between Prince Rupert and Terrace. Tamara had taken judo for years and was considered able to take care of herself. What happened?
An account of how her father feels as he walks lonely stretches of the highway looking into culverts for his only child can be read on the Internet. Needless to say it is a heart-wrenching story.
The police have not ruled out the possibility of a serial-killer prowling our highway, although serial-killer profilers and special detectives sent to study the individual cases say there is no evidence of this.
In light of the recent 60+ murders of women by the accused Robert (Willy) Picton near Vancouver BC, one can only guess what other horrors await us yet to be discovered. Is it scarier to think there is a mass murderer on the loose, or multiple murderers?
Meanwhile, Crystal Lee Okimaw, 24, vanished from Prince George January 16 and Aielah Saric-Auger, 14, was discovered dead just east of Prince George on February 2, 2006. Guesses as to what sort of person the police might be looking at include a travelling salesman dressed in a suit who would seem like a trustworthy person to catch a ride with. Maybe a hunter who comes to our wildlife-rich area. Maybe a trucker who barrels in, then out of our towns. Or could it be someone who lives here? Someone who always seems to be at the right place to stop to pick up young women.