Police are ‘confident’ the bodies found near the shoreline of Manitoba’s Nelson River belong to Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, though autopsies are pending and the cause of death was not identified.

RCMP officers in Gillam, Man., carry one of two metal boxes that contain remains believed to be of the B.C. murder suspects. The boxes were loaded late Wednesday into police planes heading to Winnipeg, where the coroner will examine the remains. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A manhunt that stretched two weeks and five provinces has ended in northern Manitoba with the discovery of two bodies believed to be those of homicide suspects Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod.

Investigators found the bodies Wednesday morning in a densely forested area near Gillam, Man., about one kilometre from where they had located several items linked to the two last Friday, Manitoba RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy said.

Police were able to concentrate their search after tour guide Clint Sawchuk spotted a blue sleeping bag in the Nelson River, tangled up in some willows, on Friday. Mr. Sawchuk’s find, it turned out, led police to spot a wrecked rowboat later that day and eventually to the bodies.

A professional tracker had been brought in to help the RCMP search and was with officers when the bodies were found in brush near the shoreline of the Nelson River, said a source familiar with the investigation who was granted confidentiality because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Autopsies are being scheduled in Winnipeg to confirm identities and determine causes of death. However, Assistant Commissioner MacLatchy said she is “confident” the bodies are that of Mr. Schmegelsky, 18, and Mr. McLeod, 19.

The two were charged with second-degree murder in the death of University of British Columbia lecturer Leonard Dyck, 64, and named suspects in the deaths of American Chynna Deese, 24, and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler, 23. Police expected the men to be charged in the deaths of the latter two but were awaiting forensic evidence. All three victims were found dead in Northern B.C. in mid-July.

The discovery of the bodies offered people in Gillam some relief and provided some closure to the families of the victims. But many questions remain with no indication of whether the answers would ever come. Police have said they have gathered substantial evidence in the case but will not say how Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod came into contact with the three victims or why they were killed.

“To the families of everyone affected by the series of events over the last few weeks: I know it has been so very difficult,” Assistant Commissioner MacLatchy said. “I hope today’s announcement can begin to bring some closure.”

Police could not say how long the bodies had been at the site, saying an autopsy will be needed to determine such details. The remains were transported by jet boat upstream to a boat launch at Limestone Generating Station just before 8 p.m. on Wednesday. They were being driven to the Gillam airport to be flown to Winnipeg and delivered to the medical examiner, according to police.

In B.C., RCMP Assistant Commissioner Kevin Hackett said there is “significant evidence” to link the two suspects to the three killings and the investigation into the deaths continues. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for us to ascertain definitively what the motive was,” he said. “Obviously, we will not have the opportunity to speak with these individuals.”

Sheila Deese, Chynna Deese’s mother, received Wednesday’s news as she was with family in Charlotte, N.C., and said she was overwhelmed by the development. “Speechless,” she said. “I don’t even know how to process this.”

The family of Mr. Fowler released a statement saying they would have no comment on Wednesday’s developments and requested privacy as they continue to grieve.

Assistant Commissioner Hackett said the RCMP will continue to provide support to the victims’ families, “understanding that the traumatic losses that they have gone through do not end with the deaths of these men. “We will also continue to offer support to the Port Alberni families of the two men as they deal with these difficult developments,” he said.

Only hours before Wednesday’s discovery, the Manitoba RCMP were planning to significantly scale back their efforts.

They had spent four days combing through the dense bush and shoreline of the Nelson River in northern Manitoba after finding a damaged rowboat and undisclosed items that belonged to Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod. But their manhunt for the fugitives had appeared to be in vain again until Wednesday, when officers searching on foot found two bodies around 10 a.m.

The location was about eight kilometres from where investigators on July 23 had located a burned-out Toyota RAV4 believed to have been driven by the pair.

The discovery has brought a wave relief to the remote communities of Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation, where the manhunt for the fugitives has centred.

Many residents were scared to let their children play outside and some were sleeping with hunting rifles nearby. Some residents had even left the community out of fear.

“I’m so glad it’s all over with and the kids can come outside and play and enjoy the rest of the summer,” Gillam resident Mavis Naismith said.

About 40 residents of Gillam and Fox Lake attended a community meeting in Gillam on Wednesday night. Only days ago, nearly a hundred had gathered in the same spot to hear what would be done to keep their small communities safe.

Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Walter Spence thanked his band members who found the burned out SUV and those who have helped patrol at night while the manhunt dragged on.

“We are quite relieved this is coming to a closure,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Gillam Mayor Dwayne Forman had met with Manitoba North District Superintendent Sorab Rupa, who told him that police were going to scale back the manhunt after failing to locate the suspects despite days of intensive searching that included sniffer dogs, a police dive team and patrols on foot, ATVs and by air.

The next morning, he was told police had made a sudden breakthrough and found two bodies. Elation washed over him.​

“It had basically come down to an unknown when we were going to find them, if we were going to find him,” he said at the town hall on Wednesday. “My whole body got a chill instantly the second I was informed. This a sense of relief, a sense of closure for the community of Fox Lake and Gillam.”

At the end of the short meeting, they held a moment of silence for the three victims and the two homicide suspects. Residents then thanked the RCMP with applause.

The Globe and Mail, August 7, 2019