In Westbank, B.C., across Okanagan Lake from Kelowna, a community in shock last week absorbed the grisly news of the suspected murders of their well-known and popular neighbors during a camping holiday in the B.C. Interior. But the discovery of six charred and unrecognizable bodies provided few answers to the seven-week disappearance of Robert Johnson, 44, his wife, Jacqueline, 40, daughters Janet, 13, and Karen, 11, and Jacqueline’s Port Coquitlam parents, George and Edith Bentley. As police redoubled their attempts to find out how, why, where and when the six were killed, a crossCanada alert went out last week for three other missing campers from British Columbia—a province still recovering from the Clifford Olson murders of last year and now uneasy about 14 murders in the past six weeks.
Even more troubling for British Columbians, most of them occurred in the bush, where hostility is only expected from mosquitoes and bears.
In New Westminster a “meticulous scientific examination” of the six bodies, presumed to be the Johnsons and Bentleys but which might never be positively identified, began at the Royal Columbian Hospital. The bodies were moved to New Westminster after the camouflaged and burned 1979 Plymouth owned by the Johnsons was found on
Sept. 13. The discovery came -
four days after a massive air search for the families had been called off. The car had been pushed 500 m off a dead-end bush road in Wells Gray Provincial Park, just north of Kamloops, where the families had planned to meet at the beginning of August. So far, bullet fragments have been discovered in one unidentified skull, leading police to believe that the victims died before the car was torched, possibly with naptha campstove gas. Searchers have also found a number of .22 calibre shell casings nearby. Police across Canada are now investigating reported sightings of the Bentleys’ still-missing red-and-silver Ford pickup and camper. Late last week RCMP officers said they were still looking for a similar truck with B.C. licence plates and its occupants, two French-speaking men in their 20s who were reported to be in North Battleford, Sask., early
this month and later in Sasktoon, Sask., and at other points on the highway to Winnipeg.
As the investigation continues, questions about police procedure have started to surface. The main concern was about the delay in the discovery of the car in Wells Gray park. Kurt Krack, 38, an Abbottsford butcher who was picking berries in the park in late August, saw the burned-out car on Aug. 22, as did two horseback riders. The riders agreed to report the location of the car
to police. Instead, they passed the word to yet another traveller who, say the RCMP, did not report the find until Sept. 9. Because the directions were garbled, the search parties found nothing. On Sept. 2 Krack also phoned police, after hearing continuing stories about the vanished families, but he was brushed
off by the Abbottsford detachment. Having become aware of a berry picker’s sighting of the car and passengers, the RCMP finally tracked down the Abbottsford report of Krack’s call, contacted him, and he directed the force to the charred hulk. A similar lack of communication between detachments was cited in the Olson case as a prime factor in his evasion of the police. B.C. Attorney General Allan Williams said last week that an inquiry into the delay in dealing with Krack’s report would
be conducted and a full review of the communications procedures between detachments would be undertaken. “It is my view that they [citizens] are entitled to have all the information taken accurately and that it is the police’s responsibility to transmit [it] if it is appropriate to some other unit,” Williams said.
In the meantime, B.C. residents have grown angry and wary of their wilderness. Says Andrew Craig, principal of Westbank Elementary School where the Johnson girls were top students: “That somebody would murder a whole family is the last thing you would expect on a camping trip. How would you guard against that?” he asks. “Some campers have always had a rifle because of the bears.” Now, alas, guns will be viewed increasingly as protection against human strangers in the bush —people who normally would have been invited into camp for coffee.
SUZANNE ZWARUN in Calgary, with files from Malcolm Gray in Vancouver.
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