A reporter’s look into covering the cross-country manhunt for Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod

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More than 3,000 km from home, reporting on a country-wide murder suspect manhunt, Globe and Mail reporters Melissa Tait and Renata D’Aliesio were faced with no shortage of  hurdles. Upon arrival to the northern Manitoba town of Gilliam, the two had to quickly learn the ropes, look for updates from the limited resources available and try to grasp the story that was unfolding before them as the country watched rapt.

In the early days of the search, D’Aliesio said they ran into trouble with getting information because there was no communications officer on the ground, which made it difficult to unpack the ongoing developments. Towards the end of the search, resources continued to grow restricted.

“In the final days of the manhunt, information from the RCMP was limited,” D’Aliesio explained. “The incident commander in Gillam was told to not talk to the media and roadblocks were set up to keep journalists away from the search. We were also dealing with the unknown; if the suspects were alive or dead, near or far.”

When the story of murder suspects Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod broke, the country followed closely. As stories continued to spread of the two making a seemingly quick getaway from northern British Columbia to the remote town in northern Manitoba, journalists across Canada began to chase the story, both remotely and locally.

D’Aliesio and Tait, along with their team members Ian Bailey and Andrea Woo, won top honours for breaking news at the 2019 National Newspaper Awards and have been co-nominated with Jana Pruden, Mike Hager, Justin Ling, Evan Annett, Rafal Gerszak and Murat Yükselir for best news coverage and with contributors Yükselir and Annett in the best feature article category for the 2020 Digital Publishing Awards. 

The complicated story brought challenges to not only Tait and D’Aliesio and reporters who had travelled to Manitoba, but also reporters who were providing updates on the story remotely. News1130 reporter Tarnjit Parmar says the fake reports that spread quickly across social media made things particularly difficult, specifically the false spotting of the murder suspects in York Landing, Man.

“[The day] where there were reports of the two of them in York Landing, the Bear Clan Patrol had called in the tip, saying they spotted two guys who looked like the suspects wearing camo and scavenging for food,” Parmar recalled. “That report was something that the army was called out to and it ended up being a rumour.”

The almost two-week-long manhunt followed Schmegelsky, 18 and McLeod, 19, who were suspects in the murders of Chynna Deese, 24, Lucas Fowler, 23, and Leonard Dyck, 64, in northern B.C. Initially, the families of the pair believed the two were headed to Yukon to look for work. They were declared suspects in the murders after a burnt-out Toyota was found near Bird, Man. By that point, the suspects had travelled more than 2,000 km from British Columbia to Manitoba. Then, in mid-July, RCMP and the Royal Canadian Air Force began a search in the thick northern Manitoba terrain. 

The manhunt, which lasted 10 days, took reporters across Manitoba from Gillam, to York Landing, and eventually back to Gillam. For D’Aliesio and Tait, the trip to rural Manitoba was 16 days long. 

“Renata and I were both working out of the Thunder Bay bureau together when the story broke that Schmegelsky and McLeod were suspects,” Tait explained, saying they knew there was a chance they’d be sent to report since they were already in close proximity. “We were set to go home to Toronto a couple days later. No one knew where the pair was, so it was a gamble. The editors ended up rerouting us to Gillam at the last minute – we had to change our flights to Winnipeg, then Gillam, instead of Toronto.”

When in Gillam, Tait and D’Aliesio started their days at 8 a.m., spoke with RCMP officers and checked in daily with the incident commander who was overseeing the search. Then, the pair would either monitor the search efforts or check in with their community contacts to pursue other elements of the manhunt.

“For such a long time, there was nothing to photograph,” photojournalist Tait recalled. “The police were taking helicopters to faraway places in the vast forests. At first we recognized it could be dangerous to go about the forest alone. My first instinct would have been to head out on my own and photograph where the police were, or had been, or where the site of the burnt-out car was. But it was mostly all emptiness since nothing had been found yet. That was difficult.”

Similarly, reporting in Vancouver, B.C., not far from where the story originally began, Parmar spent her days speaking with experts and RCMP to get the latest information. 

“What was really difficult was the lack of answers,” Parmar said. “We could go to the RCMP, but they weren’t telling us anything, so everything else was just like, here’s what we know, the manhunt continues, this is what an expert says.”

Tips for the road

The manhunt came to a close on Aug. 6, 2019, when the bodies of Schmegelsky and McLeod were found in Gillam, about eight kilometres from where the burnt-out vehicle was found days earlier that had been linked to the suspects. D’Aliesio and Tait, however, stayed in Gillam a few more days. In their time reporting in the area, the two had made connections with community members and local police officers, which D’Aliesio says is one of the best practices for when reporting on complicated stories like this.

“Make sure you know who is in charge of the police operation and build their trust,” she explained. “Chat with police officers, community leaders and residents without your notebook, camera or recorder. It will take time to build their trust, but you can. When you do, they will respond when needed for a story. Be empathic. A large media presence is difficult on small communities, especially First Nation communities. And get everyone’s cellphone numbers.”

After 16 days in Gillam, Tait and D’Aliesio flew back home to Toronto, but soon returned to the rural Manitoba town in September to tell the story of RCMP who searched tirelessly through tough terrain and the story of Billy Beardy, a Fox Lake Cree Nation member who assisted in the search efforts. That was all made possible by D’Aliesio and Tait’s bonding with residents a couple months earlier.

When working with electronics, Tait mentions that it’s important to always be prepared: “Being always ready with gear was of major importance. I had to be sure everything was always charged, my cards were cleared, but backed up in more than one place. So, I was often spending a couple hours at night transferring files, setting up gear for the next day. Since we spent entire days on the road I had to be extra careful about power. I didn’t have a power converter for the car; Gillam was too small and they didn’t sell any.”

Parmar adds that organization is essential. While reporting, she kept a file on her computer with the most up-to-date information that had been confirmed by RCMP as well as important dates and verified information about the case.

“With a case that’s this sensational, it’s really important to have a level head and look at things with a critical eye,” she said. “Nothing is set until RCMP decides it’s time to tell us.”