Residents of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island tout their small town as the salmon capital of the world and also like to boast that it produced Canada's only female prime minister.
These days, though, Port Alberni has become known for something more sinister: as the birthplace of the Canadian teenagers believed to have gone on a bloody rampage last month, accused of killing a botanist and suspected in the murder of two other people.
A cross-province manhunt for them lasted nearly three weeks before their own bodies were discovered last week in the remote northern Manitoba bush, after they had travelled nearly 3200km . The Canadian police confirmed the identity of the bodies Monday after an autopsy and said the suspects had died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
The seemingly indiscriminate violence of their crimes, along with the nail-biting cat-and-mouse game between the teenagers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has shocked Canada, which prides itself on its sensible gun laws and liberal humanism.
It has also brought a sense of dread to Port Alberni, where people fear that the town will now be forever remembered for one thing: murder.
Over the past few weeks, as news filtered through that the teenagers — Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18 — were first missing persons, and then high-profile murder suspects, the mood in the town has fluctuated between sympathy and despair.
This week, in living rooms, cafes and bars across Port Alberni, population 18,000, residents expressed incredulity. Many here have also rallied behind the parents of "the boys," erecting a wall of silence to protect them.
"It's a black eye for any community," said Mike Surrell, owner of Lady Rose Marine Services, a tourism company located in the town's pretty but dilapidated port. "People don't expect this kind of thing to happen in a sleepy little town like this."
Dale Leier, the self-fashioned "Codfather" of Port Alberni, who owns a fish store by the same name on the harbour, said the town was reeling in part because the teenagers' motive remained a mystery.
"Everybody is asking: Why did they do it?" he said. "How did they elude the police for so long? Did they have help? Were they survivalists? There are so many unanswered questions."
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Port Alberni, surrounded by imposing mountains, is dominated by a sprawling paper mill that billows thick smoke day and night. Forestry mills were once the town's economic engine, but are now a shadow of their former might. Thousands of mill employees with high-paying union jobs were laid off in recent decades because of automation and competition from China — a pattern repeated in many mill towns across Canada.
The town has since been trying to rebrand itself as a tourism destination, but residents lamented that it remained a "pass through" town on the way to more picturesque tourist destinations like Tofino, a popular surfing enclave on the western edge of the island.
These days, many young people aspire to work at Port Alberni's giant Walmart, where McLeod and Schmegelsky were employed for several months before they began their deadly road trip, saying they were raising money for a trip to Alberta.
The murkiness of the crime is spurring conspiracy theories and a strong sense of denial.
McLeod and Schmegelsky were charged with the murder of Leonard Dyck, a 64-year-old University of British Columbia botanist. They are also suspected of killing Lucas Fowler, 23, an Australian, and Chynna Deese, 24, of Charlotte, North Carolina, who were shot dead and their bodies left on the side of the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia.
At SteamPunk Café, a popular spot in downtown Port Alberni next to a park where local drug addicts shoot up, a young woman with a nose-ring confided that one popular theory in town was that the botanist had killed the young couple, prompting the teenagers to kill him after he went after them, and then fleeing and being killed by vigilantes in Manitoba.
"There is no evidence the boys have done anything," said a woman who answered the phone of John McNabb, Schmegelsky's great-uncle. "All of you who have come here — you're wasting your time and money," she said before hanging up.
The city's young mayor, Sharie Minions, said the killings were a particular blow for a town trying to rebound. "It is not an association we want," she said.
Many here said the teenagers were unremarkable, even hard to remember. But some remembered Schmegelsky, who enjoyed military battle video games, as the more outspoken of the two, who had been best friends since they were children.
Mackendrick Hallworth, 20, who studied at VAST, the same alternative high school where the young men also studied, and whose aunt tutored Schmegelsky, said his aunt had not been surprised when she learned that Schmegelsky was a suspect. "He seemed to be a troubled kid," Hallworth said.
Schmegelsky and McLeod came from markedly different socioeconomic backgrounds.
In a residential neighbourhood in a district of Port Alberni called Sproat Lake, a serene wooded area dotted with million-dollar houses overlooking a pristine lake, sits the large, handsome home where McLeod grew up. The area is calm, save for the sound of Jet Skis whizzing by.
On a recent day, three cars squatted in the MacLeod driveway. Two signs at the bottom of the driveway said: "No Trespassing." One said: "Violators Will Be Prosecuted Privacy Please."
"They just want to be left alone," a woman with a British accent said as she left the house.
Neighbours said the McLeods, who had moved to the area about 20 years ago, were a middle-class family who mostly kept to themselves. They said McLeod's father was a commercial fisherman. The teenager had a younger sister. His maternal grandfather was a well-known member of the community who had worked for Port Alberni's park and recreation department.
One neighbour, who asked not to be identified out of concern of upsetting other neighbours, said Kam McLeod seemed likable and suggested that he had been influenced by Schmegelsky.
About 20 minutes from the McLeods' house, off a busy highway and across from a trailer park, is the small home where Schmegelsky lived with his grandmother. Two tiny statues of little boys sit next to a pond on the lawn in front of the house. A sign outside says "Beware of Your Dog" with the word "Your" added with a Magic Marker. A sign on the front door warns reporters to stay away.
Schmegelsky's parents divorced when he was young, and neighbours said the boy sought refuge in other people's homes, but was eventually ostracised after he posted a swastika on social media. His mother, Deborah Sweeney, worked at a local homeless shelter, they said.
Al Schmegelsky, Bryer's father, has told the news media he grappled with homelessness and mental illness, and wasn't always there for his son.
On his Facebook profile, Al Schmegelsky wrote that he "studied Hate, treachery, betrayal, also unconditional love."
The elder Schmegelsky also told Canadian news outlets that his son had been on a suicide mission. "He wants his hurt to end," Schmegelsky told The Canadian Press before their bodies were discovered. "They're going to go out in a blaze of glory."
In an interview with 60 Minutes Australia, broadcast over the weekend, he said his son had been "raised by YouTube and video games." He noted that he had bought him an airsoft rifle when he was 17.
"I'm not going to say my son is a murderer until I get some facts," he said. "You want me to sit here and tell you that my son positively murdered your co-citizen? Because I won't, because I can't. I can't do it."
Whatever the motivations for the killings, many local residents stressed that Port Alberni was not responsible.
Grant Weaver, a corporate lawyer whose cottage is on Sproat Lake across from the McLeod home, said he treasured the area "because the town has a heart."
Now, he added, "the heart is trying to understand what the hell happened."
Written by: Dan Bilefsky
Photographs by: Alana Paterson
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES