After spending more than a week scouring some of the roughest terrain in Manitoba in search of the two most wanted men in the country, RCMP are drastically scaling down their operation.
The head of Manitoba's Mounties insists they are not giving up despite a lack of new leads on the whereabouts of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, since July 22.
"It is not over, not by any means," Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
The nine-day manhunt covered 11,000 square kilometres — an area about twice the size of P.E.I., or about half the size of Lake Winnipeg. Officers used some of the most sophisticated technology and received help from some of the best search and rescue personnel in the country, but still there have been no confirmed sightings of two Port Alberni, B.C., men.
"However, even with this extraordinary effort, we have not had any confirmed sightings of the suspects since the burned vehicle was located," said MacLatchy, referring to a burnt-out vehicle used by the young men.
The Canadian military, which was helping search from the air, departed Wednesday morning after the RCMP decided it no longer needed their help. RCMP are also starting to gradually withdraw their officers over the next week.
Those officers who remain are returning to some of the areas they have already looked, including the site of a burnt-out Toyota RAV4 found near Sundance Creek, northeast of Gillam, Man., that was used by the fugitives. No reason was given.
Schmegelsky and McLeod of Port Alberni, B.C., are charged with second-degree murder in the death of University of British Columbia lecturer Leonard Dyck, and they're suspects in the killings of American tourist Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler.
Since Manitoba RCMP were first alerted on July 23 that McLeod and Schmegelsky might be in the province, police have scoured the rough terrain in the area and canvassed every home and abandoned building in the area, working around the clock, MacLatchy said.
It's time for the RCMP to reassess their deployment in the area, MacLatchy said. While the majority of police officers and military members will leave, some specialized and tactical units will remain.
"I know that today's news is not what the families of the victims and the communities of northern Manitoba wanted to hear," MacLatchy said. "But in searching for people in vast, remote and rugged locations, it's always a possibility that they're not going to be immediately located."
Ground and air searches will continue in the area around Gillam, the last place McLeod and Schmegelsky were confirmed to have been seen.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Ontario Provincial Police issued a news release saying they had received a report about a suspicious vehicle occupied by two males driving through a construction zone on Highway 11 in Kapuskasing, more than 230 kilometres north of Sudbury. The vehicle was spotted at 10:31 a.m. ET.
"There was two occupants in the vehicle who had similar descriptions to the suspects who are wanted in the B.C. murders," OPP Const. Michelle Coulombe said.
Cindy McKay, who lives in Kapuskasing, said she filed a police report after her friend, who works as a flag person at a construction site, told her that he saw two men in a white 2016 or 2018 Ford Focus drive through. The men showed a gun but didn't point it at him, and gave him the middle finger, she said.
Police ask anyone who notices anything suspicious to report it to police immediately, rather than share it on social media.
Police officers in the Gillam area are now down to 40 members (police numbers at the height of the search were never disclosed).
The searchers will also be revisiting some of the paths, cabins and hunting shacks they have already looked at, RCMP Insp. Kevin Lewis said.
Although police will no longer have use of military aircraft, such as the Hercules plane, RCMP have their own plane and will also be making use of private helicopters. Air searches will continue, although they may not be as "robust" as they were before, Lewis said.
"We're going to have to be a little bit more strategic in a lot of our resource placement at this point to make sure that's effective," he said.
Police are still treating the situation as though the suspects are in the area, and also looking for their bodies in the event they are dead.
If found alive, the pair would be taken to a hospital for treatment before being remanded into police custody, Lewis said.
When asked at what point the RCMP themselves would abandon the search, Lewis said that is the "golden question."
"Once we've exhausted everything that we can do in this community, then we would look at, when is this no longer viable to stay here?" Lewis said, adding that the search has not yet reached that point.
"I think we still have a good viable investigation on the ground here and that we need to stay another little while," he said.