VANCOUVER - The RCMP's highest ranking member in British Columbia warned the provincial government last year that cutting the force's budget would hamper its ability to investigate missing and murdered women along the so-called Highway of Tears.
The Mounties launched its E-PANA task force in 2006 to determine whether a serial killer was operating along the Highway 16 corridor in the province's north. It was eventually assigned 18 cases involving women or girls who vanished or were found dead in the region.
The RCMP and the B.C. government confirmed last year that six officers were cut from the E-PANA investigation, which had already seen previous budget reductions.
In the spring, RCMP Deputy Commissioner Craig Callens — the commanding officer for the province — sent a memo to the province's director of police services outlining the potential impact of the cuts.
"The termination of funding for project E-PANA would impair the ability to effectively conduct historical homicide investigations within (B.C.)," Callens wrote in the June 4 memo, which was released through a freedom-of-information request.
"At present, the loss of resources in project E-PANA would result in no other Highway of Tears historical homicide investigations being undertaken for the foreseeable future."
Sgt. Annie Linteau of the RCMP said in a written statement that 12 officers are currently assigned to the investigation, along with support staff. At its height, the investigation had about 70 officers.
"While the number of investigators has been scaled down, we have the resources necessary to deal with the investigative needs at this time," she wrote.
B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton did not make herself available for an interview. The ministry said the RCMP was consulted about budget reductions and it's up to the force to make decisions about how to allocate resources.
A table released through another freedom-of-information request last year indicated the budget for E-PANA fell to $1.8 million for 2012-2013, from about $5 million in previous years.
The first major break in the case happened in 2012, when investigators said they believed a dead American convict was responsible for killing as many as three of the women.
Last December, the Mounties announced murder charges against a 67-year-old Ontario man in the death of 12-year-old Monica Jack, who disappeared from Merritt, B.C., in 1978.
The Highway of Tears was examined at the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case, known as the missing women inquiry, and commissioner Wally Oppal's final report made several recommendations to make the area safer. The notorious highway is frequently cited by groups calling for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
In a version of Callens' memo marked "draft," he suggested the budget cuts could have consequences beyond the Highway of Tears investigation.
"There has been significant focus in the media on the investigation, both by the missing women's inquiry, United Nations groups in Canada and calls for a national inquiry on murdered and missing women," Callens wrote.
"British Columbia has been able to champion itself as a province that is committed to a serious improvement in these types of investigations. Negative press will create the erosion in public confidence and there will be the loss of best practices."
The passage is absent from other versions of the memo and it's not clear whether it made it into the final document. Neither the provincial government nor the RCMP would provide the memo as it was sent.
A separate memo sent by Callens in July predicted the staff and budget cuts to E-PANA "may attract some media attention and public comment over time, including comment from families associated to project E-PANA."
A LIST OF VICTIMS ALONG B.C.'S HIGHWAY OF TEARS
VANCOUVER - A list of the 18 women and girls whose deaths and disappearances are part of the RCMP's investigation of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. They were either found or last seen near Highways 16, 97 or 5:
— Aielah Saric Auger, 14, of Prince George was last seen by her family on Feb. 2, 2006, and her body was found eight days later in a ditch along Highway 16, east of Prince George.
— Tamara Chipman, 22, of Prince Rupert was last seen on Sept. 21, 2006, hitchhiking along Highway 16 near Prince Rupert.
— Nicole Hoar, 25, was from Alberta and working in the Prince George area as a tree planter. She was last seen hitchhiking to Smithers on Highway 16 on June 21, 2002.
— Lana Derrick, 19, was last seen in October 1995 at a gas station near Terrace. She was a student at Northwest Community College in Terrace.
— Alishia Germaine, 15, of Prince George was found murdered on Dec. 9, 1994.
— Roxanne Thiara, 15, of Quesnel was found dead in August 1994 just off Highway 16 near Burns Lake.
— Ramona Wilson, 16, of Smithers was last seen alive in June 1994 when she was believed be hitchhiking. Her body was found 10 months later.
— Delphine Nikal, 16, of Smithers was last seen in June 1990, when she was hitchhiking from Smithers to her home in Telkwa.
— Alberta Williams, 24, disappeared in August 1989 and her body was found several weeks later near Prince Rupert.
— Shelley-Anne Bascu of Hinton, Alta., was last seen in 1983.
— Maureen Mosie of Kamloops was found dead in May 1981.
— Monica Jack, 12, is the youngest victim. She disappeared in May 1978 while riding her bike near Merritt. Her remains were found in 1996. In December of last year, the RCMP announced murder charges against Garry Handlen, 67, who is also charged with killing an 11-year-old girl whose case wasn't part of the Highway of Tears investigation.
— Monica Ignas, 15, was last seen in December 1974 and her remains were found five months later.
— Colleen MacMillen, 16, was last seen in August 1974, when she left her family home in Lac La Hache, B.C., with a plan to hitchhike to visit a friend. Her remains were found the following month. In October 2012, the RCMP announced that DNA evidence led them to believe Bobby Jack Fowler, who died in an Oregon jail in 2006, killed MacMillen.
— Pamela Darlington, 19, of Kamloops was found murdered in a park in November 1973. RCMP say they suspect Bobby Jack Fowler was responsible for Darlington's disappearance, but they don't have conclusive proof.
— Gale Weys of Clearwater was last seen hitchhiking in October 1973 and her remains were found in April of the following year. The RCMP say Bobby Jack Fowler is also suspected in her death.
— Micheline Pare of Hudson Hope was found dead in 1970.
— Gloria Moody of the Williams Lake area was found dead in October 1969.