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Mystery of missing, murdered women along "Highway of Tears"

Over the last four decades, 18 or more women and girls have gone missing or been found murdered along rural Highway 16 in western Canada
Over the last four decades, 18 or more women ... 03:15

Paul LaRosa is a "48 Hours" producer. He investigated the cases of missing and murdered women along a Canadian highway for the episode, "Highway of Tears." The episode airs Saturday on CBS as part of a double feature, starting at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

The "Highway of Tears" sounds like something out of a Stephen King thriller -- a long stretch of road in an isolated, beautiful Canadian countryside where at least 18 and possibly many more girls and women have been murdered or gone missing since 1969.

"It's a place that can be a good friend to evil," said Bob Friel, an investigative journalist who has traveled this notorious road in British Columbia, Canada. "48 Hours" will feature the highway on Saturday's 9 p.m. broadcast.

"The road can take on kind of a sinister aspect to it," he went on to say. "And it's called that because there's been a series of disappearances and murders of women and girls that date back four decades, and a large number of them are still unsolved. People know that their sisters and daughters are at risk if they go near this highway and perhaps wind up hitchhiking for an emergency reason."

"The number of victims varies with who you talk to," Friel continued. "The Royal Canadian Mounted Police force says that there's eighteen victims. But if you talk to the local people, they believe the number is thirty-three, forty-three, perhaps even more."

The road and the problem of missing and murdered women in Canada--many of them indigenous--made front page news this week in the New York Times and has captured the attention of new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who earmarked more than $30 million in his latest budget to investigate the national problem.

"I believe that here is a need for a national public inquiry to bring justice for the victims, healing for the families and to put an end to this tragedy," Trudeau has said publicly.

It's not like the problem has been totally ignored, certainly not in British Columbia where a task force of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the RCMP) has been looking into the cold cases of women who've gone missing or been killed along the Highway 14. The bulk of the cases occurred in the wild western regions of Canada from Prince George to Prince Rupert, which is not far from the Alaskan border.

It's an area where many poor residents live without much of a public transportation system. The result is that a lot of people hitchhike on a road that is also home to out-of-state truckers.

In 2012, the task force--based on DNA analysis--named trucker Bobby Jack Fowler, an American, as the killer of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillan who was found murdered after going hitchhiking on the highway back in 1974. Fowler had died years before he was announced a suspect.

Two years later, the task force announced the arrest of Garry Taylor Handlen, 67, in connection with the murders of two young girls, one of them Monica Jack, who at 12 years old was the youngest victim on the Highway of Tears. Handlen is awaiting trial.

In 2014, a then 24-year-old Cody Legebokoff was convicted for the first-degree murders of four women, including a legally blind 15-year-old teenager named Loren Leslie. Those convictions made Legebokoff one of the youngest serial killers on record. He is serving a lifetime prison sentence although his lawyers were in court this past Wednesday to try and overturn those convictions.

All told, the Highway of Tears police task force has interviewed more than 60,000 people and looked closely at 1,400 persons of interest. Wayne Clary, an RCMP sergeant who was once head of the task force, said the most frightening thing for him was how many men seemed to be hunters of women.

"We've uncovered men who drive vans with the door handles removed from the inside, duct tape, plastic wrist restraints, trap doors. It's incredible to me how many men are capable of doing this," he told "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant.

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