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Inside the Fire Lookout Murder Mystery That Still Haunts Alberta

HINTON, Alta—Valleys of trees, old railroads and serene mountains stretch out for hikers to climb the serene William Switzer Fire Tower Trail near Hinton.

But bits and pieces of old murder mysteries are also littered there, and if you look closely, you’ll find shacks, wildfire watchtowers, and missing person posters from the RCMP offering a $20,000 bounty for information. increase.

Stephanie Stewart, 70, disappeared 16 years ago this week.

For 13 years, she worked at the Athabasca Observatory, which monitors wildfires and dangerous weather during the wildfire season from April to September.

Known as a talented outdoorswoman who loves handicrafts, gardening, and reading, Stewart lives alone in the woods in a cabin set up for seasonal Alberta Sustainable Resource Development employees. was

According to an old newspaper article, she had climbed a nearby watchtower. She was the keeper of the prairie woods, spending time in nature, which people described as her happy place.

To this day, her disappearance has left Albertans confused. Police are still investigating.

Stewart is believed to have disappeared between the evening of Friday, August 25, 2006 and the following morning. She neglected her routine check-in on Saturday morning, prompting another employee to come to her cabin 25 kilometers northwest of the town of Hinton, about three hours west of Edmonton. rice field.

Employees found a pot of boiling water on the stove, Stewart’s gray truck in the driveway, and blood on the steps outside the cabin.

Some items were also missing. Two pillows with blue covers, burgundy sheets, Navajo-patterned comforter, and gold clock. Stewart was speaking with at least one family member of his on Friday.

Police described the fire warden as being 5 feet 2 inches tall, 105 pounds, with shoulder-length gray hair, and in very good physical condition. Prior to his disappearance, Stewart had recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and was crossing Canada at one point.

Hundreds of people searched the surrounding area over the next few days, covering an area of ​​seven square kilometers on foot, making it one of the largest ground searches in the state’s history. We searched 7,500 square kilometers of the area.

However, Stewart was never found.

“The Tower People are a close-knit community,” said Mike Dempsey, vice president of the Alberta Employees Union.

“When one of them disappeared, an experienced person who knew what she was doing disappeared one day. I wonder.

“There is always fear that we live in a more dangerous world now.”

The police eventually ruled it a homicide and ruled out the possibility that she had been attacked by an animal or that she had wandered off.

“The fact that nothing was revealed is still disturbing,” says Dempsey. “Because it shows that the perpetrators are still on the run and there are still people who have to work there.”

Police have not spoken publicly about the ongoing investigation, but Luke Halvorson, the deputy petty officer in charge of the Historical Homicide Squad, Sgt. It is said that the information is obtained from

Her story seems to resonate.

“Albertans love mountains. They love forests,” he says. “Here’s a woman who seems to be doing her job thinking only of herself, but then she disappeared.

“She was so loved by her environmental and forestry colleagues in Alberta that I think all of that lives on in people’s hearts.”

The tower she worked in was one of 128 towers in the state at the time, one very close to Hinton and not too far away. The observatory receives many visitors throughout the wildfire season.

In the years that followed, significant policy changes were enacted for wildfire spotters like Stewart. A review of the security of the watchtower was conducted and an expert panel recommended changes adopted by the government.

Firefighters are now trained in self-defense and the site has improved security features, including improved fencing and lighting, and is equipped with a panic button.

The search for Stewart never stops. In 2018, about 100 people, including search and rescue volunteers and his RCMP officers, began searching for clues in an area of ​​about 8,000 hectares around the tower.

It is not clear what progress has been made with this file recently.

Speaking generally about the work his unit is doing in Alberta, Halvorson said many of them have looked at exhibits to see what forensic analyzes have been done and what new work they can do next. It states that it is to see if there is a technology of sorts. From genealogy and his DNA analysis to ground penetrating radar, the police toolbox grows every year.

These days, Halvorson says, DNA is usually behind the breaks in historical cases. Over the past decade, labs have slashed the amount of material needed to create profiles, now using picograms (trillionths of a gram) of DNA instead. Nanogram (one billionth).

The files he oversees can be roughly divided into two categories, he says. “whodunits” where it’s totally unclear who did it, and cases where the culprit is likely but “not enough evidence to prosecute.”

In many cases, having enough evidence to prosecute someone is more troublesome than having tons of evidence and no suspects.

“They’re pretty frustrated,” says Halvorson.

He added that Alberta has more than 200 unsolved murders and that his unit is “pretty active” in day-to-day operations.

“We access these files daily, probably in a dozen surveys,” he says. “There are probably at least 12, maybe 20 more that are within our normal range.”

On average, police solve at least one case that is several years old each year, according to Halvorson.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated and sometimes disappointed,” he says of the job.

“I firmly believe that the information is probably in the file to get you where you need it. You have to develop it and follow it to the end.”

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Inside the Fire Lookout Murder Mystery That Still Haunts Alberta

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