Private investigator moved by Highway of Tears

🕔Apr 06, 2007

Most people are valued by employers and clients for how competent we are seen to be at our jobs. But some people’s workplace value is gauged by the degree to which they are NOT seen to be working.

Ray Michalko is one of the latter.

With a sturdy six-foot-two, 240-lb frame, and the bearing of a cop, he’s anything but invisible. Nor is he any slouch: at 59, he still works most days of the week. Hours after most of us have booked off for the day, Michalko can be found at his computer, wrestling with details that have been gathering dust for decades.

Michalko’s stock-in-trade is in NOT being noticed at work.

Meet the private investigator who’s made it his personal mission to find the killer or killers responsible for the disappearances and deaths of more than 30 women along the 742-kilometer stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert—the “Highway of Tears”—since at least 1974.

Speaking from his office in Surrey, he remembers how he became involved. “I’d been following this for more than a year, and I was ranting to my wife about it,” he relates. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you quit talking and actually do something about it?’”

Idealist becomes investigator

Her words piqued the idealist within him—the one that inspired him from boyhood to join the RCMP as soon as he was old enough.

“When I became a cop, I would’ve done it for room and board,” he recalls.

That idealist streak ultimately drove him from the RCMP ranks after nine years of service in Manitoba and BC. As his policing career progressed, he felt crime-fighting was increasingly hindered by burgeoning middle and upper management, careerism and politics.

“When I joined the RCMP, I had them up on such a high pedestal,” he admits. “It’s impossible for anyone to live up to that.”

After leaving the RCMP in 1987, he worked in bank management and then real estate, eventually managing 110 employees for a Lower Mainland firm.

But eight years ago, that changed. A private investigation firm wooed Michalko away for a job that put his policing skills back to work. Three years later, he hung out his own shingle as Valley Pacific Investigations—and has been doing a brisk business, albeit low-profile, ever since.

Private eye talents

With virtually all of Michalko’s work coming from referrals, he doesn’t advertise.

Apart from some “missing persons stuff,” about 90 percent of his work is for ICBC. Was that rubber-duck import business really pulling in $500K a year when it burned down? Was your cousin really unable to work after that fence had a run-in with his car? Using surveillance, hidden cameras, public records and a demeanour which encourages bystanders to spill their information, people like Michalko work for ICBC to find out.

“People would be surprised at the number of private investigators poking about,” he observes. “What bothers me as a citizen is that it’s so easy to find information about people…if I can find things out about you, you could probably find them out about me.”

Generally, he turns away divorce-related and “cheating spouse” cases. “I’ve done a few of these. But usually I meet with these people and ask, ‘If I find out this is true, what’s your next step?’” According to Michalko, many people go away to think about that, and don’t come back.

After almost two decades of scrutinizing the details of people’s darker moments, Michalko says his view of human nature is a little warped—but he’s still surprised by how trusting people are of strangers.

“It’s amazing what you can do by just fitting in,” he observes. This depends on the area, of course: in some areas of Vancouver, he says, he can stand on a street videotaping action several blocks away without raising an eyebrow from passersby.

An ability to blend in is just one quality that makes a good PI. He suggests others: being comfortable with working independently (may consider themselves loners), inquisitive to the point of being nosy, the ability to talk to a wide range of people and a knack for winning people’s trust.

“I’ve always had this; my daughter does too. People tell us things we don’t need to know.” This is something he actively cultivates, by studying interview and rapport-building techniques of criminologists like Don Rabon. Some seem ridiculously simple. “One of the best times to interview people is just after their newspaper is delivered. I’ll pick it up, go to their door and offer it to them,’” says Michalko. “When you do someone an insignificant favour, they feel obligated to do one back…so when I start asking about someone else, they’ll often start talking.”

After delivering the desired information goods, Michalko rarely concerns himself with outcomes. Not surprisingly, he says PI work “isn’t making me a lot of friends”—which is why he won’t tell you where he and his wife live in the Fraser Valley, or allow his photograph to be reproduced alongside articles about him or his work.

Travelling the highway of tears When Michalko first became seized by the Highway of Tears case last winter, he generated theories and an action plan that included about 350 people to talk to.

In February 2006, Michalko placed an ad in northern community newspapers, inviting anyone with information on the Highway of Tears murders to contact him. And the phone started to ring: in fact, about 50 tipsters got in touch—arguably more new action than the RCMP have generated in years.

These days, Michalko spends about 40 hours a month on this case. He’s reviewed past media coverage, assessed the landscape and identified more than 760 places between Prince George and Prince Rupert where a body could have easily been disposed of, blanketed the area with information flyers. He’s conducted several trips to northern BC to interview tipsters and “persons of interest”; these conversations have led to contacts with federal prison inmates.

Michalko believes more than one killer is responsible, and says he is currently following leads on Ramona Wilson, whose body was found in 1995 near the Smithers Airport, and Tamara Chipman and Nicole Hoar, who vanished from Highway 16 in 2005 and 2002 respectively.

So far, no cigar. But his investigation has generated a wave of media attention and renewed public and police interest in these cases.

It’s also triggered a bit of a turf-war with the RCMP.e of media attention and renewed public and police interest in these cases.

Who’s in charge?

In a Black Press media report, RCMP communications officer John Ward indicated that, should Michalko identify people of interest, “we certainly want to know who they are and we’ll take it from there.” In a letter to the editor, Michalko shot back that it took seven months for the RCMP to establish a working relationship with him, and questioned why the RCMP, with all of its high-powered resources, have yet to solve one of these crimes.

“Publicly, they’re quite polite,” Michalko told Northword. “But…if I solve one of these, it won’t make them look good…The police do not like non-police poking in what they say is their business…I was the same [when I was] a cop.”

Michalko acknowledges that police resources are stretched at any given time, but decries the fact that there is still no RCMP task force solely dedicated to the Highway of Tears cases.

“One year later, I still hear stories from people about how they tried to talk to police but ended up being told to call elsewhere or were passed off to answering machines, their messages never returned,” he says.

But Michalko doesn’t pretend to have an edge over the RCMP. “As far as the Highway of Tears case goes, my dream would be to be left overnight in a room with access to [the computers of] the RCMP, ICBC and social services. I can’t do that…I have to do it the hard way: talking to people.”

View from the outside

Until last August, when an anonymous Vancouver women’s group offered to help cover a small portion of his costs, Michalko had been doing all of this at his own expense. Each of his three or four annual trips northward cost about $1,500—without even factoring in the cost of lost income. So why, at significant personal cost, is Michalko so fixated on this complex, high-profile case?

“I’ve been asked that question a million times,” he says. “I just felt someone had to do something. I have all the skills to try.” What’s in it for him, he says, is feeling good about being able to help.

He avoids opining about the conditions that may have made these murders possible, and unsolved to this day. But Michalko’s remarks suggest he is quite conscious of factors like racism, poverty and hopelessly inadequate public transport in BC’s vast, sparsely populated north.

He paraphrases Mattie Wilson, mother of murdered Ramona Wilson, who wondered what type of police investigation would have followed had her daughter been blue-eyed and blonde rather than First Nations. “Her question is certainly troubling and worthy of consideration,” says Michalko.

As a cop, Michalko has witnessed outrageous legal outcomes of crimes against native women. He recalls one which took place in 1969 in Manitoba: he received a call that five men had just raped a First Nations girl. On his way to the girl’s address, he encountered five young white men walking down the road. Suspicious, he ordered them into his vehicle, and drove them to her house. She identified them immediately.

The trial outcome set a precedent in Canadian law. The rape was perpetrated on the girl’s 13th birthday, spawning arguments between lawyers about whether she should have been considered 12 or 13. Rape of a child under 13 was considered a more serious crime. The courts determined that people advance to their new age at 12 midnight—which meant the girl was 12 at the time of the rape.

“The guys were convicted, but none of them got jail time,” remembers Michalko. “Their lawyers argued that they’d been good ever since, had made a mistake, and now had families.”

He talks about the bumper-sticker campaign which advises young women not to hitchhike. “In theory, it’s [a] good [campaign]. But…it’s not practical. A lot of these women have to get from A to B, and have no other choices. This isn’t Vancouver where you can just hop on a bus…It doesn’t address the real reasons [people are hitchhiking].”

Thousands of hours and dollars later, Michalko believes he is making progress…but agrees that the proof will be in the pudding.

Meanwhile, every time an article appears, more people call him. “It keeps it fresh in people’s minds,” he says. “Maybe it will force the government and authorities to do something more aggressive.”

Unless you’ve got information for Michalko, don’t expect to actually see him anytime soon. He declines requests for on-camera interviews, photographs or appearances in documentaries.

“I have to be able to go places without people knowing who I am. My clients expect this.”

Got a tip for Ray Michalko? Call him at 604.831.5585

For more information on the Highway of Tears disappearances,

© Larissa Ardis 2007