An elderly woman working alone high up in a fire-spotting tower in the Canadian wilderness disappears while on-duty. Evidence at the scene points to foul play but police investigators remain baffled as to who climbed the tower to get her and why?
- Alberta Parks: Athabasca Lookout View Point Fact
- William A. Switzer Provinical Park : Athabasca Lookout Nordic Centre
- Edmonton Journal: Police Seek Missing Fire Tower Observer. By Laura Drak.
- Edmonton Journal: Search Continue for Missing Hinton Fire-Tower Observer. By Staff.
- Edmonton Journal: Foul Play Suspected in Alberta Lookout Observer’s Disappearance. By staff.
- CBC News: Hundreds Search for Woman Missing From Fire Lookout Tower. By Staff.
- Star-Phoenix: Search for Missing Forestry Worker Intensifies. By Lisa Arrowsmith.
- Edmonton Journal: Drug Trade Fuels Fears for Missing Lookout Worker. By Jim Farrell and Ryan Cormier.
- Edmonton Journal from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
- Red Deer Advocate: Family of Missing Forestry Worker Appeals for Information, By Staff.
- Calgary Herald: Daugther Worries About Missing Fire-Spotter. By Lisa Arrowsmith.
- Times Colonist: Reward Offered in Case of Woman Who Vanished From Forestry Tower. By Staff.
- Edmonton Journal: Homicide Stats Include Missing Fire Tower Worker. By Trish Audette.
- Edmonton Journal: Hikers Asked to Watch for Missing Worker. By Staff.
- Calgary Herald: Search for Lookout Employee Continue. By Staff.
- CTV News Edmonton: Alberta Released Fire Lookout Safety Report. By staff.
- Calgary Herald: New Safety Measures For Fire Lookouts. By Tony Seskus.
- Edmonton Journal: Tips on Missing Woman Still Come In. By staff.
- Red Deer Advocate: Tower Operator Loves Her Work. By Brenda Kossowan.
- CTV News Edmonton: Alberta Woman’s Disappearance remains a Mystery Three Years Later. By Melissa Dominelli.
- Calgary Herald: Mystery Surround Fate of Fire Spotter. By Jamie Komarnicki.
- Calgary Herald from Calgary, Alberta, Canada
- Calgary Herald: Fire Spotter’s Disappearance a Mystery. By Jamie Komarnicki.
- Calgary Herald: On The Lookout. By Jamie Komarnicki.
- The Globe and Mail: Police Still Seek Leads Five Years After Alberta Fire Spotter Vanished. By Dawn Walton.
- Global News: Five Year Anniversary of Stephanie Stewart’s Disappearance. By Staff.
- The Canadian Press: 10 Years Since Wildfire Spotter Stephanie Stewart Vanished Near Hinton, Alberta.
- Calgary Herald: Senior’s Disappearance 10 Year Ago At Alberta Fire Lookout Still a Mystery. By Chris Purdy.
- Strange Outdoors: The Strange and Disturbing Disappearance of Stephanie Stewart From A Fire Lookout in Alberta.
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police News Release: RCMP Historical Homicide United Investigating Deaths of Three Women.
- Global News: Historical Homicide Unit Believes Unrelated Deaths of 3 Alberta Women Will be Solved. By Emily Mertz.
- CTV News Edmonton: RCMP Investigations Continue for Three Homicides, dating back to 1983, 2006, 2013. By Julia Parrish.
- Cold Case: A Look Inside the Alberta RCMP’s Historical Homicide Unit. By Quinn Ohler.
- CTV News Edmonton: RMCP Searching Near Hinton in 2006 Disappearance Investigation. By Julia Parrish.
- Edmonton Journal: A Pot of Boiling Water and a Smear of Blood: 12 Years Later, Fresh Clues Sought in Stephanie Stewart’s Disappearance. By Jonny Wakefield.
- CTV News Edmonton: 12 Years Later, New Clues Sought in Disappearance of 70-year-old Woman. By Jackie Dunham.
- The Danielle Smith Show: Interview with Kerry Shima RCMP Twitter on using Twitter to investigate disappearance of Stephanie Stewart.
- Calgary Herald: New Techniques Tested in Missing-Women Cold Cases. By Anna Junker.
- Crime Beat Alberta: Woman, 70, Still Missing After Disappearing 15 Years Ago From Fire Lookout Tower.
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police News Release: RCMP Historical Homicide Unit Seek Public Assistance Regarding the Disappearance of Stephanie Stewart.
- CTV News Edmonton: Police Renew Calls for Information to Help Locate Wildfire Tower Worker Missing 15 Years. By Adam Lachacz.
- Western Standard: Who Murdered Stephanie Stewart? By Dave Naylor. Published August 26, 2021. Accessed December 17, 2021.
Travis Vader Sources
- CBC News: Murder Trial of Man Accused of Killing Alberta Couple Opened Today in An Edmonton Courtroom. By Janice Johnston.
- CBC News: Travis Vader and The McCanns: 6 Years to a Decision. By staff.
- CBC News: Travis Vader Convicted of 2nd-degree Murder in McCann Deaths. By Rick McConnel.
- CBC News: ‘Terrifying For All Canadian’: Travis Vader Gets Life Sentence for Killing Elderly Alberta Couple.
- National Post: Travis Vader Sentenced to Life in Prison After Being Convicted of Killing Elderly Couple. By Staff.
- Toronto Star: ‘No Body, No Parole’: How The Killing of an Elderly Couple Led to the Push for a New Canadian Law. By Rosa Saba.
- The Canadian Press: “Terrific’ : Victims Son Pleased High Court Rejected Travis Vader Appeal Request. By staff.
- Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Reason for Judgment Filing. September 15, 2016.
Hi park enthusiasts,
I’m your host, Delia D’Ambra. The case I’m going to tell you about today is a bizarre one.
It’s the story of a forestry worker who disappeared from a fire spotting tower in the middle of the Canadian wilderness…under very suspicious circumstances.
What happened to 70-year-old Stephanie Stewart in the summer of 2006 is so suspicious that law enforcement officials in Canada no longer consider her JUST a missing person…
They categorize her as a victim of a homicide…even though her body has never been found.
Stephanie worked as a fire spotter for Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development Department which meant she spent several months out of the year living alone at a metal fire tower stationed in Alberta’s landscape.
A fire spotter is someone who spends their entire day keeping a lookout for puffs of smoke or lightning that indicate wildfires have sparked. When a spotter sees physical signs of a fire they relay the precise geographical location of smoke to firefighters, so those individuals can address the problem before it becomes deadly.
According to Canada Parks website there are more than 8,000 wildfires each year across the country’s provinces. Lightning strikes account for about 50 percent of these burns and in rare case officials have determined arson is the cause of some of them as well.
The roughly 130 fire spotters who work as lookouts are employed during the summer months when fire dangers are at an all-time high.
Many, if not all the spotters who work in this seasonal role, are outdoor enthusiasts who love nature and prefer the isolation of the woods over a busy life in the city.
These employees seem to me to be cut from the same cloth as lighthouse keepers. People who thrive working alone.
Stephanie Stewart was no exception. She loved the environment and the solitude of her tower.
What exactly happened while she was on duty 16 years ago has remained one of Canada’s most baffling mysteries…
This is Park Predators.
Around 8 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, August 26th, 2006…a regional supervisor for the Alberta Sustainable Resource Department noticed something strange. A fire tower spotter named Stephanie Stewart had not radioed in her normal morning weather report.
The check-in was a routine protocol that Stephanie’s supervisor knew the 70-year-old never missed. Lookouts were required to check in with their supervisors at least three times per day, every day. So, the fact that Stephanie had missed this first call-in was out of character.
Her supervisor didn’t panic right away though, he figured maybe Stephanie was in the process of climbing the 40-foot metal tower she worked in as a lookout.
Stephanie was nearing the end of a six-month stint operating as a spotter in Alberta’s Athabasca River valley which meant between the months of April and September, she spent most of her waking hours stationed inside the tower looking out over the remote wilderness just North of Jasper National Park.
At the base of her tower was a small cabin that the resource authority allowed employees to cook meals at and sleep in at night.
Alberta had been employing fire spotters since the 1930’s. So, the practice of stationing one person in a remote region to solely dedicate their time to keeping a lookout for wildfires was nothing new… and the job certainly wasn’t new to Stephanie. She’d worked in her role for 18 years, 13 of which she’d spent working at the Athabasca tower.
After waiting a few more minutes, her supervisor called Stephanie again around 8:30am but got no answer. He tried again…and again…and again, but the line just rang and rang, Stephanie didn’t pick up. Strange Outdoors reported that eventually the phone line at the cabin went dead…and that’s when Stephanie’s supervisor got a sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong.
One article mentioned that her supervisor heard someone pick up the phone line before it went dead, but I’m not sure how accurate that information is.
Anyway, shortly after 8:30, he drove from the nearby town of Hinton, Alberta…a rural community roughly three hours west of Edmonton, to check on Stephanie. Hinton was the closest town to the tower, but its exact location was more like 25 kilometers…or roughly 15 miles northwest of town.
When her supervisor arrived at the tower and cabin, he found a bizarre scene. Parked right at the base of the structure was Stephanie’s Dodge RAM pickup truck.
Normally the sight of the truck would have been a good sign indicating that she was there…BUT, when her supervisor went inside the cabin, he didn’t find Stephanie and she wasn’t up in her tower either.
Multiple news outlets reported that he found a pot of boiling water still bubbling on the stove and several bedding and personal items missing from the living quarters.
At that point, it was nine o’clock in the morning and he decided enough was enough. He called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police branch in Hinton and reported Stephanie missing.
Shortly after getting the call, RCMP detectives came out to the fire tower to investigate.
The Edmonton Journal reported that when units arrived and looked around inside Stephanie’s cabin, they determined that along with Stephanie… two pillows with blue cases were missing, a burgundy bed sheet and a Navajo-patterned quilt were gone, and a gold men’s watch that her employer said she’d kept as a sentimental keepsake her whole life was also missing.
Investigators noted the pot of boiling water that Stephanie’s supervisor had seen… and upon closer inspection found several smears and drops of blood.
The source material isn’t super clear about how much blood investigators found or where exactly the blood spots were…but some articles state blood drops were found on the steps leading up to the cabin, while other say smears were on the threshold of the front door. No source material explicitly says if blood was cast on the walls or furniture or anything like that.
RCMP has never revealed those details, so we’re left to wonder.
But, regardless of how much blood was present or where exactly it was in the cabin…the fact that it was present AT ALL caused police to speculate about a lot of different scenarios.
Had Stephanie injured herself and gone for help, without her vehicle? Was the blood the result of a struggle with someone? Was it even her blood?
Detectives couldn’t answer any of those questions, but they were determined to try and find out. Crime scene techs continued to process the cabin and examine the fire tower, but if they ever found anything more than what I just mentioned, that has never been reported. All I know is that clues were few and far between. To the point where police couldn’t be sure what exactly had happened.
The blood smears and all of Stephanie’s bedding being gone were not good signs but authorities had to at least consider the possibility that Stephanie had just walked away on her own for some reason. They couldn’t jump to any one theory right away.
They told The Star Phoenix that it was weird Stephanie’s tent and camping gear were left behind in the cabin, but her bed sheet, quilt and pillows were gone.
The lead detective on the case told the Edmonton Journal quote— “If someone just wandered off, they’d take a tarp or a tent.”—end quote. I guess the point he was trying to make was that if Stephanie had just randomly decided to leave on her own free will to go camp for a night or go out on a patrol or something…she would have taken the necessary gear to do so. She wouldn’t have just taken her bed sheet, pillows, and a quilt. She would have been smarter than that.
The gold watch being missing was also an interesting clue that investigators felt meant one of two things. Stephanie took it with her when she left…or someone who’d been uninvited had possibly robbed her of it.
Her Dodge pickup truck still being parked under the tower was also something detectives struggled to make sense of. Why was it still there?
None of the reporting on this case says whether police located Stephanie’s car keys inside the cabin, but I have to assume that they were accounted for since the truck was still parked under the tower. But who knows. RCMP had kept a lot of details like that under wraps.
Within a few hours of getting on scene, RCMP search and rescue staff as well as volunteers from the Alberta Sustainable Resource Development department launched a massive ground search in the immediate area surrounding the fire tower.
Until nightfall on Saturday, teams of trained searchers scoured hundreds of acres of woods calling out Stephanie’s name and looking for any trace of her.
Meanwhile, major crimes investigators started speaking with Stephanie’s co-workers and family members. They learned that just a few hours before she’d vanished, Stephanie had spoken on the phone with her adult daughter Lorie around nine o’clock on Friday night.
Lorie told police that during that conversation, her mom hadn’t mentioned being worried about anything or that she was expecting any visitors. Lorie said that Stephanie also had not mentioned any plans of leaving the fire tower the following day.
CBC News reported that every now and then Stephanie would leave her post, but ONLY to pick up food, supplies or mail. Otherwise, she pretty much stayed in the tower all the time.
IF she was going to make a trip like that into town, she would schedule it and she was required to radio into her supervisor or another fire tower spotter to let them know she was leaving. It was a buddy system of sorts.
So, the fact that a call like that had never taken place late Friday night or early Saturday morning, plus the fact that her truck was still at the tower, strongly indicated to authorities that more than likely Stephanie had been taken away from her outpost against her will OR something had happened to her that was so urgent she’d been unable to check-in with another spotter before leaving.
For many of you at this point…maybe you’re thinking what I was at first…which is, this woman was 70 years old. Maybe she got confused, suffered a bout of forgetfulness, fell, or just wandered away on her own.
Well, investigators determined that none of those things were likely scenarios…Mostly because Stephanie just wasn’t that type of person.
Her daughter Lorie and her close co-workers said that Stephanie was always responsible and never missed a check-in while she was on-duty. She never broke protocol and was NOT one to just walk away from her job or wander off.
Even though she was elderly, Stephanie was in great health and had no documented mental illness or early onset of dementia or anything like that.
Alberta’s vast wilderness was nothing new to her. When she wasn’t working as a fire tower lookout, Stephanie would return to her home in Canmore, Alberta near Banff National Park during the winter and do recreational activities there.
Her entire life she’d lived to explore Canada’s national parks and had great skills as a survivalist and outdoorswoman. Even when she started to get well into her upper 60’s she’d traveled the world doing what many would consider extreme adventuring for someone her age.
For example, seven months before she vanished, she’d solo cycled across Canada and even climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
There was no slowing this woman down, which is why the case was SO puzzling to RCMP detectives.
Annette Bidniak a spokeswoman for the resource development authority told the Edmonton Journal that Stephanie going missing was extremely upsetting and her disappearance was the first time a fire spotter for the department had vanished under suspicious circumstances while on-duty.
By Monday August 28th—two days after Stephanie disappeared–news about her case made its way to local and national news publications.
Since Saturday morning, 200 RCMP search and rescue team members and volunteers had tirelessly scoured nearly 7,500 square kilometers of woods and mountains around the fire tower, but nothing had surfaced that pointed police in any helpful direction.
Attempting to drum up leads, authorities issued a public plea for help and sent out Stephanie’s physical description to media outlets across Canada.
RCMP detectives asked people, especially those living within several miles of the fire tower to keep an eye out for any sign of her. The flyers described Stephanie as five feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds, had blue eyes, permed shoulder length gray and auburn hair, and wore eyeglasses.
Detectives specifically wanted people living in the Athabasca River valley to keep a sharp eye out for her if they were hunting in the woods or driving on rural roads. Police also wanted residents to report anything that seemed suspicious to them…. pieces of torn clothing…a trail of supplies. ANYTHING.
According to the source material out there for this case, rumors had started to swirl that maybe Stephanie had been attacked by an animal. The thought was that perhaps she’d been injured sometime on Saturday morning and decided for some reason to leave the tower and try and get to her truck but had been unable to do so.
The Calgary Herald reported that search and rescue staff who specialized in animal tracking had found animal droppings, paw prints and animal hair near the base of Stephanie’s tower, not far from her cabin…but the trackers had been unable to find signs of a scuffle or bloody attack.
So, in RCMP’s mind the animal attack theory was quickly ruled out because it just didn’t make sense when they considered the evidence they had found in Stephanie’s living quarters. Not to mention the fact that Stephanie’s body was nowhere near the tower or in the surrounding woods.
IF she’d been attacked by say a bear or wolf or something, there should have been a blood trail or SOME piece of evidence pointing to that on the ground near the cabin or tower…and there just wasn’t.
Police also considered the possibility that maybe Stephanie had fallen while trying to climb up the tower’s ladder…but again, the fact that her body had not been found near the tower or her cabin, made that scenario next to impossible.
Shortly after police sent out their plea for the public’s assistance…RCMP pivoted hard and doubled down on a theory they’d been silently thinking from the start.
Stephanie Stewart was not lost…she had not wandered away on her own… she was a murder victim.
Despite using helicopters equipped with infra-red technology and sending boats to drag the Athabasca River and other local waterways, no clues turned up related to Stephanie Stewart.
According to reporting by Can West News Service, on August 30th, –five days after she’d been missing— law enforcement announced it was calling off the ground search for Stephanie.
RCMP said it was pulling back its resources because the search efforts to find her had been fruitless and detectives didn’t think, based on the evidence they’d gathered so far, that she’d been attacked by an animal or voluntarily left her post.
They said all things considered, they were left with only one realistic avenue of investigation to consider.
The day after this announcement, Stephanie’s daughter Lorie and Lorie’s husband, Paul, spoke at a press conference alongside investigators at RCMP’s headquarters in Edmonton.
Lorie and Paul told reporters quote—“We all love Stephanie very much and are very concerned that she’s missing and has been for six days. She’s a hell of a woman. She’s very strong. She’s very independent. She’s very capable.”—end quote.
Lorie went on to tell reporters she could not wrap her head around why someone would have wanted to harm her mother. Stephanie had no known enemies and the location where she was working was not the easiest place to get to.
Just to give you some context, so you can visualize the area better, the fire tower where Stephanie was stationed wasn’t completely cut off from the outside world…but it wasn’t right on the side of a highway either. It was deep in the woods just a few miles down the road from a popular wilderness area known as William A. Switzer Provincial Park. That park housed a building called Athabasca Lookout Nordic Centre.
The center was used for outdoor sporting events and national park ceremonies.
Back in 2006, people coming to that area could easily access the fire tower’s location via a gravel road, but they’d have to go a little ways off the beaten path to do so. Visitors weren’t supposed to do this, but there were no gates or fences around the fire tower or cabin, so you could go right up to Stephanie’s front door if you wanted to…you just had to know it was there.
Because of this, police investigators had to consider the possibility that maybe someone who’d come into that area trying to blend in with the crowds or who was looking to hide out for a bit could have made their way to Stephanie’s quarters, unaware that she was even there.
According to The Edmonton Journal, one theory detectives considered was that maybe Stephanie’s disappearance had something to do with a growing drug trade that law enforcement knew had been operating in the Athabasca valley.
Police’s thinking was that maybe someone with bad intentions or who was trying to smuggle drugs through the area had come across Stephanie and decided to hurt her for some reason.
Jim Farrell and Ryan Cormier reported that residents and police were aware of incidents involving crack cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking near Hinton and in Northern sections of Jasper National Park. A lot of the traffickers who’d been caught up until that point would use rural roads inside the woods to elude detection.
Many of those paths crossed right under or next to fire spotting towers like Stephanie’s.
Detectives could only speculate, but they wondered if someone had shown up to the fire tower on Saturday morning, unannounced while Stephanie had been cooking breakfast and boiling water on her stove and taken her by surprise.
IF that was the case though, police felt sure the suspect or suspects would have had to have been driving their own vehicle. In the event they forced their way inside Stephanie’s cabin, that might have been where a struggle took place.
To add to their already desperate public plea for help, RCMP added that they were interested in hearing from ANYONE who’d seen suspicious vehicles or activities near Highway 40 or the Athabasca Nordic Centre on August 25th or 26th.
Authorities couldn’t prove outright that Stephanie had been abducted or killed…but that was definitely the direction they were headed. They just needed more information.
Unfortunately, weeks passed with no new information… Then on September 15th the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees—of which Stephanie was a union member—and the province’s forestry department offered up a $20,000 reward for information.
The president of the union told the Times Colonist quote—“We classified dedicated employees like Stephanie as part of our family, because we are family and when one of us hurts, all of us hurt.” – end quote.
The hope was that such a large sum of money would convince someone who knew something or saw something to come forward. But no one ever did.
The case remained at a standstill until January of 2007. According to an article by Trish Audette’s for the Edmonton Journal RCMP officials said that in the 5 months since Stephanie had vanished, they’d been working the case tirelessly.
They categorized her disappearance as a suspicious death and were treating it as a homicide investigation. They would not provide any information to the press though about what kind of evidence they had beyond what had already been released.
The agency released its annual homicide stats and reported that 2006 had the lowest number of murders in Alberta in recent history. The data showed that in 2005 there had been 49 murders in the province and in 2004 there had been 50.
In 2006, there had only been 36 homicides…but despite the reported downturn in homicides…the fact remained that RCMP still needed to catch a break in Stephanie’s case and with every month that passed, they just kept hitting wall after wall.
When the snow melted in May of 2007, the agency once again notified hikers and hunters to be on the lookout for clues that might be related to Stephanie’s disappearance. They handed out flyers to everyone who came into recreational areas in the Athabasca valley and even mailed letters to campers who’d been registered at campsites and parks back in August of 2006.
At the end of the summer in 2007, Alberta government officials released a lengthy safety report explaining changes they’d put in place in the aftermath of Stephanie’s disappearance.
CTV News reported that the government’s report recommended forestry workers receive self-defense training on a regular basis and be required to always carry radios that had emergency beacons and panic buttons.
The report also stated that all the province’s fire towers would be outfitted with secure fencing and gates to prevent anyone but government staff from being able to access the outposts.
Leading up to the proposed changes, forestry workers had been noticing more and more tourists venturing to the fire towers to take photos for social media or hang out. Officials told the Calgary Herald quote—“It must be remembered that fire lookout towers are work sites with inherent dangers and not a location to be romanticized by visitors.”—end quote.
Regular landscaping to clear away brush and trees that obscured the spotters’ line of sight to and from their towers also became mandatory.
The forestry workers union responded to the government’s changes with gratitude but were disheartened it had taken Alberta’s leaders so long to see how vulnerable fire spotters were in the wilderness and actually do something to protect them.
The union’s president told the Herald quote—“They’re doing the right thing. It was about time that those were reviewed and it’s too bad that a tragedy had to occur before they were looked at.”—end quote.
After July 2007, months turned into years with no new information surfacing in Stephanie’s case. RCMP put up billboards and posters in Jasper National Park and around the town of Hinton hoping to generate new leads, but nothing came in.
The five-year anniversary of Stephanie’s disappearance came and went…then the ten year… and her daughter Lorie was no closer to getting answers.
On each anniversary, RCMP officials released that they still had no suspects or leads in the case but despite having no proof that Stephanie was dead, detectives said they were still investigating her case as a murder.
A sergeant told CTV News Edmonton quote— “We do not have human remains, it’s still considered suspicious and we are approaching it as a homicide investigation.” – end quote.
A few years after that update, on August 22nd, 2018, RCMP launched a renewed ground search for Stephanie. At that point, it wasn’t explicitly said…but the unspoken objective of the search was to locate her remains IF they were out in the wilderness somewhere.
A sergeant named Kerry Shima updated the public about the search’s progress every day on RCMP’s official Twitter account.
He wrote a status that said quote— “I have no reason to believe Stephanie is alive and many reasons to believe she was murdered.”—end quote.
For eight days, he tweeted pictures of search and rescue teams with helicopters combing the hills and mountains of the Athabasca River valley. On August 29th, the search wrapped up and sergeant Shima reported that no new clues had been found.
The renewed search in 2018 came right after RCMP announced that its historical homicide unit was hoping to utilize new technology to not only solve Stephanie’s case…but TWO MORE murders of missing women near Hinton, Alberta that had gone cold.
According to a press release from RCMP released in 2018, detectives with the agency’s cold case homicide unit had been trying to solve three separate cases of missing women in Hinton, Alberta…One of which was Stephanie’s.
Authorities made it crystal clear that they did not think the three cases were linked in any way, but the circumstances surrounding all of them were kind of similar and incredibly difficult for police to put together.
First was the case of 16-year-old Shelly Ann Bacsu who disappeared from Hinton in May of 1983. Shelly had been out for a walk in the woods in the Athabasca River valley and failed to come home after several hours.
After her family reported her missing, police searched for her for days and eventually found her comb, and jacket with her library card in the pocket near the banks of the river. Her body was never located, and the case went cold. In a matter of months, it was re-categorized as a homicide.
The second case was Stephanie’s…and the third was the disappearance of a 44-year-old woman named Deanna MacNeil. Deanna actually vanished from a small-town east of Edmonton in November 2013, but RCMP grouped her in with their press release about Shelly and Stephanie’s cases because she had some ties to Hinton.
Back in 2013, one of her friends reported her missing after they hadn’t heard from her in two days. Thanks to surveillance footage and eyewitness accounts, investigators were able to track Deanna’s last movements to a bank ATM, a liquor store and eventually another friend’s house…but after that, her trail went cold. Just like Shelly and Stephanie, RCMP re-classified Deanna’s case from a suspicious missing person to a homicide.
Even though RCMP did not consider the three cases linked or in any way indicate they suspected the same perpetrator was responsible for the women’s deaths, they did continue to group the three women’s pictures and information together in media briefings.
A lead sergeant for the historical homicide unit told reporters quote— “In each of these three cases, we know that there are people out there who have knowledge of what happened to Shelly Ann, Deanna and Stephanie. We want to hear from those people, whether it be through Crime Stoppers, through their local detachment or through our own social media channels.”—end quote.
Global News reported that with all three cases, RCMP detectives were hoping to utilize advances in DNA technology to retest items of evidence to see if they could make some progress.
Investigators wanted to re-evaluate things like impressions from tire marks, shoe prints and fingerprints. They also wanted to do new DNA extraction on items of evidence like clothing, blood and other personal belongings.
By January of 2019 though, the Calgary Herald reported that all the testing on new equipment with new labs had been a bust.
Deanna MacNeil and Shelly Bacsu’s cases remained unsolved…and in August of 2021, the 15th anniversary of Stephanie Stewart’s disappearance rolled around with still no new leads having materialized.
CTV News Edmonton reported RCMP investigators were still asking the public for information related to the case.
The agency released a statement saying quote—“Alberta’s RCMP Historical Homicide Unit remains dedicated to this ongoing police investigation into Stephanie’s disappearance. Alberta RCMP resources continue working in partnership with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and civilian search and rescue teams in hopes of locating Stephanie.”—end quote.
And that’s where things have stayed…no answers…no new developments…no arrests. NOTHING.
While I was putting this episode together, I came across something that I thought was kind of interesting though…and I believe it’s important for you to consider if you’re going to try and make sense of Stephanie’s story.
It has to do with the arrest and eventual conviction of a man named Travis Vader.
Let me just preface what I’m about to tell you with the disclaimer that in NO WAY has Travis been officially linked to Stephanie’s disappearance and presumed murder…nor has he ever been named an official person of interest in the case…
BUT he was responsible for a double-murder of two elderly people in a wilderness area near Hinton a few years after Stephanie disappeared.
Honestly, I’ll probably do a future episode on Travis and his crimes on this show at some point because the story is SUPER WILD…but for now to make a long story short…I’ll just say that many people, including some members of law enforcement, have speculated whether Travis could have crossed paths with Stephanie in the summer of 2006.
Let me explain…
On July 3rd of 2010—so four years after Stephanie vanished— a 78-year-old man name Lyle McCann and his 77-year-old wife Marie left their home in Edmonton, Alberta to go on an RV trip to British Columbia.
They headed west on Highway 16 which passed right through Hinton.
On July 5th, two days after they hit the road, firefighters from the small town of Edson, Alberta—just 50 minutes east of Hinton—found the couple’s RV burned out at a campground. The motor home was charred beyond repair…and when fire investigators sorted through the mess, they realized that Lyle and Marie were not inside.
Also missing was their green Hyundai Tucson SUV.
The scene raised a lot of questions right away and RCMP major crime detectives immediately started investigating it as suspicious. They learned that the couple had been scheduled to meet one of their daughters at an airport in British Columbia on July 10th but had never made it.
After a few days of working the case and sifting through tips, witnesses came forward to report they’d seen the couple’s SUV driving around Edson *AFTER* the RV fire …which meant someone had been driving it, but the question was who?
Turned out, not the McCanns.
CBC News reported that RCMP detectives eventually identified 38-year-old Travis Vader as being the person seen driving it. Police put out an all-points bulletin for him and the SUV and two weeks after the couple disappeared, investigators found the SUV abandoned in the woods near Edson. Shortly after that, detectives arrested Travis on some outstanding warrants for drug trafficking and weapons possession that were unrelated to Lyle and Marie’s disappearance.
At the time of his arrest, Travis was a bit of a transient who had no home address and kind of bounced around from couch to couch.
By the end of August 2010, RCMP officials announced that Travis was the prime suspect in the couple’s disappearance but refrained from pressing charges against him until they had more evidence to prove he’d done something to the couple. From 2010 to 2012 Travis stayed in jail for his other charges and no sign of the McCann’s turned up.
The couple’s children had the courts declare Lyle and Marie legally dead and held memorial services in their honor.
In April 2012, the crown officially charged Travis with two counts of first-degree murder for the McCann’s deaths, despite not having their bodies.
What the government did have was a trove of physical evidence. They had Travis’s DNA and fingerprints in the couple’s SUV, on their belongings that were spattered with both Travis’s and the couple’s blood AS WELL AS phone records that showed someone had used Lyle McCann’s cell phone to text and call Travis’s girlfriend on the first day the elderly couple left for their camping trip.
The prosecution’s theory was that Travis had randomly chosen to rob the couple at their campground, at which point a struggle ensued and he likely shot both of them to death. It wasn’t a rock-solid case, mostly because they couldn’t conclusively confirm the sequence of events leading up to the murders…but prosecutors were sure, Travis was their guy.
It took several more years for the case to go to trial but in March of 2016 proceedings got underway and by September of that year, both sides had wrapped up their arguments. A judge ultimately sided with the prosecution and found Travis guilty of two counts of second-degree murder—not first-degree murder.
CBC News reported that shortly after the judge rendered his verdict, issues with the criminal code the judge had based his ruling on forced another judge to downgrade Travis’s conviction to two counts of manslaughter. Regardless of the criminal code language snafu—Travis was still sentenced to life in prison…which according to Canada’s sentencing guidelines meant he’d be eligible for parole after serving only 7 years of that sentence.
The Toronto Star reported in 2020 that Travis maintained his innocence and declared he would not stop fighting for early release. To-date he remains incarcerated, and the bodies of his victims have never been found.
What I find so interesting about him is that HE WAS LIVING IN AND COMMITTING VIOLENT abductions and murders literally minutes from where Stephanie Stewart worked around the same time she vanished.
It’s speculative to think he was involved in her death, but I think the possibility should be considered by RCMP investigators.
And who knows, maybe they have looked at Travis. Maybe they have evidence that clears him.
All I can say is that SOMEONE is out there who operated as a vicious predator and had no remorse for taking Stephanie’s life.
Who that person is though, at least in Stephanie Stewart’s case…remains unidentified.
Anyone with information related to her disappearance should contact the Hinton RCMP branch at 780-865-2455 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Park Predators is an audiochuck original show.
So, what do you think Chuck? Do you approve? *howl*