Last texts before they were shot
It was a year ago this week that Sheila Deese got the 11pm knock on the door every parent dreads.
"Your daughter is deceased in Canada," a North Carolina police officer said abruptly after guiding her to the couch and handing her a number to call for more details.
Her daughter Chynna Deese, 24, and Chynna's Australian boyfriend Lucas Fowler, 23, had been killed on the side of the road in British Columbia sometime between July 14-15 last year.
Chynna and Lucas had just set off on a driving holiday when their Chevrolet van broke down on the Alaska Highway, leaving them stranded about 20 kilometres from the town of Liard Hot Springs in the remote Canadian wilderness.
The young couple had been spotted earlier in the day by passers-by sitting by the side of the road eating cheese and drinking chocolate milk before teenagers Kam McLeod, 18, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 19 stumbled upon them and senselessly shot them dead.
McLeod and Schmegelsky would go on to kill 64-year-old university lecturer Leonard Dyck four days later on another Canadian highway 470 kilometres away.
The pair drove Mr Dyck's RAV4 3000 kilometres east to Gillam, sparking Canada's largest ever manhunt. It would last 15 days and stretch across three Canadian provinces before McLeod and Schmegelsky were found dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in northern Manitoba bushland.
Ms Deese says she last spoke to Chynna on July 13, 2019, and that she was excited about having met up with Lucas, their trip so far and the adventure to come.
"The last thing Chynna said to me was 'We won't have Wi-Fi for a while so don't worry mum and I love you'," Ms Deese recalls. "So I wasn't worried when I didn't hear from her and plus she was with Lucas.
"There was not an ounce of worry I had about this trip because it was Canada, Canada was meant to be safe. Chynna had travelled to 13 different countries, why would anything happen to her in Canada?" Ms Deese said. "I never expected that I would never hear from my daughter again."
A year on, Ms Deese, and Chynna's siblings Stetson, 31, Kennedy, 30, and British, 28, are still trying to deal with their loss.
"Some days I say, 'God, I don't know how you think I can get through this'," Ms Deese says. "You have to accept it. I don't want to accept that I am not going to see her again but I am trying to work through that part.
"I know a few people who have lost a child but it's different when your child is murdered.
"The fact that they looked at my daughter and decided to take her life I still struggle to understand. Chynna and Lucas were two beautiful people who should still be here," she says.
Ms Deese says she likes to remember Chynna and Lucas as they were when seen on CCTV footage at a petrol station as they were about to set off on their great adventure.
"You are who you are when no one is looking and that is who they were," Ms Deese says. "Chynna gets out while Lucas is filling up the van and washes the windows. They were a team, always helping each other. That footage of them hugging is really haunting but it is a gift to see how much they loved each other."
Ms Deese, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, says one of the things that has given her strength in her time of grief is an unexpected friendship she has formed with a 73-year-old Irish truck driver who lives in Canada.
"It was about a month after Chynna and Lucas were killed when I was sent a story about this man named Ed Grennan who had set up a memorial at the site where they died," she says.
"He started with two flower crosses and other truck drivers would stop and put cards or rocks or other flowers and once we got in touch he would send me photos of the memorial."
From there, the memorial grew with the ranch that Lucas had worked on dropping off his work boots and strangers dropping off gifts and mementos.
"I have sent an American flag, a North Carolina flag," says Sheila. "It is the kindest thing because this was a total stranger and it wasn't a one-time thing. Here we are a year later and they are still tending to it.
"There are cards with over 100 signatures from truck drivers, someone even left some Vegemite in honour of Lucas. The truck drivers will stop there, and other strangers, I am told they sometimes eat lunch or sing or pray."
Mr Grennan, who lives about 500 kilometres away in the town of Whitehorse, Canada, was driving past when police were recovering Chynna and Lucas' bodies.
"After they took the bodies away all that was left was two marks on the side of the road," recalls Mr Grennan. "So my partner said why don't you do something? I thought I should get something going so people can stop with their families. It is a beautiful area and it is a shame that something so horrible happened in such a beautiful spot.
"I was there when I met a young couple who had driven 250 miles (400 kilometres) to put flowers there and pay their respects. They were horrified by what happened. These young people died for no reason so it hit home for a lot of people."
Mr Grennan says he feels bonded to Ms Deese having lost his own daughter from botulism when she was just 17. In September 1995, his daughter Mary-Anne got poisoned by bad fish they had eaten.
"I was sick, her boyfriend was sick, but we didn't get it as bad as her. I didn't make it to the hospital with her because I was sick," says Mr Grennan.
Mary-Anne was in a coma for nine months before she died and, like Chynna and Lucas' deaths, the case was much publicised in Canada. Mr Grennan said he knows how much tougher it is to grieve while in the media spotlight.
"I tell Sheila that you will never get over losing a child but if you are like me you will learn to live with it," he said. "It was three years after my daughter died until I could look at her pictures on the wall or go the cemetery.
"The memorial though is really about Chynna and Lucas' story. It is important that they are remembered in a nice way. If it is the last thing I ever do in my life then I am happy."
Ms Deese said she would love to visit the memorial, but not just yet.
"Ed and the others have made something ugly very beautiful," she said. "It is the greatest thing that he has done but I told him I don't know if I am quite ready to see it because I still see it as a grave or a place of tragedy. It is something that I am working on.
"Getting to know Ed has also been a gift. My dad was a truck driver like Ed and my dad isn't here anymore and that's the sort of thing my dad would do. For a father to do what he has done is outstanding," Ms Deese says.
Mathew Murphy is a freelance writer based in the US
Originally published as Last texts before they were shot