Ray Michalko was a former RCMP officer who quit the force after getting transferred to Vancouver where the style of policing was a little too genteel for his tastes.
In The Vanishing, this is how I described meeting Ray for the first time:
I met Michalko one morning at an east side Vancouver coffeehouse. At six-two, 240 pounds, with arms that take up more than his share of the table, Michalko, 64, still looks like he could handle himself in the Manitoba mining-town bar brawls where he cut his teeth as a Mountie.
Michalko left the force after he was transferred to Vancouver, where they expect their cops to be more refined. “If somebody in Manitoba told you to fuck off,” he says, “you flattened him, and there was no flap. Here, it was a lot different.”
After leaving the RCMP, Ray hung up his shingle as a private investigator. He mainly did insurance work, the bread and butter of any private dick, staking out deadbeats trying to scam disability insurance and snapping pictures of them moving refrigerators and playing golf.
When a string of murders and disappearances of women and girls along Highway 16 reached into the double digits and started hitting the news, Ray was pissed that the cops weren't solving any of the cases. His wife Shirley finally got tired of Ray yelling at the TV every time the story appeared, so she told him to put up or shut up.
From that moment on, Ray spent most of his free time working on the Highway of Tears. He worked pro bono, in one case taking a single Loonie from one victim's sister in exchange for the hundreds of hours and thousands of miles he put in trying to solve the murder.
I spent quite a bit of time with Ray up in BC, visiting with victims' families, tracking down leads and potential suspects, visiting crime scenes, working on a TV crime show together, and even once meeting up in a secluded owl sanctuary like a couple of Cold War spies so he could hand off some documents.
Ray was a great story teller, and finally wrote a book about his experiences and his battles with the RCMP, "Obstruction of Justice: The Search for Truth on Canada's Highway of Tears." The title recalls the threats made against Ray by the RCMP after they told him to back off and he told them the same thing he used to flatten Manitoba morons for saying.
I never saw Ray dressed in anything except black. He liked the cloak and dagger stuff and the tough guy pose (even though he told me he actually based his investigative technique on Detective Columbo's strategic bumbling). He was a genuine tough guy, but even more so he cared. He cared that justice wasn't being served and he cared, especially, when he saw First Nations victims marginalized and maligned.
The Ray I watched stalking the back streets of Prince George and the trailer park reservations squatting along 16 to follow yet another faint cold-case clue in the hope of bringing closure to a family who felt forgotten by the authorities was the real Ray.
He was a good man with big arms and a bigger heart who will be dearly missed.
My thoughts are with his family and the communities along the Highway of Tears who've lost one of their greatest friends and champions.