Wednesday, April 5, 2017


Very sad to hear of the passing of a friend I met while reporting on Canada's Highway of Tears.

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.     

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

RCMP Admits They're Getting Nowhere on Highway of Tears

Ten years ago, under immense pressure from the communities along Canada's Highway 16, the RCMP created E-Pana, a special police unit dedicated to solving murders along this infamous stretch of British Columbia.

Locals say at least 50 women and young girls have gone missing or have been found murdered along what they began calling the Highway of Tears. The police sifted through those cases and chose 18 to concentrate on.

At its height, E-Pana had 70 investigators and staff working the cases. And after stuffing all the details from each murder into a crime computer, they announced they had thousands of suspects--creating their own haystack they then tried to search for needles.

Using modern DNA techniques not available at the time of the murders, they connected one victim, 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen, to a US serial killer named Bobby Jack Fowler. Fowler, though, had already died in prison.

Currently, a Canadian serial rapist is being held in connection with the murders of two BC girls including the Highway of Tears case of Monica Jack, who was 12 at the time she was taken, though her body wasn't found for nearly 17 years.

Other than those two cases, however, there's been no resolution for the victims' families and the communities along Highway 16 that are still afraid that killers are stalking their daughters. After exhausting every new clue they could find, E-Pana has now scaled back to eight investigators.

In an interview during a town hall meeting about the investigations, RCMP Sgt Wayne Clary admitted that he's told families that the rest of these crimes may never be solved.

One thing that does help move the cases is pressure on the police from the community and the media, which is why they formed E-Pana in the first place. For many of the rest of these murders, it appears that the only way they'll be solved is by people in the local communities finally coming forward with more information.

As Clary said of the police effort, "We've turned over every stone we can."

For background on the Highway of Tears murders, you can read my story, The Vanishing, in Outside magazine.      

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Little Better News for the Barefoot Bandit. Plus: Big Discounts for You in the Freezer Section!

Colton Harris-Moore, retired airplane pirate and future serial entrepreneur, is continuing his quest to raise the cash necessary to cryogenically preserve his dying mother, Pam Kohler. Donations so far total only $2,115, but the good news is that Colton has managed to reduce the amount needed for the procedure from $308,000 to only $230,000 by recalculating fundraising costs and obtaining a membership for her in Alcor’s frequent freezer program.

Yes, of course, that last bit’s a joke. But it’s to make the point that this whole thing is not a joke.

Alcor is a real company that along with other cryonics organizations already have more than a thousand people (some just their heads, others full-body) held in industrial tanks “frozen” into a hopefully suspended animation (the animation and re-animation are the tricky parts). And Alcor does indeed have a membership program that offers a discounted rate for treatment, and Colton tells me that Pam is now a card-carrying member.

I just got off the phone with Colton and he said how hard it is to get people to take this idea seriously. He knows it’s out there on the edge of experimental science, but he has full faith in technology advances and thinks the rest of us should too.

Colton now has such confidence and belief in cryonics that he says he’s going to form his own company when he gets out of prison. So, like the bennies early investors get in other crowdfunding plans, Colton is offering the full freeze treatment at his future cryonics company to anyone who donates at least $25 at SAVEPAMK That’s a savings of at least… well, it’s basically free compared to what established companies are charging. I think Colton may have priced this perk a little low, but maybe he plans to make it up in volume. For anyone thinking of donating, it’s about the cheapest out-there immortality insurance around, and much better than that name-a-star BS.

Part of the problem with cryonics is the image it has of a mad scientist reaching into a Frigidaire to dig out a can of Red Bull from between the frozen heads of his patients. (And if it didn’t have that image, it does now). The process, though, is a lot more involved than just tossing someone in a bait freezer. As Colton has several media interviews lined up in the coming days, I suggested he might explain a bit more about cryonics and how the bodies are actually vitrified—turned into glass—using cryoprotectants to freeze them without turning them to ice, which damages cells. But that probably doesn’t sound any less sci-fi and instead probably invokes the freeze ray scene from Rocky Horror.

So Colton has a very tough hill to climb with this effort. He knows that, but he’s still giving it his all. And regardless if this is a case of unresolved issues between them or just simply a son’s love for his mother, I respect his extraordinary effort and I’m impressed with his focus and management abilities.

I recently released an updated ebook version of The Barefoot Bandit in which I talk about how Colton and I finally connected a couple of years ago and whether the outlaw Colt that I came to know from living through his crime spree here on Orcas Island, tracking him all the way from the Pacific Northwest to the Bahamas, and doing all the research on his childhood, was very different from the Colton Harris Moore I now know as a friend. Spoiler alert: they’re not very different, other than the outlaw part. And that’s a good thing. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Colton Harris-Moore has been in custody since July 11, 2010, when Bahamian police captured him after shooting out the engines on his getaway boat during a nighttime chase. In those 69 months, Colton has seen his mother, Pam Kohler, only twice, once in a courtroom and once for a short prison visit.

It’s no secret that mother and son have had an often turbulent relationship. The dingy trailer they shared on Camano Island was the center of many wild storms while Colton was growing up. But both Pam and Colton have told me that there were also good times at their little spot amid the tall cedar and fir trees. They especially bonded over their shared love of animals and the outdoors. They raised chickens and pigs, and always had a dog for Colton to buddy around with. Pam cooked out for them on what she calls her “barbeque’r” every chance she got and took Colton camping as often as possible, teaching him the skills he’d need to survive on his own in the woods.

Despite their troubles and Pam’s personal struggles, Colton has always said he still loves his mom. His plans for as soon as he got out of prison included starting work so he could pay to level that old trailer and build Pam a little log cabin in its place.

Pam’s health hasn’t been great for a long time, and Colton became increasingly concerned about some breathing issues she had late last year. Knowing his mom isn’t the most cooperative of patients, Colton begged Pam to see a doctor, and finally resorted to bribing her with ice cream deliveries if she'd agree to the tests needed to get a diagnosis.

It wasn’t good. Colton’s mom has stage IV lung cancer—NSCLC for those who know about these things.

Those who’ve been reading Colton’s blog (Tidalsocata) know that he and I have been in frequent contact for the last 18 months. (I’ll write more about that in a later post) I’ve been very impressed by how Colton took charge of Pam’s care: arranging her transportation and new housing, and dealing with all the doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies as he sought the best treatments and therapies. He’s doing all of this while still holed up in Stafford Creek Correctional Center and limited to the exasperating prison phone and email systems. He has zero access to the internet and relies on friends to do any research he needs.

Colton’s prison term is over at the beginning of next year, but he’s eligible for a work-release program at the end of this July. On work-release, he’d overnight in a halfway house but be allowed to leave each day to go to work (he’s received multiple job offers). Colton says the best part of early release would be that he’d be better able to take care of his mom. Unfortunately, though, it looks like July will be too late.

Recently, the docs told Colton to give up, that Pam’s case is terminal. She missed her shot at a clinical trial, and now they say she and Colton should just get ready for her to pass within a couple of months.

So for those of you who know his story, what would you expect Colton to do next? Certainly not give up, even when it comes to death.

Colton is now raising money to get Pam treated at Alcor Life Extension Foundation ( And this is where truth meets science fiction, as Alcor specializes in cryonics: the process of vitrifying people at low temperature as soon as they die in the hopes that they can be reanimated sometime in the future.

Yes, insert Walt Disney frozen head joke here. By coincidence, though, I’ve been researching cryonics for a project I’m working on, and while definitely on the exploratory edge of medical science it’s nonetheless very intriguing. If you have faith in the continual leaps in technology we’ve seen in the last 30 years, and see how fast nanotech is advancing… then why not?

I can imagine 100 years from now an army of nanobots marching through my long-frozen skull repairing all the damage and stringing the synapses back up while my fresh new 20-year-old cloned body waits soaking in a saline bath on the other side of the lab. Or maybe it’ll take 200 years… how long won’t matter to those frozen inside the metal tubes.

So beyond the ethical questions of cryonics, beyond even the debate over its eventual viability, lies the reality of a son doing everything he can to help his mother in the hopes that at some point in the future they can revive their relationship.

Colton is raising money at this GoFundMe site: Save PamK


Monday, April 11, 2016


It occurred to me that I might want to explain the macabre change in my blog background. 

No, I haven’t gone Goth (again), and it wasn’t because we’ve just emerged from the rainiest, gloomiest Northwest winter in recorded history (a new puppy in the house tends to keep you too busy for the blues).

The original background image for Outlaws & Outcasts was simply the Wild Westiest stock wallpaper they had on blogger. I’ve always wanted to personalize it. But how? I decided, at least for the moment, to change it to an image that fits what I'm currently working on. I took the shot of the skull inside Actun Tunichil Muknal, a spectacular cave in Belize that I’ve explored multiple times over the last 16 years.

Same cave, different victim. Photo by Bob Friel
The skull belongs to a victim (or honoree, depending on your point of view) of human sacrifice. Maya priests led its owner into the cave, which they considered the entrance to Xilbalba, the “Place of Fear,” dwelling place of the Death Gods as well as the Rain God, Chac. More than a mile deep inside the cave, they carried out the ritual killing to appease the higher ups of the underworld.

Actun Tunichil Muknal was an active sacrificial site circa AD 250-900, the Maya Classic Period, with a lot of that activity in the latter years when a drought hit Central America and the Maya were desperately trying to persuade Chac to make it rain.

The skull, human sacrifice, and related Maya traditions (among many other cultures’ traditions) are related to a project I have in the works, so I felt it fitting to plaster my page with a momento mori. I hope to be able to announce something about the project here later this year.

As the skull might counsel: East, Drink, and Be Merry.



Wednesday, December 16, 2015


After years of a whole lot of nothing happening to improve conditions along a deadly stretch of Canada’s Yellowhead Highway, aka “16,” and notoriously known as The Highway of Tears, it looks like there’s finally some governmental action.

Depending on whose figures you go with—the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the First Nations’ officials and activists—there have been between 18 and 100-or-so women and girls gone missing or found dead along the 450-mile length of Highway 16 between Prince George and its western terminus at Prince Rupert.

(For full background on the chilling story and the factors that make this lonely road through British Columbia so dangerous, see my Outside magazine piece The Vanishing )

Multiple Canadian inquiries about the disappearances going back more than three years have come up with obvious common-sense solutions to mitigate some of the most important risk factors for women traveling the highway, especially financially strapped First Nations women without their own means of transportation. Now, finally, after the recent change of Canadian federal government and an email scandal related to the issue in the BC Transportation Ministry, comes concrete action in the form of a few Loonies (Canadian dollars) earmarked for the Highway 16 improvements.

Women forced to hitchhike along the highway to get to jobs, visit relatives, collect government checks or just go anywhere have always had among the highest risk of abduction. The lack of convenient, affordable public transport for the economically struggling First Nations people of Northern BC was the glaring problem with the simplest solution. Not that simple means easy. It’s a long highway, and a couple big buses running the road each day wouldn’t solve the problem for people who live in such small, scattered communities.  

What’s needed is a tribal transportation system where each of the settlements could have access to its own vans or buses in addition to better access to the province’s regular bus system, BC Transit. And that’s what’s finally happening.

According the CBC, of the $3 million (CAD) that will be spent on a new Highway 16 safety program, about half will go to “extend and enhance” BC Transit so it can better serve these communities. More importantly, $900,000 will be spent over three years to buy vans and to train drivers for provide transport for the most remote First Nations settlements.

Another $500,000 will go toward installing transit shelters and webcams along the highway.

For those following the story of 20-year-old Madison Scott’s tragic disappearance covered in The Vanishing, unfortunately there have been no promising leads. Family, friends, and members of her community in Vanderhoof, BC, continue to search and to hope.           

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Latest Barefoot Bandit / Colton Harris-Moore “News”

Long time no write! 

I didn’t want to comment on the latest spate of news stories about Colton and 20th Century Fox, but since almost all of them have factual errors, I figured I’d let you guys know the real story.

First, as anyone who read the book knows, Colton took five planes, not three. And way more than one boat. Not that it’s likely something he’d want to brag on, but let’s keep the record straight.

The first story that appeared in a Seattle paper also stated that Colton was already out of prison and in a halfway house. That is not true. It said he’ll be a free man in March. Not true.

Colton continues to serve his sentence in a Washington State prison. He’s doing as well as can be expected in there, he’s working on a series of productive projects, studying a lot, and looking forward to his future.

The main thrust of the recent articles makes it sound like 20th Century Fox suddenly rushed in to pay Colton’s restitution in return for his movie rights. Not exactly true.

During negotiations of Colton’s plea deals and sentencing back in 2011/early 2012, Fox offered to option his life rights for a movie they planned to make based on my book, which they had already optioned. Colton, who said he’d prefer no movies or books or anything else about him would ever get released, agreed to the Fox deal but only on the condition that the amount they offered was enough to repay all his victims.

No matter what happened, Colton was going to be ordered to repay the victims. Under normal circumstances, that means a convicted criminal serves out his prison term, gets out, hopefully finds some kind of job, and begins making small payments until he covers what’s due. In the case of Colton’s victims, that would have meant waiting at least five years to start seeing any money at all and, unless he got out and found a high-paying job right away, they might not have been fully paid off for another dozen or more years.  

But if he signed with Fox, Colton could start repaying his debt immediately. Fox agreed to the amount, and the federal attorneys drew up a lengthy plea deal that unequivocally states that Colton can never personally profit from anything related to his notoriety as the Barefoot Bandit. He also cannot try to skirt the deal and help, say, a member of his family profit from it. The agreement states that any money collected via deals like the one with Fox would all go to pay restitution. Any money ever collected above and beyond the approximately $1.2 million he owed would go to the government. This deal, as written, follows Colton for the rest of his life.  

Once the plea deal was signed and Colton sentenced, Fox began making option payments—smaller payments that pay down the balance and keep the contract alive—every 18 months. So, his victims started receiving restitution three years ago.

This latest news is because someone leaked the info that Fox had decided to pay off the full balance of their contract with Colton. I don’t know the exact figures, but based on typical option percentages it’s probably a lump between $800,000 and $960,000. Whatever the number is, Fox paid that to the government and it will now be distributed to the victims.

Also, as I reported here some time ago, the judge’s order states that private victims would be paid back before insurance companies. Colton has repeatedly stated his remorse, particularly for the private victims and mom-and-pop shops he stole from here on Orcas Island.

So dem’s the facts. As usual there is the online debate in the comments sections after the stories. Even with the erroneous facts in the recent pieces, the reporters have all still clearly said the money goes to the victims. That hasn’t stopped some commenters from either decrying or cheering that Colton is getting paid. (Yes, the money is paying off Colton’s debts so it does benefit him, but they’re writing as if he’s pocketing the cash). 

The dumbest comment I’ve read online regarding this whole thing came from someone complaining that the US Marshals were being paid off before other victims. Uh, the US Marshals receive the money, yes, but that’s in order to pay it out to the victims.

So the other questions: What does this all mean for the movie? Do we finally know which heartthrob will play Colton? Will Bill Murray agree to play me? Will they ever find a dog cool enough to play Murphy? Will Hollywood make a few minor changes in the story to make it more bankable, such as moving all the action to a South Pacific island where Colton, now a Chinese violin prodigy, will steal submarines instead of airplanes in order to foil a band of international terrorists bent on financing their nefarious deeds by poaching Russian sturgeon and smuggling the caviar into the Middle East?

Um… I don’t know. This is all being held pretty close to the vest down in LA. The Fox payoff could be read as a positive sign that the movie is moving forward. On the other hand, every month or so there’s a movie released based on a true story that happened 10, 50 or 100 years ago (or in the case of the upcoming Heart of the Sea, the event happened almost 200 years ago and the latest book about it, on which the movie is based, came out 15 years ago!).

Unless the story is about someone fighting crime or aliens while wearing ballerina tights, Hollywood seems in no rush to get it to the screen.