(Reuters) - Canadian police said on Tuesday that a convicted kidnapper and attempted rapist who died in prison is responsible for at least one killing in British Columbia, and U.S. authorities linked him to the slayings of four other teenage girls.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said partly based on improved DNA testing, it is certain that Bobby Jack Fowler murdered 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen in 1974. Fowler died of lung cancer in an Oregon prison in 2006.
Separately, the Lincoln County, Oregon, district attorney's office linked Fowler to the killings of four teenage girls. It said he is a suspect in a 1995 double murder and a person of interest in a 1992 double murder.
At a press conference in Surrey, British Columbia, RCMP Inspector Gary Shinkaruk described Fowler as a violent drifter suspected of killing and terrorizing women for decades.
"He was extremely violent. He was also very charming and disarming at some times, but people tell us that his personality could change on a moment's notice," said Shinkaruk.
Shinkaruk asked the public to contact authorities with any information on Fowler, who worked in construction and took odd jobs, moving often and living in rentals or motels.
Fowler had a long criminal history and may be responsible for other killings in British Columbia. Police said possible victims include Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington, both 19, who disappeared separately in 1973.
Shinkaruk said investigators have interviewed several women who survived Fowler's assaults, and believe he intended to kill some of them.
"He was of the belief that a lot of the women that he came in contact with, specifically women that hitchhike and women that went to taverns and beer parlors and drank, that they had a desire to be sexually assaulted," said Shinkaruk.
U.S. authorities said Fowler was arrested in 1995 after a woman managed to escape from him by leaping, naked and with a rope tied around one ankle, from a second-story motel window.
Charged with kidnapping, assault and attempted rape, he was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.
MacMillen's case is one of 18 homicide or missing person cases covered by the RCMP's "Project E-Pana," focusing on women who vanished or whose bodies were found near highways in British Columbia from 1969 to 2006. Most of the victims were hitchhiking at the time they disappeared.
Investigators in the "E" division, which covers British Columbia, named the project after an Inuit goddess said to care for souls of the dead.
Victims' advocates and media have dubbed the route from Prince Rupert to Prince George, British Columbia, the "highway of tears" because of the number of bodies found along there.
MacMillen was last seen leaving her home in Lac La Hache, 186 miles south of Prince George along Highway 97. Her body was found off a logging road south of her home. Police did not say how she was killed.
Fowler has been ruled out in eight of the 18 E-Pana cases, Shinkaruk said.
E-Pana is one of several task forces reviewing files on missing women in Canada. Project Even-Handed led to the 2007 conviction of serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Women disappeared from the rough neighborhood for more than a decade before Pickton's arrest in 2002. At trial, prosecutors said Pickton once told an undercover police officer he had killed 49 women and wanted to make it an even 50.
After Pickton was convicted of six murders and sentenced to life in prison, prosecutors opted not to pursue 20 other charges. The case reverberated across Canada, drawing attention to other disappearances.
Documents from an ongoing public inquiry into the matter say that aboriginal women are overrepresented among murdered or missing women. Campaigns by aboriginal and women's groups had raised the profile of the disappearances, prompting calls for an investigation into the handling of the cases.
The inquiry is expected to complete its final report by October 31.
Editing by Xavier Briand