The British Columbia Triangle
Missing Men of the Thompson Plateau
In this six-part series, we’ve explored a host of unsolved disappearances and spooky native legends endemic to a certain region in British Columbia’s southern interior. Last week, we examined the cases of five women who all mysteriously vanished from this area within a 19-month period. In this video, we’re going to take a look at five male disappearances that occurred immediately afterward, in the very heart of the British Columbia Triangle.
Just one month after Nicole Bell’s disappearance from the Salmon Arm area, a man named Luke Neville vanished from the town of Spences Bridge at the opposite end of the Interior Plateau. Neville was the first of six men to disappear from that same general area from 2017 to 2020, in a pattern eerily evocative of the recent vanishings in the Northern Okanagan.
Before we examine this latest epidemic of mysterious disappearances in the British Columbia Triangle, we must first acquaint ourselves an earlier incident that took place in the exact same area which has baffled the RCMP to this very day.
Kelly Dean Morrison
October 22, 2013; Stump Lake Ranch
Halfway between the cities of Kelowna and Merritt, at the edge of the B.C. Highway 5A, lies Stump Lake, the little brother of the more southerly Nicola Lake. Surrounded by rolling hills interspersed with stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine, this prairie oasis appears in Dr. George Dawson’s 1879 report on the geological features of BC’s southern interior. “Stump Lake,” Dawson wrote, “derives its name from the fact that the stumps and the prostrate trunks of trees are found submerged along its edge, and even far out from the shore, showing that it cannot long have occupied this part of the valley.” Dawson went on to mention that some of the natives he spoke with recalled a time when the lake did not exist.
The oldest continually-occupied dwelling in the area is the historic Stump Lake Ranch, situated on the lake’s northeastern shore along the Old Kamloops Road. Founded in 1883, the establishment is now a guest ranch which annually welcomes visitors from all over the world.
In 2013, the owners of the Stump Lake Ranch hired a man named Kelly Dean Morrison to repaint the interior of their establishment. That fall, the 44-year-old house painter moved his trailer home onto the ranch and set about his work.
Morrison, who had previous experience as a politician and reporter, was at a low point in his life when he began his job at the Stump Lake Ranch. Weeks earlier, he had separated from his wife, leaving his three children in her care. As he went about his business, prepping and painting various walls on the remote property, he gradually sank into a debilitating depression.
On his days off, Morrison made the 45-minute drive to Merritt to stay with his sister. His sibling, who has since passed away, was taking medication at the time to combat her own neurosis. During one of his visits, she gave Morrison a bottle of powerful and addictive sedatives which she had been using to help her sleep. These pills contained the drug lorazepam, a benzodiazepine which may increase the risk of suicide in users already suffering from depression.
Morrison began taking the pills his sister gave him in the evenings after work, hoping that the medication would take his mind off his current woes. Eventually, he began taking the pills during the day, while he painted. The medication’s effect on his performance was stark and unmistakable; the 44-year-old painter, who had always been a brisk and diligent worker, became uncharacteristically slow and lethargic, and his production plummeted accordingly. The change of pace did not go unnoticed by his employer.
On the morning of Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013, after several weeks of low productivity, Kelly Morrison showed up to work especially sluggish and withdrawn. Struck by his employee’s flagrant torpidity, and certain that he must be on drugs, regarding which he maintained a zero tolerance policy, the ranch owner fired him immediately and ordered him to remove his trailer from his property.
Dejected, Kelly Dean Morrison packed up his equipment and shuffled over to his truck. Inside, he called up his sister and informed her of his situation. His sibling suggested that he park his trailer on the street beside her home in Merritt and stay at her place until he found another job. Morrison thanked his sister, hung up the phone, and slipped his keys into the ignition. Then, in what seemed to be the cherry surmounting the worst morning he’d endured since his breakup, his truck failed to start.
At about 9:30 a.m., a tow truck company in Merritt received a call from Kelly Morrison requesting that a driver meet him at the Stump Lake Ranch. About three and a half hours later, at around 1:00 p.m., the tow truck driver reached the property and found the painter’s trailer and broken-down truck abandoned in a field beside the ranch house. Morrison himself was nowhere to be found.
On Halloween, nine days after Morrison was last seen, the RCMP conducted an air and ground search of the prairie surrounding Stump Lake Ranch for the missing painter. Neither the helicopter pilot nor the mounted ranch hands who assisted in the search found any clue as to Morrison’s location.
Two weeks later, on November 13th, concerned citizens from the surrounding community conducted their own search of the sprawling Stump Lake Ranch- the first of three volunteer-led search and rescue operations to which the property would be subjected, none of which yielded any hints as to Morrison’s whereabouts.
“We just don’t know what happened,” said Morrison’s mother, Elizabeth Faber, in an interview with the press. “It’s a complete mystery.” Later in the interview, Faber revealed that all of Morrison’s possessions, including his wallet and personal effects, were found in his trailer, and that none of the money in her son’s bank account was touched following his mysterious disappearance.
Bizarrely, Kelly Morrison was not the first member of his family to vanish under unusual circumstances. In the mid-20th Century, his grandfather went missing and was eventually declared dead, only to be found thirty years later living on the streets. Morrison’s uncle similarly vanished in the 1970s, and was found murdered shortly thereafter.
In the summer of 2016, three years after Kelly Morrison’s disappearance, Mrs. Faber hired a private investigator named Denis Gagnon to look into her son’s case. Despite Gagnon’s efforts, the fate of Kelly Dean Morrison remains as much a mystery today as it did on that fateful afternoon in the fall of 2013.
October 9, 2017; Spences Bridge
On October 9th, 2017, one month and a week after Nicole Bell disappeared from the Salmon Arm area, a 48-year-old home renovator named Luke Neville vanished from the town of Spences Bridge, located at the opposite end of the Thompson Plateau about 16 miles (25 kilometres) northeast of Lytton.
Luke Neville was the youngest of four brothers who grew up together in Montreal, Quebec. His teenage years were overshadowed by a tragic and traumatic event; in a website maintained by his brothers, a short biographical summary of Luke’s life seems to imply that the youngest Neville brother witnessed his father commit suicide when he was fifteen years old.
When Luke was in his late teens, he moved with his family to Ottawa, Ontario. After working a variety of odd jobs and experimenting with different professions, all four of the Neville brothers became professional firefighters, working side by side in the Ottawa Fire Service.
“It just speaks to the way our dad brought us up- always to take care of your brother, and everything is about family,” said Luke’s brother, Mark, of the close bond that existed between his siblings. “Family, family- he drilled that into our heads. Your friends will come and go, but your brothers will always be there for you.”
In 2001, Luke Neville, no longer willing to endure another Ontario winter, travelled the world in search of warmer climes. Eventually, he settled in the tiny village of Spences Bridge, British Columbia. He shared a residence with two roommates, started a home renovation business, and settled into a comfortable routine that would last thirteen years.
In September 2017, Luke Neville flew back to Ottawa to celebrate his nephew’s wedding. For a week prior to the ceremony, he visited with his brothers and other family members, living out of a houseboat that he rented. When the postnuptial festivities were concluded, he bid his family a fond farewell and returned to Spences Bridge. His brothers would never see him alive again.
Several weeks after the wedding, at 4:30 in the afternoon on Monday, October 9th, 2017, Luke Neville was seen driving his white 2003 Ford E250 van in the Spences Bridge area. He did not return to his residence that night, and the following evening, at 11:55 p.m., his roommates reported him missing to the Lytton RCMP.
The next day, police found Neville’s white van about twenty kilometres from his residence on the Sackum Forest Service Road, a logging road which meanders along the eastern slopes of the Thompson River Valley. The vehicle was scorched inside and out, as if it had been set on fire. The police searched the vicinity of the burned-out van but found no sign of Luke Neville.
Early into their investigation, the Lytton RCMP informed Neville’s family that they considered his disappearance suspicious, and did not expect to find him alive. The case was quickly taken over by the RCMP Southeast District Major Crimes Unit, whose media relations officer, Janelle Shoihet, released a statement declaring that the police were not at liberty to divulge the evidence they had gathered, but that they were confident that Luke’s disappearance was not the work of a conventional predator.
According to Mark Neville, “Police told us people in the Spences Bridge area… know what happened, but they’re not talking.”
In June 2018, at the insistence of the Neville family, the RCMP brought cadaver dogs to the site at which Luke’s vehicle was discovered. The dogs did not find anything of interest.
Later that fall, a Kamloops-based drone operator named Ryan Hillaby, with the assistance of a local Thompson Indian band, conducted an unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance operation around Nicomen Falls, a 272-foot-tall waterfall located south of the logging road on which Luke Neville’s van was found, in an area practically inaccessible to both helicopters and ground searchers. “Areas of interest were searched by law enforcement and search and rescue using canines and conventional aerial methods,” Hillaby later wrote of the SAR operations that the RCMP conducted in the area. “Neither method came up with positive results. While we did not find any objects of interest, we were relieved to eliminate one potential location where Luke might be found.”
On January 29th, 2019, Mark Neville travelled to Spences Bridge and erected two billboards on the side of the Trans-Canada highway, one at either end of the village. The signs include Luke’s name, some basic information regarding his disappearance, relevant contact details, and a plea that anyone with any information regarding his brother’s disappearance contact the authorities. Above a portrait of the missing man are the words, “Someone… knows something.”
February 17, 2018; Sun Peaks
“Someone knows something,” are the exact words that Syd Lecky, superintendent of the Kamloops RCMP, uttered during a press appearance related to another unsolved disappearance in the British Columbia Triangle, which took place four months after Luke Neville vanished from Spences Bridge. In the wee hours of Saturday, February 17th, 2018, a 20-year-old ski lift operator named Ryan Shtuka disappeared suddenly and mysteriously from Sun Peaks, an alpine ski resort town in the Shuswap Highland, located about 23 miles (36 kilometres) northeast of Kamloops.
Ryan Shtuka hailed from the city of Beaumont, Alberta, located just south of Edmonton. Until the ski season of 2017, he had lived at home with his parents, Heather and Scott, and his two younger sisters. Those who knew him described the athletic, six-foot-tall Albertan as jocular and easygoing- a man who avoided confrontation, but could hold his own when push came to shove.
Following his high school graduation in 2015, Shtuka had spent a year working for his father’s construction company followed by a year of post-secondary education. Unsure of the direction in which he wanted to steer his life, he decided to dedicate the winter of 2017/2018 to snowboarding, one of his great passions. To facilitate his adventure, he would work as a ski lift operator at Sun Peaks. His parents supported his decision, although some of his friends considered it uncharacteristically spontaneous.
On December 1st, 2017, Ryan Shtuka hugged his family for the last time and made the nine-hour drive from Beaumont to Sun Peaks. He and five other seasonal workers, including an old high school friend with whom he would share a tiny bedroom, moved into an old cabin at the southwestern edge of town, near the main road leading into the village.
Shtuka quickly settled into his new routine as a ski lift operator, spending every spare opportunity carving the powder on the slopes of Sun Peaks. Despite being naturally introverted, he made fast friends with his housemates and often went out for drinks with them on the weekends. It was just such an outing from which the 20-year-old Albertan vanished without a trace on the night of Friday, February 16th, 2018.
That evening, after ending their shifts at 7:00, Ryan Shtuka and his five roommates headed to Masa’s Bar & Grill, in the heart of the village near the main drag. After eating, drinking, and socializing for some time, the friends headed to Bottoms Bar & Grill next door, where they each received a pair of wireless headphones and participated in a silent disco.
The night flew by in a flash. In the words of Chris Feeney, a 31-year-old Australian and one of Shtuka’s roommates who had participated in the outing, “It felt like two Backstreet Boys songs and the night was over. None of us were ready to go home and we heard about a house party that may be going [on].” The friends headed over to the party, which proved to be a casual gathering of several dozen ski hill workers, and prepared to employ the rest of their night in drinking and socializing. The venue was a residence on Burfield Drive, located a five-minute walk from the cabin they shared, at the edge of the woods covering the foot of Mount Morrissey.
Midnight came and went, and by the early hours of Saturday, February 18th, several of Shtuka’s friends were considering heading to bed. The first to leave was Shtuka’s roommate and high school friend, James Maxwell, who departed at around 1:30 a.m., braving the bitter cold and the heavy snowfall that had begun to settle over Sun Peaks. Closer to 2:00, Feeney left the party with his girlfriend. Witnesses recall seeing Ryan Shtuka make to leave with the couple, rising from the couch on which he had been sitting, throwing his coat over his shoulders, and bending over by the door as if to slip on his shoes. No one at the party that night remembered seeing the Albertan actually exit the house, although none remembered him remaining behind either. All that Feeney could recall of the critical moments following his departure from the residence was that he was under the impression that Shtuka was walking behind him and his girlfriend. A minute or two into the short journey to the cabin, he looked over his shoulder and saw that no one was there.
When Ryan Shtuka failed to show up for work later that morning, his coworkers assumed that he must have crashed on someone’s couch after the party and lost track of time. When his supervisor finished his shift without receiving so much as a text from the young Albertan, he contacted his housemates to see if he was alright, only to find that none of his friends had seen or heard from him since the get-together the previous night; their texts to him had all gone unanswered. Alarmed, Shtuka’s roommate, James Maxwell, phoned the Kamloops Rural RCMP at 8:47 that evening and reported his friend missing. Maxwell then phoned Shtuka’s parents and broke the troubling news.
Following Maxwell’s phone call, the Kamloops Rural RCMP immediately contacted their police dog service, requisitioned a team of tracking dogs, and headed toward Sun Peaks. Guided by Shtuka’s roommates, the Mounties took their dogs along the trail from the Burfield Drive residence to the shared cabin, as well as along with every other path the missing man could possibly have taken following his supposed departure from the house party. Bizarrely, the canines were unable to find a scent trail.
The 22-man Kamloops Rural RCMP squad that responded to the scene was not the only party to head to Sun Peaks in search of Ryan Shtuka that night. The 20-year-old’s parents, Scott and Heather, also bundled into their vehicle and drove through the night from Beaumont to the remote ski resort, haunted by the gnawing certainty that something was terribly wrong.
The Mounties resumed their search at 5:00 a.m. the following morning, searching the trails, forests, and mountains surrounding Sun Peaks for any sign of the missing man. Their active theory was that Shtuka had fallen into a gully on his way home from the party on Friday night, either accidentally stumbling off some trail into the forest or deliberately heading into the woods on a perceived shortcut to the cabin. The Sun Peaks area had received heavy snowfall all weekend, and if Shtuka had lapsed into unconsciousness somewhere in the wilderness, he could well be covered by a layer of fresh snow.
Assisted by seventy-four volunteers, the search and rescue personnel combed the area with snowmobiles, tracking dogs, drones equipped with infrared cameras, and a helicopter. They searched until well after dark, finally retiring around midnight without having uncovered a single clue as to Shtuka’s location.
The frantic search and rescue operation was called off on Monday, its organizers apparently conceding that if Ryan Shtuka had indeed become lost or incapacitated in the wilderness on Friday night, as they suspected, then he had almost certainly frozen to death. In an unusual gesture of frankness and transparency, the Kamloops RCMP made a statement to the press in which they affirmed that their search, despite its thoroughness, had inexplicably yielded no evidence whatsoever. Although the Mounties remained on the case, their objective was now shifted from rescuing the young man to locating his body beneath the snow.
Ryan Shtuka’s parents remained on the scene long after the police and SAR personnel had gone home, unable to rest without finding their son. Renting a room in the village, they put their lives and hold and spent their days sifting through snowbanks and ditches with ski poles, desperate to find some clue that would lead them to Ryan’s body. The police, meanwhile, interviewed the resort employees who had attended the house party at which Shtuka was last seen.
In the months that followed Ryan’s disappearance, hundreds of volunteers from Alberta and British Columbia travelled to Sun Peaks to assist with the search, many of whom ended up working under the direction of Scott and Heather. What began as a series of disorganized, improvised forays into snow-packed ditches gradually evolved into a disciplined and efficient operation, sharpened by the rough whetstone of experience. Ribbons were tied around trees, marking areas that had been thoroughly searched. Entire mountainsides were combed in a methodical manner by snowshoed searchers armed with avalanche probes. Colossal snowbanks were sifted through with backhoes. Billboards were erected along the road to Sun Peaks. “Every single day, Ryan was searched for,” Heather said of twelve-week period following her son’s disappearance. “We never took a day off.”
Every once in a while, in conjunction with the Shutkas’ massive grassroots crusade, the Kamloops RCMP conducted their own searches, employing dogs, snowmobiles, drones, and helicopters. Despite their efforts, neither the RCMP nor the Shtukas and their considerable crews were able to find one shred of evidence connected with Ryan’s disappearance.
All parties involved hoped that the spring melt would reveal Ryan’s body, presumably hitherto ensconced in the deep powdery snow for which Sun Peaks is famous. Unfortunately, the 2018 thaw revealed no new clues as to the fate or location of Ryan Shtuka.
Throughout the course of the search, the RCMP received many tips and theories pertaining to the night on which Ryan disappeared. One reliable witness recalled seeing a young man matching Ryan’s description walking towards a pizza place that regularly remains open until 2:00 a.m. Perhaps Ryan had headed into town for a late-night snack after the party.
Another Sun Peaks resident named Jim Reid, who had been staying in a house which was said to be located near Ryan’s cabin, recalled being awoken in the middle of the night by an unusual interaction which occurred outside his residence, around the same time that Ryan disappeared. “I heard a guy’s voice, and it was mad,” he said. The voice angrily demanded that whomever he was speaking with get inside a car. Reid reported the episode to the police but never learned whether or not it proved useful to the investigation.
When she read about Reid’s experience in an article for the CBC, Heather Shtuka investigated the claim herself and learned that Reid’s residence is located 20 minutes away from the house in which Ryan was last seen, in the opposite direction of Ryan’s cabin.
To this day, the RCMP have not uncovered any evidence indicating that Ryan Shtuka’s disappearance was the result of foul play. They also claim that they have no more evidence suggesting that Shtuka left the mountain than they have indicating that he remained in Sun Peaks.
According to journalist Jean Strong, editor of the Sun Peaks Independent News, locals intimately familiar with the case of Ryan Shtuka have generally adopted one of three theories: 1) that Ryan wandered into the woods on the night of his disappearance and became lost or encountered a fatal accident; 2) that Ryan was hit and killed on the road by a motorist, who transported his body away from Sun Peaks; and 3) that Ryan, who was not known to use drugs, had a fatal drug overdose, and that the people he was with hid his body out of fear.
Perhaps the most appropriate analysis of the case of Ryan Shtuka, considering the disturbing lack of evidence that police and private investigators have uncovered, is the conservative conclusion proffered by RCMP media relations officer Constable Crystal Evelyn: “We don’t know where he is or what happened to him, and that’s just as unsettling for us as the RCMP as it is for the community.”
January 26, 2019; Nicola Ranch
Nine months after Ryan Shtuka’s disappearance, a cowboy named Ben Tyner vanished from a ranch near Nicola Lake just northeast of Merritt, located on the B.C. Highway 5A, the same remote road near which Kelly Dean Morrison was last seen.
32-year-old Ben Tyner had worked in the ranching industry his entire life, growing up on his family’s ranch in Wyoming. In the words of his father, Richard, “Ben has been around horses, dogs, and cattle since he was born.” Those who knew him described him as strong, tough, and perfectly capable in the backcountry. When Tyner’s family purchased the Nicola Ranch on the banks of Nicola Lake in October 2019, Ben travelled 700 miles northwest into Canada to work as its manager, bringing his favourite horse- a gentle chestnut mare- along with him.
On the afternoon of Saturday, January 26th, 2019, on one of his days off work, Ben Tyner saddled his horse and rode into the hills, perhaps to look for wandering cattle, leaving his truck and trailer parked on the ranch house driveway. He never returned from his mysterious excursion. “We don’t know where he was going,” his co-worker, Tammy Straya, later said of Tyner’s departure from Nicola Ranch. “It’s totally out of character for him to leave the ranch without notifying someone. None of this is adding up. It’s a flippin’ mystery.”
Two days later, a crew of loggers headed up the OK Forest Service Road, a logging road which winds along the slopes of Swakum Mountain, joining the BC Highway 97C northwest of Merritt. At around 12:30 in the afternoon, near a placed called Winnie Flats, the loggers found the missing cowboy’s favourite horse. The animal was fully saddled and, aside from having only one rein and appearing to be spooked, seemed to be in good condition. “Nothing attacked the horse,” Straya told reporters. “Something might have scared it, but there’s no blood, no spur marks, no scratches.” The animal was taken to the local brands inspector, who confirmed the animal belonged to Tyner. The Nicola Ranch was notified, and the cowboy’s disappearance was reported to the RCMP.
Immediately, the Mounties coordinated an extensive search of the area, deploying police dogs, snowmobiles, vehicles, drones, and helicopters. More than half a dozen volunteer search and rescue teams from the Greater Vancouver area, the Nicola Valley, Kamloops, and North Okanagan searched the hills and drainage ditches around the Nicola Ranch on foot and horseback. Mounted cowboys from the surrounding ranches, as well as members of a nearby Nicola First Nations band, assisted the operation.
“We’ve brought in every resource that we have,” said RCMP media relations officer Constable Tracy Dunsmore in a statement to the press. “We don’t know what his destination was. We believe he rode in for the ranch where he works, but we’re having trouble locating tracks because of all the wildlife in the area, and other wild horse herds.”
Tyner’s parents, Richard and Jennifer, along with his younger brother, Jack, came up from Wyoming to assist the search, braving harsh conditions and temperatures as low as -20o Celsius (-4o Fahrenheit) as they combed the snowy backcountry for the missing cowboy. Police and volunteers searched without respite for a week, finally suspending the operation on Sunday, February 3rd, on account of extreme weather.
Later that week, the RCMP announced that its Major Crimes Unit had joined the investigation into Ben Tyner’s disappearance. Despite that ominous development, the Mounties issued a statement declaring that they had uncovered no evidence suggesting foul play was involved; Major Crimes’ involvement was simply part of the force’s effort to cover all possible angles.
The Mounties also reported that they had reason to believe a truck and trailer may have been used to transport Ben Tyner and his horse to the logging road on which his mount was discovered, and asked any members of the public who may have seen this hypothetical vehicle to contact the Merritt RCMP.
It was with heavy hearts that Rick, Jennifer, and Jack Tyner returned to Wyoming on February 13th, 2019, to tend to their cattle ranch that they had abandoned when they heard of Ben’s disappearance.
The Kelowna RCMP’s Southeast District Major Crime Unit resumed its investigation into Ben Tyner’s case that April, when the snow had begun to thaw throughout Nicola Country. In a public statement, they declared that they still had very little information regarding the cowboy’s disappearance, but now believed, after reviewing what little evidence they had gathered, that criminality was involved.
In May 2019, Elizabeth Faber, the mother of Kelly Dean Morrison, who vanished from the nearby Stump Lake Ranch in the fall of 2013, told reporters that she had been immediately struck by the similarities between Ben Tyner’s disappearance and that of her son. “My initial reaction was just shock,” she told reporters, “and then I started realizing they both worked on ranches, they both vanished without a trace, and they both were in the prime of their lives.”
Faber’s private investigator, Denis Gagnon, commented on his employer’s theory, saying, “It may just be a coincidence, and I have to be honest about that. But the fact is, this area is quite remote, and there may be a connection between some associates, but we don’t know that. So there’s a possibility there’s a connection between the two of them.”
Three months later, Faber’s conjecture was echoed by Mark Neville, the brother of Luke Neville, who vanished from Spences Bridge in the fall of 2017. Neville publically suggested that investigators look into possible connections between his brother’s case and the disappearance of Ben Tyner. “It’s only 50 to 60 kilometres from Spences Bridge,” he told reporters, referring to the ranch from which Tyner vanished. “I keep hoping every day that the police would call and say we’re starting to connect all the dots. But no, I haven’t heard anything from the police about if there’s any commonality between the cases. But I feel that there is- that’s just my gut.”
Next week, we’ll take a look at three more men who vanished very recently from the same general area, along with two dramatic manhunts with which the cases might be connected, in the final installment of this six-part series on the British Columbia Triangle.
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