Vancouver — Separated from each other by a parental decree that forbade them to talk in the hallways outside class or attend school dances together, two teenagers in a remote British Columbia town found a desperate way out.
Twenty years ago Tamara Morrissey, 15, and Robert Fisher, 18, who expressed longings for each other in hundreds of love letters, ran away into the great forest that surrounds the resource town of Mackenzie, 160 kilometres north of Prince George.
This week, 20 years nearly to the day they vanished on May 6, 1985, the District of Mackenzie Search and Rescue team found their remains.
The remains were located in a thickly wooded area, in a steep ravine on the edge of town, about a 25-minute walk from the school where teenage couple was last seen alive.
Their bodies, the RCMP say, were found near, but not immediately next to one another.
Although authorities aren't commenting on the cause of death, it appears the young lovers, who longed to be together, died in a suicide pact.
“We've ruled out foul play and the case has been referred to the coroner's office in Prince George and they will determine how that all plays out,” RCMP Sergeant Brian Coldwell said yesterday.
The young couple's remains were found last Sunday, two days past the 20th anniversary of their disappearance, after police and the local search and rescue team joined forces in an attempt to solve the mystery.
“Although the file was 20 years old, we were active over the time period to try to resolve it,” Sgt. Coldwell said.
“We'd done a number of media broadcasts and initiatives looking for tips over the years. Most recently we had a meeting with search and rescue and kind of thought, ‘If somebody was to go in a certain area, where would they actually go?' ”
Starting from the last known location, at the local high school, the searchers plotted out a few locations where the couple might have gone had they been on foot.
“In one of these areas they actually found the remains,” Sgt. Coldwell said. “I guess you could say we stumbled on them, but we did consciously try to think of areas, like funnelling points, where people would have to go.”
He wasn't aware exactly which areas had been searched when the teens vanished, but wasn't surprised the early efforts failed. “Originally, when they went missing, they went missing from the high school and where they were located is not close to that.”
Mackenzie, with a population of about 5,000, is surrounded by an immense sweep of wilderness.
“There's the town of Mackenzie, but outside the town it's all bush,” Sgt. Coldwell said.
The area where the remains were located is near the Mackenzie Hospital, which was built in 1988, but at the time the pair went into the ravine it was an undeveloped area past the edge of town. It was then, as now, choked with bush.
“It's very steep in there. It's not the kind of place you'd go for a hike,” said a Mackenzie resident whose son was a close school friend of Robert Fisher.
Asking that her name not be used, she said the location, which she could see in the distance from her kitchen window, made some sense.
“Robert was always in the bush,” she said. “When they disappeared, my son just figured they'd run away and were camping in the bush.”
She said people in the community didn't think the kids had gone off to commit suicide. “They were just runaways. We thought they'd surface. Then over time it just faded away.”
In 1985, however, Tamara's mother, Mabeline Morrissey, was quoted in a Canadian Press story saying that she feared the worst.
She said the family had forbidden their strong-minded and stubborn daughter to see Robert because they feared her grades would suffer.
“We found out the day before she left that she'd been lying to us and seeing this boy. She probably didn't want to come home and face the music. We didn't want her marks to go down because she was seeing boys. But we wouldn't want them to go and do something stupid,” she said at the time.
“They would probably go and commit suicide together.”
That was an early police theory, too, first offered by Staff Sergeant Jack Keddy about five weeks after the teens vanished.
“In runaway cases, after a month, usually somebody hears something,” he said in June of 1985. “You have to accept the fact that suicide is always a possibility.”
At the time the couple disappeared, it wasn't known to the parents of either teenager just how infatuated with each other they had become.
The true nature of their relationship emerged only later, when Robert's sister found about 200 love letters in his room.
“At first, they were playful letters, just friends. Then they just gradually became really intense, about how much they loved each other,” Cheryl Gatzke said in a 2002 interview, in which she talked about her brother to support an RCMP effort to revive public interest in the unsolved case.
She said Tamara and Robert weren't allowed to see each other in or out of school.
“They were separated,” she said. “At school dances, there would be Robert on one wall and Tamara on another wall.”
The couple did find ways to communicate, however, and one spring day they slipped away.
The police file, which over the years grew to fill a large box in the Mackenzie RCMP office, indicates they may have taken sleeping bags and a pair of .22-calibre rifles with them. Yesterday, police would say only that there were “remnants” of fabric at the scene.
Tamara and Robert's immediate families have all moved from the Mackenzie area and couldn't be reached for comment yesterday. Ms. Gatzke, who is the Fisher family's spokeswoman, was not available.
Coroner Mike Green refused to say if police had found weapons at the scene, nor would he confirm the cause of death. He said it would be a few months yet before a report is completed.
A very sad story, maybe if they had left them alone the romance would have whithered on the vine.