"Her last words to me were what she always said when she'd leave for school or work: 'Bye, Mammy'," says Matilda, her eyes reddening. "I said, 'Bye, baby.' And with that, she closed the door."
Outside, the summer air is still warm and Ramona's simple cotton sundress flutters in the breeze. As she walks along the main road, Highway 16, long shadows fall from the tall trees, while dark and brooding mountains loom in the distance. But Ramona has grown accustomed to the eerie stillness of the landscape and listens only for the sound of cars. She plans to catch a lift with a passing motorist, as she's done so many times before. But on that fateful night of June 11, 1994, something goes wrong.
Somewhere, along that lonesome stretch of the highway, Ramona simply disappears.
But shockingly, Ramona isn't the only young woman to have vanished on this deadly road. In fact, Amnesty International says a staggering 32 women have gone missing, or been murdered, here in the last 39 years.
The similarities between the cases are startling - all of the women were aged between 14 and 27, most of them were hitchhiking, and all but one were Native American. Their profile has fuelled fears a serial killer - or killers - is on the loose. And as the years have passed and the list of victims grown, this road that has claimed so many lives has acquired a new and haunting name: the Highway of Tears.
About 720 kilometres long, the highway runs from Edmonton, Alberta, in the east, through the rugged province of British Columbia, and bustling mill towns like Prince George, to the wild shores of the Pacific Coast in the west. It traverses mountainous regions of stark and chilly beauty, and vast, fertile plains and forests inhabited only by wandering herds of deer, moose and caribou. Locals in the tiny, isolated communities that scatter its length claim the highway is haunted by the souls of the women who have died there. "City dwellers have no idea how remote this region is," explains Sgt Pierre Lemaitre of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver. "There are evil individuals who prey on long, vast, isolated areas of open road."
In an attempt to raise awareness of the danger in their midst, Matilda Wilson and other local women have formed the Highway of Tears Initiative, holding meetings and lobbying the government to place signs on the road warning women of the dangers of hitchhiking. But in many remote areas, where Greyhound buses and other local transport are scarce, hitching is often the easiest way to travel between villages. Add to that the poverty of many of the region's native inhabitants, who might not be able to spare the fare for a bus or taxi, and there are worries that all the Initiative's warnings will continue to fall on deaf ears.
In a cruel twist of fate, on the night that Ramona set out on her final journey, she had asked her mother for some money for a bus. "But I was waiting for a new bank card, and I didn't have any cash to spare," explains Matilda sadly. It's a conversation she has replayed endlessly in her mind in the 14 years since her daughter vanished. "She was easy pickings on the night she went missing," she adds. "Ramona was taken from us [by someone acting] in the heat of an evil, opportune moment."
When Ramona failed to come home from the party, Matilda contacted the police. At first, they were reluctant to help, telling Ramona's distraught mother that "teenagers took off all the time, and she had probably become bored by the lack of facilities in the area."
So, her family began the search themselves. By the following spring of 1995, the Wilsons had combed every inch of the highway and old loggings road in the backcountry between Smithers and Morristown, to no avail. Then, on April 10, 1995, almost 10 months after Ramona disappeared, two dirt bike riders made a grim discovery. Buried under a pile of logs on an abandoned piece of land lay the teenager's badly decomposed body, her long black hair matted round her shoulders.
After her daughter's murder, a distraught Matilda couldn't bear to stay in Smithers, so she moved to picturesque South Hazleton, about 70 kilometres away. Desperate to keep Ramona's case alive, she became a prominent campaigner in the Highway of Tears Initiative, whose emotional public symposiums and annual campaign walks serve to keep the women's cases in the limelight.
Meanwhile, women are still disappearing. The most recent was 14-year-old Aielah Saric Auger, who vanished on February 2, 2006, after telling her mother she was going shopping. Eight days later, a motorist found the Prince George secondary school student's strangled body by the roadside just east of the city; the discovery and subsequent investigation received little media coverage.That night, in yet another community clinging to the edge of the Highway of Tears, another family mourned the violent death of a cherished daughter. Like so many other mothers here, Matilda Wilson knows the tragedy of a life cut short is almost impossible to bear. "Ramona would have made something extraordinary of her life," she says. "I would have made it happen for her. One way or another, she would have made it out of here."