Sep 24, 2019 - News

The world knows Chynna Deese because of how she died. Now her family wants to make sure we remember how she lived.

Chynna Deese photo collage

Sheila Deese has filled her apartment with pictures of Chynna.

At 10:56 a.m. on July 6, one week to the day before their last communication, Chynna Deese’s phone lit up with a familiar message from her mother.

“I’m here,” Sheila Deese wrote, waiting outside of Chynna’s house to take her to the Charlotte airport.

Chynna’s most pressing concern that morning involved figuring out how to transport a pair of size-12 work boots to Canada. They were a gift for her boyfriend, 23-year-old Lucas Fowler, a tall Australian with long hair and a scruffy face who’d been working in northern British Columbia on a cattle ranch.

Three dots on a screen and then a reply.

“You can come in for a sexy,” Chynna wrote.

“Lol,” she recovered.


Before anybody becomes the victim of a wicked crime that stirs up a worldwide news frenzy, often there are quiet and inconsequential exchanges that transform into lifelong treasures for loved ones.

“Who you callin’ sexy?” Sheila remembers saying as she opened the door.

Chynna, 24, was the youngest of Sheila’s four children and, pretty much since birth, the wildflower of the bunch. She’d visited 13 countries, all in the six years since graduating from Myers Park High School, paying her way mostly by working in hostels and for nonprofits.

She met Lucas in Croatia in 2017, and a few months later they drove her father’s 1996 Land Cruiser across the United States, taking young love up into the Rockies and through Yellowstone and down to San Diego, where they dropped the vehicle with a friend, then crossed the border and explored Mexico and Central America.

Lucas came home to Charlotte with her in the winter of 2018 and lived here for two months. He smashed gingersnaps for pumpkin cheesecake at Thanksgiving, and wore one of Chynna’s grandmother’s wool sweaters on Christmas, red with white snowflakes down the arm.

By early January, though, he’d exhausted his 90 days in the United States, as allotted by the visa waiver program. So he moved to Fort Nelson, B.C., and took the ranch job. The way they saw it, he’d be 3,000 miles from her, but a hell of a lot closer than Australia.

A skilled mechanic, he fixed the ranch vehicles. When he coaxed a blue 1985 Econoline van to turn over again, his bosses were so impressed they gave it to him. He and Chynna came up with a plan for it: They would take a two-week vacation in July, just the two of them, driving and camping in northern Canada.

Chynna worked through the spring and early summer, pulling double shifts on weekends as a server at Superica, a trendy Tex-Mex restaurant in South End. She couldn’t have known that a few weeks later her coworkers would be standing on the rooftop after closing, spelling out her name in tea candles and releasing balloons into the midnight sky.

She worked toward her purpose, 25 days in Canada in July. She used what little extra cash she had to buy two gifts for him: the boots and a blanket with a moose embroidered on it.

“I guess I’ll have to wear the boots on the plane,” Chynna told her mother that morning.

Sheila burst out laughing at the thought of her 5-foot-6-inch daughter flopping through three airports between connecting flights in the size 12s.

Chyyyynna,” Sheila remembers saying, her drawl thick and earned as a Charlotte native whose family ties here go back generations. Her would-be Australian son-in-law couldn’t get enough of the way she talked.

She helped Chynna finish packing, boots and all.

It’s been almost three months since that morning, and Sheila and her family have done everything that’s been asked of them. When an officer told them to call a number on a card for more information, they called it. When Lucas’s dad, a police officer in Australia, told them to keep doing interviews because it might help find the killers, they stared through grief and into cameras.

So how is it, they wonder, that most of the stories miss the important parts — Chynna and Lucas? How is it that their families can talk about them for two months, but now when a mother puts her daughter’s name into a web search, the first thing she sees are the faces of the men who killed her? How could someone who lived like Chynna lived be remembered more for how she died?

It’s Sheila’s mission now, to preserve the better stuff. She wants to remember Chynna for being the young woman who was willing to wear boots twice her size if it meant getting them to someone she loved.

Sheila protects the details from that day like family crystal. She remembers having nine bags of clothes in the backseat to take to Crisis Assistance Ministry, remembers Chynna stuffing her stuffed suitcase in the already stuffed car, and remembers Chynna trying to turn down a bag of snacks Sheila had packed for her.

“Just let me be Mom,” Sheila said.

At the departures gate, Sheila parked the car and jogged around the trunk for a goodbye hug. She watched Chynna turn and walk through the doors. The last time Sheila saw her daughter, she was carrying a pregnant suitcase and shouldering a long pocketbook with the moose blanket rolled up and tied to the straps.

Chynna texted her mother at each stop, Chicago then Vancouver. Then, on Sunday, July 7, around 6:30 p.m., Chynna sent her last text messages to her mother.

Sheila saved all of them in screenshots. Her index finger shakes over the screen as she reads them to me.

Daughter: “I made it to the ranch!! Just now got WiFi.”

Mother: “Nice baby!”

Daughter: “Lucas says hi!!”

Mother: “Hey Lucas!!!”

Chynna spent the next week helping on the ranch. The owners gave her a lasso and taught her to use it. Chynna posted pictures to her Instagram, as she always did. There she was standing with one foot crossed over the other and her head tilted to the side. There’s one of a party on the ranch, and the back of Chynna’s head in the crowd.

And there’s Chynna and Lucas in the van just before taking off. She’s in the passenger seat leaning back with her arm out to hold the camera, and he’s cheesing over her left shoulder.

That was July 13. Chynna made sure, of course, to call Sheila one more time before they pulled away from Fort Nelson, headed west-northwest along the Alaska Highway.

“I probably won’t have WiFi for a few days,” Chynna said. “But don’t worry.”

Chynna Deese and Lucas Fowler
Chynna and Lucas in Fort Nelson, B.C., just before setting off on their trip in the 1985 Econoline he fixed up. (Photo courtesy of the Deese family)

Two days later, on Monday, July 15, Ed Grennan, a 73-year-old truck driver, was about a quarter of the way into his regular 600-mile trip along the Alaska Highway when he saw police vehicles.

He passes the spot four times a week, delivering groceries between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse, Yukon, a town of about 25,000 people where he lives. He’d never seen anything like the police presence that day.

Let’s get this out of the way now.

Leaving Fort Nelson, Chynna and Lucas stopped at a service station. Lucas pumped and Chynna squeegeed every window. The station’s security camera captured Chynna standing on the concrete step, draping her arms around Lucas’s neck.

One day later, on Sunday, Chynna and Lucas broke down 12 miles southeast of Liard Hot Springs, a popular camping destination. It was peak tourist season. Just before 4 p.m., another couple pulled over and saw them having a picnic.

At some point after that and before Grennan passed the site the next day, two young men, 18 and 19, pulled up. They shot Chynna and Lucas, then left them side-by-side along the highway. A week later they killed another man, botanist Leonard Dyck, a few hundred miles away.

If you’d like the killers’ names, Google them. They’ve had more than enough attention.

The manhunt lasted more than two weeks and made headlines in most major news outlets in the U.S. and Canada and Australia. The suspects were found dead in early August from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in a forest in northern Manitoba, nearly 2,000 miles away.

The burden of staying in the news while the manhunt dragged on wore Chynna’s family thin. It was unnatural. Chynna’s the type of person who quietly volunteered at a camp for people with disabilities in North Carolina and painted houses for people in need in West Virginia. Sheila’s job is to organize blood drives. Chynna’s sister, Kennedy, is an EMT. Both of Chynna’s brothers, British and Stetson, were Eagle Scouts. They’re engaged citizens, fully aware that they’re hardly the only ones suffering in this world.

Chynna’s dad, Dwayne, who grew up in Charlotte, told British the family needed to be careful with the attention, to not act as though their grief is any worse than that of, say, the families of the 70 or so people murdered in their own city this year.

At one point during my conversations with British, we talked about the father of one of the suspects, who’s maintained a steady media presence and even participated in a segment on the Australian “60 Minutes.” “He’s a bad father,” British said. It was the closest thing to rage I saw in any of Chynna’s family over the past month. British then quickly raised his hand to revise, as if Chynna had tapped him on the shoulder: “At the highest level of mercy,” British said of the father, “he’s kind of a victim, too.”

Events like these often turn into representations of other, larger issues: gun violence or poverty or something else. People latched onto Chynna and Lucas’s story because it taps a deeper fear, one of a world running on randomness. It challenges our faith in reasons, in that sometimes there simply aren’t any.

They’ll never be able to make sense of it, but maybe, they hope, they’ll one day find meaning in it.

Maybe it’s in someone like Grennan, the truck driver who passed the crime scene the next day. Raised in Ireland, he moved to Canada when he was 17, took a job at a silver mine in Edmonton, and eventually settled in Whitehorse with his family, which included four children. Three boys and one girl.

One night about 20 years ago, he started vomiting after eating smoked fish and asked his daughter to take him to the hospital.

She’d eaten the fish, too, and fell ill in the emergency room beside her father. He got better; she got unimaginably worse. Grennan spent the next six years in court, suing the hospital and the doctors after his daughter, Mary Ann, died of botulism at 17 years old.

The case became national news in Canada. The Yukon Supreme Court found the doctors negligent and awarded Grennan $140,000, but when I asked him how the case turned out, he still said, “Oh, I lost.” He came home each night and sat in quiet. He couldn’t look at the pictures of his daughter on the wall, couldn’t visit her gravesite, for at least three years. He still has a stack of newspapers two feet high in his home.

Even now, he uses his time driving back and forth along the Alaska Highway to miss her. She came to his mind again very quickly that Monday morning, after he saw the police vehicles parked around the blue Econoline van.

Sheila Deese sunflowers
Sheila Deese is trying to preserve the many fond memories she has of Chynna. (Photo by Logan Cyrus)

Two days later, on the evening of Wednesday, July 17, Sheila Deese took a yoga class and went home.

Just after 11 p.m., she woke up to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer pounding on the door. She refused to open at first, but eventually let him in. His words were clear and cold.

“Your daughter Chynna is deceased in Canada.”

He handed her a card of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator and told her to call it.

Sheila looked at the card and looked up. Down, then up. She’d worried about Chynna on other trips. This one seemed safe. Good lord, Chynna once took an Uber to the Mexican border at Tijuana, crossed, then got into an Uber on the other side. She’d been to Turkey when the security threat warning was Level 3, one step below an outright “Do Not Travel” level. She’d been to Egypt with her sister, and Colombia with Lucas.

Chynna Deese Egypt
On a trip to Egypt with her sister, Kennedy, a couple of years ago, Chynna sprinted toward the pyramids. (Photo courtesy of the Deese family)

“Deceased in Canada?”

Sheila called her two other children in town. The officer waited for them to arrive before leaving.

Sheila’s four kids were born in a six-year stretch in the late 1980s and 1990s. First was Stetson, who’s now 30 and working in surveillance in Mississippi. Kennedy, the EMT, came 11 months later. British, who works at Bank of America, arrived two years after that, then Chynna four years after that.

“I remember telling people, ‘She’s the perfect last,’” Sheila says. “The easiest, most flexible, resilient child ever.”

Chynna didn’t walk until she was 13 months old because her siblings liked carrying her around too much. The kids never learned to believe in Santa Claus. Real life, their parents figured, was interesting on its own.

Each day, after the kids got home from school, Sheila made sure to ask specific questions. Instead of, “How was your day?” Sheila would say, “Tell me how you feel: Happy? Sad? Mad? Frustrated?”

Chynna was only 12 when her parents divorced. And when Sheila went looking for a new home a couple of years later, she found the two-bedroom condo off of Queens Road, just enough space for her and Chynna now that the others were on their own.

Their bond strengthened, but Chynna was adamant about keeping the family together, however she could. She embraced Dwayne’s children from the relationships that followed—a son with one woman, then a daughter and two stepdaughters with his current partner.

“She was the glue of this big, modern family,” British says.

As a senior at Myers Park, Chynna walked across Runnymede Lane after the last bell each day and painted elderly folks’ fingernails at the nursing home. Each winter, she volunteered at Operation Christmas Child, drawing smiley faces on each shoebox.

She loved everything, it seemed, but the game that really tickled her as a teenager was Left-Right-Straight.

Here’s how it worked. Kennedy would come pick her up in a white Nissan Frontier. Chynna was 13; Kennedy was 18. They’d hop onto the 277 loop around Uptown, and as they closed in on the Interstate 77 interchange, Kennedy asked, “Left?-Right?-Straight?”

Chynna picked one, and they’d take off that way until the next interstate exchange, where Kennedy would ask again.

Sometimes they’d keep going for hours, with no destination in mind.

“That’s pretty much how she wound up going to App,” Kennedy says. Chynna graduated from Appalachian State in 2017. “One day we were playing left-right-straight and we wound up in Boone and she loved it there.”

Chynna made fast friends at App, and by her sophomore year her apartment was a gathering place. She joined a sorority and a small community of hula-hoopers. As a junior in 2016, she took a study abroad course in France and worked at a vineyard. It was her first trip to Europe. She would spend about half of the rest of her life traveling outside of the United States.

Kennedy and British visited her in France in June of that year. British has hundreds of pictures from the trip. One night in Prague, they’d had about enough of each other in the way that siblings often do, and agreed to split up for the night. British and Kennedy enjoyed quiet evenings. The next morning, Chynna reunited with them and announced, “Guys, I made like 20 friends!”

But she wasn’t haphazard about it, her family says. Chynna was one of those people who could make lasting connections in minutes. She was a psychology major at App, and in a crowded room, she’d seek out the person she thought was struggling or down.

“She was the most emotionally intelligent person I’ve ever met,” Dwayne, her father, tells me. “If you talk to Chynna’s siblings, they’ll think they were her best friends. If you talk to any of her friends, they will think they were her best friends. That was her whole life, to meet and know more people.”

That part of her personality is evident in one video from the Europe trip with her brother and sister. They were on their way up the Eiffel Tower when British started recording, flashing back and forth between his siblings and the windows. As the city shrinks below them, Kennedy’s face straightens. Then the camera flashes to Chynna, who opens her mouth and smiles.

“Look, Kennedy’s afraid,” British tells me, pointing at his phone. “And Chynna’s like, ‘This is the best thing ever!’”

That was the last night of the trip. They bought a bottle of wine and sat in the grass looking at the tower the rest of the night.

“Best day of my life,” British says.

Now here he was on the worst day, as July 17 turned into 18, begging for answers after the CMPD officer left.

He wrote down names and phone numbers on blue sticky notes. Kennedy rushed over to Chynna’s house at 1 a.m. to see if Chynna had left a map or outline of their trip. They called the U.S. Embassy. They called the police here and in Canada. They had been dealt inconceivable news, and they had no way to verify the details other than to believe voices coming through the phones.

That’s one of the most difficult parts, Sheila says. Everything she knows is second-hand. She hasn’t had any physical connection to her daughter’s passing. Chynna’s belongings are still in Canada. The Canadian police promise to bring them here in October. They’ll give the family “as little or as much information as they want to know.” The young men apparently recorded videos before they committed suicide.

On Friday of this week, Canadian police will hold another press conference. They’ve told Sheila that it’s just an announcement that they have enough to formally charge the suspects. She knew that, though. What scares her to tears is whether the press conference will lead to the release of one of the videos or some other horrific detail.

If she had a choice, Sheila wouldn’t learn any more, but she can’t stand the idea of someone knowing more about her daughter than she does. British says that when the authorities come here, he’ll ask for everything. He doesn’t want to live in fear of being sideswiped by some unearthed video or report later in life.

It raises an almost impossible question: If the worst thing happened to the best person you know, how much of the bad would you ask for?

Chynna Deese story (Sheila, British, and Kennedy Deese)
Sunflowers were Chynna Deese’s favorite flower, so British Deese (left) planted a row of them behind his house after she died. Sheila Deese (center) actually grew up in the house, and Chynna’s sister, Kennedy, now lives just down the street. (Photo by Logan Cyrus)

Ed Grennan drove the Alaska Highway later that first week, on his way from Whitehorse to Fort Nelson, then back. Same thing the next week, Whitehorse to Fort Nelson, Fort Nelson to Whitehorse. Each time he’d pass the spot 20 kilometers south of Liard Hot Springs.

It bothered him to see no trace of the people who died there. He thought of his daughter, gone 20 years now. He thought of Chynna and Lucas and their family. He couldn’t let the spot sit empty.

One morning he put a flower arrangement in the 18-wheeler and started a makeshift memorial. Each time he’d pass, he’d bring something to add. A local television station did a story on him, and soon he connected with Chynna’s family and Lucas’s family and started personalizing it. He put sunflowers, her favorite flower, on top of a stake that holds the Australian flag.

The family that owns the ranch where Lucas worked dropped off his old work boots.

Now, passersby bring things, mostly flowers, but sometimes handwritten notes and signs.

Before one of his runs, Grennan sent Sheila a message to tell her he was leaving Fort Nelson. He said he’d let her know when he made it to the memorial in four or five hours.

“I’ll be saying a prayer,” he said. “And if you say a prayer then, too, then we’ll be praying for her at the same time.”

Chynna Deese Memorial - Ed Grennan
Ed Grennan, a 73-year-old truck driver, lost his daughter when she was a teenager. He says he’s “adopted” Chynna Deese, in a way. He created a memorial for Chynna and her boyfriend, Lucas, alongside Alaska Highway.

On an evening in early September, Sheila was standing in British’s backyard watering sunflowers.

On a hard day, British planted a dozen of them on a slope above a painted-cinderblock retaining wall. Just went out into the sadness, tossed up earth, and left petals of sunshine in its place.

The house is a simple brick ranch off of Shamrock Road. Sheila grew up in the home, and after her mother developed dementia and moved into an assisted-living facility a few years ago, they kept it in the family. Sheila hasn’t told her mom that Chynna died. It would be too much for her to understand.

Sheila’s father died about five years ago. Standing there in the yard with the sunflowers, she remembers the nights waiting for him to get home after his long deliveries. As it happens, he was a truck driver, too.

Sheila remembers bringing her kids over here on weekends. After Chynna was born, a family camcorder captured a very-1990s home video of Sheila’s mother holding the infant in a lawn chair. British tore up his attic recently looking for the camcorder. Ever the Eagle Scout, he found it and put it back together.

That’s what they’re left with now that the news is gone, obsessively trying to save memories to ease their buried pain.

Sheila still hasn’t gone back to work. On her birthday, she abruptly canceled dinner plans in favor of staying home alone. There, at least, she could surround herself with pictures of Chynna. She also has the last handwritten note Chynna left on the whiteboard on the fridge: “You are so beautiful!! I love you.” A couple of weeks ago Sheila stopped for gas and wept when she saw a window-washer squeegee.

Chynna Deese story
Chynna Deese used to leave messages on her mother’s fridge if she wasn’t home. This is the last one she wrote. (Photo by Logan Cyrus)

Dwayne answered a call from one of his stepdaughters the other day. She’s a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Chynna had promised to give her big-sister advice on things like never drinking out of unfamiliar cups and always walking with a friend. She called Dwayne just to tell her she wished Chynna was around.

“It’s not just wiping out a 24-year-old,” British Deese says. “It’s wiping out a whole wave of a generation in our family.”

Chynna’s friends sometimes catch themselves thinking she’s off on another trip. Clare Little, a college friend who lived with Chynna in the Chantilly rental house, still has unanswered text messages from when she asked Chynna which living-room rug she preferred.

“Chynna was actually just that spectacular,” Clare says. “It’s hard to talk about because everything you wind up saying just sounds cheesy. It’s like, nobody’s that happy all of the time. Or, nobody’s that good to people they’ve never met. But she was.”

Kennedy and British each took previously scheduled trips to Spain this month, Kennedy with her boyfriend and British with his girlfriend. Sheila insisted on driving them to the airport.

When British unpacked his bags in Madrid, he came across an old travel itinerary from their France trip and choked up.

All of her siblings spoke at Chynna’s service in late July. “I traveled the country; Chynna traveled the world,” Sheila remembers Stetson saying. Kennedy read the words to “You Are My Sunshine.” And British, while writing his words, stopped for a second and wondered.

“I had this thought,” he says now. “Was she actually an angel?”

Chynna Deese
Chynna’s co-workers from Superica held a candlelight vigil for her on the rooftop of the building that houses the restaurant. (Photo courtesy of the Deese family)

The temporary memorial for Chynna and Lucas is in a remote area of northern British Columbia: It’s the kind of place where road signs warn, as you pull away from the latest service station, that there is no more fuel available for hundreds of kilometers.

The U.S. military built the highway during World War II to connect the lower 48 to Alaska. In Fort Nelson, the last significant town along the way in British Columbia, the road turns west, then northwest, winding its way toward the Yukon border. It climbs up to the ice-and-rock vistas of Stone Mountain Provincial Park, and then shadows a series of braided, fast-flowing, shallow rivers and creeks.

There is little in terms of human infrastructure: a handful of B.C. provincial government campgrounds, a roadside truck stop famous for its collection of ball caps hanging dusty from the ceiling, a higher-end lodge set postcard-ready along a too-blue-to-be-true lake. Moose materialize in the shadows along the shoulder. Sometimes, bison lay down and nap on the yellow line.

In the summer, the sun hardly sets. In July, you could break down and have little reason to fear the dark.

“It just looks so beautiful, in every photo,” Sheila Deese tells me, flipping through the pictures from Grennan.

It takes about four hours to wind your way from Fort Nelson to Liard Hot Springs—more if you’re pulling over for photos. From the hot springs, only Chynna and Lucas knew where they were headed. If they’d kept going, it would’ve been another three hours to the Yukon border, with nothing much of note in between—besides more landscapes, more wildlife, more endless daylight.

Liard Hot Springs are natural, minimally developed, and warm enough to draw bathers even at minus 40. In summer, though, they’re busy. Tourists and locals sink into the dark water, sip drinks, and keep an eye out for passing bears. There’s a formal, government-run campground at the site. The spot where Chynna and Lucas were found is just southeast of the springs themselves, near where the Trout River flows into the wide Liard River, churning south and east and then north again to the massive Mackenzie River, and on from there to the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea.

It’s a beautiful place for a memorial, Grennan figures.

He contacted the Fort Nelson First Nation, the native people who’ve inhabited the land for thousands of years. He told them he hoped the memorial would heal the “badness in the land,” brought on by the killers.

Grennan worries about the bison trampling it, or the bears eating some of it. But for now, it remains undisturbed.

People come from hundreds of miles away just to visit. Others slam on the brakes after passing it. One day recently, Grennan parked and watched another trucker pull onto the shoulder and walk toward it.

The trucker stared down at the photos of Chynna and Lucas, flanked by the Australian flag and the U.S. flag and the boots. Grennan, whose daughter would be in her early 40s by now, kept watching the man, until he heard a sound. There in the quiet of northern British Columbia on the eve of autumn, the season when the tourists leave and nights grow long, the other trucker started humming “Amazing Grace,” before breaking down into tears, surrounded by mountains and clovers and wildflowers.

Chynna Deese story
After graduating from Myers Park High School in 2013, Chynna Deese traveled to 13 countries. (Photo courtesy of the Deese family)

Michael Graff can be reached at [email protected].

Eva Holland contributed to this story from Whitehorse, Yukon.

The family of Chynna Deese says that anyone interested in honoring her can make a donation to Joni and Friends Family Retreats, a summer camp where Chynna volunteered. (Be sure to direct the donation to “Family Retreats” on the dropdown menu, to be sure it goes to where she worked.) 


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