Surrounded by large yellow fields of fragrant canola and patches of swaying green wheat, the faded sign at the end of Range Road 291 reads "Rural Crime Watch Area."
To long-time residents, the sign always seemed out of place on this farming road in southern Alberta, at the edge of the quiet bedroom community of Airdrie. Everyone on Range Road 291 knows each other and helps each other. This is an area ruled by tradition and hard work, where neighbours share coffee over well-worn kitchen tables. Descendants of the five families that first settled the area a century ago still meet at Christmas annually.
Near the edge of the road, where asphalt gives way to gravel that continues to the horizon, Archie and Doreen Garland have owned a large acreage for more than 40 years. A tree-lined lane runs to their home from the road, with rusted and sagging barbed wire strung across the front of their property. This has been home to their family for decades.
However, to neighbours who know everything about each other, the couple's son was always an enigma.
Douglas Garland, 54, was considered quiet, a loner. He was never seen at the bank, at local bars or shopping at the supermarket. Where most locals would honk and wave as they drove past, Doug would stare straight ahead through the steering wheel of his green Ford F-150.
"They're great neighbours, everyone likes them," says Jim Nevada, a retired chuckwagon racer who lives nearby. "But no one can tell you anything about Doug except his parents. There is a big blank at the end of the road and no one can fill it, not even the neighbours."
Life on Range Road 291 changed forever at 1:30 a.m. on July 14. The quiet street was awash with flashing lights that night as neighbours said Mr. Garland crossed two open fields and was arrested on the porch of the home behind his family's property.
Two RCMP cars now sit at the end of the Garlands' laneway and could be there for weeks. Every slough, ditch, field and corral in the immediate area has been picked through as police search for the bodies of five-year-old Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, Alvin and Kathryn Liknes.
Calgary police charged Mr. Garland with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder the day after his arrest. Investigators believe the reclusive man is responsible for an act of violence on a sleepy street a half hour to the south in Calgary.
Over the last weekend of June, hundreds streamed through the front door of the blue-grey clapboard house at 123 38A Avenue in Calgary – the Liknes home. One of the many vehicles to park near the house, police would later reveal, belonged to Mr. Garland, whose sister, Patti, was in a common-law relationship with Alvin and Kathryn Liknes's son Allen.
Why he may have visited the Liknes home around the end of June remains a mystery and the subject of theories in Calgary and the town of Airdrie.
Over the weekend before they disappeared, the Liknes's held an estate sale that had been publicized online. More than 200 people walked through their home and bought much of what they owned. The grandparents were moving to Edmonton and wanted to downsize.
The Liknes home is in Parkhill, a small enclave of only a few streets tucked between one of southwest Calgary's main arterial roads, the Macleod Trail, and the Elbow River. The area is a mix of homes only a few minutes from downtown. At one end of short 38A Avenue, bare-chested locals cut the grass in front of their tract housing in mid-July, leaving the fresh smell hanging over the area. Only a short walk to the west, an ultra-modern mansion with an imposing security system sits by the river.
Tracy, who preferred to withhold her last name, was a local resident who stopped by the Liknes's estate sale, leaving Friday evening with her eye on a set of dressers. Her boyfriend returned the next morning to haggle over the price.
"I spoke with [Ms. Liknes], she seemed happy, telling us about how they were going to move and take a trip somewhere," she said.
According to the woman, Mr. Liknes wasn't very visible during the sale. When her boyfriend returned the next morning, he also spoke only with Ms. Liknes.
On Sunday, five-year-old Nathan came over to help his grandparents with the sale and spent the night. With blond hair and a cherub face, Nathan was wearing peach-coloured shorts that day, along with a blue hoodie. He was constantly reminding his grandmother to thank people who purchased items.
Police investigators have called the many layers of this case "strange." It's a once-in-a-career mystery, they say, with little information on Mr. Garland except a series of court documents stretching to the early 1990s, few friends and stumped neighbours.
Records start in 1992 when Mr. Garland was arrested for making amphetamines at his family's farm. Instead of appearing in court, he fled to Vancouver where he adopted the name Matthew Kemper Hartley, taken from a 14-year-old who had been killed in a car accident in the 1980s.
With the new identity, he worked in a series of laboratories until the RCMP eventually caught him. In 2000, Mr. Garland was sentenced to 39 months in jail for operating the drug lab.
Police say there may have been "bad blood" between Mr. Garland and Mr. Liknes due to a patent dispute over a pump that could extract gas from wells thought to be dry. Both men may have also shared investments that went badly.
Mr. Liknes's business history shows a series of failures. His latest venture went bankrupt only weeks before he went missing. According to Winter Petroleum's former chief operating officer, the firm had been a mess before going under. Former employees and creditors lost money.
No one has seen Nathan or his grandparents since that Sunday. The next morning, Jennifer O'Brien came by the home to pick up her son. No one was home and things were not as they should have been. According to police, there were signs the three didn't leave willingly. Something had been dragged from a side door to the driveway, leaving a dark trail.
Police posted an Amber Alert that Monday, June 30, which was displayed across Calgary, including on the electronic billboards over Highway 2 linking Calgary and Airdrie.
On Wednesday, Ms. O'Brien made a public appeal for her son's safe return, as well as that of his grandparents. "You're all superheroes," she said, flanked by her six-year-old Luke, and one-year-old Maximus.
By Friday, police were calling Mr. Garland a "person of interest." Footage taken from the Parkhill neighbourhood placed his green truck in the area around June 29. Mr. Garland was arrested that day for unrelated reasons. He would be released a week later.
Throughout early July, police searched the fields around the Garland family home. Teams also picked through Calgary's municipal dumps. The searches continued until July 13. Mr. Garland was arrested very early the next day on the porch in Airdrie. On July 15, Mr. Garland was charged with three counts of murder.
That evening, hundreds of green balloons were launched from Calgary as part of a vigil for the missing three.
There is now a rolling vigil outside the Liknes home as families visit through the day, adding teddy bears, flowers and toys to a growing memorial on the parched lawn.
Standing in front of the collection, mothers explain to their daughters what has happened and what they are looking at. Fathers bring balloons and notes. On a piece of pink paper, a child has written out the Lord's Prayer for Nathan. Some drop their offerings and walk away quickly; others stay and speak with other strangers who have come from across Calgary to pay their respects.
There are two boxes with green ribbons outside the home. Large and small, homemade and store-bought, the ribbons are everywhere in the Parkhill neighbourhood of Calgary. The green symbolizes missing children.
Many neighbours are still struggling with what happened.
"It's still too hard," says one, declining to provide her name. Several others responded in the same way.
John Monteiro and his wife Anna have lived in Calgary for 35 years. "I guess there is nothing we can do now," Mr. Monteiro says as he leaves the Liknes's lawn. "I just can't believe someone would do this to a five-year-old, an innocent."
Mr. Monteiro and his wife walk near the Liknes home daily. They brought balloons and flowers, with the added touch of ice cubes to help the flowers cope with heat that was nearly in the 40s.
Ms. Monteiro says she wants to stop by the home daily. Her neighbour knew the family and she sees a mirror of her life in that of the Likneses'. She has seven grandchildren and a similar home in a similar neighbourhood nearby.
"I'm scared," she says. "I live with my husband and have grandchildren just like they did. This could happen to anyone, this could happen to us."