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New approach may help RCMP identify found human remains in the Bow Valley

"To be able to progress further with emerging technologies – it's great, we can start using these things and bringing closure for a family that has a missing loved one out there."

BOW VALLEY – There are currently 12 open cases of unidentified human remains across the Bow Valley.

With five open cases in Banff, six open cases in Cochrane, including remains found in the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, and one in Kananaskis, Alberta RCMP are bringing back tried and true techniques to take cases out of the cold with forensic facial reconstruction.

Releasing images last week of three individuals whose remains have been found in the province over the last 40 years, including the only open case in Kananaskis Country, Alberta RCMP are hopeful forensic facial reconstruction will assist in the investigations and brings closure to some families.

"We have realized we have a moral obligation and responsibility to get these people back home and give their families some peace," Cpl. Jean Nault with the RCMP Serious Crimes and Behavioural Sciences Group said in a phone interview.

The man behind the forensic facial reconstruction in Alberta, Nault said he would have never guessed after graduating from the University of Alberta with a bachelor of fine arts degree that his career path would lead to working with human skulls, composite sketching and post-mortem drawings.

"I got out of art school and I've always been drawn to public service, whether it was firefighting or police, so I got on with the RCMP,"  he said.

After serving for about eight years, the Alberta native wanted to see if he could incorporate his creative passion into his full-time job.

"I started doing research and got in touch with the FBI and that's where it all started," he said. "I thought I would join the RCMP and go out and catch some bad guy and make the world a safer place and it just lead to this – my two passions, it jives." 

Training at the FBI Academy near Quantico, Va., Nault was taught composite sketching, forensic facial reconstruction and post-mortem drawing and returned to Canada with a new skill set in old techniques.

That meant the RCMP in Alberta now had another tool in its toolbox to assist with its active investigations.

Kananaskis Country RCMP officials said they are grateful to utilize any tools or skill sets to help bring closure to a family.

"Anything that can help us bring some closure to a family with someone missing out there," Cpl. Chris Kosack with Kananaskis RCMP said.

"Any type of technology we can use to help bring closure to a family ... this was the one where we had no leads."

The remains found in Kananaskis Country belonged to a man, who was last seen alive between August 2008 and August 2013 with the remains found in September that year in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The man was between 25 to 40 years old when he went missing, between five-foot-three and five-foot-seven inches tall and possibly of Asian ancestry.

It was also noted the man had signs of malnutrition or anemia at some point in his life with strong muscle development on the arm and leg bones, potentially indicating he was involved with repetitive motion, for example, canoeing.

Kosack said he is eager to see the outcome after the sketch was released.

"To be able to progress further with emerging technologies – it's great, we can start using these things and bringing closure for a family that has a missing loved one out there," Kosack said.

Alberta RMCP confirmed there are 12 open cases of unidentified remains in the Bow Valley area, with zero cases in Canmore and Lake Louise, but six in the Cochrane RCMP coverage area and five in Banff. 

Cochrane RCMP Sgt. Ryan Singleton said every case is specific to itself, but with facial reconstruction helping show what a person may have looked like, it can help with more eyes and ears in the identification process.

Banff RCMP Staff Sgt. Michael Buxton-Carr echoed Singleton’s comments, saying he is encouraged to see if there are any open cases from Banff that might be good candidates for the process.

"Depending on the nature of each case, if there were sufficient facial bones for the experts to do that facial reconstruction then yes, it could potential be a game-changer – I've looked at the images released for those three cases and that is probably the most detailed, most realistic reconstruction I've seen so far," Buxton-Carr said.

"I'm encouraged by the advance in technique and technology and hopeful, if our cases are suitable for reconstruction, it could lead to an advancement in the investigation."

Officials explained when human remains are found, the RCMP works with an anthropologist to determine age, sex and ancestry of the victim, then that is when Nault takes over.

Analyzing measurements and tissue depth markers that are specific to certain ancestry, Nault works with an oil-based clay to bring the facial reconstruction to life.

"You'll never get 100 per cent, but the main goal is to get close enough that someone has that spark of recognition that they can call it in and science takes over – we get it as close as we can, just waiting for the right person to see it and hopefully they call it in and science kicks in and hopefully we have a match," Nault said.

A great example was earlier this month when a missing man from 2015 was identified. Nault released a composite sketch in October after using the reconstruction process on remains found in Slave Lake in October 2018. Two months after the sketch was released, the man was identified as Bradley Edward Shaw who was last seen in Calgary in 2015. The case is now being treated as a homicide.

Without the sketch, it is unlikely the case would have progressed.

"I know [the process] works ... and at the end of the day, it is important that all these people go home to their families," Nault said.

While reconstructions are on a case-by-case basis, with RCMP working with the Missing Persons Unit to determine which remains are suitable for the process, taking approximately 30 to 40 hours for each reconstruction – Nault said he is eager to continue his work.

"Now that we have it up and running, it will keep going," he said.

"When you have someone missing from your family, you never stop looking, you never give up hope.

"It's not something that goes away."


Jenna Dulewich

About the Author: Jenna Dulewich

Jenna Dulewich is a national and provincial award-winning multi-media journalist. Joining the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2019, she covers Stoney Nakoda, MD of Bighorn, Canmore and court.
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