The Oldest Cold Case
Updated Sat. Mar. 24 2007 6:49 PM ET
Hannah James, W-FIVE Associate Producerhttp://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20070323/wfive_coldcase_070323/20070324?hub=WFive
On a cold prairie night a woman is murdered, stuffed in a wooden barrel and thrown down a well. When she's discovered almost a century later, Saskatoon police set out to solve an old crime with new technology.
Last July, Cal Schroyen of JBA Petroleum was on a work site excavating some old fuel tanks under a convenience store parking lot in the Sutherland area of Saskatoon. Suddenly a black object rolled out. "It seemed a little unusual so we picked it up and had a look at it and it turned out to be a human skull," recalls Schroyen.
From there, Saskatoon police take over, with Sgt. Russ Friesen at the helm, pulling out the yellow tape, closing the excavation site, and declaring it a crime scene.
"I'm a homicide investigator. I have to view that as a potential homicide until I can prove otherwise," says Friesen.
After three days of meticulous digging, investigators pull out the complete remains of a woman and other important clues. There are pieces of a barrel, broken bottles and fragments of women's clothing -- artifacts from a bygone era. A man's clothing -- an old-style vest and trousers -- are rolled in a ball next to the corpse.
Ernest Walker, forensic archeologist at the University of Saskatchewan and special constable with the RCMP sets to work analysing the remains. Miraculously, the woman's body is well-preserved. The gasoline and water mixture found in the well reacted with the woman's fatty tissues creating a waxy substance -- or adipocere -- encasing her body. Walker finds hair, parts of her intestines and faecal matter. Remarkably Walker also extracted mitochondrial DNA, which investigators hope to match to a living descendent of the woman.
And from all that evidence Walker determines the remains are that of a healthy Caucasian woman, 25 to 35 years of age and a metre-and-a-half tall.
The dating of the crime comes mostly from available clothing fragments. Working next to Walker in a makeshift City morgue, Carole Wakabayashi, a clothing and textile historian sets to work determining the fabric and style of clothing. She uses a number of burning and chemical techniques to determine the clothing's fiber content. She determines the women's fitted jacket, high collared blouse and long skirt are from somewhere between 1910 and 1920.
There's also the issue of an 18 karat gold chain, broken and missing its pendant. Gold of this quality would have been a rarity in the Prairies a century ago, and likely came from Europe or Eastern Canada.
As the clothing analysis reveals probable dating for the murder, Jeff O'Brien, archivist, pores over City records and creates geographical context for the abandoned well. O'Brien's records reveal Sutherland a town that sprouted up in the early 1900s around the Canadian Pacific Railway yards. The tiny town was a hub of transient types - railway workers and sales people. O'Brien determines the well was located right next to the Sutherland Hotel.
Joan Champ, a prairie history buff and curator at the Saskatoon's Western Development Museum says hotels of that time would have been hubs where railway workers would have come to drink and gamble, many of them away from home and their wives.
Once Saskatoon police develop a victim profile, they hold a press conference at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon. Local media cover the story and the phone call comes in from people looking for missing relatives -- a missing mother, a missing grandmother, or a missing great aunt. The calls are from across Canada and as far away as France. The callers are families looking for closure and wanting to put an end to quiet family rumours about where their missing relative had gone.
Friesen gathers mitochondrial DNA samples from women, hoping to make a match with the remains in the well. One hopeful and genealogy buff, Peggy Franko, is hoping the woman is her long-lost grandmother. She says if her DNA matches that of the woman, she vows to give her grandmother a proper burial, next to her mother.
W-FIVE reporter Victor Malarek follows the investigation, showing how modern tools can be used to solve old crimes. Based on stories from historians and some of the DNA candidates, W-FIVE illustrates though historic recreations the possible scenarios behind this heinous crime, giving a sense of who the 'lady in the well' could have been and how she met her end. Friesen comments on the likelihood of each scenario.
Was she a local prostitute in this rough and tumble railroad town? Or, was she an employee at the neighbouring hotel, killed by a man at the hotel? Was the crime a domestic one, an immigrant wife wanting to escape the bleak prairie life? Or perhaps a botched operation performed by the Sutherland's local and infamous abortionist?
Saskatoon police eagerly await a facial reconstruction, created by one of the RCMP's recreation artists. They're hoping that when the woman's face is revealed, someone will recognize her from an old family photo or a childhood memory.
"We're going to work it, take it down every road that we can and just work it until we can't do anything more on it," said Friesen. I'm positive that we are going to be able to solve this case."