Lab staff

Staff at Bosnia's ICMP lab have developed unique skills and protocols for extracting DNA from skeletal human remains damaged by water, weather, and the ravages of time, in order to identify missing people. (ICMP)

A Bosnian lab that specializes in identifying victims of war crimes has been able to link human remains found in northern British Columbia two decades ago to a Prince Rupert teenager who went missing in 1981. 

The case of Robert (Bob) William Johnston has confounded investigators for 35 years.

Johnston was 19 years old when he disappeared from his hometown on B.C.'s North Coast. Despite an extensive search, he was never seen again.

Fourteen years after Johnston's disappearance, hikers found skeletal remains on Mount Hays. The coroner was summoned, but the technology of the day could only determine that the bones belonged to a young man.  

The remains were tested for DNA again in 2000 and 2002, but the results were inconclusive.

Until now.

The bones were confirmed as belonging to Johnston by the International Commission on Missing Persons laboratory, which developed its advanced techniques and protocols as it worked to identify bones found in unmarked or mass graves.

'We never gave up on him'

Johnston's family was notified of the major development in the missing persons case.

"After 35 long years, waiting for Bob to come home, we've learned he's been home all along," Johnston's family wrote in his recent obituary. His mother, brother, and sisters have requested privacy as they mourn.

The BC Coroners Office reached out to the Bosnian lab for help with 24 of its most difficult cold cases because of the ICMP's skill at extracting DNA from old bones. 

Laurel Clegg, the manager of the identification and disaster response unit for the BC Coroners Service, says getting DNA from old bones is difficult because over time water and weather break down the things which protect DNA and make it harder to get a sample from skeletal remains.

'After 35 long years, waiting for Bob to come home, we've learned he's been home all along.' - Robert Johnston's obituary 

"This is one of the cases where we never gave up on him," said Clegg. "We didn't know what to do, but we just had to wait for the technology to catch up."

Officials still don't know how or why Johnston died. But it is important for the family to know as much as can be learned, Clegg says.

"Telling someone who's lost a loved one missing for one year or 10 years or 30 years, it's shocking and poignant for that family, regardless of the time their loved one went missing," she says. 

Despite the difficulty of delivering such news to families, Clegg says it's important to "give them a bit of peace."

It's the same mission that drives the work at the Bosnian lab that identified Johnston's remains. The facility has now identified more than 19,000 missing people from Bosnia and around the world.

Missing Persons

Bosnia's ICMP laboratory has helped identify the remains of 19,000 missing people from around the world. (ICMP)