I've seen dozens of forensic teams combing over a crime scene in the past few years. However, until a few days ago, they were all fake.
Just about every cop show, and let's face it, there are a lot of them on TV these days, has a forensic examiner to add a touch of gritty realism to their programs. The forensic examiner is usually an eccentric character able to parrot a staggering amount of scientifc info along with a macabre quip or two.
Now I can say I've seen the real thing. I was standing along the side of a quiet country road in the Annapolis Valley, watching a team of RCMP forensics experts and people from the medical examiner's office comb through the remains of an old pig farm. I didn't hear any quips, just the quiet murmer of people at work. I also didn't see any HumVees or hear any Who tunes, the other two staples of TV forensics.
I've been to a lot of crime scenes over the years. But other than police milling about, the odd shell-casing or pool of blood on the ground, there's not much to see. In fact, police tape is strategically placed to prevent us from seeing much. In at least one case, police actually moved their tape to deny news crews a good vantage point.
So as I stood on that country road, just metres from where the forensic team was working, I had to remind myself that it was real. It was also grim, dirty, necessary work. Under the baleful eye of grazing cattle and stares from occasional gawkers on the roadway, the team goes quietly about their work
It's been more than a decade since Rhonda Wilson was last seen alive, walking near her Kentville home. She left behind three young children. Her boyfriend at the time, Albert Rex Baird, is now charged with murder in her disappearance. That's what brought police, the medical examiner and me to the old pig farm.
Police aren't saying how they're connected, but they believe the farm may be Wilson's final resting place. Even though Baird is charged with killing her, no one has found her body. At least, not yet.
You hear the words pig farm and missing woman in Canada, and you can't help but think of the grisly case of Robert Pickton in British Columbia. But on this farm, they're only looking for one person.
There is a concrete foundation on the property, which is believed to have held waste from the farm. As I watched, examiners hoisted material out of the foundation with a block and tackle. Nearby, a large tanker trailer was parked. Garden hoses snaked out of the top of the tanker. One of those hoses led to an army tent. A child's wading pool was set on a table there, and examiners were using water from the hose to wash off material in the pool. There was also a large industrial vacuum truck on the site, the kind used to suck out septic tanks. It was sitting idle while I was there, but it's not hard to imagine what it might be used for in this type of operation.
Investigators had been on the farm for about a month by the time I showed up; they arrived shortly after Baird was charged. They were due to be on the site for another few weeks.
The stakes are high: while it's possible to conduct a murder trial without a body, it makes it a lot harder for everyone, including the accused. At this point, Baird has only made a couple of preliminary appearances in court. Given the complexities of a murder trial, I do not expect to see much movement in this case for several weeks. Baird is due back in court in Kentville next month.
In the meantime, investigators try to pry clues that have been buried for a decade in the rich farmland of the valley.
Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.