Edmonton·THE FIFTH ESTATE

Man whose body was found in septic tank on Alberta farm in 1977 was Sixties Scoop survivor, RCMP say

A man whose burned body was found in a septic tank on an Alberta farm in 1977 has been identified as Gordon Edwin Sanderson, a 26-year-old from Manitoba who had been living in Edmonton.

Gordon Edwin Sanderson identified by DNA 44 years after remains were discovered

Gordon Edwin Sanderson was born in Manitoba and living in Edmonton when he was killed in 1977. His remains were found in a septic tank on a farm southeast of the city. (RCMP)

WARNING | This story contains disturbing details

A man whose burned body was found in a septic tank on an Alberta farm in 1977 has been identified as Gordon Edwin Sanderson.

The RCMP said Wednesday that the remains found on the farm outside Tofield are those of Sanderson, a 26-year-old Indigenous man from Manitoba who had been living in Edmonton.

"He was known as Gordie to his family and friends. Gordie had a hard life. He was separated from his family at nine years old during the Sixties Scoop and placed in foster care," Staff Sgt. Jason Zazulak of the Alberta RCMP major crimes unit said during a virtual news conference.

"He was a resident of Edmonton from the 1970s and was last heard from by family when he was going to meet his younger brother, Arthur, in Calgary. Sadly Gordie did not make it to that meeting." 

Police said the investigation into the killing remains open. 

The RCMP say Sanderson, who was born in Manitoba, was separated from his family as a nine-year-old during the Sixties Scoop and placed in foster care. (RCMP)

Police began investigating the death again after the Golden State killer was arrested in 2018 following comparisons of crime-scene DNA evidence with information on genealogy websites that track ancestry.

The RCMP submitted Sanderson's DNA to Othram Inc., a private laboratory in Texas.

Othram specializes in the recovery and analysis of human DNA from degraded or contaminated forensic evidence. It also does genealogical research for policing agencies in Canada and the U.S. It first hit the headlines in Canada after identifying the killer in the 1984 murder of nine-year-old Christine Jessop, who was abducted from Queensville, Ont. 

Police said they identified Sanderson in January 2021 and that the case became an active homicide investigation after that.

The RCMP released a photo reconstruction in 1988 of the man, now identified as Sanderson, whose remains were found in the septic tank on the farm outside Tofield, Alta. (Gourami Watcher/Wikia.org)

Sanderson was nicknamed Septic Tank Sam by the RCMP after he was found on April 13, 1977, in the septic tank on the farm owned by Mavis and Charlie McLeod. Both are now deceased.

Their son Greg McLeod, who was 15 at the time Sanderson's body was found, told The Fifth Estate that he didn't know any of the details surrounding Sanderson's death before this week. 

"It's such a sad story because Dad never talked about it….  I didn't know any details about it."

McLeod said he is glad that Sanderson's family finally has some answers. 

"It's good for everybody that way. I mean, it's still sad what happened. I just can't believe it."

David Mittelman, a geneticist and CEO of Othram, said it was "extremely gratifying" to help with the identification of Sanderson.

"It was exciting to know also that his sister was alive, so she was able to receive in her lifetime an answer to what happened to her brother." 

Mittelman's company started working on the case approximately a year ago. He said although they have worked on several hundred cold cases, seeing Sanderson's picture was sad and still hit him hard.

"He was a young guy … and his life was cut short," Mittelman said. 

"I'm glad they shared the photo because it reminds you again that these are not statistics and scientific data points. They're real people with actual stories behind them."    

Sanderson is survived by an older sister and a daughter. 

If there is a case of unidentified human remains from your town or city that you would like us to investigate, please email fifthtips@cbc.ca

Corrections

  • We initially reported that Gordon Edwin Sanderson was 20 years old at the time of his death. In fact, he was 26.
    Jun 30, 2021 3:32 PM MT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ronna Syed

Reporter

Ronna Syed is a producer/director with CBC's investigative documentary program The Fifth Estate. You can follow her on Twitter @Ronna_Syed and Instagram @ronna_syed. Send story tips to Ronna Syed at 416-205-6679.

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