Family has 2nd autopsy performed on Holly Ellsworth-Clark as they question how she died

The body of Holly Ellsworth-Clark has undergone a second autopsy and her family may hire a dive team to search the Hamilton Harbour as uncertainty about the circumstances of her death continue to disrupt their ability to grieve.

'I think Holly has become a part of Hamilton'

Hamilton police say Ellsworth-Clark went missing on Jan. 11 and was "in crisis" when she left her home. (Submitted by Hamilton Police Service)

The body of Holly Ellsworth-Clark has undergone a second autopsy and her family may hire a dive team to search Hamilton Harbour as their uncertainty about the circumstances of her death continues to disrupt their ability to grieve.

Her family brought on Dr. Michael Pollanen, Ontario's chief forensic pathologist, to take a second look. The autopsy results will come in five weeks.

"It's a distraction and I'm upset to have gone down a rabbit hole with my own thoughts," Dave Clark, Holly's father, said on Wednesday night after flying from the family's hometown of Calgary to Hamilton.

"We're mourning Holly."

The 27-year-old was found dead on Sept. 8 in Hamilton Harbour after going missing almost eight months prior. She was identified using dental records.

The ongoing search for answers comes after police say the initial coroner's review, by Dr. Judy Baird, suggested nothing about Holly's death appeared to be suspicious. The forensic toxicologist's report will be ready in a month.

Holly's family has hesitated ruling out foul play after she told them she was afraid for her life leading up to the day she went missing.

Her disappearance on Jan. 11 compelled her family to come to Hamilton from Calgary the next day and inspired hundreds to search for her in the city and in the Greater Toronto Area.

When CBC previously asked Staff-Sgt. Dave Oleniuk if there was any indication of homicide or foul play, he said, "No, not at all. Nothing suspicious."

He was unavailable for comment on Wednesday and Thursday.

Dave Clark and Elle McFearsin hope a second autopsy will provide more answers about Holly Ellsworth-Clark's death. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

But after Clark spoke with the coroner, he had questions about the initial autopsy.

Coroners normally answer five questions in their investigations:

  • The identity of the victim.
  • The date of their death.
  • Where they died.
  • The medical cause of their death.
  • Whether the death was from natural causes, a homicide, suicide, accidental or undetermined.

Elle McFearsin, Holly's former boss who led community search efforts, said almost all of Holly's case file is currently listed as "undetermined."

Clark said that while Baird told him there were no signs of visible trauma to Holly, her lower legs were missing. Baird suggested it could be the result of a boat making contact with her legs, but Clark said she could not definitively explain why they were missing.

"I didn't want to be cremating Holly without having those questions answered more precisely," Clark said.

That's when Clark and his family searched for someone to take a second look. Pollanen offered to work for free.

Dr. Michael Pollanen, Ontario's chief forensic pathologist, is overseeing the second autopsy of Holly Ellsworth-Clark. The results will come by the end of October 2020. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Multiple autopsies are uncommon. They are normally only done in high profile cases like the murder of George Floyd or the double murder of Barry and Honey Sherman.

Because Pollanen works in Ontario, Clark said the autopsy was carried out under the same department as the first one, but was done by a different person. He added that Pollanen personally oversaw the second autopsy.

The procedure took place a week ago.

Baird and Pollanen declined to comment as the case is still under investigation.

Family considering hiring dive team

Clark and his family are also mulling over whether they should hire divers to search near Pier 11.

He and McFearsin said the Hamilton Port Authority Harbour Master gave them an idea of where to search in the water, but also said it may not be worth it.

"Apparently the water, even close to shore, is quite deep and very murky, so the possibility of finding things there with a dive we could afford is very limited, even if we have a really good idea of where she was," Clark said.

Despite that, they will walk by the port during their short stay in Hamilton. If the bottom of the water 30 feet from the shore is visible, Clark may call upon divers.

A Google Earth image of Pier 11, the area where Holly Ellsworth-Clark was found. (Google Earth)

The urge to keep searching for answers is hard to shake. Clark and McFearsin said through their regular drives in Hamilton while looking for Holly, they developed an instinct to scope out anything that could lead them to her.

But now Clark said they have nothing left to look for.

"Your body is instinctively doing that, but now your brain says 'Shut up,' " he said.

"Almost every part of the city has a memory associated with this."

On Friday, McFearsin, and maybe Clark, will meet with Oleniuk and local police to ask questions about the investigation.

They'll ask about the start of the search, how Holly was found, what steps officers took, what they could have done differently and what else they might still be able to find out.

"There's things that happened that could be improved and probably should be improved," McFearsin explained, also emphasizing officers have worked hard to help them.

Vigil for Holly Clark on Saturday

McFearsin and Clark are bracing for an emotionally gruelling weekend, but hope Saturday will be all about Holly.

While the vigil at Woodland's Park in Hamilton starts at 7 p.m. ET, McFearsin said they will be there from sunrise to sunset.

At about 2 p.m., people will be able to paint over the mural at the park in honour of Holly. The mural was previously dedicated to her.

A vigil for Holly Ellsworth-Clark will take place in Hamilton on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. in Woodlands Park. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

McFearsin said the city approved the event and have been extremely helpful, pouring resources into it.

That also means 100 people can attend in person. Greta Ellsworth, Holly's mom, won't be present, but Caleb and Kate, her brother and sister, will be there.

There will be an Indigenous smoke ceremony at 7 p.m. Some music performances will follow. Holly was a musician and some of her songs will be played.

Clark may also perform and play a song he wrote about her. Dave taught Holly how to play guitar, which led her to move to Toronto and Hamilton to pursue music.

The event page for the vigil asks people to bring a candle. It also promotes the use of masks, hand sanitizer and maintaining social distancing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holly Ellsworth-Clark playing a song in Calgary. (Instagram)

McFearsin asks that visitors only stay for 30 minutes to allow everyone who arrives to pay their respects. Those who can't attend, or want to stay in because of the pandemic, will be able to watch a live stream.

There will also be a celebration of life in Calgary on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. MT.

"It's mind-boggling to see how many people this has affected in Hamilton. We need to be able to mourn with them ... hopefully no one has to go through this but if they do, we hope they've learned something from our trials and tribulations," McFearsin said.

"I think Holly has become a part of Hamilton."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.