Rare case of no body, no identity a challenge in Winnipeg homicide

Laying a first-degree murder charge against an accused when there is no body and no known identity is uncommon, legal experts say.

'That's definitely a hurdle in a situation like this,' University of Manitoba law prof says

A man in a police inspector uniform gestures to his right at two photographs of a winter jacket
Winnipeg police Insp. Shawn Pike gestures to images of a jacket that investigators hope will help identify an unknown victim of an alleged serial killer in Winnipeg. The woman is being called Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

More than two weeks have passed since police laid additional murder charges against an alleged serial killer, including one for the killing of an unidentified woman whose remains have not been found.

The move to lay a first-degree murder charge against an accused when there is no body and no known identity is uncommon, legal experts say.

"That's extremely rare," said Brandon Trask, an assistant professor of law at the University of Manitoba.

There have been more cases where there is a known victim and no body, Trask said, but that is also rare.

Winnipeg police charged Jeremy Skibicki on Dec. 1 with three counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and an unidentified fourth woman.

The faces of three First Nations women are pictured side by side.
Left to right: Morgan Beatrice Harris, Marcedes Myran and Rebecca Contois. Winnipeg police have charged Jeremy Skibicki with first-degree murder in the deaths of all three women, as well as a fourth, whom community members have named Buffalo Woman, because police do not know her identity. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois)

Skibicki was in custody at the time facing another first-degree murder charge in the death of Rebecca Contois. Her partial remains were found in a garbage bin in May and the rest were later discovered at a city landfill.

The bodies of Harris and Myran have not been located, but are believed to be at a private landfill outside the city called Prairie Green.

Little is known about the unidentified fourth woman. Police believe she is an Indigenous woman in her mid-20s and she was killed on or around March 15. They have not explained what that belief is based on.

Police released photos of a reversible jacket with a fur hood that is similar to one the victim may have worn in the hopes of getting tips that could identify her.

Indigenous leaders have given the woman the name Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, a name police have also adopted.

An aerial shot shows a vast, snow-covered field.
An aerial view shows the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

There are still ways to prosecute a case in the absence of an identified victim, but it adds another layer of complexity, said Trask, who has no direct involvement in or knowledge of the case and can only speak in generalities.

"Without a body, there's going to be a fair bit of forensic evidence missing that would otherwise normally be featured in a prosecution," he said. "That's definitely a hurdle in a situation like this."

If there are similarities between the killings, that may influence how the Crown ends up proceeding, Trask said.

Police have not commented on how Skibicki may have known the women. Family members of the women have said they were in vulnerable positions, and have called on police and governments to address safety concerns for Indigenous women and girls.

Lawyers prosecuting Canada's most prolific serial killer were tasked with arguing a murder charge without an identity and only partial remains to rely on.

Robert Pickton was convicted in 2007 of six counts of second-degree murder but is suspected of killing dozens of women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He buried the women around his pig farm.

Pickton initially faced 27 murder charges, with one of those being an unidentified woman known as Jane Doe. A judge quashed that charge, citing a lack of evidence of her identity and when she died.

John Ahern was part of a team representing the Crown in the Pickton case.

"You imagine from the defence side, they're trying to defend a murder charge and the Crown is not saying who was murdered or when. You can see the conundrum for the trial judge and jury," Ahern said in a recent interview.

Prosecutors were forced to rely on a combination of DNA found at Pickton's farm and evidence from witnesses.

In a situation with no body, the Crown needs "a lot of circumstantial evidence, not direct evidence," Ahern said.

A Winnipeg judge recently gave a 16-year prison term to a man who was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of a missing cleaner.

Eduardo Balaquit went missing in 2018 and his body has never been found.

A jury was satisfied with the Crown's case and found Kyle Pietz guilty of manslaughter.

Prosecutors relied on surveillance video, bank transactions and cellphone tracking to make the case that Pietz killed Balaquit during a robbery and disposed of his body in a rural area.

Police have not commented on any evidence they have discovered while investigating Skibicki, but one of the prosecutors assigned to the case said the Crown is confident in what police have presented to go ahead with the first-degree murder charges.

"We'll be able to establish all four homicides, but particularly as well, the unknown victim homicide, even though we don't know who that person is at this point," Chris Vanderhooft said.

He said the fact that one victim hasn't been identified shouldn't change the Crown's case.

"We will continue to do our job and continue to meet with victims' families and do the things that are required in any one of these cases."

A trial date has yet to be set. Skibicki remains in custody.

Support is available for anyone affected by details of this case. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk's Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104 (within Winnipeg), or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).

Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.


Brittany Hobson

The Canadian Press

Brittany Hobson is a reporter with The Canadian Press. A graduate from Red River College's creative communications program, her work has been published by CBC, the Winnipeg Free Press and the Community News Commons.