Manitoba

Forensic expert believes remains of missing women can be found at landfill near Winnipeg

A California forensics expert says it's possible to find the remains of two women police believe are somewhere below surface of a landfill north of Winnipeg — but warned the search would be extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

Any search, however, would likely be extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive, says Eric Bartelink

Police believe the remains of two women lie somewhere with the Prairie Green Landfill, a private facility north of Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A California forensics expert says it's possible to find the remains of two women police believe are somewhere below the surface of a landfill north of Winnipeg — but warned the search would be extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

Winnipeg police believe Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are somewhere within Prairie Green Landfill, a private facility in the rural municipality of Rosser.

Eric Bartelink, a professor of anthropology and director of the human identification laboratory at California State University-Chico, said the women could still be found, even after police made what an inspector called a difficult decision not to launch a search.

"I do think that it's possible, with enough labour and expertise on site, that the bodies could be located, potentially," Bartelink said in a phone interview from Chico, in northern California.

Harris and Myran, both of Long Plain First Nation near Portage la Prairie, and an unidentified woman whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe or Buffalo Woman, are three of the women Jeremy Skibicki is alleged to have killed. He was charged with their deaths last week.

Skibicki was already facing a first-degree murder charge in the May death of 24-year-old Rebecca Contois, a member of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, also known as Crane River.

Contois' remains were found at the city-operated Brady Road Landfill, south of Winnipeg, in summer. 

At a news conference called Tuesday to explain the police decision not to search Prairie Green, Insp. Cam MacKid said there are several factors contributing to the decision to not to search for the other women.

"We made the very difficult decision as a service that this wasn't operationally feasible to conduct a search of this site," MacKid said. "It's a very emotional subject, and our hearts go out to the families and to the victims."

Insp. Cam MacKid of the Winnipeg Police Service says it was a very difficult decision not to search Prairie Green Landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Prairie Green is owned by Waste Connections of Canada, formerly known in Winnipeg as Progressive Waste Services of Canada, and before that, BFI.

Winnipeg police said about 10,000 truckloads of garbage were dumped at the private facility between May 16, when Contois was killed, and June 20, when the homicide unit approached the service's forensics, intelligence and technology department with the possibility human remains might have been disposed of at the Rosser landfill.

About 1,500 tonnes of animal remains were also disposed of at the 12-metre-deep dump during the same five-week timeframe, police said, and this complicates efforts to find people.

Despite the additional material, Bartelink said he doesn't think a search would be impossible and also doesn't think weather would be a limiting factor.

He said a search must start with getting an experienced backhoe operator to gently remove debris, then start to dig through the approximately 9,000 tonnes of heavy construction clay that was added to the site after police believe the remains were deposited there.

About 9,000 tons of heavy construction clay that was added to Prairie Green Landfill between the time the remains were thought to have been deposited there and police awareness. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"As you go down, you're going to see clues. There could be things like newspapers or receipts or documents in the trash that have dates on them, and then you can kind of get a sense of where you are in time as you go through that debris pile," Bartelink said.

He said some searches take weeks and they aren't always successful. He nonetheless pointed to three successful landfill searches in Utah, Oregon and South Carolina during the last 20 years.

"If law enforcement are capable of doing it, if they can get the resources to do it … it's definitely worth doing," Bartelink said.

"Some of these searches have occurred when people have been missing for years. Seven months — it sounds like a long time and it sounds like a lot of trash, but relatively speaking, it's not as bad as it can be."

Conviction without a body

Michael Arntfield, a criminologist and professor at Western University, said murder convictions without a body are extremely rare in Canada.

Only two convictions without a body have ever been made in Ontario, including that of Robert Baltovich, who was later found not guilty in a retrial, Arntfield said Tuesday in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio.

Arntfield has previously taken part in landfill searches and called them "extremely laborious and dirty work."

The entirety of the victims' remains don't need to be found to help prosecutors, he said.

"If a portion of at least one body or belongings to one of the victims can be found, this assists the prosecution to put together a strong case," he told host Marcy Markusa.

"It becomes less and less of a reasonable doubt that that is where the victims ended up."

The fact that Winnipeg police have publicly disclosed their belief that some victims are in a landfill shows their confidence in that claim, Arntfield said.

"The disposition of the victims, in any case, is often a closely guarded secret, particularly in an alleged serial homicide case," he said.

"That to me indicates that considerable deliberation of thought has been put into whether or not to publicly release that [information], and they're very confident that that's where the victims are."

Bartelink said there would need to be an area where debris is deposited and searched.

MacKid said police explored doing that at Prairie Green.

Ultimately, MacKid said police would have to move debris from the landfill to a secondary site one truckload at a time and then sift through the material, if they were to entertain a search.

Compared to Prairie Green, the topography at Brady Road made the city landfill much easier for police to search when they looked for Contois.

An aerial view of the Brady Road landfill during the Winnipeg Police Service's investigation this past summer. (Winnipeg Police Service)

MacKid said health and safety of investigators in a potential search at Prairie Green is another concern. Bartelink said he agreed that would be something police must consider, but also suggested police conduct a cost-benefit analysis on a potential search.

"A first reaction of law enforcement might be it's going to be too expensive and too time-consuming, and they don't know how to go about doing it," he said.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth dismissed the idea police could tap into a funding pool to assist with a landfill search.

"Funding was never an issue here. I just want to be clear on that. At no time was funding a consideration with our operations," Smyth said.

Winnipeg police give update on investigation into alleged serial killer

2 months ago
Duration 35:22
Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth answers questions about ongoing requests for police to search landfills for the remains of three women.

The chief also said the investigation did not end the way police wanted it to end and that he understands the frustration and outcry from the families and the public.

"The circumstances dealt to us here are such that we don't have the same kind of circumstance [as the Brady Road landfill]," Smyth said. 

"We acknowledge that the families are heartbroken. We acknowledge that they're angry, frankly. And we acknowledge that a lot of people are angry."

Corrections

  • We initially reported that Prairie Green Landfill is in the rural municipality of Rockwood. In fact, it is in the rural municipality of Rosser.
    Dec 07, 2022 2:30 PM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan Liewicki is an online reporter at CBC Manitoba. He has worked at several newspapers, including the Brandon Sun, the Regina Leader-Post and the Edmonton Journal.

With files from Jim Agapito and Marcy Markusa

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