Finding remains of Winnipeg homicide victims in landfill may be 'impossible': forensics expert
'Landfills are probably the most difficult search circumstance,' says consultant Ross Gardner
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Family and community members were outraged by the revelation this week that police believe the bodies of two homicide victims had ended up in a landfill north of Winnipeg.
That outrage deepened when Winnipeg police said they had no plans to search the Prairie Green landfill site for the remains of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris — both of whom they allege were killed by the same man — saying the task exceeded their capabilities.
While the families and community leaders put pressure on police and politicians to attempt a search, one U.S. forensics expert warns the circumstances make the chances of a successful search low.
"Landfills are probably the most difficult search circumstance," said Ross Gardner, an author, instructor and consultant in crime scene investigations based in Georgia.
"Landfill searches create … monumental hurdles that the investigative team's got to get over."
Police allege that both Harris and Myran were killed by Jeremy Skibicki, who had previously been charged in May with first-degree murder in the death of Rebecca Contois.
Her partial remains were found in a garbage bin in a northeast Winnipeg back alley on May 16.
The investigation led police to close off a section of the city's Brady Road landfill, where they discovered more of her remains on June 14.
But police have said there are key differences between the operations at the Brady and Prairie Green landfills, and the timing of their investigation, that would make a similar search for the other victims unfeasible.
"Generally what you're looking for is some intelligence as to when the body was deposited," said Gardner.
If the operations at the landfill involve "a dump and fill, there's no way you're going to find what you're looking for," he said.
Time, dumping methods complicate search
While the Brady Road landfill is owned by the City of Winnipeg, Prairie Green is a privately owned facility.
In the case of the search for Contois, officers were able to pinpoint the general area where her remains might be. Within five hours, they were able to stop trucks from dumping more garbage.
Earlier this week, Winnipeg police forensics investigator Insp. Cam MacKid said officers learned the remains of Harris and Myran might be in the Prairie Green landfill on June 20 — more than a month after it's believed they were taken there.
During that time, around 10,000 loads of debris, as well as 1,500 tonnes of animal remains, were deposited at the site, according to police.
The garbage truck believed to have been carrying the remains wasn't equipped with a GPS tracker, and the garbage was later compacted with 9,000 tonnes of wet, heavy construction clay.
"A lot of these waste management services, what they do is they build these cells," said Gardner.
"On a given day, they dump at a particular site. They compact that … then they start another one. And so effectively, you end up with these 100-foot, 150-foot cells."
The fact that animal parts are included in the waste makes finding human remains even more difficult, Gardner said.
"I think it would physically be impossible" to find human remains in those circumstances, he said.
"After time, how would you distinguish between the human body and some portions of an animal corpse?"
Other landfill searches
However, another U.S. expert thinks there's a possibility a search at Prairie Green could be successful.
Eric Bartelink, a professor of anthropology and director of the human identification laboratory at California State University-Chico, said a search would have to start with getting an experienced backhoe operator to carefully remove debris, then start to dig through the heavy clay.
Such a dig might produce clues, like newspapers, receipts or other dated documents in the trash that could help focus a search, he told CBC in an interview earlier this week.
Searches may take weeks and aren't always successful, but he pointed to successful efforts 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.
Winnipeg police have made previous unsuccessful attempts to find the remains of a homicide victim.
The police service spent six days searching for Tanya Nepinak, 31, at the Brady Road landfill in October 2012, more than a year after she went missing. She was never found.
Members of Nepinak's family have said it was difficult to convince police to search the dump.
- Potential search at landfill reopens old wounds for aunt of Winnipeg woman who went missing over a decade ago
Other Canadian searches have been successful, though.
In June 2021, police in Ontario said they would search the Green Lane landfill in Southwold, Ont. — the main waste management site for Toronto — for the remains of Nathaniel Brettell, who disappeared in January 2021.
They found his remains in August that year.
That search was aided by the fact the facility kept detailed records of where material was dumped.
On Feb. 17, 2019, a search of Ottawa's Trail Road landfill led to the discovery of the body of Susan Kublu-Iqqittuq, who had been missing since Jan. 11.
The 18-day search involved almost 100 people.
For now, dumping at the Prairie Green landfill has been halted while political leaders and police discuss how a search might be conducted.
Gardner said he understands why the families of Harris and Myran want police to search the Prairie Green landfill.
"That's tough. The families obviously don't want to have this situation. And that's a tough pill to swallow, but there's a reality to it," he said.
"I can't visualize a functional way to accomplish it."
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.
With files from Cameron MacIntosh