Missing woman's daughter wants DNA test to see if Winnipeg Jane Doe is a match

It could take as little as a few hundred dollars and a saliva sample for Barb Desjarlais to find out if the body of a Winnipeg 'Jane Doe' is her missing mother, Audrey. But even the promise of a newly-enhanced national DNA database for missing persons might not give her the answers she seeks.

Investigators face budgetary restrictions that prevent more DNA tests from being done

Audrey Desjarlais stands with two young friends in this photo taken before she went missing. Her family believes she disappeared in Manitoba. (Desjarlais family)

It could take as little as a few hundred dollars and a saliva sample for Barb Desjarlais to find out if the body of a Winnipeg "Jane Doe" is her missing mother, but even the promise of a newly enhanced national DNA database for missing persons might not give her the answers she's looking for.

"There's no doubt in my mind that that's my mom. Let's just do the test. Just prove it," Desjarlais told CBC News from her Regina home. 

Desjarlais is referring to the unidentified human remains of a woman whose lifeless body was pulled from the Red River in 2012.

Little is known about this Jane Doe, except this: she was about five feet five inches tall, had long dark hair and was thin. She had dentures and, based on how she was dressed, she was likely homeless or at least transient.

But she also wore jewelry; specifically, a necklace with a dolphin on it, just like the one Barb Desjarlais's mother had.

Barb Desjarlais says she wants DNA testing done to confirm or reject her theory that the unidentified human remains of a woman (shown in a police sketch) pulled from the Red River in 2012 is in fact her mother, Audrey, shown at right. (Manitoba Chiefs of Police and Desjarlais family)

"I had a ring to that necklace," Desjarlais said. "I lost it a long time ago, but that necklace, yeah, she would have had that necklace on."

Desjarlais said her mother, Audrey, left their family almost 15 years ago and moved to Manitoba. She was a residential school survivor and was often struggling with drugs.

But she always made contact with them, via phone, until three years ago. They haven't heard a word from her since.

"It's so sad. Nobody even knew she was missing," Desjarlais said. "She just stopped calling. We never heard from her again. I am so sure this is my mom."

Let's just do the test. Let's prove it.- Barb Desjarlais

But the Winnipeg Police Service's missing persons unit isn't so sure. Not all of the details about the two women match.

That's why they're not taking the next step: getting a DNA sample from Desjarlais to compare with the corpse's.

It's a subjective decision that police agencies across the country face, especially when faced with financial restraints, considering there are hundreds of unidentified human remains in coroner's offices from coast to coast and thousands of missing persons reported each year.

Lindsey's Law

Judy Peterson has long known the pain of not knowing. Her daughter Lindsey was just 14 years old when she disappeared almost 22 years ago.

"I just don't have the comfort of knowing that if she's found, that I would even know," Peterson said from her British Columbia home.

"She could be in some coroner's office in Ontario, and I would have no idea, because they would not have my DNA to match with her."

She could be in some coroner's office in Ontario and I would have no idea.- Judy Peterson 

Lindsey's Law, named after Peterson's daughter, is supposed to change that.

The recently passed federal legislation follows a federal promise last year to create an enhanced national DNA databank for unidentified human remains and missing persons. Those samples would automatically be shared and compared with DNA that's already in the system — DNA from crime scenes and convicted offenders, for example.

The federal government committed $8 million to create the infrastructure that is supposed to be launched and operational by 2017.

Critics say it might not be successful because so far, the feds have not committed funding to cover the costs of all of the DNA sampling.

That, like today, will be left up to local jurisdictions and therefore could be at the mercy of local budgets.

The Winnipeg Police Service describe the deceased Jane Doe as 'slim built, wearing numerous jewellery items including silver dolphin pendant on silver chain, 3 bracelets. Believed to be between 35-50 years old and to weigh anywhere between 100-125 lbs.' (Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police)
"It's difficult," said Sgt. John Hebert of the Calgary Police Service. "We have to be careful about this."

Like other law enforcement officials, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Hebert is a supporter of both the new legislation and the idea of creating an enhanced databank.

However, he points to the U.S., where Washington has provided grants to cover sampling costs, as an ideal situation. More samples from more agencies — large and small — mean a better chance at finding a match.

In the meantime, people like Barb Desjarlais will continue to search for answers about their lost loved ones.

"I'll even pay for the DNA testing myself," she said. "Would they take it if I pay for it? I want closure."

A spokesperson from Manitoba's Chief Medical Examiner's office said he would talk to the family and review the case.