Montreal·CBC Investigates

What Montreal police can learn from other Canadian police forces about cracking cold cases

The SPVM is not divulging much about how its new cold case unit will work, so CBC looked at what police elsewhere in Canada are doing to catch killers whose trails have gone cold.

Cutting-edge DNA analysis, undercover work and public tips help investigators dredge up new leads

Montreal police recover Jessica Neilson's body, which was found inside her car in Saint-Henri back in 2009. Her homicide is one of nearly 560 cases dating back to 1980 that Montreal police have yet to solve.

At long last, the Montreal police service is following the lead of most major police forces in Canada — and creating a cold case squad to investigate the hundreds of unsolved homicides it still has on its books.

Once Montreal's unit gets off the ground later this year, Vancouver and Ottawa will be the only major cities in Canada without a dedicated cold case squad.

For more than a decade, various divisions of the RCMP, as well as police forces in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax have had units devoted to unsolved major crimes.

The SPVM has little to say about how Montreal's unit will function, but with the new chief coming from the Sûreté du Québec, it's likely the SQ model will exert a strong influence. The provincial force has a robust cold case unit, beefed up last year from five investigators to nearly 30.

Montreal's unit will be staffed by one lieutenant detective and six investigators, with a mandate to look into both unsolved murders and disappearances.

That's a tall order. Since 1980, there have been nearly 560 murders on the island that remain unsolved..

That's second only to Toronto, which has 683 cold homicide cases on its books — the oldest dating back to the 1920s.

Forensic testing using today's technology

To tackle the sheer volume of cases, Toronto police Det.-Sgt. Stacy Gallant says his unit has zeroed in on those he describes as "close-contact" murders: beatings, strangulations, stabbings and murders with a sexual component.

"There would have to be a physical interaction between the person that committed the murder and the victim, so thereby a potential transfer of evidence between the two," said Gallant, who oversees four investigators.

Det.-Sgt. Stacy Gallant heads Toronto's cold-case unit. With 683 cases on file, going back nearly a century, he says the unit has had to prioritize 'close-contact' homicides where there is a chance of finding new clues through advances in DNA technology. (Supplied)

The unit also decided to focus on unsolved murders committed before 2000, when DNA testing was still in its infancy. 

However, not all evidence can be retested, especially if it was collected more than 30 or 40 years ago, said Gallant.

"A lot of times, things are contaminated or degraded," he said. Evidence may have rotted because it wasn't preserved properly or was in storage too long.

With the help of the Ontario government's Centre of Forensic Sciences, Toronto's unit looks for a match of a DNA profile in the RCMP's National DNA Data Bank.

The data bank contains DNA from the blood, saliva and hair of more than 260,000 people who have been convicted of a crime in Canada.

Phenotyping, or 'snapshot DNA'

If there's no match, cold case investigators may opt for other cutting-edge techniques, such as phenotyping, Gallant said.

Also known as "snapshot DNA," phenotyping predicts what a suspect might look like, based on genetic information gathered from DNA evidence.

DNA phenotying reverse-engineers DNA to produce a physical profile of a suspect. (Parabon NanoLabs)

It can predict an offender's ancestry, gender, hair, eye and skin colour. In some cases, police artists are able to generate a sketch based on those physical characteristics.

While phenotyping hasn't so far provided Toronto's cold case unit with a direct link to a suspect, it's given police a better picture of who an offender might be.

"It's helped us realign our potential persons of interest list," said Gallant.

Phenotyping is costly, so Gallant says it's only done in cases where all other investigative steps have been exhausted.

Tips from the public

Sometimes, an offender steps up to confess or a witness comes forward with new information, Gallant says. But those instances are rare.

However, the public has access to the Toronto police service's searchable unsolved murders website. Each case is grouped by the month the victim was killed. Victims can also be sought by the year of their death.

More successful, he said, are public appeals for information, made through the media a half a dozen times a year, as well as on Youtube, where videos that detail unsolved homicides are posted.

Watch Toronto police appeal for new leads in a 20-year-old cold case:

Gallant said the unit carefully selects which cases it publicizes — typically, ones where police have a DNA profile on a suspect but nothing has turned up in the data base.

"I try to reinvigorate that case by putting out information," he said, which sometimes triggers tips or new leads on unrelated cases, as well.

A breed apart

Following leads in a cold case is long, arduous work, often complicated by fading memories and degraded evidence, says RCMP Staff-Sgt. Jason Zazulak, who heads up the 11-member unit in Alberta.

He says recruits to the unit, set up in 2009, must have the patience and perseverance to go through an existing investigation in minute detail.

They're reviewing about 240 unsolved homicides.

A case is considered cold after three years with no new leads, says Zazulak.

"We look at everything again and look at developing new avenues of investigation or new theories," he said.

"Finding that small gem or nugget that reinvigorates a case is part of the payoff."

To generate new leads, investigators may cultivate confidential sources or go undercover to try to weed out new clues.

They also go back to question reluctant witnesses who may have been involved in a criminal lifestyle or feared speaking to police for another reason.

"Over time, their life circumstances sometimes change, and they're more open to sharing information," said Zazulak.

As for DNA evidence, in the past, the sample size may have been too small to get a suspect's profile. Scientific advances have changed that and have also helped police identify victims.

Violet Heathen, left, was killed in 2009 and Jeanette Chief, right, was killed in 2007. Gordon Rogers was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 17 years for the murders. (Supplied)

Take the case of Gordon Alfred Rogers, who was sentenced to life in prison last year for the deaths of two Indigenous women — Jeanette Chief in 2007 and Violet Heathen in 2009.

The RCMP cracked the case after finding the DNA of one of the victims in a trailer Rogers had lived in, through a covert operation.

Since 2009, Zazulak's unit has laid charges in seven investigations.

"If you're the family of one of the cases we solve, then you're happy," said Zazulak.

Not just about the optics

It's what Jessica Neilson's family dreams of.

The body of the 25-year-old woman was found in her snow-covered car in Saint-Henri in March 2008, more than three months after she left her toddler with her boyfriend, headed out to do errands and never came home.

Jessica Neilson, 25, was found dead in her vehicle in March 2009, months after she went missing. With her homicide still unsolved 10 years later, her family told CBC they feel abandoned by Montreal police. (CBC)

Her killer has never been found.

In December, Jessica's father, Donald Neilson, criticized police for the stalled investigation.

"Take our case, open it, read it, see what's going on with it," was his message to the Montreal police detective newly assigned to her case.

"He doesn't know us. He's never met us," said Neilson to CBC News.

Prof. Michael Arntfield, a University of Western Ontario criminologist, says staff turnover on a deceased relative's file is the most common complaint he hears from the families of victims.

Often, the lead detective, who knows the case inside out, is transferred or retires. A new detective then has to play catch up, forcing the family to explain all that they know, all over again.

"Can you imagine any other private sector job that you could treat a client like that?" Arntfield asks.

Police told CBC Jessica Neilson's case is still an active file, but her parents say if there's been any progress, they've been left in the dark.

Arntfield says police forces need to be more accountable to victims' families and the public.

"When is the last time an investigative chronology was updated?" Arntfield asks. "Unless you can qualify that, it's not active and ongoing."

Loved ones never forgotten

Lawyer Marc Bellemare, who represents the families of eight Quebec women killed in the 1970s and 80s whose cases remain unsolved, has cautiously welcomed the news of Montreal's cold case unit.

Lawyer Marc Bellemare, left, represents the families of eight Quebec women killed in the 1970s and 80s whose cases remain unsolved. (Submitted by Stéphan Parent)

But he hopes it isn't just a public relations exercise.

Simply setting up a cold case unit doesn't guarantee police will improve how they conduct their investigations or whether they'll solve more cases, said Bellemare.

"What's the budget? How many cases will they do?" Bellemare asks.

Toronto's Gallant says the importance of the work a cold case unit undertakes can't be overstated.

Barely a week goes by when he doesn't get a call or email from the friend or relative of a victim whose killer is still on the loose.

"It keeps those offenders that are still out there looking over their shoulders, hopefully, anticipating that one day I will be knocking on their door or putting my hand on their shoulder arresting them," said Gallant.

About the Author

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Contact her via our confidential tipline: 514-597-5155 or on email at montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

With files from Anna Sosnowski

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