The enduring mystery of Nova Scotia's two unidentified bodies

In 27 years there have only been two bodies in Nova Scotia that have gone unidentified.

'It's frustrating and it's also a bit heartbreaking,' says Dr. Marnie Wood

An RCMP forensic artist's model, left, was used to create the 3D image on the right. The image at right is of a man found dead near the Halifax airport in 2004. He has never been identified. (RCMP)

Down the brightly lit hallways of the Nova Scotia medical examiner's office, past the courtyard with its tidy path and pergola, lie the remains of a man waiting for answers.

His is one of two bodies the office hasn't been able to identify in the last 27 years.

His body will stay in the office until his identity can be confirmed and his remains can be returned to his family. 

The other body lies in a grave in Yarmouth County. For almost 30 years her identity has baffled medical examiners and police.

It's the duty of the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service to investigate all accidental deaths, homicides, suicides or any death that occurs in an unusual or suspicious manner.

Every year the service performs up to 800 autopsies. Most of the bodies are identified by police or family members before they end up with a medical examiner. 

Dr. Marnie Wood examines an animal bone. Sometimes bones are dropped off at the medical examiner's office and they have to determine if they are human or not. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

If the identity of a body isn't known, then it's up to the medical examiner to help solve the mystery.

The service's track record is exceptional. For more than a quarter of a century only one man and one woman have gone unidentified.

Their deaths are not connected. Police and the medical examiner's office don't believe foul play was involved in either death.

But, so far, the clues have led nowhere.

"It's frustrating, and it's also a bit heartbreaking because … these remains belong to someone out there who's looking for their loved one," said Dr. Marnie Wood a medical examiner and forensic pathologist with the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service. 

The medical examiner service performs 750-800 autopsies a year. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The first of the unidentified bodies was a woman found in the ocean about 160 kilometres south of Yarmouth in July 1991. The medical examiner's office doesn't have any photos or artist's sketches of her. 

There was no driver's licence or any other identification on the body. No one knows how she ended up so far off the coast. 

So the medical examiner's office stepped in to try to determine her identity.

"Information was gathered off her, she was autopsied here, she was sent for a consulting autopsy in Newfoundland and then she was interred, I think, in the Yarmouth area and remains unidentified to this day."    

The woman's body had started to decompose when it was found, adding to the difficulty of identifying her, Wood said.

Some of the tools medical examiners use to perform autopsies and take samples form the bodies they examine. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Whenever an unidentified body comes in, the medical examiner's service immediately tries to match it to a missing person case. But neither Jane nor John Doe matched any of those cases.

"Most of the time it doesn't weigh on me the way people think it would weigh," said Wood. "What weighs are the frustrating things, when you can't solve the mystery, when you're missing pieces that you can't find. That can weigh sometimes."

The second unidentified body is the one in storage at the medical examiner's office. The man had many items with him when he died, but none has helped identify him.

His body was found in woods behind a Petro-Canada station near the Halifax airport in October 2004.

This is another 3D reconstruction of the unidentified man found in 2004. This man's remains will be kept at the medical examiner's office until he can be identified. (RCMP)

According to the RCMP cold-case file, the man was found wearing a multi-coloured dress shirt, a grey sweater, jeans, new Timberland hiking boots and a brown leather belt. 

A set of Dolce & Gabbana prescription glasses, a flashlight and a backpack were also found near his body. There were neatly folded clothes in his backpack.

But there was no identification found with him and nothing to indicate where he had come from or where he was going.

Some of the items found near the man's body. (RCMP)

At the time, the RCMP estimated the man had been in the woods for about 10 days when his badly decomposed body was found.

In 2005, the man's body was re-examined by a forensic anthropologist.

"When I was a student he had been buried and we actually exhumed his remains to gather further information in hopes of identifying him," said Wood. "That included an artistic reconstruction of him for the purposes of finding a tentative ID."

They also gathered samples to do a DNA analysis and create a DNA profile for the man. 

The forensic anthropologist on the case discovered the man had characteristics of both black African populations as well as white European populations. He was 5'11" and 160 pounds and could have been in his late 20s or early 30s.  

The unidentified man's body was found in a wooded area near the Halifax airport in October 2004. (Canadian Press)

The man had an athletic build, wore his hair in dreadlocks and sported a beard and glasses.

He also broke his left leg before he died and it hadn't healed properly. At the time, Tanya Peckmann, a forensic anthropologist, said the man either didn't get modern medical treatment or removed the cast before his leg healed.

After 120 hours of work, a facial reconstruction of the man was completed and it was eventually released to the media in 2006.     

The man's information was also submitted to the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, a database run by the RCMP. It allows Wood and her colleagues to look beyond Nova Scotia to compare the profiles of missing people to the remains they've collected.

But despite all of that, the man's identity remains unknown.

An example of some of the animal bones that have been dropped off to the medical examiner's office. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Part of the problem is despite all the new technologies available, the methods used to identify bodies haven't really changed.

"The way we identify them is very simple and is the same way people have been doing it for hundreds of years, which is visual identification," said Wood.

"Where someone who is emotionally able to do so, and knows the person well, can look at their face and say who they are — and that's how we do it in almost all the cases we have," said Wood. 

So until someone comes forward with new information or there's another kind of break in either case, the mystery will remain.

About the Author

David Burke

Reporter

David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.