Saskatchewan

'Peace and closure': Sask. coroner identifies 'John Doe' hit by train in Regina in 1995

An investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate found the person who was hit by a Canadian Pacific Railway train in Regina on July 28, 1995, was a Winnipeg man. The Saskatchewan Coroners Service has identified the man as Michael Kirov and confirmed he was from Winnipeg.

Michael Kirov, from Winnipeg, identified after 26 years using DNA analysis

The body of Michael Kirov was finally identified after 26 years of investigations to determine who was killed by a train in Regina in July 1995. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

The Saskatchewan Coroners Service announced on Thursday that it had identified a man who died in Regina 26 years ago as Michael Kirov, originally from Winnipeg.

The announcement comes after an investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate into an unidentified man who was hit by an eastbound Canadian Pacific Railway train on a crossing at Courtney Street and 13th Avenue in Regina on July 28, 1995.

Kirov changed his name from Michael Lewis before leaving Manitoba, the Saskatchewan Coroners Service said. His family still refers to him as Michael Lewis. 

We pray everyone finds peace and closure knowing that Michael was very much loved and has been reunited with his family.- Statement from Kirov's family

Kirov's identity was verified in early August this year with assistance from Othram Inc., a Texas company that specializes in the recovery and analysis of human DNA.

The coroners service, with help from the Regina Police Service, worked for decades to uncover his identity. "With persistent investigation and new technologies, we can now provide closure," Regina police Chief Evan Bray said in a news release Thursday.

Clive Weighill, Saskatchewan's chief coroner, said Kirov would have been 30 years old when he died. 

Kirov's family wrote a statement regarding his identification, read by the case's original coroner, Jerry Bell.

Kirov's cousin, Karen Clawson, left, and Jerry Bell, the original coroner on the case, sit in the Saskatchewan's Coroners Service office during a news conference on Thursday about the 26-year investigation. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In it, the family said he was very close to his mother, Joan.

"Michael was a sweet, shy, quiet boy with big blue eyes. We were a small close family and all holidays and birthdays were spent with Joan and Michael, our parents and our grandparents."

The family was extremely grateful for the community-funded headstone and has elected to leave the headstone as is, with the addition of his name, Michael Lewis, and a "few memorials."

Kirov's cousins, from left, Sandra Zamonski, Cheryl Paulson and Clawson tear up and hold each other's hands on Thursday while a statement is read on their behalf. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

"We pray everyone finds peace and closure knowing that Michael was very much loved and has been reunited with his family," the statement said.

The announcement corroborates the finding by The Fifth Estate that the victim was a man from Winnipeg. The coroners service and Regina Police Service did not confirm the man's identity to The Fifth Estate during the investigation, but both organizations had been participating in a Fifth Estate documentary about unidentified human remains before suddenly ending their involvement in July, stating there had been "a potential development."

No ID, identifying physical attributes

Bruce Henderson, the train's engineer, told The Fifth Estate he was driving the train from Moose Jaw to Broadview, Sask., when he saw a man walking down the tracks in the same direction as the train.

Henderson, who is now retired, said he laid on the train's horn, bell and whistles. The man stepped off the tracks momentarily but then tried to dive in front of the train, toward the track, he said.

The man had no personal identification inside his knapsack, but he did have some personal belongings, including a silver brooch shaped like a rose, according to the Regina Police Service's website.

The website says the investigation included searching for the man's fingerprints in databases — across Canada and the United States — but the result was negative. Investigators said they exhausted all avenues, including dental records and X-rays. 

He also didn't have any physical attributes that would help confirm his identity, such as tattoos, surgical scars or unusual characteristics, nor did he match any local missing persons reports.

This composite sketch of 'John Doe,' who was hit by a Canadian Pacific Railway train in 1995, was released to the public by the Regina Police Service. The Saskatchewan Coroners Service announced on Thursday that it had identified the man as Kirov, from Winnipeg. (Regina Police Service)

During a news conference on Thursday, police said their investigation extended as far as looking for the maker of the "distinctive shirt" he was wearing with hopes of finding a lead.

Bell said that in his ongoing 37-year career, this had been his only unsolved identity case. He said that in about 2000, it became his goal to give John Doe his name back and return him to his family. 

"We still have work to do to talk and to try and understand Michael's journey, and Michael's life and what led him to Regina. And we're just beginning that part."

From 1995 to now

In April 1996, public donations helped fund the tombstone that stands over Kirov, laid to rest in a Regina cemetery after failed attempts to identify him in 1995. 

Weighill said that in February 1997, the coroners service pitched the story of John Doe to the U.S. television program Unsolved Mysteries, but it wasn't accepted. 

In 2007, the coroners service sent DNA samples to the British Columbia Institute of Technology for a DNA profile, which was compared with available databanks, without success. 

Over the years, tips from the public became less frequent. Another set of DNA samples was sent to an RCMP lab in Ottawa — it was a 21-marker profile rather than the previous nine-marker profile from the B.C. institute — and there was a distant match. Weighill told CBC News it was a long shot that didn't pan out.

David Mittelman, CEO of Texas-based Othram Inc., describes over video conference how the company helped identify Kirov through DNA testing. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In early 2020, investigators considered companies, such as Othram, for their investigation. It wasn't until December 2020 that Regina police sent the DNA to Othram so it could build a more expansive DNA profile that led to a conclusion.

Now the case has been resolved, but Bell said he will continue to work with one of the closest relatives to "get a history" of Kirov, Weighill said, including personal aspects such as whether he had suicidal tendencies. But that won't be shared with the public. 

With files from The Fifth Estate

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