Police excavation in 55-year-old cold case was incomplete, forensic expert says

A forensic anthropologist says Durham police should keep searching for evidence in a five-decade-old missing person cold case, despite the force saying an “extensive excavation” of a site of interest turned up no new evidence.

Durham police excavated property in Clarington in search for Noreen Greenley, missing since 1963

Investigators dug two trenches Thursday, one 100 feet long and the other 150 feet. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

A forensic anthropologist says Durham police should keep searching for evidence in a five-decade-old missing person cold case, despite the force saying an "extensive excavation" of a site of interest turned up no new evidence.

Police said Thursday they had excavated a large portion of land near Highway 57 and Concession Road 8 near Bowmanville in connection with the disappearance of Noreen Greenley, who went missing from nearby Enniskillen Township on Sept. 14, 1963.

The town's police department investigated her disappearance and started several search efforts at the time, but failed to locate her.

Now, investigators are following up on information from the family that a car, possibly holding the girl's remains, is buried on the site.

On Thursday, Durham Regional Police said investigators dug two trenches — one about 150 feet long and the other about 100 feet long — each about seven feet deep. They also used metal detectors that could penetrate another three feet down.

"No evidence was located," a police news release said.

But forensic anthropologist Renee Willmon takes issue with how the search was conducted, and fears that potential evidence has been left behind.

"We would have expected a grid to be set up," she told CBC Toronto on Friday. "Or at least some sort of perimeter that would be systematically evaluated."

Forensic anthropologist Renee Willmon of the Cold Case Society hopes this week's search for leads in the disappearance of Noreen Greenley is just the first step. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Members of Greenley's family contacted Willmon's colleagues at the Cold Case Society at Western University in 2016, according to Willmon. Investigators brought a magnetometer to the site police searched this week to look for anomalies that would suggest something is buried under the ground.

The device catches changes in topography, including whether soil has been disturbed and anything magnetic or metallic in the ground.

While most of the property was "fairly neutral," Willmon said, that test did yield a positive result, a change in the magnetic field, she said. But the result doesn't provide key data, such as the size of the object or the depth. So the team's recommendation to police was to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to provide more context, and to help determine whether a dig was necessary.

Police opted to proceed straight to excavation, which, though Willmon would not have gone that route, could have been done with different equipment to ensure the integrity of the search, she said. If large equipment like an excavator is being used, a flat-edged bucket can be attached to mimic the work of an anthropologist using a trowel.

This way, layers of soil can be scraped back one at a time to allow investigators to evaluate the changing appearance of the soil surface, she said.

"Being able to map and put those pieces into place, when you find something or don't find something you know exactly why and what was there," Willmon said.

Family still receiving tips

The night she disappeared, Noreen, then 13, went bowling then back to a friend's house to hang out, according to the family. Later on, Noreen went to catch a bus.

Noreen Greenley went missing after leaving a friend's home in 1963. (Facebook)

Joyce Greenley, Noreen's sister, remembers seeing her ride by in a Ford Prefect that night.

Noreen's niece, Mandy Ramos, said they recently received another tip from a man who said his deceased father drove the same kind of car.

"His dad used to drive by here and said he buried a car here," she said.

"So from what we understand is that he buried the car and she's possibly in the car. We don't know for sure." 

The anomalies were picked up by the magnetometer at the site the tipster pinpointed.

'I have several concerns'

On Thursday, Willmon wrote an email to a detective on the case, outlining her concerns about the excavation and to ask why GPR wasn't tried first.

"If an anomaly consistent with a car had been found, it would have significantly limited the scope of an excavation, reducing the need to interrogate such a large portion of the property, and if not, then the property could have been ruled out on the basis of the remote survey," she wrote.

Willmon also asked why she wasn't invited to participate, given her expertise, and expressed concern that the work at the site isn't done.

"I also have several concerns that the efforts that took place today were not sufficiently exhaustive to rule out the potential presence of a vehicle buried on the property based on my observations from the footage I have seen of the excavation taking place," she wrote.

She also noted that from what she could tell of the excavation, the area searched didn't quite line up with where the anomaly was detected. The excavation also didn't get near trees that are younger than the established tree-line in the area, which indicates an area where a large hole may have been dug.

Willmon concluded her note saying she hopes the search was "a preliminary action" and that further investigation will take place if warranted.

CBC News did not get a response to a request for comment from Durham police regarding Willmon's concerns.

Willmon said she understands that interest in involving experts like her varies from police force to police force, but so, too, does the understanding of all the ways they can help.

"Unfortunately, this is a case where I don't think that the skill set of a forensic anthropologist was utilized to the extent that it could have been," she told CBC.

In the Greenley case, Willmon said the family is open to whatever answers come from the tips they've received. But they don't have those answers yet.

"The best way to rule out a false result is to show what did cause the positive hit on the magnetometer," Willmon told CBC. "So even though they didn't find a vehicle ... understanding what did cause that result would have given some piece of mind to the family."

Members of the Cold Case Society search a site near Bowmanville, Ont., with a magnetometer, looking for clues in the disappearance of Noreen Greenley. (Cold Case Society)

With files from Alison Chiasson