The thought of police combing through a neighbour’s garden and finding human remains in planters has Leasiders horrified, but for forensic professionals, it’s just another day at the office.
Dr. Myriam Nafte, a forensic anthropologist and instructor at McMaster University who lives in Leaside, is no stranger to this kind of investigation.
While the press and the public have been hanging on to every new disturbing detail of Bruce McArthur’s alleged crimes (he has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder and human remains were found in planters at a Leaside home where he did landscaping), Nafte isn’t shocked.
The forensic anthropologist, who isn’t involved in this particular investigation, has come across many similar cases throughout her career.
It’s Nafte’s job to examine old human remains and find out how the individual died and who they were, just from the bones. She has examined bodies that have been dismembered and burned, dumped in the woods, found in backyards and even discovered in water.
“In terms of the professional experience, I am very used to that in terms of working on cases like that in the United States,” Nafte said. “That level of serial killing is not unusual there.”
If Canadians think this case is horrifying, they haven’t seen anything. In the United States, “bodies are found all the time,” Nafte said.
Even the pattern of behaviour and victimology is common south of the border.
Nafte recalls a case she assisted on in the 1990s.
“There was one in Indianapolis that was very long and involved over the course of several years. He was married with children, very bright,” she said. “He was cruising the gay nightclub scene, picking up young men and taking them back to a house on his property.”
Herb Baumeister of Indiana was the prime suspect in the disappearances of several gay men from the Indianapolis area.
The remains of 11 men were found on his property.
Baumeister fled to Sarnia, Ont. in 1996, where he committed suicide before the case could be taken to trial.
When it comes to the excavations with multiple remains, similar to what was going on inside the green tent on Mallory Crescent in Leaside, Nafte has been through the complex process firsthand.
“It’s got to be done very methodically. You never excavate with a big deep excavator; you’re going in the shovels and picks and surface material and brushes and things like that,” she said. “You don’t want to be digging and breaking bones. Some of our bones are very delicate and tiny: our wrist bones, our ankle bones.”
A process called “chain of custody” keeps track of each bone that’s found at a forensic scene.
Keeping physical evidence safe is crucial.
Once transported to the morgue, forensic anthropologists like Nafte can start to determine what happened to an individual or individuals found.
“Teeth really are the ideal thing to find,” Nafte said.
Dentists in Canada have a legal obligation to comply with records requests made by coroners’ offices for criminal investigations.
By narrowing down characteristics like race, gender and age, forensic anthropologists can comb through dental records and hopefully find a match.
Other medical records like X-rays and DNA samples that are either in existing databases or a match from an immediate family member can also be used.
But what happens when a victim isn’t from this jurisdiction, perhaps from a country from the other side of the world?
Two of McArthur’s alleged victims, Selim Esen and Majeed Kayhan, were immigrants from Turkey and Afghanistan respectively.
“We can get medical and dental records from other countries. Usually homicide investigators would be looking for that sort of material. With the internet, that’s not as lengthy as it used to be,” Nafte said. “If we suspect the remains belong to an individual and we are in touch with his family, they could submit records.”
In Canada, databases and the circulation of information that can assist in criminal investigations tends to be more centralized.
For example, the RCMP has a database for tracking firearms and Canada has a national database listing missing persons cases from across the country.
In the United States, solving cases involving missing persons can be more complicated.
“In the U.S., it’s state by state. Rarely do they communicate what’s going on in different states regarding missing people, potential perpetrators etc. It does happen, but it requires a real co-ordinated effort,” Nafte said.
Piecing puzzle together
She recounts another case she worked on in upstate New York.
A man and the family’s babysitter conspired to kill the man’s wife.
After burying his wife in the backyard, the man panicked and changed his mind.
“They put her (the wife) in the trunk of the car and he and the babysitter and the children drove, went on a road trip,” Nafte said. “They stopped midway and dumped her (the wife’s) body in the desert, it may have been in Utah.”
The change in environment mummified the body and as a result, the forensic team Nafte was working with on the case were able to use facial reconstruction.
The case took years to solve because of the lack of centralized information in the United States.
“She was in storage for quite a bit of time before everybody was communicating around the state about it,” she said.
One thing Nafte is clear about when she speaks about the cases she has worked on in her career is that forensic anthropology is always a team effort.
This is where television gets it wrong, she says.
“It’s never just that one rock star of a person that stands above all and has this epiphany of the discovery of who did it and how,” she said. “People are specialists. We all come together. We have to work together to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”