Forensic expert believes remains of missing women can be found at landfill near Winnipeg

A California forensics expert says it’s possible to find the remains of two Winnipeg women police believe are somewhere below surface of a landfill north of the city — but warned the search would be extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

The Winnipeg Police Service believe Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are somewhere within Prairie Green Landfill, a private facility in the Rural Municipality of Rockwood.

Eric Bartelink, a professor of anthropology and director of the human identification laboratory at California State University-Chico, said women could still be found, even after police made what an inspector called a difficult decision not to launch a search.

“I do think that it’s possible with enough labour and expertise on site that the bodies could be located, potentially,” Bartelink said in a phone interview from Chico, in northern California.

Harris and Myran, both of Long Plain First Nation near Portage la Prairie, and an unidentified woman whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe or Buffalo Woman, are all suspected victims of Jeremy Skibicki, who was charged last week with their deaths.

Skibicki was already facing a first-degree murder charge in the May death of 24-year-old Rebecca Contois, a member of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, also known as Crane River.

Contois’ remains were found at the city-operated Brady Road landfill, south of Winnipeg, in the summer. 

At a news conference called Tuesday to explain the police decision not to excavate Prairie Green, Insp. Cam MacKid said there are several factors contributing to the decision to not to search for the other victims.

“We made the very difficult decision as a service that this wasn’t operationally feasible to conduct a search of this site,” MacKid said. “It’s a very emotional subject, and our hearts go out to the families and to the victims.”

Insp. Cam MacKid of the Winnipeg Police Service says it was a very difficult decision not to search Prairie Green Landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Prairie Green is owned by Waste Connections of Canada, formerly known in Winnipeg as Progressive Waste Services of Canada, and before that, BFI.

Winnipeg police said about 10,000 truckloads of garbage were dumped at the private facility between May 16, when Contois was killed, and June 20, when the homicide unit approached the service’s forensics, intelligence and technology department with the possibility human remains might have been disposed of at the Rockwood landfill.

About 1,500 tonnes of animal remains were also disposed at the 12-metre-deep dump during the same five-week timeframe, police said, adding this complicates efforts to find people.

Despite that additional deposition of material, Bartelink said he doesn’t think a search would be impossible and also doesn’t think weather would be a limiting factor.

He said a search must start with contracing an experienced backhoe operator to gently remove debris, at first, and then and start to dig through the approximate 9,000 tonmess of heavy construction clay that was added to the site after police believe the remains were deposited there.

About 9,000 tons of heavy construction clay that was added to Prairie Green Landfill between the time the remains were thought to have been deposited there and police awareness. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“As you go down, you’re going to see clues. There could be things like newspapers or receipts or documents in the trash that have dates on them, and then you can kind of get a sense of where you are in time as you go through that debris pile,” Bartelink said.

He said some searches take weeks and aren’t always successful. He ninetheless pointed to three successful landfill searches in Utah, Oregon and South Carolina during the last 20 years.

“If law enforcement are capable of doing it, if they can get the resources to do it, that it’s definitely worth doing,” Bartelink said.

“Some of these searches have occurred when people have been missing for years. Seven months — it sounds like a long time and it sounds like a lot of trash, but relatively speaking, it’s not as bad as it can be.”

Bartelink said there would need to be an area where debris is deposited and searched. MacKid said police explored doing that at Prairie Green.

Ultimately, MacKid said police would have to move debris from the landfill to a secondary site one truck at a time and then sift throughthe maerial, if they were to entertain a search.

Compared to Prairie Green, the topography at Brady Road made the city landfill much easier for police to search when they looked for Contois.

An aerial view of the Brady Road landfill during the Winnipeg Police Service’s investigation this past summer. (Winnipeg Police Service)

MacKid said health and safety of investigators in a potential search at Prairie Green is another concern. Bartelink said he agreed that would be something police must consider, but also suggested police conduct cost-benefit analysis on a potential search.

“A first reaction of law enforcement might be it’s going to be too expensive and too time consuming, and they don’t know how to go about doing it,” he said.

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth dismissed the idea police could tap into a funding pool to assist with a landfill search.

“Funding was never an issue here. I just want to be clear on that. At no time was funding a consideration with our operations,” Smyth said.

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Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth answers questions about ongoing requests for police to search landfills for the remains of three women.

The chief also said the investigation did not end the way police wanted it to end and that he understands the frustration and outcry from the families and the public.

“The circumstances dealt to us here are such that we don’t have the same kind of circumstance [as the Brady Road landfill],” Smyth said. 

“We acknowledge that the families are heartbroken. We acknowledge that they’re angry, frankly. And we acknowledge that a lot of people are angry.”

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