Manitoba government offering technical, financial resources to study on searching landfill

The Manitoba government is now part of an Indigenous-led oversight committee on the feasibility of searching landfills for missing women.

Premier Heather Stefanson spoke on the issue late Friday afternoon, offering provincial resources and financial support.

“The Government of Manitoba will of course participate as well and we will provide any technical resources and expertise that are needed and contribute to the effort financially,” Stefanson said.

It’s part of an effort to find the remains of Marcedes Myran, 26, and Morgan Harris, 39, who Winnipeg police believe are the victims of an alleged serial killer.

Jeremy Skibicki, 35, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Myran, Harris, 24-year-old Rebecca Contois and a fourth unidentified woman given the name Buffalo Woman.

A forensic anthropologist advising the committee tasked with finding Myran and Harris believes the women’s remains can be found at Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg in the R.M. of Rosser.

It’s a site 1.6 hectares in size, roughly the equivalent of two football fields.

Detectives believe Myran and Harris were taken there this past May.

Tracy Rogers, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Toronto Mississauga, said finding their remains is possible despite the passage of time.

“I would say that it isn’t unlikely because if they’re there then a careful search would hopefully reveal them,” Rogers said in an interview from Hamilton.

Rogers was the primary forensic anthropologist in the search of serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm 20 years ago.

At Prairie Green, police said 10,000 truckloads of refuse and 1500 hundred tonnes of animal waste were dumped at the site by the time police learned the women may be there.

The trash was also compacted under around 12 metres of heavy mud and clay.

Rogers said while it would be a complex excavation, some of those roadblocks could potentially be used to the advantage of searchers.

“If those went in in a layer then it might be possible to dig fairly aggressively where you reach a layer where there’s animal remains that can be recognized and then more slowly work below that level to kind of pinpoint the area where the women were deposited,” Rogers said.

Rogers said excavating the landfill would require using heavy equipment.

She said material could be transferred to trucks and mechanically sorted into larger, mid-size and smaller objects which could then be put on conveyor belts to be searched by people with experience searching for human remains.

Rogers said that was the process used on the Pickton farm and she thinks it could work at Prairie Green as well.

Brian Paulsen is the assistant chief of police in Sturgis, SD and was part of a landfill search in 2003 when he worked in Nebraska. He also researched and wrote about other landfill searches in the United States and how they were handled.

While the search he was a part of wasn’t successful, he said success is possible.

“The success rate was much higher within the first 30 days. After 30 days of searching, the successful results drop dramatically,” said Paulsen.

He noted it is helpful to know exactly where to search and if landfill staff and operators are able to provide additional assistance and expertise about the area.

If a search does commence, Paulsen said there are things both governing officials and police need to be aware of.

“The first thing I would talk with the governing bodies and tell them that they need to be in it for the long haul. Don’t promise families or give families a false sense of security that you’re going to go in and search a landfill and then say we’re searching for five days and be done,” he said, adding they should be committed for anywhere from 30 to 60 days.

“For law enforcement, it’s just, take time for yourself. My guys and gals were living and breathing this case for seven months until we came out of that landfill…it weighed on them, it worked on them.”

Safety for those searching was also a key point for Paulsen, making sure that everyone had the proper protective equipment and knew the boundaries of the landfill. He also said it is important that the appropriate mental health supports are available and that follow-up is conducted, even after the search ends.

The federal government said it will cover the cost of a study on the feasibility of searching the landfill.

Sandra DeLaronde, director of the Manitoba Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit-Plus People Implementation Committee, said conducting a study on searching the landfill is critical.

“It is about finding dignity for those that have gone on and also peace and justice for the families that have been left behind,” DeLaronde said.

After declining to search initially Winnipeg police are now also part of the committee and assigned a detective to take part, according to Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick who’s leading the feasibility study oversight committee.

Merrick said the completed study will contain recommendations on how to proceed.

“I hope within a short period of time that we are able to do the submission and that it be approved in a short period of time, as well,” Merrick said. “So I’m very optimistic that we can get things done.”

Prairie Green landfill where investigators believe Harris and Myran were taken will stay closed indefinitely, Stefanson said. 

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