Women’s remains could be found in Winnipeg landfill, says expert who led search of Robert Pickton’s pig farm

In 2002, investigators started a massive search of Robert Pickton’s pig farm in British Columbia and eventually found the remains of several women.

Twenty years later, the lead forensic anthropologist on that effort says a search of a landfill north of Winnipeg for women’s remains has a chance of success, although it is not a certainty.

“Even a very well-done search may not find the women, but I think there’s a good chance that it is possible to locate them,” Tracy Rogers, director of the forensic science program at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said in an interview with The Canadian Press Thursday.

“I would say that it’s definitely worth doing, but it also requires this initial feasibility study to know the exact factors that the search team will be dealing with.”

The Pickton farm became known as Canada’s largest crime scene as police investigated the disappearance of dozens of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The search of the sprawling property lasted more than a year and saw workers go through hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of soil. There were hundreds of thousands of DNA samples and exhibits.

Eventually, Pickton was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder and given a life sentence. Prosecutors later decided not to proceed with 20 other charges in a separate trial. Many of Pickton’s victims were Indigenous.

An aerial shot shows a vast, snow-covered field.
An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Earlier this month, Winnipeg police initially said they would not search the Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg, where they suspect the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are.

Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, Myran, Rebecca Contois — whose partial remains were found in the Brady Road landfill in south Winnipeg — and a fourth unidentified woman, whom community leaders have called Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

Police initially said a search of Prairie Green would not be feasible, given that several months had passed since the point it’s believed the remains were dumped there.

They also said there is no data indicating a starting point for the search, and material at the landfill is compacted under heavy mud and clay to a depth of some 12 metres.

After pressure from Indigenous leaders and some of the victims’ relatives, Winnipeg police agreed this week to be part of a committee that would determine the feasibility of a search and put together a budget to present to various levels of government.

Half a dozen protesters stand on the snow outside Winnipeg city hall on Thursday, three holding drums and one in the foreground holding a large, pink flag with a yellow starburst in the centre, around a drawing of a woman with feather in her long, black hair.
Drummers, including Taylor Orpin, centre, and Sue Caribou, right, in front of Winnipeg city hall during a rally Thursday. They called on the city to cease dumping operations at Brady Road landfill and conduct a search for the remains of missing and murdered indigenous women believed to be buried there. It’s believed the remains of Caribou’s niece Tanya Nepinak are at the Brady landfill. (Daniel Crump/The Canadian Press)

Rogers said the logistics of searching the Prairie Green landfill, which includes 1,500 tonnes of animal remains dumped in recent months, are challenging, but not insurmountable.

“At the Pickton case … in the first few months, I looked at over 45,000 animal bones,” she said.

Even the compacting of material at the landfill would not necessarily make it hard to see evidence of human remains, she added.

“There should be visible signs for people who know what they’re looking for.”

Rogers is acting as an adviser to Indigenous leaders working to set up the feasibility committee.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during question period Wednesday that the federal government will look to provide support, but didn’t say in what capacity.

A crime scene consultant in the United States, Ross Gardner, said a search of the Prairie Green landfill could succeed but would require a monumental effort.

“These types of searches are not always successful,” said Gardner, who is based in Atlanta and has authored books on forensics.

The 12-metre depth of heavy material, the passage of several months since the bodies were believed to have been taken there in the spring and the compacting process at the landfill will make for a big challenge that will require heavy equipment and crews to sift through and closely examine material bit by bit, Gardner said.

“It’s not going to be simple in any way, shape or form.”

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