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Unforgotten: ID specialist hunts for clues to put names to unidentified bodies

“You always want to bring closure to a file, and to the people who knew them,” says Laura Yazedjian, a Victoria-born forensic pathologist

The temperature plunged below zero on the night of Remembrance Day, 2022.

The wind was blowing at 40 km/h in the first cold blast of the year for those living outdoors in Victoria’s downtown core.

A woman camping out in a makeshift shelter at Cook and View streets was trying to keep warm.

According to police, she had a shopping cart packed with her belongings and a high-back wooden bar stool that was supporting a light-green tarp to fend off the cold.

She might have had some sort of heat source to keep warm, though police never said.

A fire ripped through the woman’s small shelter that night, leaving her body burned beyond recognition. Scorch marks were etched into the building’s stone facade.

Fourteen months later, the woman’s identity remains a mystery to the B.C. Coroners Service.

Her body is one of 182 sets of remains discovered in the province that have never been identified — ­including 19 on land and in the waters around Vancouver Island.

The case of the woman found on at Cook and View is one of the most recent and one that Laura Yazedjian, special investigator for the B.C. Coroners Service, would like to solve in her hometown.

“You always want to bring closure to a file, and to the people who knew them,” says Yazedjian, a Victoria-born forensic pathologist and identification specialist for the B.C. Coroners Special Investigations Unit.

Yazedjian said some cases of unidentified remains are solved quite quickly, such as in smaller communities where people are known. But some cases go unsolved in larger centres because of more transient populations.

Some of those people have completely lost touch with family, who don’t even know they’re missing.

The first step to identification is usually fingerprints, followed by DNA testing and dental work

Yazedjian, who graduated from the University of London in the U.K., got plenty of first-hand experience in her trade.

As part of a practicum, she worked in Srebrenica, Bosnia, where more than 8,000 people were massacred in 1995 during the Balkans war. There, she was part of identification teams who used fingerprinting and DNA analysis to bring closure to family members of victims of the genocide.

In B.C., the oldest case on the coroners service’s books and in police files is that of a man found floating in the Fraser River near Lillooet in 1962.

While some of the oldest cases might never be solved, Yazedjian remains hopeful for more recent ones, like the woman who died in the fire. There were items of clothing, some distinctive jewelry, a tattoo on her abdomen and surgical evidence of a gallbladder removed.

It’s enough solid evidence that a family member or friend could help Yazedjian identify the remains and bring closure to someone who knew and loved her.

In most cases, remains are kept in cold storage at the coroners service facility in Burnaby or in funeral homes for possible DNA comparisons.

But in many of the older cases — between 30 and 40 — the remains are either buried or cremated, leaving only paper evidence. “In those cases, there’s nothing left,” she said.

There were six new unidentified cases in B.C. in 2023 and eight in 2022, said Yazedjian. She noted four of those 14 cases involved toxic drug deaths and another four were water-related.

Yazedjian said the special investigations unit at the B.C. Coroners Service uses a number of methods to help identify remains, including fingerprinting, DNA testing, dental examination, isotopic testing, surgical implants and tattoos and scars.

The coroner also administers a DNA database that includes profiles from unidentified human remains cases dating back to the 1950s, and profiles for missing persons believed to be deceased in B.C.

In 2019, the coroner introduced an interactive map highlighting unsolved cases involving human remains.

The goal is to generate new leads in uncovering the identities of people found but never identified. It was the first of its kind in Canada and shows the location where the remains were found, police case numbers for contact purposes and a summary of key information related to each unresolved case, such as approximate height, clothing details and surgical procedures.

Yazedjian said DNA comparisons with missing-person reports helped solve the cases of 15 human feet found in shoes washed up on shores around the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island between 2007 and 2018. The latest case of a shoe with a disarticulated foot found on Gonzales Beach last summer was also linked to a missing Victoria man.

The coroner also uses facial reconstruction. In 2020, the RCMP and B.C. Coroners Service teamed up with students of the New York Academy of Art to put faces on 3D-printed copies of skulls from 15 unidentified men who were thought to be from outside of B.C.

One of them was a man discovered in the Englishman River near Parksville on Nov. 5, 1992. He was carrying U.S. currency. Another was a male found near Ucluelet on Oct. 5, 1980.

Yazedjian said the idea was to recreate the faces to give wider exposure outside of the province, perhaps triggering a response from someone who knew them and their travel plans.

One of Yazedjian’s biggest successes came in 2016, when “everything came together” to solve the Nov. 7, 1998 missing-persons case of Raymond Lee Matlock, a hunter who never emerged from the bush near his home in Raymond, Washington, close to the Oregon border.

An unidentified body was discovered Dec. 3, 1998, in the water off Port Renfrew, more than 200 kilometres from where Matlock disappeared.

The body was listed as unknown because no one thought it would drift across Juan de Fuca Strait. The skull, with a noticeable missing front tooth, was kept for possible identification later and the bones were interred at Royal Oak Burial Park.

The big break came in 2013, after the launch of canadasmissing.ca, the website of the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains.

A member of the public saw similarities between the Port Renfrew file and the Raymond Matlock case on the U.S. NamUs site — including the missing tooth. NamUs — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — is a national database and resource centre for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases across the U.S.

Proving the link meant doing a DNA comparison, something not readily available in 1998. The Surrey-based B.C. Police Missing Persons Centre spent months tracking down Matlock’s mother, Carolyn Matlock, who provided a sample in 2015.

On Dec. 21, 2016, the match was confirmed.

The Royal Oak Burial Park and Pacific Coast Cremation combined to exhume the remains, cremate them and ship them to Matlock’s mother in Texas at no cost.

Another Victoria case Yazedjian would like to wrap up dates back to July 18, 1988, when the body of a man was discovered floating in Willow Lake in the heart of Beacon Hill Park.

He was described as between 30 and 65, at least five-foot-nine with grey hair and long sideburns. He had been wearing a blue cotton waist-length jacket, blue shirt, blue pants and black loafers, and had been dead between two weeks and three months.

That case has never been solved.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

— with files from Jack Knox

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