DNA samples are taken but not used

Coroner, police want data bank but B.C. has put it on hold

The Vancouver Sun
Monday, September 24, 2001

Kim Bolan and Lindsay Kines
Special Report

A proposed DNA data bank that could be used in the case of dozens of women missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is on hold pending the Liberal government's cost-cutting review of government services.

Deputy chief coroner Norm Leibel confirmed to The Vancouver Sun that the coroners' service and various police agencies have agreed a DNA data bank is necessary. Such a bank would store information from DNA samples taken from all missing persons in the province.

"There is in fact no DNA data bank available at this time . . . both our agencies look at that as a very positive thing and something we should be looking towards," Leibel said. "That is basically kind of on temporary hold until all of the present government's core reviews are finished."

In the meantime, police have DNA from 24 of the missing women's families, but have no way of checking it against unidentified human remains catalogued by the coroners' service.

And without a data bank, there is no common location to store the information obtained from those DNA samples.

Nor is the coroners' service testing DNA from more than 100 unidentified sets of human remains, since there is currently no means of cross-checking samples to missing persons.

Neither Solicitor-General Rich Coleman nor Attorney-General Geoff Plant would agree to be interviewed this weekend to comment on The Sun's series on Vancouver's missing women.

Doreen Hanna said she was contacted by police in 1999 about giving a DNA sample to assist in the search for her daughter Leigh Miner, who has been missing from the Downtown Eastside since January, 1994.

At the time, police told her they were trying to get a government grant to determine if any of the more than 100 unidentified remains in B.C. could be those of the missing women.

"But I never heard from them again," Hanna said.

Hanna's other daughter, Erin McGrath, said she made follow-up inquiries about the DNA more recently. "The detective said to me: 'We can take your DNA, but we don't do anything with it.' "

Hanna, who lives on Vancouver Island, would like the province to free up money for a DNA databank because it could be a useful tool to give answers to frustrated families.

"That's very important. We're talking about closure, and that is the most important thing that there is," said the soft-spoken grandmother.

"I would think that it would be so important that the government wouldn't even question, that they would do it. . . . I think it would be something positive and I think for the police department, this would show them in a better light."

Valerie Hughes said her sister provided police with DNA in 1999 to aid in the search for her other sister, Kerry Lynn Koski, who has been missing since January, 1998.

Hughes doesn't know if anything was ever done with the tissue samples, taken from inside her sister's mouth.

"They lined us up, the grieving families, to give DNA and not a word after that. Nothing," she said.

Chico Newell, an identification specialist with the coroner's forensic unit, said that as much information is collected as possible from unidentified bodies before they are buried, including fingerprints, x-rays and imaging that might aid a police artist in sketching the person's face.

As well, samples are removed from the body and kept in the event that routine DNA testing becomes possible.

"What we currently do prior to the release of a body is to isolate and retain tissue for potential DNA study or analysis," Newell said. "It is currently being held and I think we will get to a point where we can go ahead with sort of en-bloc processing of those specimens."

Right now, DNA analysis is only done if there is a possible identification as a way of confirming or discounting it, Newell said.

Newell said there are one to two cases a year where human remains that are found can not be identified.

Police earlier said the total number of unidentified sets of human remains in the province is between 100 and 150.

Newell said B.C. is not lagging behind other jurisdictions on the establishment of DNA data banks.

"I'm comfortable that we are completely up to speed for the matter of the investigation of the body," he said.

And he said it is important to remember that DNA is just one tool that can be used to establish the identity of a body.

"I think it would be foolish to be jumping past everything else to jump on the DNA bandwagon," Newell said. "It is an evolving science and certainly there have been some growing pains with the application to forensic investigation."

Dental records and fingerprints are still extremely effective in most cases to assist in identification, Newell said.

Investigation turns up more missing women-Sept 21, 2001

How the investigation was flawed-Sept 22, 2001



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016