A left foot, a child's skull, the body of an infant - they represent some of the coldest of cold cases in this province.

More who-is-it than whodunnit, they are part of a catalogue of human remains that have surfaced in Saskatchewan over the decades - never to be identified.

In some cases, such as the mystery man who lay down on the railway tracks in Regina 16 years ago, much is known about their deaths, if not their lives. The neat, clean-shaven young Caucasian man, believed to be in his 20s, carefully lay down in front of an eastbound CP Rail freight train on the main line at the city's western outskirts in mid-afternoon on July 28, 1995.

In the knapsack he dropped before deliberately placing his left ear on the track - his blue eyes facing the oncoming train - the man carried some T-shirts, cigarettes, a pen, and a book of Stephen King's short stories. The pockets of his faded jeans held a comb, $45.05 cash, and a rose-shaped, silver brooch that he seemed to cherish, often taking it out to work between his fingers. However, neither the knapsack nor his clothing held any identification for the seemingly well-educated, well-mannered man who had no tattoos or surgical scars. Dental records, DNA tests, and fingerprints haven't yielded any clue to the man who lies in a Regina cemetery beneath a headstone inscribed "John Doe."

(Sketch and information: http://www.sacp.ca/missing/details.php?id=97)

In other situations, like the body of an infant only two to four weeks old, very little is known about anything. He was found on April 23, 1970, on the ice beneath a bridge on Highway 4, near the community Kyle. The baby was fully clothed, swaddled in a baby blanket, and had a soother, according to newspaper reports at the time. He had been placed in a plaid, zipper-type, vinyl bag that was weighed down with heavy rocks, likely so it would sink to the bottom of the South Saskatchewan River when the ice let out. Four decades later, his identity - let alone why he was left there -is still as murky as the water on which he was found.

In at least one instance, police have even less to go on, quite literally.

In 1993, a human foot, still in its running shoe, turned up along the bank of the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert. The eyes may be windows on the soul, but apparently a sole also reveals a lot about a person. The owner of this foot was a big-boned, athletic, robust male, likely aged 30 to 60. The foot wore a size 10 "Blitz" brand, navy blue running shoe. Such shoes were sold exclusively by SAAN stores between 1986 and 1989. Still, the wearer of the shoe or what became of the rest of him remain unknown.

The suicidal mystery man, the baby, and the foot are among 10 "unidentified found human remains" cases listed on a public website maintained by the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police. The site ( http://www.sacp.ca/ ) is best known for its tracking of long-term missing persons cases, but also profiles the unidentified remains cases in hopes of solving these mysteries as well.

"We're dealing with such an unknown. We don't know anything about the person," says RCMP Sgt. Ken Palen, of the historical case, or socalled "cold case" unit, in Saskatoon. In most of these cases, foul play is not the issue; identity is.

Even when investigators get close - an answer has proven elusive. Take, for example, the foot in the distinctive running shoe. Palen thought police were hot on the heels of the identity when they put a time frame on production of the shoe, and could even pinpoint the type of store that sold it. "Somewhere, somebody knows," says Palen. But who knows where that somebody is?

The wearer of the shoe could have fallen in the river anywhere, notes Palen. Perhaps, the body got lodged in the bank and covered in silt - except for the foot, which could have become disconnected from the rest of the body in the spring with the breakup of the ice.

A plausible scenario, considering the body of an Edmonton realtor, who disappeared in November last year, turned up in May in the North Saskatchewan River near Langham, about 40 kilometres north of Saskatoon. "That's a long way to travel," says Palen.

Saskatchewan's Chief Coroner Kent Stewart points to the drifter who killed himself on Regina's train tracks to illustrate how confounding these cases can be.

"I often wonder how somebody like that can sort of vanish - and not one person, not one person come forward. And we've done extensive work on that particular case," he says, noting that there has been local, national and even international publicity.

"This is a young man, clean cut, obviously travelling. He's probably got a home somewhere. And it is very difficult to imagine that somebody can die like that - anonymously."

Stewart says his office gets a report about the discovery of remains (aside from homicides, fatal fires and the like) about a dozen times a year. "It's amazing what shows up when the snow leaves," he says. Typically, someone is out walking and stumbles upon something or construction crews unearth an unexpected find in the dirt.

"Everybody watches TV and thinks they've got something," says forensic anthropologist Dr. Ernie Walker, a special constable with the RCMP who also works on contract with the Coroner's Office. Walker's expertise is often called upon for unidentified remains files, as well as on a variety of forensic cases, from deadly fires to locating and recovering homicide victims, using everything from ground-penetrating radar to a backhoe. "I have to be prepared for almost every scenario," he says.

Often working from digital photos sent to him by police, the University of Saskatchewan professor will first sort out if it's man or beast. "I can very easily determine whether we're dealing with human or non-human," says Walker, who has a specialty in examining animal bones from archaeological sites. "I could routinely have 200,000 bone fragments from an excavation and have to identify species," adds Walker, who has also consulted on legal cases involving wildlife.

If human, one of the first tasks is to determine if the remains are historical in nature, for example, those from an ancient burial site dating back to the fur trade or "pre-contact" eras. This summer, canoeists stumbled upon skeletal remains on the banks of Pipestone Creek in the Moosomin area, while a construction crew unearthed bones near Oxbow. Walker determined the partial skeletons were centuries old, based on decomposition and, in particular, the shell beads that accompanied the Moosomin bones that were between 500 and 1,000 years old. If the finds are historical, they're usually reburied at the site when possible, returned to the First Nation for re-interment, or sent to a central burial site near Saskatoon that's been developed with the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre.

For those finds not deemed historical, the real digging begins.

"At that point, it's a matter of trying to determine, based on all of the information, what the best leads are. Certainly, in many circumstances, that's the responsibility of the police to take all the information that is provided by the forensic examination and try to narrow down the possibilities," says Stewart.

The remains are often examined by Walker and a forensic pathologist in an effort to pinpoint age, sex, ancestry, and cause of death. At times, only small traces may be left to tell the tale. "I will do whatever it takes to tease out as much information as I can," says Walker. He notes that with deaths of more recent vintage, surgical items such as orthopedic pins and implants - which will survive a fire even if the victim hasn't - will often have a serial number that can provide a clue when the operation was performed.

Sometimes, a tentative identification can be made, but then it's followed up by science - such as dental or skeletal X-rays, fingerprinting, and DNA testing - in an effort to positively identify the person. "If the tissues have been too degraded, often we're not going to get any DNA," explains Walker, adding that even if a DNA profile is obtained, investigators still need a relative to whom it can be compared.

If the remains aren't identified, they are catalogued and kept. In some circumstances, such as the man killed by the train, they may be buried once all possible testing is concluded. Stewart says less intact, unidentified remains are currently stored in a variety of locations, including RCMP detachments and the University of Saskatchewan.

Where possible, facial reconstructions have been done in hopes that someone just might recognize the person. Such was the case with a badly decomposed body discovered in the South Saskatchewan River by a Rosthern-area farmer on May 26, 1982. The body may have been in the water for as long as nine months. The shirtless corpse wore two pairs of pants - Howick Rider brand jeans and polyester-knit trousers, size 9 ½ cowboy boots with a heel on one held on by duct tape, a size 34 grey belt, and a black money belt on a chain.

The body was exhumed from a Saskatoon cemetery in 2004, and Walker did further studies to learn more about the man, who was determined to be in his late 40s or early 50s, Caucasian, between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-0 tall, with a rugged build. At some point, he had suffered a broken rib, and also wore a full set of dentures.

An RCMP forensic artist also created a model, released publicly in 2005, of what the man may have looked like, based on his bone structure.

Similar attempts to put a name to a face were made in 1998 when RCMP released a sketch based on a skull that was found by hikers on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River between Lloydminster and St. Walburg on Nov. 14, 1997. A search of the area yielded more remains - believed to be those of an aboriginal man or woman, aged 35 to 40 years, who had been dead about three to five years at the time of the discovery. Found near an Edmonton advertising sign that had also washed in on the swollen river, it's suspected the bones may have likewise originated from Alberta. Walker says the gender has remained undetermined because of the shape of the skull and scarcity of other bones. Although the shape initially pointed to the likelihood of a female, Walker determined it had been slightly misshapen by a cradle board, traditionally used by First Nations people to carry an infant. "The cradle board has flattened the back of the skull out; it gives the appearance of being female, when in actual fact that could be a male. It's got some features that are male-like."

Bone shape and size generally help to pinpoint gender, particularly if a skull or pelvic bone has been recovered. In the absence of those, generally larger bones would increase the likelihood they come from a male. "But in a modern population in North America, about 85 per cent of us are in the overlap, meaning you get the very big males, you get the very small gracile, slender females, and the rest of us are kind of mixed in ... If you've got a bone from a toe and that's all you've got, there's no way you can tell," says Walker. Ancestry is the toughest to determine, especially in the absence of a skull.

The so-called "lady in the well," found in Saskatoon in June 2006, is unusual among the older, unidentified human remains cases because of the degree of preservation, despite dating back a century.

"That was a special case," says Walker. Wrapped in a burlap sack, put in a barrel and dumped down a well, the remains sat in a mixture of gasoline and water that prevented bacteria from developing. Her soft body tissue was reduced to a waxy substance that helped with preservation to the point that even some body hair remained. The Caucasian woman, about 5-foot-1 and 25 to 35 years old, was dressed in a skirt, blouse and possibly a corset, with her clothing - some purchased and others hand-stitched - dated between 1910 and 1920. She also wore an 18-carat gold chain, likely originating from Europe or Montreal. "We're pretty sure she was murdered somewhere between 1920 and 1924," says Walker. She was found in the basement of a hotel that was abandoned, from 1919 to 1925, in what was formerly the railway town of Sutherland.

"I'm not even sure the woman was from here; we could make the case she was just passing through - got caught up with the wrong people. It's hard to say," says Walker.

While it's likely her killer has long since died as well, investigators would still like to help bring closure for some family who never knew the fate of a missing loved one.

As with the drifter who killed himself in Regina, DNA samples have been obtained - but never matched to a relative.

Chief Coroner Kent Stewart reflects on a letter he received this year from a Quebec family.

"The possibility that our daughter has died is more and more a part of our thinking," the couple wrote, asking that a check be made of any unidentified bodies in this province in hopes of locating the young woman.

"For three years now we have searched ... and have to live daily with her absence." Their search continues. She was not among the province's unidentified remains.

Stewart, who gets such inquiries several times a year, can't help wondering how many of Saskatchewan's unidentified remains cases might relate to missing persons reports somewhere.

"It certainly brings home the anguish that family members go through when they have a loved one missing," says Stewart, who also has a unique perspective on the issue. Before coming to Saskatchewan in 2004, Stewart was the coroner of record in B.C. on the investigation into Robert Pickton and the remains of women found on his pig farm.

"As difficult as it was, I felt fortunate to be able to be involved and particularly to be able to deal with the families of all those missing women ... You had some indication, a better perspective when dealing with family members, who in some circumstances have had missing women - their kids, their daughters, their sisters - missing for years and years," he says.

"How can you imagine what they've gone through, or the continual uncertainty associated with a loved one that vanishes off the face of the earth, so to speak?" adds Stewart.

Palen says unidentified remains of recent vintage are typically sent away to get a DNA profile. "But we have nothing to compare it to - unless we have familial DNA from somebody who has reported their loved one missing. Because there is no national missing person DNA databank," he adds.

There is currently no central registry that could potentially link missing persons cases, using DNA from family members, with DNA extracted from found but unidentified remains. Although in discussion for several years, it has been stalled by bureaucratic, jurisdictional, privacy and funding concerns.

The federal government got one step closer last fall when it announced $4 million in funding, invested over two years, to create a National Police Support Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, providing a co-ordinated approach to these cases. According to RCMP, the initiative is comprised of a police support centre for information sharing and training, enhancements to the Canadian Police Information Centre or CPIC database to include additional data on missing persons and unidentified remains cases, and a national, publicly-accessible website to seek tips. However, the plans, at this point, don't include a national DNA databank for the missing and unidentified.

Stewart envisions a databank that would include such information as the anthropological results, and DNA profiles, if available, that could be used for comparison.

"This is going to be a huge revelation for missing persons and unidentified remains in that we will hopefully be able to take the missing persons report and marry them up with the human remains, anywhere in Canada. Because we know very well that when somebody goes missing that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be staying in the province."

Asked if it's realistic to think all of these Saskatchewan remnants of lives once lived might someday have a name, Stewart replies: "That's the goal. And you really never know ... We're going to do everything possible to be able to identify these remains. That's the reason we catalogue and keep them."

T he remaining cases among the 10 that await an identity are:

. May 12, 1984: On the bank of the North Saskatchewan River near North Battleford, the remains of a thinly built male, Caucasian are discovered. It's believed he would have died about two years earlier and was approximately 25 years of age at the time.

. May 28, 1987: The removal of a small shed in the Saskatoon area yields the grisly discovery of a full-term infant, the placenta still attached. The gender is unclear. The body is believed to be that of an aboriginal child and had likely lain there one to three years.

. Aug. 20, 1997: A human skull is found lodged in the side of a beaver dam on the Moose Jaw River. Likely exposed to the elements for 50 to 100 years, the skull was that of a 12-year-old girl, possibly Caucasian.

. 2002: A human skull is discovered on a rock pile in the Southey area. Between 50 to 100 years old, the skull is believed to be that of an aboriginal male, aged 25 to 40 years



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