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Landfill search 'a long shot'

Scientist who inspired TV's Bones says finding remains tough

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/8/2012 (2748 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The woman whose career inspired the hit TV show Bones, about policing and forensic anthropology, says the search for the remains of Tanya Jane Nepinak in the Brady Road Landfill will be filled with challenges.

Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist and best-selling mystery novelist, said Wednesday whatever process the Winnipeg Police Service adopts to search for the remains will have problems.

Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs

"It's always good to be able to give the family closure, to give them back their loved one," said Reichs, speaking by telephone from North Carolina. "It's a long shot, a long and very expensive shot."

Reichs said the process outlined by police Chief Keith McCaskill last week seems reasonable but cautioned it won't be easy.

Nepinak, 31, was last seen Sept. 13, 2011. Police believe she was killed shortly afterwards, her body wrapped in plastic and placed in a garbage bin in the West End. The contents of the bin were later emptied into the landfill.

Police charged Shawn Cameron Lamb, 52, with second-degree murder in the cases of Nepinak and two other women, Carolyn Sinclair and Lorna Blacksmith, who went missing over the next few months.

McCaskill said a portion of the landfill site was secured shortly after Lamb's arrest. It's believed Nepinak's remains are buried under tens of thousands of tonnes of debris, at a depth of between eight and 13 metres below the surface, in an area that's 100 metres long, 20 metres wide and five metres deep.

An area about the size of two football fields side by side will be cleared to a depth of eight metres; then all the debris in the area where Nepinak's remains are believed to be will be moved to another location and searched by hand.

The first stage is expected to take a month and cost $500,000. Police have not said who will do the searching, or if untrained volunteers from the community will be employed.

Reichs said some of the factors that will impact the likelihood of finding the remains include whether the body is intact or in pieces, zeroing in on the correct zone at the landfill, whether the excavation work creates any damage, the skill of the searchers, and weather conditions at the time of the homicide.

Reichs said she hasn't been involved in a search of a landfill but is familiar with similar work done by colleagues.

As as a forensic anthropologist, Reichs has spent her career examining human remains. She was part of the team that went through the debris in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala, and helped identify remains of war dead from the Second World War, Korea and Southeast Asia.

Reichs said she understands the debris from the search area is being moved to ensure the safety of the searchers but added there is a risk in doing that.

"The more times you transport something — dig it out, transport it, dump it back out of the truck — you're introducing the possibility of losing or damaging whatever you got, but if it's necessary for the well-being and health of your workers, that's what you've got to do."

Reich is skeptical about the value of using untrained people from the community to search through the debris.

"I've seen that go very bad," she said, adding the more decomposed and fragmented the remains, the more the success of the search will depend on the skill of those doing it.

She favours using forensic anthropology students who are trained in identifying bones and distinguishing human bones from animal bones, which, she said, would be plentiful at a dump.

She said students will be trained in search techniques.

While Reichs said the odds of finding Nepinak's remains are slim, the chances improve if her body is still wrapped in plastic, as police suspect. The plastic will slow the decomposition, she said, which would normally be extensive after 11 months, and keep the body parts together.

McCaskill had downplayed the value any found remains would have in the case against Lamb, but Reichs said the body will still be useful in a court case.

"It's always helpful to be able to analyze the remains and see what you're observing corresponds to what your suspect is saying took place."


Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.

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