As more police forces crack decades-old cold cases with the help of genetic genealogy, Montreal police have yet to have a major breakthrough on a case of their own.
The lack of progress — at least publicly — is raising concerns about the Montreal police department’s priorities at a time when both the Sûreté du Québec and neighbouring Longueuil police have used new forensic methods to solve cases long thought to be unsolvable.
Last spring, Longueuil police solved the 1975 murder of Sharron Prior and in 2022, Quebec provincial police tracked down the man suspected of killing Guylaine Potvin, a 19-year-old slain in Saguenay nearly 24 years ago. He is now on trial for first-degree murder and sexual assault.
Both cases analyzed Y chromosome DNA — which traces paternal ancestry — to help match an unknown profile with a potential family name. Armed with new leads, police then used traditional policing techniques to zero in on a suspect.
Stéphane Luce runs a non-profit organization that raises awareness of unresolved missing persons and murder cases in Quebec. He says it’s about time Montreal had a win.
The Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) created a cold case unit in the spring of 2019 which now has eight investigators.
“With this new technology it could be a good thing for the investigators to put their nose in a file and find out if there’s DNA and good DNA to be worked on,” said Luce, president of Meurtres et Disparitions Irrésolus du Québec.
Luce’s organization has pushed the SPVM to re-examine several unsolved murders, including that of 12-year-old Stéphane Gauthier, who was abducted and murdered just before Christmas in 1982.
Luce believes Gauthier’s case is a perfect candidate for advanced genetic testing because unidentified DNA was found at the crime scene.
“The killer could lead to other murders that occurred in the 70’s and 80’s (in Montreal),” said Luce, who believes Gauthier’s case could be solved quickly if the SPVM took it seriously.
The SPVM said it’s impossible to quantify how many cases could benefit from genetic genealogy. Since the 1980s, there are hundreds of unsolved murders on its books.
In an email, a spokesperson for the department would only say the cold case unit is “actively working on a number of files related to technological advances in DNA identification.”
Most recently, Montreal worked with Ontario Provincial Police to help solve the murder of Jewell Parchman Langford, a woman from Tennessee who disappeared in Montreal in 1975.
Her body was found in the Nation River near Casselman, Ont., between Montreal and Ottawa, about a month after her disappearance. But for decades, her identity remained a mystery until the OPP used genetic genealogy to find her relatives.
Last year, the OPP charged Rodney Nichols, an ex-Montrealer, with her murder. Nichols was extradited to Canada from Florida last December.
Toronto a leader in genetic genealogy
When DNA is found at a crime scene, it’s compared to samples in the national database, which archives the DNA of convicted criminals.
But if there’s no match, “you’re basically looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Toronto police Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, who oversees Toronto’s cold case unit.
Investigative genetic genealogy creates a different kind of DNA profile. Once it’s uploaded to an ancestry database it shows how your sample is related to other people in the world — in other words, who shares your DNA. From there, genealogists can build out family trees and weed out a suspect.
Toronto police first saw the potential of investigative genetic genealogy after it was used to help solve the 1984 murder of nine-year-old Christine Jessop.
In 2019, Toronto police partnered with Othram, a private lab in Houston, Texas to build a suspect profile from preserved DNA evidence.
From there, the profile was uploaded to a DNA ancestry database to mine potential relatives. This allowed genealogists to create a family tree that eventually led investigators to Calvin Hoover, who had died in 2015.
The ability to resolve cases using advanced genetic testing was obvious, but Toronto needed solid funding as the testing runs between $7,000 and $10,000, said Smith.
In 2022, the Toronto Police Service received a $1.5-million dollar grant from Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General.
The three-year grant covers the cost of genetic testing and helped the police force hire five genealogists.
“(We’re) lucky we have the genealogists because sometimes in the U.S., they can charge up to $280 US an hour for genealogy. So we’ve tried to make it as cost effective as we can,” said Smith.
The grant funds about 36 cases a year, a mix of historical homicides, sexual assaults and unidentified human remains.
Half are from Toronto and the remainder come from other police forces in Ontario, who can also access the program’s testing and expertise.
Investigators first prioritized “close-contact” murders — beatings, strangulations, stabbings — as well as murders that included a sexual assault from the 70s, 80s and 90s where police believe they have a sample of the offender’s DNA.
“DNA wasn’t really known at that time,” said Smith. “So offenders really weren’t afraid of leaving their body fluids at scenes.
Using the solicitor general’s grant, 21 cases were solved using investigative genetic genealogy, including the 1983 murders of Erin Gilmour and Susan Tice.
Another 12 cases are waiting for DNA confirmation to be closed.
“It’s huge for everybody involved,” said Smith.
Toronto’s success has not gone unnoticed. Smith said he knows other police departments have written to their provincial governments to see if they may be able to get a similar grant.
“A federal grant that would cover all of Canada would be amazing as well,” said Smith.
No special grant in Quebec
One of the most notorious cold cases in Quebec was Prior‘s 1975 murder. The 16-year-old went missing on her way to a pizza parlour in Montreal’s Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood to meet friends. Her body was found three days later in a wooded area in Longueuil, on Montreal’s South Shore.
Although there was DNA found at the crime scene, there wasn’t enough to be tested. When the science finally caught up, technicians were able to create a genetic profile of the presumed killer from trace amounts of DNA found on a t-shirt. Genetic genealogy helped them zero in on a man who until last year, had never been on investigators’ radar.
“It revolutionizes every file from A to Z,” said Pierre Duquette, the chief inspector of the major crimes division at the Longueuil police. “It allows us to put a face on an unknown criminal.”
Longueuil has two dedicated cold case investigators, who are poring over about 30 old cases, one by one. If there’s evidence that could yield a new clue, it’s sent to Quebec’s forensic crime lab to be reanalyzed.
“We’re waiting for results on certain files,” said Duquette. “We’ll cross our fingers that they’re good.”
But he envies the extra budget Toronto has access to.
Quebec does not have a special grant for genetic genealogy, but if it did, Duquette said it could help boost the forensic lab’s budget so they could hire more staff and do more testing.
It could also help police forces pay for specialized investigators.
“What costs the most is the investigation,” said Duquette. “It’s prohibitively expensive to keep two full-time employees opening boxes.”
So far, Quebec’s priorities seem to be going in a different direction.
In the 2022-2023 budget, the province set aside $10.1 million dollars over five years to focus on disappearances and abductions. Most of that money helped set up a co-ordinated team of police officers at the SPVM and the Sûreté du Québec.
The idea followed the deaths of Norah and Romy Carpentier, who were abducted and killed by their father in July 2020.
Quebec’s forensic crime lab, the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale (LSJML), also received $930,000 to increase its capacity for DNA analysis.
Although there is no specific funding for genetic genealogy, this money can help the lab “intensify” work on unsolved files, said Marie-Josée Montminy, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Ministry of Public Security.
The lab is currently in the process of validating an instrument for more advanced genetic testing, which may be used in certain cases, she said.
Privacy concerns overblown?
Criminologist Michael Arntfield has long advocated for the use of genetic genealogy in policing.
He believes some police departments are reluctant to try it because it requires a private-public sector partnership. Others are worried about privacy concerns and are waiting to see how the cases play out in court.
“This technology is solving on average, a cold case a week in the United States and we’ve seen it used with tremendous success in Ontario.” said Arntfield, a professor at Western University “If you can convince government bureaucrats in Ontario to pony up $1.5 million, I would say that it has passed the sniff test.”
Arntfield is a consultant for GEDmatch, one of the largest ancestry databases. When it comes to privacy, he said the website is transparent and requires people to opt in or consent to have their information used in police searches.
“So you want to make the argument that a serial child sexual murderer has a privacy interest in what their 14th cousin does with their home DNA kit? Good luck with that” said Arntfield. “The person who does the home DNA kit is in charge of their own genetic privacy and can take whatever steps they want to take or not take with that information.”
Ultimately, all genetic genealogy does is give police a lead to follow when other investigative avenues have dried up, said Arntfield. Once police have zeroed in on a suspect, investigators still need to use traditional policing techniques to connect that suspect to the crime.
“That’s why I call it the new fingerprint,” said Arntfield.