When police found human remains in rural Alberta in 1995, they had little information to go on. The death was considered suspicious but, without an identity, the investigation stalled. A DNA profile was uploaded to the RCMP's National Missing Persons DNA Program (NMPDP) after the program launched in 2018, but there weren't any associations connecting the profile to another in the National DNA Data Bank.
The case took a turn last year when Cst. Evan Nelson, a missing persons investigator with the Calgary Police Service, began reviewing a file from earlier in the 1990s. He tracked down a family member of the missing person and asked them to submit a biological sample for DNA analysis to the NMPDP.
There was soon an association connecting the two cases allowing police to establish an identity and continue investigating.
Because of the match the program gave us, it's now an active homicide file," says Nelson.
Humanitarian DNA indexes
The NMPDP has established 50 associations since its launch in 2018. Since its start, the program has proved invaluable to investigators helping advance cases and bringing closure to families searching for a missing loved one.
The NMPDP has a mandate to help with these investigations so the other public laboratories can focus on the criminal investigations," says Chris Askew, program technical leader with the National DNA Data Bank (NDDB).
The NMPDP, which is managed by the RCMP's NDDB and the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, maintains three humanitarian DNA indexes to identify the missing. A software program compares the indexes daily searching for connections between cases.
The humanitarian indexes include:
- the Missing Persons Index (MPI), which includes DNA profiles attributed to a missing person
- the Relatives of Missing Persons Index (RMI), which includes DNA profiles voluntarily submitted by close relatives of a missing person, and
- the Human Remains Index (HRI), which contains DNA profiles from found human remains
For privacy reasons, DNA profiles in the Relatives of Missing Persons Index are only compared to profiles in the HRI and MPI, while profiles in the HRI and MPI are compared to the NDDB's criminal indexes that contain more than 600,000 DNA profiles.
Moving cases forward
Cst. Braden Blais, a major crimes investigator with the Prince Albert Police Service in Saskatchewan, worked with the NMPDP when investigating a case of a person reported missing in the fall of 2020.
In the summer of 2021, investigators recovered remains in a wooded area outside the city they thought might be connected to the file but, due to the conditions of the remains, they couldn't be sure. Investigators submitted a sample to the NMPDP and an association in the program confirmed their suspicions.
The DNA program was absolutely essential in our investigation in terms of identifying the remains," says Blais. The DNA association allowed Blais to work with the coroner to confirm an identity, provide an update to the victim's family, and continue the case as a homicide investigation.
"The DNA component is big in terms of confirming other exhibits that had been seized and corroborating statements that we'd taken," says Blais. "It's a big piece of the puzzle that helps bring things together."
Nelson, the missing persons investigator with the Calgary Police Service, says the NMPDP can be especially helpful when other methods to identify human remains like fingerprints or dental records aren't an option. "
Sometimes the only option we have is DNA," he says.
The program can also help in historical cases that started before advances in DNA science allowed for widespread police use.
It's a great tool for police to use for investigative purposes and, more importantly, it's giving the families closure," says Nelson. "
Being able to get that link allows us to let families know a loved one is deceased. It's generally a better option than the unknown."
Over the past year, the NDDB has made significant improvements to its process for extracting DNA from hard tissue like bones. While the program has found success with its current technologies, there's hope that new technologies such as mitochondrial-DNA analysis will lead to more resolved cases.
Mitochondrial DNA analysis can be useful in situations where the DNA from the human remains is of poor quality or there's only a distant maternal relative available," says Askew. "
Implementing this new technology will help advance more investigations."
To date, there are more than 1,700 DNA profiles in the three humanitarian indexes that make up the National Missing Persons DNA Program. As more profiles are added, associations will happen more regularly.
There's been a snowball affect and it's nice to see," says Askew. "
More investigators are seeing the value in the program and as a result we're getting more submissions from other jurisdictions."