Lejla Hodzic describes how a 35-year old mystery was partly resolved through state-of-the-art DNA matching techniques.
After 35 years of waiting, the Johnston family from British Columbia, Canada, have finally been able to lay their son to rest. This has been made possible because of advancements in technology that have taken place since Robert (Bob) William Johnston went missing in 1981, and since his remains were found 14 years later. Despite extensive investigation and testing, it was not possible until now to make a conclusive identification of the remains.
Robert (Bob) William Johnston was 19 years old when he disappeared from Prince Rupert, his hometown on British Colombia’s North Coast. In 1995, skeletal remains were found by hikers on the south side of Mount Hays. Believing the remains might belong to their son, Bob’s parents donated DNA for analysis. Technology at the time could not establish a definitive match and the remains were not identified for another 20 years.
In 2000 and 2002, DNA testing was performed, but the answers were inconclusive.
Over the years, the British Colombia Coroner’s Office assigned a number of investigators to the case, but their efforts were unproductive. In 2015, the Coroner’s Office Identification Department decided to send some of its most challenging missing persons cases to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). As part of its programs, ICMP maintains a standing DNA identification capacity to work on up to 5,000 challenging cases a year. In addition, it has a history of working on missing persons cases in very challenging environments, including conflict and human rights related cases, as well as mass disasters, through a program on disaster victim identification.
In total, the Coroner’s Office sent 24 samples, 23 of which were returned with a DNA profile. Laurel Clegg, the manager of the BC Coroner’s Office Identification and Disaster Response Unit, says the Coroner’s Service currently has 177 unidentified human remains cases, and is investigating other files that may benefit from being sent to the ICMP laboratory system.
ICMP has developed sophisticated methods to obtain DNA profiles from very difficult cases of unidentified human remains, such as bone samples from decades-old conflicts. ICMP has conducted the world’s largest missing persons DNA testing program, having successfully tested more than 50,000 bone samples and established a database of almost 100,000 family reference DNA samples resulting in around 20,000 DNA based identifications globally.
Laurel Clegg noted that extracting DNA from old bones is difficult since water and weather break down the things that protect DNA and make it harder to extract samples from remains. She pointed out that the experts never gave up on the Johnston case, but had to wait for the technology to improve.
While ICMP was able to obtain a DNA profile from the remains of Bob Johnston, the BC Coroner’s Office conducted DNA matching against the profiles donated by the family. The cause of death remains unclear and will be the subject of further investigation.
The process of searching for a missing loved one is very painful for families. As science becomes more powerful it can be possible to resolve cases that have confounded investigators for decades and this in turn makes it possible for families, often after a lifetime of agonizing uncertainty, to find their loved ones.