A FEW BONES ...AND LOTS OF QUESTIONS
FORENSICS: Storms washed up overload for anthropologists
For 105 years, the keepers of the Merry Island lighthouse have witnessed nature at its finest. They are treated to spectacular sunsets and, every spring, the rare bulbs and wildflowers that burst into bloom — the legacy of the original lighthouse keeper and his famous garden.
But the people who have lived on tiny Merry Island, just off the coast from Sechelt, have also seen nature at its most cruel.
In 1915, the lighthouse keeper rescued four members of a family whose boat had smashed onto nearby rocks.
Don Richards, the current keeper, and his wife Kathy have raised their family on the government-owned tip of what is otherwise a private island paradise. They know as well as anyone that the tides and currents that have shaped Merry Island’s history are inclined to wash up all kinds of surprises.
On Dec. 30, Richards called Sechelt RCMP to report one of the strangest yet. His assistant, Rod Tainio, had made a horrifying discovery in a small cove on the north side of the island.
Tainio had stumbled across someone’s body — or what was left of it. Later in the day, police examined and photographed a partial spine and leg bones. Entangled among the bones were some pants, a sock and a piece of what appeared to be either a shirt or a blouse.
One of the little-known effects of the storms that snapped trees and created havoc on the B.C. coast during the winter has been an increased workload for coroners and forensic anthropologists.
The high tides and gale-force winds exposed an unusually high number of human remains — particularly on Vancouver Island, famous for its ancient aboriginal burial sites.
In most cases, the skeletons will eventually be determined to have purely archeological significance — of no interest to the police — and will be respectfully returned to the earth.
The discovery on Merry Island, however, is not so straightforward.
It’s assumed that the bones were washed up by a major storm, but no one knows for sure.
Sgt. Gerry Webb of the Sechelt RCMP says the remains were found at a time when large amounts of debris were appearing on beaches in the area, but he concedes police still don’t know how and when the body came to rest there.
Today it sits in a coroner’s lab while police
and forensic anthropologists attempt to establish an identity. There are no obvious candidates.
Webb says police have considered the possibility that the remains could be those of author Rhody Lake, who went missing in November 2005 — but he says that’s unlikely because she’s thought to have disappeared on the Sechelt Inlet.
“It would be almost inconceivable for her to end up on Merry Island,” says Webb. “She would have to have gone through Skookumchuck Narrows and all the way around the inlet.”
The plot thickened this week when police revealed to The Province that the remains — or at least the attached items of clothing — are indeed those of a woman.
They have identified a pair of brown wool Capri-style pants with black leggings, a white tube sock and a pair of panties with a distinctive fruit design. The clothing also included a white garment police believe could be a cotton undershirt.
The new information raises the possibility that the remains found on Merry Island could be those of missing cruise ship passenger Merrian Carver.
On a grey Friday morning in September 2004, the luxury cruise liner Mercury docked at Canada Place in downtown Vancouver.
No-one realized at the time but it was one passenger short.
It was three weeks later that the Arizona-based parents of Merrian Carver, a 40-year-old divorced mom and investment banker from Cambridge, Mass., found out that their daughter had gone missing.
She had booked the Alaska cruise alone and had not bothered to tell family members of her travel plans. Crew members interviewed later said they had noticed that the lone occupant of cabin 8137 had stopped sleeping in the room some 48 hours into the cruise. They didn’t think that was particularly unusual so didn’t bother to raise the alarm.
Officials at Royal Caribbean have said that suicide is the most likely explanation for Carver’s disappearance, but her father suspects otherwise.
In a telephone interview from Phoenix, Ariz., Kendall Carver says that after receiving virtually no help from police in Alaska and B.C. he hired lawyers to investigate Merrian’s disappearance.
He says depositions from crew members suggest that his daughter may well have become the victim of foul play. Since her disappearance, he has formed a website on behalf of the families of other missing cruise ship passengers (www.international cruisevictims.org).
His campaign for the cruise ship industry to do a better job of investigating missing passengers has been spotlighted on TV shows such as Larry King Live and ABC’s Primetime.
He was contacted last week by Sechelt RCMP who are arranging for DNA taken from Merrian’s mother, Carol, to be compared with the DNA that forensic
anthropologists in Vancouver are hoping to extract from the bones found on Merry Island.
Stephen Fonseca, manager of identification and disaster response for the B.C. Coroners Service, says it could take several months to complete the examination of the remains. Besides looking for DNA, his team will attempt to determine basic biological details such as age, sex, stature and racial background — and hopefully suggest an anatomical cause of death.
Fonseca says the presence of a small amount of flesh on the bones found at Merry Island will present his investigators with a particularly difficult challenge. When the bones arrived, no one knew for sure whether they’d spent time on land before being washed into the water. Also, says the coroner, human tissue that’s submerged in water is known to deteriorate according to a wide range of variables.
“First we have to understand the marine life and how the body was exposed to that marine life,” Fonseca explains.
“I’m always cautious about it because we’ve had cases where we’ve pulled remains from the water and they’ve been scavenged so badly that most soft tissue has been depleted. And then there are other cases where people have been submerged for long periods of time in cold water and they look fairly good under the circumstances.”
There is no dental work to help with this identification, but Fonseca says anthropologists will look for indications of disease and trauma.
As well as working with police, the coroner’s office will also begin the laborious task of re-opening records on missing persons cases going back to 1963 — about 200 files.
Little more than a week after the Merry Island discovery, further north on the Sunshine Coast at Toba Inlet, another human skeleton was discovered at the mouth of the Tahumming River, near the site of an ancient aboriginal burial ground.
Vancouver Island regional coroner Rose Stanton says the case is one of about seven that have landed on her desk this year as a result of the severe winter storms.
“A lot of the ones we’ve been getting are on the edges of banks of rivers and bodies of water and they’ve become exposed because of extraordinary high tides or high water levels,” Stanton says.
Another partial skeleton was unearthed at a golf course in Nanaimo. All these cases have to be investigated.
Stanton is confident that most of the remains will prove to be ancient and of no forensic significance. Once anthropologists have determined that the bones have been flushed from an aboriginal burial site — or even a redeveloped cemetery — the files will be handed over to the provincial archeology department which then oversees arrangements for reburial.
Stanton reveals that the archeologist who discovered the Tahumming remains also noticed an artifact that suggests the possibility of recent human contact. She would not elaborate but said police have been asked to review the details.
“We’re just standing by until they make that decision because if there’s anything to suggest this may be of recent interest then the finding would probably be that it’s suspicious and that would be their determination on how to proceed,” she says.
But she says the remains, which were kept in place, appear to be those of an early islander.
“I’ve only seen pictures and the bones are quite clean and mossy, which suggests they’re older,” she says.
When coroners need someone to read the clues that bones present, they call in people like Brenda Clark.
Clark, who teaches forensic anthropology at Camosun College in Victoria, has explained dozens of human bone mysteries that often begin with a call from a startled hiker or heavy equipment operator.
Out in the field, she’s primarily concerned with whether the remains contain indications of forensic significance — dental work or other signs that the bones have walked in modern times.
Clark says the most obvious indication of archeological remains is a re-shaped head. For hundreds of years, West Coast tribes used planks to flatten the skulls of respected members of society. When bones cannot be explained as ancient aboriginal, Clark relies mainly on facial features — if the skull is present — to determine ancestry. If the remains appear to be modern, she will look for evidence of blunt force, gunshots and other trauma wounds.
“But once you have just skeletal remains, telling the time since death is really, really difficult,” Clark explains. “There’s nothing to go on. If the bones are greasy and still have some organic material, it might tell you that it’s more recent.”
There was nothing recent about a case she solved five years ago.
Police asked her to look at a mummified head found inside a bicycle helmet box recovered from a storage locker in Sooke.
She knew that our wet climate had not encouraged mummification as a common cultural practice. Eventually, Clark tracked down the person who’d rented the locker a long time before — and was able to reveal the truth behind the mystery of the Sooke Mummy.
“There was a time when you could go to the markets in Cairo and buy mummies,” she explains. “Someone had brought it home and given it to this fellow as a gift, but apparently the curse of the mummy started to kick in. He broke his foot and all of these different things happened so he decided it was time to put it away.”
The mummy is now used for educational purposes at Camosun College.
In the meantime, the B.C. Coroners Service is working on a new website that aims to make images and data from their files accessible to the public in the hope of solving cases like the mystery of Merry Island.
“There are people out there who have information that they don’t even realize is important to us,” says Stephen Fonseca. “We want to create far more opportunities of getting the public involved.”
He says he expects the new site to be up and running by this fall.
If you recognize any of the items of clothing from the Merry Island discovery, please contact Sechelt RCMP at 604-885-2266.