The families of an alleged serial killer’s victims want this landfill searched. But how, and by whom? The Globe asked forensics experts, who saw hope that the right techniques could unearth buried remains
The Globe and Mail: For months after police determined Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran were likely buried at the Prairie Green Landfill, the garbage kept flowing in.
The families of the two women had no idea, even as they taped missing-person posters up around Winnipeg last summer and made desperate pleas for information on social media through the fall. Dumping continued at Prairie Green, located about a half-hour drive north of the city, and police did not search the site for the women’s remains.
It wasn’t until December that authorities revealed what they had concluded in early summer: that both victims had been killed by an alleged serial killer, who had targeted them and other Indigenous women. But the Winnipeg Police Service said it was too late to search the landfill, and that trying to do so would be too difficult and dangerous because of contaminants at the site, including asbestos.
For Ms. Harris’s daughter Cambria, confirmation of her mother’s death was a devastating blow. But what stung even more was that police could fathom leaving her remains in such a degrading resting place. “The message you are sending to the greater Indigenous community, and the greater society of Canada, is that it’s okay to continuously murder our women, and it’s okay to continuously dump them like trash, because no one will look for them,” she said.
She is among a group of the women’s family members who, with the support of Indigenous leaders, are insisting that locating and recovering the remains is necessary and can be done.
Operations at the landfill were paused in response to the pressure, and an Indigenous-led working group, which includes police, government representatives and forensic experts, is now considering the feasibility of a search.
According to experts on finding buried remains who spoke to The Globe and Mail, the families have reason for hope. Although such searches are time-consuming, expensive and sometimes fruitless, they said, there are models from past searches to follow – and moral reasons to try.
“People say, ‘Well, if there’s a chance of finding them, then that chance needs to be taken,’” said Tracy Rogers, who was the primary forensic anthropologist on the 2002 search of Canada’s largest crime scene, the British Columbia pig farm owned by serial killer Robert Pickton. Her team uncovered the remains or DNA of 33 women.
In the case of the Winnipeg killings, she said, “I think that, yes, there’s definitely a chance. And yes, definitely, something should be done.”
By the time he was charged in the deaths of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran, the accused, 35-year-old Jeremy Skibicki, was already in police custody for allegedly killing another Indigenous woman, Rebecca Contois. Her remains were recovered from a garbage bin outside a Winnipeg apartment building, and then from a different landfill, known as Brady Road. But that was different, investigators have argued, because they were able to pause the landfill’s operations the same day the remains were deposited there.
Mr. Skibicki is also accused of killing a fourth woman, also believed to be Indigenous, whom the local community calls Buffalo Woman. Her identity and the location of her remains are unknown.
The exact specifications of the Prairie Green Landfill are not clear. Waste Connections of Canada, which owns the site, did not respond to requests for comment. But the basic details shared by police provide a glimpse into what a search might entail.
Landfills are divided into what are known as cells. The first step in a search is to narrow the field down to the cell that was in use around the time of the killing. The Indigenous-led working group has said it has done just that. It noted in an update released on Jan. 24 that the cell believed to contain the women’s remains had not been used since June. That means searchers would have only about one month’s worth of debris to dig through. Operations in that cell remain paused, but dumping in other parts of the landfill has resumed.
The size of each cell is unclear. Winnipeg Police investigators have described the landfill as being four acres, though maps included in regulatory documents show that the entire site is many times larger than that. Police would not say what area they were referring to.
Although police said in December that there was no GPS tracker on the truck they believe transported the remains to the landfill, Dr. Rogers said there would likely still be some degree of recordkeeping that could help pinpoint a location. “They don’t just say ‘go in and dump it anywhere.’ No other landfill that I’ve ever heard of does that. They always are working on a particular section at a particular time, just because there has to be a workflow,” she said.
Laura Fulginiti, a forensic anthropologist in Phoenix, Ariz., and president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, has conducted five landfill searches in her 35-year career. She said the level of recordkeeping varies from landfill to landfill. But she agreed that it’s unlikely the garbage at Prairie Green was being dumped arbitrarily.
Typically, she said, there will be one cell in use at a time, which could be as large as a football field, and six to nine-feet deep. Once a cell is filled with trash, it is often capped with dirt or clay. “And then they start the next layer, and they keep building it like a layer cake. Every day more trash goes in there. When they get to the height that they can sustain, then they move to the next place and start doing it again,” Dr. Fulginiti said.
Police have said that 10,000 trucks dropped off loads at Prairie Green in the 34 days between when they believe the women’s remains arrived there and June 20, when they determined the remains were likely at the site. That debris was then compacted and buried under 9,000 tonnes of construction clay. While police have cited the clay as part of the challenge involved in mounting a search, Dr. Rogers said it could actually end up being helpful. “You may see quite distinctive layers there, which we would call stratigraphy,” she said. She said heavy machinery could be used to “dig directly down to that clay layer, and then lift that clay layer off a little bit more slowly to expose what’s underneath.”
Once the cell had been identified, the material would likely be dug up and transported, one load at a time, to what she described as a designated “clean” area, where it could then be spread out and raked or sifted through.
During the Pickton farm search, Dr. Rogers said, her team used a machine called a Grizzly, essentially a large vibrating sieve, to sift through 24,000 dump-truck loads of dirt and rocks. Sorted materials were then sent along a conveyor belt, with at least six technicians on each side picking out any suspicious items for further inspection. A Grizzly might not work for a landfill search, she said, because garbage is sticky and may not separate well in a machine. Depending on how flattened or dried the buried debris is, she said, much of the sorting might have to be done by hand.
During a landfill sorting process, there are particular clues that searchers look for, Dr. Fulginiti said. For example, expiration dates on milk cartons or addresses on pieces of mail may help them determine that they are sorting through materials from the right neighbourhood, and from around the right time. “Then you search out from there until you get to a place where you think you’ve searched everything,” she said.
A search like this would not be particularly high-tech. But it would take a lot of detailed, tedious work, which would be expensive.
One search Dr. Fulginiti did at an Arizona landfill – of a single-day’s worth of trash in one cell – took six weeks. Another search – of two cells, in that case – took three months. Neither was successful. Only one of her five landfill searches bore results, she said.
There is little research available on the success rates or frequency of landfill searches. In a 2019 study, American co-authors Brian Paulsen, a former police chief, and Kimberlee Sue Moran, a forensic archaeologist, wrote that such searches “contain a wide range of factors that make them far more challenging than the typical crime scene.” They found that the possibility of success “has a direct correlation to the amount of time between the body entering the landfill and the search beginning. At the 30-day mark, the chances of being successful are near even, but they drop precipitously after a month has passed.”
It is devastating to end a search unsuccessfully, Dr. Fulginiti said. “You literally could be a foot off in any direction and miss the body.”
In August, 2021, Toronto Police recovered the body of a suspected murder victim, a 57-year-old man, from a London, Ont., landfill owned by the City of Toronto. They found the remains eight months after they believe they were transported there. The site receives at least 350,000 tonnes of trash each year.
While the four acres police have said would need to be searched at Prairie Green sounds like a daunting sprawl of land, Dr. Rogers said it pales in comparison to the 14-acre Pickton farm, which took a year and a half to search at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. By some estimates, the prosecution of that case, including the search, cost more than $100-million.
Dr. Fulginiti said landfill searches she has been involved in have resulted in injuries, respiratory issues and, in one case, an early retirement. The presence of asbestos is important to consider and prepare for, she said, and requires expensive protective gear for searchers.
The Winnipeg Police have also cited animal bones as an obstacle to a search. To an amateur eye, they can be mistaken for human remains. Dr. Fulginiti said the bulk of these are often from food scraps and, for a forensic anthropologist, are easily distinguishable from human bones. “There will be 100,000 animal bones in every single load, which is why you should have an anthropologist there to say yes or no,” she said.
Dr. Rogers said the challenges cited by police suggest they envisioned doing the search themselves. “If they were thinking that their police officers are going to be the ones who are searching … then what is insurmountable to you is going to be very different,” she said.
One of the lessons of the Pickton farm search, she said, was the importance of having “a large team of people who have knowledge in what bone looks like, and what tissue looks like.” “Those were the searchers. They weren’t general police officers. They’re going to need people who have a vested interest and really know what they’re looking for.”
In the 20 years since that case, Dr. Rogers said, it has become standard for police services to call in forensic anthropologists when remains are discovered or need to be found. “When there are no remains and you have to search for them, there’s this intersection … and forensic anthropologists really work in that intersection.”
But those partnerships vary from province to province and police force to police force. In Manitoba, she said, her colleagues are routinely consulted by the RCMP. Winnipeg Police did not respond to questions about whether they had consulted a forensic anthropologist. They referred questions to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which is leading the feasibility assessment.
When Dr. Fulginiti is consulted about landfill searches, she said, she tries to keep expectations low. But she believes there are moral reasons to try. “At the end of the day, I can give you 1,000 reasons not to go,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. That’s the only reason for doing it.”
For the families of these Indigenous women, that is reason enough.
Earlier this month, Cambria Harris visited the Prairie Green Landfill, and was led out by staff to the area where her mother is believed to be buried, for a blessing ceremony. She stood on what she described as a hill of compacted garbage, 20 feet high, and watched as crows circled overhead.
Crows, she said, are intermediaries from the spirit world, and she interpreted their presence as a sign. She took a little piece of the ground home with her from the landfill, as her own symbol of her commitment to bringing her mother home. “This event not only affects my family and the other victims’ families, but it affects families from a decade ago and decades before that – any and all missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls’ families,” she said.
“It’s about, where are our women? If four ended up here, then where are the rest?”
For Cambria Harris, the crows at the landfill – a symbol of death – felt like a message from her mother. She is committed to find her again.
MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL