Starting landfill searches within ‘magic’ 30-day window key to finding remains, study suggests
WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
A comprehensive analysis of searching for human remains in landfills suggests that the potential for recovery drops dramatically if searchers don’t start — and commit to searching for at least that long — within a month of a body ending up in a landfill to spend.
“At the 30-day mark, the odds of success are almost equal, but after a month they drop precipitously,” co-authors Kimberlee Sue Moran and Brian Paulsen — a former police chief in Plattsmouth, Neb. — wrote in their 1999 study 2019, which they believe is the only comprehensive landfill search feasibility study in North America.
“A search should not be initiated if more than 60 days have elapsed between the placement of the body in the landfill and the initiation of the search.”
The findings could provide valuable context as the government and Manitoba-based law enforcement agencies consider searching the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran.
Winnipeg police believe the two women were killed and their remains ended up in the dump in mid-May this year — a conclusion investigators reached on June 20, although they publicly announced it only this month.
Police announced Dec. 1 that Jemery Skibicki was charged with first-degree murder in her death and that of a woman who has not yet been identified but has been given the name Buffalo Woman.
Skibicki had been charged months earlier with first-degree murder in the death of Rebecca Contois, who police said was also killed in May. Her partial remains were found after a search in June at the Brady Road landfill in south Winnipeg.
The charges have not yet gone to court. Skibicki’s attorney has announced that he will plead not guilty to all four counts of first-degree murder.
Increasing calls to search
Police have received increasing calls to search Prairie Green after initially implying it was not feasible.
Protesters, including family members and loved ones of victims, recently blocked the Brady Road landfill and called for a search to be carried out there for other missing people.
The Premier of Manitoba and the Mayor of Winnipeg announced on December 8 that Prairie Green’s operations had been suspended following such calls. The federal government promised last week to pay the bill for a feasibility study on a possible search.
The authors of the American study, published in January 2019 in the journal Forensic Archeology, examined 46 landfill sites in the United States between 1999 and 2009. Of these, 20 — or 43 percent — were successful. The successful search took an average of 17 days.
According to Paulsen, one of the most important factors was the time between when a victim’s remains ended up at a landfill and when the search began.
Searches that began within 30 days of depositing the remains were most successful, and searching after at least 30 days also increased the chances of success. Over 90 percent of successful recoveries have happened within this “magic” window, Paulsen said.
The study stops law enforcement from searching after two months have elapsed.
“There have been cases of recovery after 30 days, but it’s been much, much rarer,” Paulsen said in an interview with CBC Manitoba host Marcy Markusa information radio.
Factors that could hinder an investigation include elapsed time, resources, weather conditions and potential hazards searchers might encounter, he said.
Success also typically depends on landfill managers being able to roughly locate the site where remains may have been dumped.
That depends on the quality of records at a landfill and whether garbage trucks dumping loads there have GPS location data tracking, which is true for many U.S. jurisdictions
“Having that location is paramount, just a starting point, and it’s going slowly. It’s going very, very slowly,” Paulsen said.
Information radio – MB18:09How does the landfill search work? A former US police chief who co-authored a study on the subject explains
“Extremely difficult” to stop the search
A 2003 case in Nebraska in which he was directly involved shows the importance of this information, Paulsen said.
The father of Brendan Gonzalez, a four-year-old boy, confessed to killing the child and showed police the trash can where he dumped his son’s body.
Police were able to determine when this trash was taken to a landfill in Springfield, Nebraska.
But they didn’t learn that information and didn’t start the search until about six months after the fact, Paulsen says — similar to the time that has passed since the remains of Harris and Myran were believed to have been brought to Prairie Green.
Investigators didn’t have GPS location data of the garbage truck in this case, but the landfill manager “was extremely confident that he knew exactly where we needed to go,” Paulsen said.
“Aside from the landfill manager making a note of where we were looking the day after the murder, I don’t know if we would have gone in that aggressively,” Paulsen said.
But after an unsuccessful month, the search was called off.
“It was extremely difficult for me and the deputy director to be with the mother and grandmother and say we’re stopping the search,” Paulsen said.
“Everyone was confident that we would find him … but in the end it all came down to just not knowing where to go.”
According to Paulsen, this case is the only unsuccessful landfill search in Nebraska’s history. Two more searches resulted in the discovery of remains.
In one case, the remains of a baby were found after a landfill site was closed within six hours of the child’s disappearance being reported, Paulsen said.
The other successful search was larger but fell within the 30-day “magic window,” he said.
Thomas McAfee, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who served for eight years as a senior team leader on the US bureau’s evidence collection team, agreed that timing, availability of records and amount of debris are factors in the search.
McAfee has been involved in four landfill searches in which the FBI worked with local law enforcement. None resulted in the recovery of a body.
“You really have to solve a lot of puzzle pieces before you start digging,” he said in an interview with information radio.
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A search is less likely to be successful “if you don’t have solid, actionable information that the person was missing on day X and we’re closing the landfill almost immediately and we know she went to that dumpster and that dumpster went there.” this area.”
But when officers consider whether to search Prairie Green in Manitoba, the likelihood of success isn’t the only factor to consider, he said.
“There’s usually a lot of emotion,” McAfee said.
“Investigators want to please the victim and the victim’s family — bring them home.”
Support is available for anyone affected by the details of this case. If you need assistance you can call 204-594-6500 ext. 102 or 104 (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside of Winnipeg).
Assistance is also available through the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Liaison Unit for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.