The identity of the so-called "Mad Trapper of the North" remains as much of a cold case now as it was more than 77 years ago when the notorious outlaw met his end in a shoot-out with RCMP officers and aboriginal deputies in the Canadian high Arctic.
An Edmonton-based documentary filmmaking company, working with a team of forensic experts, had hoped to crack the mystery that is Albert Johnson. But as the upcoming documentary detailing their efforts shows, we still don't know who Albert Johnson really was (it's long been assumed that name was an alias) even as we know more about him than ever before.
DNA and isotope testing of bone and teeth samples exhumed from Johnson's grave in Aklavik, NWT, in August, 2007, have yielded no matches with DNA samples provided by 12 families who were considered to have valid claims on Johnson as a relative, Hunt for the Mad Trapper will report May 21, in its world premiere on Discovery Channel. The producers will provide official notification to the families next week.
However, as Carrie Gour, executive producer of the documentary and co-proprietor of Edmonton's Myth Merchant Films, said in an interview yesterday, Johnson's DNA samples - what she calls "the golden nugget" - are now stored permanently at the Bureau of Legal Dentistry at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. This means that whatever "new evidence that comes forward can be tested against what the BOLD lab has.
"For a story that's almost 80 years old, the fact I still field about two enquiries a week from people claiming some familial connection [to Johnson]is pretty remarkable," said Gour who, with her business partner, director Michael Jorgensen, has worked on the Johnson project for more than four years.
Indeed, once Hunt for the Mad Trapper is broadcast, the hope is it may trigger a shock of recognition from a viewer who is a bona fide Johnson relative. "Is it still possible to know who [Albert Johnson]is? Yes. And is it possible . . . should there be a DNA match . . . would there be another [film] The answer is, yeah," Gour said with a laugh. "I think that would be the obvious bit of closure."
Until Gour received permission to exhume Johnson's grave two years ago, a first, claims as to who Johnson really was were based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. Dozens of books, thousands of articles and at least one Hollywood film (1981's Death Hunt ) have been produced both speculating on the desperado's true identity and chronicling the legendary, almost two-month manhunt that ended on Feb. 17, 1932, when Special Constable John Moses felled Johnson with a rifle shot through his pelvis.
No personal identification was found on the body or in the remains of the log cabin Johnson built late in the summer of 1931 alongside the Rat River in the Mackenzie Delta region, nor did anyone come forward after the Mounties published haunting photographs of the dead man's emaciated face.
The man known as Johnson first came to police attention when aboriginal trappers told officers they believed he was poaching their trap lines. The RCMP visited his cabin on three occasions, the second ending with Johnson seriously wounding an officer, the third a lengthy shoot-out culminating in the RCMP dynamiting Johnson's cabin. Johnson survived, however, and embarked on his 300-kilometre snowshoe trek across mountains and through blizzards. The manhunt, which saw Johnson kill one Mountie, made Canadian history not just for its duration, but because it was the first time two-way radios and surveillance aircraft were used by a posse.
The science in Hunt for the Mad Trapper - which includes dramatic recreations of the famous manhunt as well as footage of the exhumation and subsequent tests - conclusively demonstrates that prior to arriving in the North, Johnson lived in Iowa, Indiana or Ohio; that he was in his mid-30s and he was "a man of means," not only because he had $2,400 in U.S. and Canadian currency (more than $36,000 Canadian today) on him but because he'd had expensive, sophisticated dental work done.
One absence in the documentary that may not go unremarked is that of Wilf (Wop) May, the legendary bush pilot who did aerial reconnaissance for the hunt. Gour said she and Jorgensen didn't mean to neglect or slight May's accomplishment. But his story "has been told six ways from Sunday," she said, "and we were keen to provide a perspective that was new," namely showing the aboriginal involvement in the Johnson story.
Hunt for the Mad Trapper airs May 21 at 8 p.m. ET on Discovery Channel.