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Sean McCowan speaks as Kaelin McCowan looks on, brothers of Erin Gilmour, during a press conference in Toronto on Nov. 28.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Toronto detectives have used new genetic investigative techniques to identify a suspect in the cold cases of two women who were killed in the city’s downtown nearly 40 years ago.

Joseph George Sutherland, 61, was arrested on Friday in the Northern Ontario community of Moosonee. Police say he has since been brought south to face charges in Toronto, where he lived in the early 1980s. He is accused of two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the two stabbing killings from 1983.

That August, the first victim, 45-year-old Susan Tice, was found dead in her home just months after moving to Toronto from Calgary. Then, that December, 22-year-old Erin Gilmour, whose father was Barrick Gold co-founder David Gilmour, was found dead in her Yorkville apartment above the clothing store where she worked. Both women had been sexually assaulted.

In 2003, Toronto Police announced they had canvassed hundreds of suspects. The new DNA techniques of the time, they said, had helped them conclude that the cases shared a common suspect. Yet the killer’s identity remained a mystery, because the genetic information could not be matched to anyone whose DNA had been entered into police databases.

Toronto police are using new investigative genetic genealogy techniques to help crack cold cases, including historical homicides.

The Globe and Mail

Since then, newer technologies have made it possible for investigators to use crime-scene DNA to find family members of unknown suspects, using a process known as investigative genetic genealogy, or IGG. During a news conference in Toronto on Monday, Detective Sergeant Steve Smith told reporters it was this technique that had led to Mr. Sutherland’s arrest.

The accused “was not a suspect or a person of interest in this case,” Det. Sgt. Smith told reporters. “If we had not utilized this technology we would have not came to his name.”

In the past year, the Canadian criminal justice system made its first convictions involving the technique, as several accused rapists and murderers admitted to crimes committed in the 1980s and 1990s.

But Det. Sgt. Smith told The Globe in an e-mail that he believes this latest arrest marks the first time the technique has tied a single suspect to more than one homicide in Canada. The new technology, he said, finally put police in a position to identify Mr. Sutherland and confront him with a DNA warrant, a judicially authorized step that gave police permission to take a blood sample from him during an interview.

The 1983 killing of Ms. Gilmour shocked the business community. Her body was discovered by the son of Barrick co-founder Peter Munk.

Speaking to reporters at the news conference, Ms. Gilmour’s brother, Sean McCowan, said her death has long haunted her family, and that the arrest “finally puts a name and a face to someone who, for all of us, had been a ghost.”

But he was saddened that his mother had died two years before police closed in. “She would have been so relieved if there would have been an arrest. And so happy that someone would finally face justice after being anonymous for 39 years.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Sean McCowan, centre right, reacts as he stands with Kaelin McCowan, brothers of Erin Gilmour, Clair Kilgour and Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, right, after a press conference in Toronto on Nov. 28.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ms. Tice was a mother of four children who had moved to Toronto hoping to start a family counselling practice. A relative found her body after she didn’t show up to a family gathering.

“I don’t even know how to put into words the 40 years that our lives have been affected by this,” Christian Tice, her daughter, said in an interview on Monday. “I just can’t believe that they did it. And I’m absolutely amazed by the technology.”

Social-media posts by Mr. Sutherland suggest he is an avid canoer, hunter and snowmobiler in his community on the shores of James Bay. “He did have a family, and he has an extended family, most of them living in Northern Ontario as well,” Det. Sgt. Smith said.

Investigative genetic genealogy is propelled by newly available searchable databases that hold vast quantities of genetic information from members of the public. That information is volunteered by people who have used popular direct-to-consumer DNA analysis services to figure out their families’ genetic histories and telltale traits.

When combined and compared to old crime-scene DNA, these databases can allow investigators to make deductions that point to the families of suspects. Eventually they can zero in on the suspects themselves, as long as the original DNA samples are not too worn down by time.

“This case was a little more complex,” said David Mittelman, chief executive of Othram Corp. In an interview, he spoke about how his company works closely with Toronto police to unlock genetic clues held within even the most degraded crime-scene DNA.

In the 1983 cases, “there was a lot of downstream work that had to be done,” he said. “Even if you get through the challenges of the DNA test, and even the genealogy, there’s an investigative process, and it can take time.”

In 2020, Det. Sgt. Smith announced the arrival of investigative genetic genealogy techniques in Canada when he said police had used them to solve the notorious 1984 killing of nine-year-old Christine Jessop. Police named family friend Calvin Hoover as the suspected killer, but he never faced trial because he had died several years earlier.

On Monday, Det. Sgt. Smith said his team of investigators sent crime-scene samples from the 1983 cases and the Jessop killing to Othram in 2019, but each investigation evolved at its own pace. “This case, unto itself, is probably the most complex case I’ve worked on in my 25 years,” he said. “It just goes to show that IGG is not a magic bullet.”

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