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B.C.’s crack team of forensic science

After the horror of the discovery came the long effort to explain it.

Bones were scattered amid bedraggled belongings near the CN Rail tracks in the area of Commercial Drive. A homeless man found them. It didn't take long to realize the remains and possessions belonged to another homeless person.

He had died, and his body had been picked over by animals roaming in the area near the centre of Vancouver, until his remains were strewn about.

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"It was strictly bones and his camp – I think they call it a nest – where he had his sleeping stuff," said Steve Fonseca, manager of the identification and disaster-response unit of the BC Coroners Service, recalling the discovery in January, 2008.

After homicide was ruled out, mysteries remained. Who was the dead man? Where was the family that needed to be notified of his passing? After four months' work with no answers, the solution came from the Centre for Forensic Research at Simon Fraser University, more specifically forensic anthropologist Mark Skinner.

In fact, the service has developed some surprising links with the university over the years. While it has relationships with various postsecondary institutions in British Columbia, the ties are particularly close with the SFU facility.

So the coroners service paid particular attention to advice from Dr. Skinner, who urged a new assessment of the camp of the mystery man, looking for clues to his identity. Dr. Skinner has an interest in what Mr. Fonseca calls transient anthropology – "all the various exhibits you find in transient nests can help people build profiles about particular individuals of a transient nature." The renewed search of the site, including help from a pair of Dr. Skinner's students, led to the discovery of a cardboard document tube full of paintings with a man's name – the artist – written on them.

The name was linked to a homeless man known to frequent the area, and further work, including contact with Interpol, led to the truth: The man was originally from Germany and had been in Canada for 20 years. His family provided DNA samples to confirm the link.

"Just an incredible case," Mr. Fonseca said. "We were able to basically close the case for a family in Germany that had never reported him missing and would never have known he was dead." So how much credit goes to Dr. Skinner and, by extension, SFU? "Would we have returned [to the site]? Yes. Did he push us on that particular case? Absolutely he did. We responded on that. It was his prompting that got us down there when we did."

While Mr. Fonseca offers much praise for individual faculty at SFU – "They can be dropped in the deep end immediately" – he also pays envious tribute to the gleaming Centre for Forensic Research. The $5-million complex opened in 2007 as part of the larger Saywell Hall.

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"I've looked at their centre and said, 'We should have that. It's something I need,' " he said.

The centre features several labs, including an autopsy facility. Like other areas of the lab, it operates behind high-level security consistent with police standards, so evidence can be properly protected.

"We are comfortable releasing remains into their custody because of the level of security they can offer," Mr. Fonseca said. "They have a facility that's certainly suitable for the kind of examinations that we're looking for. They have their own morgue facility. That helps right off the bat. They have their own refrigeration."

The coroners service has access to various hospital morgues and other labs, but no facility for its own exclusive use. Mr. Fonseca recalls visiting Toronto and getting a look at a massive, state-of-the-art facility in the works for Ontario's coroner service. "I am quite envious because life would be easier if we had that facility," he said.

The next best thing is SFU. Solicitor-General Rich Coleman recently confessed he has never been asked why the coroners don't have their own SFU-style lab. "There would have to be a very good business case for it," he said. "You have to say to yourself, is there a reason you need to go build a lab and hire the people to run a lab for a specific service when you have capacity in other labs to do it."

SFU has had a long tradition of forensic work, not always in such plush digs. Forensic entomologist Gail Anderson, well known for her perspectives on the severed feet that have shown up along the Pacific Northwest coast, wryly recalled of her roots at SFU: "I started off in a trailer in the back of biology."

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The connection with the coroners' service brings life to teaching. "Our students understand we are actually doing [forensic science], not just talking about it," she said during a recent tour of the labs.

In fact, the centre was built with an eye toward working with the coroners service. "Service was a major part of the rationale. The centre was always designed to be research and case oriented," Robert Gordon, head of SFU's criminology department, said in an e-mail exchange.

All is not perfect. The autopsy room, during the tour, lacked the steel table one might consider routine for such a facility. Instead, there was a drab but functional table one might find in any office or lecture hall.

"We received the capital to build but were not given the full equipment budget, so the centre is still looking for funding for vital equipment. No luck so far, which is hardly surprising in the current economic climate," Dr. Gordon wrote.

But he is hopeful. "It is our fervent hope that the end users will show an interest in supporting the Centre in this way. It is in their interests to do so."

Forensic lab

What it is

The ongoing relationship between the B.C. Coroners Service and the $5-million Centre for Forensic Research at Simon Fraser University. It's a bond that allows the service to draw on the expertise of faculty – as it has done for decades – as well as the centre's high-tech labs stocked with cutting-edge equipment.

Why it works

The service has a head office, and regional offices. It also has access to hospital morgues. But surprisingly, it has no central lab of its own like the one at SFU, built in 2007 to link the academic world to the world beyond the campus.

Things that work update

Asked to grade the $2-billion Canada Line, which began running in August, 2009, Gordon Price of Simon Fraser University offers: "fabulous."

That is high praise from the director of the city program at the university, who also served six terms as a Vancouver city councillor.

"It has changed the culture for the whole west side of the region. People who previously couldn't have imagined getting around by transit see it as a viable option," he said.

He also likes the wireless access throughout the 19-kilometre system linking Vancouver with Richmond, including the branch line to Vancouver International Airport. In long tunnel branches of the system, it means you can continue a cellphone conversation or search the Web on a mobile device.

Drew Snider, a public information officer with TransLink – which is responsible for regional transportation – says the system is busier than expected. Projections called for an average 100,000 riders a day by the end of Year 3, but the operation hit and has sustained that ridership just before the first anniversary this past August. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the system was able to handle 200,000 riders a day.

So far, about 15 per cent of passenger traffic to and from the airport is using Canada Line. "It's a little bit more than we expected," Mr. Snider says. "[The Canada Line] is doing its job and that is providing a viable alternative to the private vehicle."

Ian Bailey

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