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Canada Death of Alberta's 'Septic Tank Sam' is still a cold case

Mavis McLeod first remembers seeing a grey wool sock. Then a brown shoe bobbing around the murky septic tank water that appeared to be attached to a leg.

"We went and got the cops real fast because we knew something was wrong," the 73-year-old resident of Tofield, Alta., recalled. She, along with her then-husband Charlie, had been searching their rural 1.8-metre-deep septic tank for a pump.

Within hours of the couple's discovery that warm April day 30 years ago tomorrow, the Mounties had pulled a decomposing body from the tank and touched off a homicide investigation that has haunted this small farming community and tormented everyone who tried to solve the baffling crime.

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To this day, the victim has never been identified. Police nicknamed him Septic Tank Sam.

Before being thrown head-first into the tank on an abandoned farm property owned by the McLeods, his killer or killers did unspeakable things to him.

An autopsy revealed Sam had been shot several times, burned with possibly a blowtorch and cigarettes, beaten and sexually mutilated.

His body was then covered in limestone, likely in an attempt to get rid of his remains forever.

"They did him in real good and, if the lime had done its job, there might never have been a body to find," Ed Lammerts, a retired RCMP sergeant, said. Now 65, Mr. Lammerts was a corporal at the Tofield detachment in 1977 when the McLeods walked in and reported their grisly find.

Mr. Lammerts, now a real estate agent in Tofield, located 67 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, said he and another officer initially used an empty ice-cream pail to scoop water out of the septic tank, which has since been built over and is now part of a subdivision.

He said that the body, which had been stewing in the tank for several months, was in such bad shape that it took a medical examiner in Edmonton months to determine whether it was a man or a woman.

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Mr. Lammerts, who retired in 1990, doesn't expect the cold case will ever be solved, despite the at least $1-million that he estimates has been spent on it.

His boss at the time went to his grave wishing the case would be closed, he said.

"Time is against us," Mr. Lammerts said. "If only we could just get the victim's name, we could maybe figure this out."

Files from the case fill two large, green cabinets in the basement of Tofield's RCMP detachment. Over the years, police have received thousands of tips, including four that are currently being checked out, and have explored hundreds of theories.

Everybody in this town of about 1,800 seems to have a theory about what happened to Sam. They range from speculation that he was involved in the drug trade to a theory that someone caught him molesting children.

Sam's body has been exhumed twice from his pauper's grave in Edmonton for tests. The first time was in the late 1970s when RCMP Corporal Jamie Graham (later to become Vancouver's police chief) took the remains to Oklahoma City for a facial reconstruction model. Alberta's chief medical examiner's office has also done extensive work on the case, including releasing a computer-generated picture of Sam in 1995 and an updated facial reconstruction model in 2001. One of the office's forensic artists even called the case his personal Waterloo in 2001.

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The victim's dental records have also been sent to more than 800 dentists across Canada, but the search for his identity remains a stubborn mystery.

Experts have concluded that Sam, who was wearing a blue Levis shirt with snap buttons, white T-shirt, blue jeans and Wallabee-type shoes, was about 28 years old, 5 foot 6, right-handed and white. They also believe he was a labourer and likely suffered an illness around the age of 5.

RCMP Sergeant Jim Warren, Tofield's current detachment commander, suspects the victim was a "transient" and not from Alberta. The homicide probably wasn't random because of how vicious it was, he added.

He also suspects the killer might have been familiar with the area or been from a farming background, given the use of the septic tank, which was located on a rural and isolated property.

Ms. McLeod said their discovery of the body frightened her family for a number of years. "We were living like a bunch of zombies," she recalled. The septic tank was located about 1.6 kilometres from their home.

However, as the years passed, Ms. McLeod said she has thought less and less about the mystery, despite the strange phone calls she's received about it. She said the weirdest one came from a British man who wondered if Sam was a cowboy and his long-lost relative.

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A sample of Sam's DNA has been stored by police in case it's ever needed for tests against a possible family member.

"This guy belonged to somebody," Ms. McLeod said. "Somebody, somewhere knows what happened. . . . And to think, if we hadn't gone looking for that pump that day, he may have never been found."

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