One year ago, the NT Air hanger burned in a spectacular and as-yet unexplained inferno and co-owner Vernon Martin vanished in an as-yet unexplained disappearance.
"We can say without a doubt that he was not in the hanger at the time that it burned," said Prince George RCMP spokesman Cpl. Craig Douglass. "Mr. Martin is still missing. It is a priority for the detachment. The circumstances surrounding it are strange, that this man just disappeared, the fire, all of it."
Martin's pickup truck parked, abandoned, in front of the massive burning building punctuated the incident. Was it all a set of coincidences? Or is there something deliberate afoot?
"Fire investigators were unable to conclusively say that this fire was an arson. It might have been, but we do not know that for a fact," said Douglass. "We did do a thorough search of the site with forensic anthropologist Dr. Richard Lazenby. He is a UNBC professor and very experienced in these matters. We are very confident in his findings. It has been conveyed that there are no human remains in that building and that is more than enough for us to continue the investigation."
Public rumours have run into wild territory. Everything from murder to suicide to amnesia to running off into deliberate obscurity have all been suggested.
All that is known is, he is now 56 year old. Only a few years ago, his wife passed away. Their daughter lives in the Edmonton area and he had been spending time there. He had also been developing a property in the Vernon area.
He and his brothers had owned the NT Air hangar for years, among many other business ventures in the Prince George area. The Martin family name is one of the ones rooted deepest in Prince George history.
Dr. Richard Lazenby, UNBC Anthropology professor. Otherwise known as "The Bone Man"
Internationally experienced forensic anthropologist Dr. Richard Lazenby was called to the scene of the NT Air fire once the initial fire investigation was concluded and the spring melt freed the burned area from ice.
It was April when he began piecing through the ash and wreckage. He and two of his students, Francesca Pretto and Cory Hackett, spent 10 days literally sifting through the remains of the giant building.
"It was a pretty methodical search," Lazenby told The Citizen on Tuesday. They were specifically looking for the body of the building's co-owner Vernon Martin. Not only did they not find Martin's remains but they concluded that no body could have been there.
"In this case, there was no way there were human remains in that property," said Prince George RCMP spokesman Cpl. Craig Dougless. "They went over the property with, I will use the phrase 'a fine-toothed comb' and that might be understating it. Certainly the circumstances weren't ideal. Subzero temperatures and all the water that had to go on it caused a delay, but I do not think it hindered us in the end. The fire itself, any fire, poses the possibility of evidence being burned. Knowing how it started would certainly contribute to the investigation. We do know, however, that we have to look somewhere else to find Vernon Martin."
When asked if the fire was so hot, wouldn't it consume all human remains?, Lazenby replied, "No it wasn't actually."
"A body would have been found. This kind of fire burns hot in some locations, but not overall. A lot of combustibles hadn't even been browned. Had there been a body, actually, it would have been found by police during the first search in December."
Lazenby has come across these gruesome discoveries before. He was the specialist called to the scene of the Columbus Hotel fire, which yielded two bodies in that ashen relic. He has also been dispatched to Guatemala to examine mass graves there at the sites of alleged crimes against humanity. He was involved in the Robert Pickton investigation. There are many others.
"We know a fair bit about bodies and fire, the science is actually quite substantial," he said. "I've investigated sites where the fire was enough to almost completely consume a human body, but even then there is still evidence to be found. It would have to be much, much hotter or burn for much, much longer than the NT Air fire burned (for total combustion of a human body)."
Not fully satisfied, the grieving family then called in their own forensic anthropology team (including Pretto) that also came out with no body.
Lazenby said it is not easy for those grieving to have no conclusive answer after a search, but the result of this investigation gives investigators one key piece of information: Vernon Martin was not inside the NT Air hanger when it burned. The mystery can move on to other possibilities.