Mystery solved after more than 40 years

The beginning of a 40-year-old mystery started with a flash of pain and blood on another continent three decades earlier.

Twenty-year-old Joris (not his real name, by family request) was working on his family's dairy farm in Holland when one of the cows launched a rear hoof backwards, knocking out Joris's front four teeth.

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It was 1930.

Joris's family invested in a partial denture plate for the boy and had a high-quality set of vulcanite teeth made.

They emigrated with him to Canada soon after.

Joris first emigrated to Alberta, and then to Ladner, B.C., before coming to northern B.C.

By the time the Second World War broke out, he settled in Prince George to work in the lumber industry, where he married and began a family.

Life was still hard.

One son was killed in an automobile incident and Joris's extended grief brought on other health issues.

His family doctor in Prince George suggested Joris see a specialist in Vancouver. On May 24, 1967, Joris waved goodbye to his son at the bus depot.

Joris's daughter was first confused and then frantic when Joris was not on the bus when it arrived in Vancouver. Despite police reports, family inquiries, and prayers,

Joris was not heard from again.

At around the same time in 1967, a young David Hodges was writing second-year exams at McGill University's dental school. After a five-year stint in the military following graduation, Hodges moved to Prince George and set up his practice.

Dr. Hodges and his colleague Dr. Greg Ames took a call from the RCMP in 1983, regarding two murdered bodies found near the Pine River, north of Prince George and west of

Chetwynd.

"We saw excellent dentistry in this case but it had an 'accent' to it," said Hodges. "Dr. Ames and I suggested involving Interpol, and an item of interest emerged about missing German tourists." When Andrea Scherps and Bernd Goehricke were identified as the victims, Hodges was on a new professional path.

Since then, he's been called by the BC Coroner's Service more than 125 times to examine the teeth of dead people, to help identify them and learn what led to their death.

He was part of the Canadian contingent of dentists who spent three weeks each in Thailand working on the identification assembly line, processing thousands of anonymous bodies killed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

In 2008, he and bone decay expert Dr. Richard Lazenby of UNBC were presented with a challenging case by Simon Fraser University anthropologist and Cariboo coroner Laura Dewar.

A horseback rider moseying along a fence line a few hundred metres to the side of Highway 1 south of Cache Creek and west of Ashcroft stopped to look at something strange on the ground. It was a few bits of human bone, some tattered fabric and there was something else - something that Dewar felt Hodges was needed for.

One of the few bone fragments was a premaxilla (upper jaw). Lazenby estimated it and some long-bone specimens as being about 40 years laying in that spot, and definitely a male human.

"Why did I have this premaxilla? That is the really interesting question," Hodges said. "Now you're getting into a branch of research called taphonamy: the study of decaying organic matter. I have found the University of Tennessee to be real leaders in this. Bugs do it first, and animals and birds, the weather, and all the things that can pick at it by the world. So why did I have the premaxilla and why was that important? Because it was covered by something. Vulcanite."

Its modern name is ebonite or vulcanized rubber - a compound made by combining latex and sulfur then baking it at a high temperature. It was first patented in 1851 by the Goodyear corporation. They used it for tires but soon came to realize it had other lucrative applications.

Dentists rejoiced.

So, too, did Hodges when Dewar presented him with the partial plate. He recognized the denture material immediately, and knew that dentists had stopped using vulcanite after the 1940s in favour of newer technologies. It, and the fact "it was a very well-made partial - it was esthetically made," gave him some clues as to when and perhaps where it was made.

The scant remains of bone also whispered a few words into the investigation.

"The premaxilla told us things," said Hodges.

"It was knife-edged; it wasn't round and firm. It told me the individual had been missing the upper front four teeth for many, many years. When the denture had been made, the individual was a young man and had a nice, round ridge. Now, when you have a denture rubbing on this tissue, the ridge shrinks over time, so you have to see your dentist to keep it re-based so it will still fit tightly. A lot of people don't do that and this individual had never done it. That is what the evidence told us."

The evidence said little else.

Lazenby expressed weak hope that the profoundly weathered bones would yield any DNA but told Hodges and the BC Coroner's Service "we'll give it a go."

A lab at the British Columbia Institute of Technology made two attempts to draw out some DNA samples but came up inconclusive both times.

The trail seemed to end there, and that bothered Hodges even when he and some friends went on a fishing trip to a 20-foot by 30-foot cabin on Euchiniko Lake south of Vanderhoof. It's a wilderness paradise, a place to quiet the mind and unload one's stress.

One night at the campfire he vented about the mystery, and the third spark of fate popped like a hot coal.

"Out of the blue, one of our group said he knew a family who had a relative go missing on a bus trip back in the '60s," said Hodges.

"I laughed and said 'well, if you talk to that friend again, ask if he was missing his front teeth.' Four days later I got a call. Yes he was."

Hodges gave this cosmic gift to investigation leaders Stephen Fonseca and Dr. Bill Inkster of the Identification and Disaster Response Unit of the BC Coroners' Service.

"Suddenly we have spacial consistency, we have circumstantial consistency, we have an appliance that is consistent, it is all starting to come together," said Fonseca.

"But I was not comfortable with that. We have seen strange turns of case events, over the years, enough to keep me from allowing the circumstances to stand as totally

conclusive."

For the first time, the investigation team had a name to work with, and the DNA of his family.

The investigators had already failed twice to find any building blocks of life inside the barren bone, but that was searching for the most common variety of human cells - nuclear DNA. There was another kind, residing deeper within the microscopic folds of organic matter - mitochondrial DNA.

It is harder to find but it was the only shot they had left.

Fonseca and Inkster winced when the first mitochondrial search came up empty. The bone fragments were just too degraded.

Inkster said, "Now that mitochondrial testing has failed on these bones, I am ready to throw in the towel. But it all wasn't good enough for our Stephen, here. He insisted on one more thing."

Fonseca knew of a colleague of Dewar's at Simon Fraser University's Anthropology Department. Dr. Dongya Yang is one of the world's leading experts on an even deeper mitochondrial DNA technique used for studying the ancient bones of animals and humans. Yang was a busy man, the lab was not easily available due to university activity, but the professor figured out a schedule and a budget the coroners' service could work with.

"Dr. Yang did more than 82 re-amplifications on this DNA, he was like a dog on a bone as well," Inkster said. Fonseca added, "No other lab I've ever heard of would do that. That is a lot of work over and above."

Working with less than one gram of bone at a time, Yang discovered bits of DNA still in focus within the remaining bone fragments. Now they just needed a sample from Joris's family for comparison, but there was another obstacle. Mitochondrial DNA testing, unlike the nuclear kind, only reads the traits passed along the maternal line of genetics. A cross-reference had to be made with Joris's elder kin on his mother's side, if there even were any.

The investigation team had worked with Interpol before, so a call was made, and another and another until the phone rang in Holland on the desk of police officer Jan Tuinman in the town where, in 1930, a cow landed a jab on the jaw of a young farm boy.

"[Tuinman] knew the family," said Fonseca. "He really took an interest and made a lot of efforts to help gather credible samples. He found three living relatives, all elderly of course, from the mother's side of this man's family line. They were more than willing to provide a swab for us."

After three years of studying these mysterious remains, it was now a matter of simple comparison.

"The family was curious, I think, and held out hope," Fonseca said.

"I don't think they were frustrated by the delays. The family was very realistic about it. The analysis was complex and they remained a pleasure to deal with."

The microscopes ended all doubt. Confirmed: they had their match. The Ashcroft remains were indeed that of long lost Joris. It took 44 years but the mystery was finally solved.

"I feel very, very - how you say? - very happy. To see our work help the family... very satisfying," said Yang through broken English but intact sincerity. "This is a university research lab, but we try our best to help, in particular when the coroners' office has tried the other ways and can't get the answer. We can see this unique technique's potential to work with forensic samples. We feel it will be really useful to society."

For Hodges, who could potentially see Joris's family members in the grocery store lineup or the shopping mall on any given Prince George day, it was the most personal case he had ever worked on.

He was aware that they didn't get all their answers, like why Joris left all his personal effects and wallet behind when he got on the bus, or why Joris exited the Cache Creek bus depot before the connecting Greyhound departed, or how he ended up four kilometers down the road in a secluded field, or even the official cause of Joris's death. But they know the most important part of the mystery: where was he?

"This is the only time I've worked with family members and the only reason I did was because it was the only conceivable option we were left with of finally solving this case," Hodges said. "Each case has some kind of weird twist to it. It keeps the mind alive."

For one family, it also breathed new life into faded, cherished memories.

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