GIVING VOICE TO THE DEAD
By Carla Garret
By Carla Garret
A Western University PhD candidate is digging up new leads in Canadian cold cases by looking into the social environment of victims’ skeletal remains.
Using theories and techniques as a biological anthropologist, Renee Willmon is proving how social science is emerging as a viable method in criminal investigations.
“I want to tell the stories of the dead – how they died. I access the past and give a voice to those who no longer can speak for themselves,” she says.
Her work is part of a campus-wide Cold Case Society at Western, created by cop-turned-professor Dr. Michael Arntfield. His multi-disciplinary method of investigating cold cases has garnered international attention and landed a TV series
“We are trying to increase the role that social sciences and research in those areas can bring to investigations,” says Willmon. “Forensic science has gotten so much attention by applying techniques used in biology or chemistry to forensics, but a lot of the social sciences don’t get applied in the same way and I think a lot can be gained from that respective.”
It’s not “sexy science,” she says, but is a tangible component of traditional forensic investigation.
Like an archaeologist uncovers information about how earlier civilizations lived, Willmon uses this same technique to dig into details about perpetrators – and investigators.
“The investigator themselves also plays a role, in that they decide what to record, what becomes evidence and how that evidence is interpreted,” says Willmon, adding it’s important to understand how data may have been influenced at that time.
Willmon brought about new revelations in a 1969 murder after analyzing a four-decades-old crime scene on the show.
The body of 19-year-old Lynda White was found in a shallow grave in a bush lot five years after she went missing from London, Ontario. Her body was fully skeletonized and one of her arms was missing.
By applying knowledge of the decomposition process, probable animal activity and other environmental factors it was determined that her body was not at that site for the full five years she was missing.
“It also actually made the connection to another case much more striking,” says Willmon.
In that case, the body of a young woman was found unburied in a landfill site. The coroner suggested then that the body had likely not been there the entire time she was missing.
“Renee’s contributions have been outstanding and underscore the value of anthropologists and archeologists to police investigations for decades,” says Arntfield, host of To Catch A Killer.
“Renee’s role is to take that type of field work outsourcing and crime scene consulting to the next level, and conduct analyses of dump sites and crime scenes as archeological sites in earnest.”
Although White’s body was no longer in the bush lot, Willmon’s analysis of the scene assisted in bringing new details of the perpetrators actions and engagement with the victim, thus furthering the comparison between similar murders.
This process, known as “mortuary archeology,” will be covered in a new scientific journal Willmon and Arntfield are creating called
Similar to a polygraph, Willmon says her evidence is not admissible in court but can help further an investigation.
“It’s difficult to quantify, but methods are emerging,” she says.
Willmon joined the Cold Case Society in 2011 as a way to maintain her interest in forensics, while she completes her PhD in anthropology at Western.
Fascinated with Nancy Drew as a young girl, Willmon’s shelves now hold books about dental moulds, analysis of burned human remains and Grays Anatomy.
Her office space is adorned with skulls, skeletons and various other artifacts from previous civilizations.
Willmon wanted to be a detective, but wasn’t interested in the “typical” career path of a police officer.
She now works as a consultant and has assisted with investigations for the OPP, Toronto Police and Hamilton Police. Her expertise also took her into the US where she worked alongside coroners at the Miami-Dade Medical Centre.
Willmon would like to see criminal investigators work more collaboratively with civilian experts to provide additional insights into cases otherwise missed in traditional police work.