Sunday January 14 marks the 65th anniversary of the discovery of the Babes in the Woods. The murder of the two small children in Stanley Park is one of Vancouver’s most enduring murder mysteries and is part of Cold Case Vancouver: the city’s most baffling unsolved murders.
I caught up for dinner with my friend Laura Yazedjian this week. Laura is an identification specialist with the BC Coroners Service, which currently has 181 cases of unidentified remains on its books.
With one exception, the cases span more than 50 years—from 1962 to 2017.
Some are hikers who were lost and ultimately perished in the woods. Some were pulled from rivers and lakes around the province. Others were found in mountain crevices.
Old, young, male and female. Suicides, accidents and murders. Every case is an active investigation.
Laura’s oldest case is the Babes in the Woods, the two small children who were murdered in Stanley Park in 1947, their skeletons found six years later.
In recent years, the most promising lead in the search to discover their identities came from former VPD detective Ron Amiel. Ron who was born in 1930, lived with his grandmother in her rooming house at Bute and Davie Streets. When I interviewed him for Cold Case Vancouver, he told me that his grandmother knew Harry Cox, a signalman at the Prospect Point lighthouse, and after the war, Harry’s daughter and her two sons stayed in the rooming house. At some point the two little boys disappeared. (Their disappearance wasn’t explored at the time because detectives thought they were searching for a missing brother and sister. When DNA testing emerged in the 1990s it was discovered they were two brothers).
An investigation found that there was another son who died in the ‘70s, and could be a half-brother to the Babes in the Woods. In 2015 his body was exhumed and tested for mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed directly from the mother).
Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive—there wasn’t enough DNA for a match.
Sometimes Laura has a full body to work with, sometimes just a bone. In the case of the Babes in the Woods all she has are two tiny skulls. That’s a problem when deciding what to test, because DNA is finite–she has to be careful it doesn’t run out.
The other problem is that while new techniques are available, they are expensive. Each DNA test costs the coroner’s office $600, while mitochondrial DNA costs six times that.
“Testing for mitochondrial DNA is really expensive,” says Laura. “We have to send it out because the lab we use at BCIT doesn’t do it so there has to be a real possibility of a result.”
Before signing on as a coroner in 2013, Laura, whose specialty is forensic anthropology, worked in Bosnia for 10 years identifying some of the thousands of people who were massacred during the Balkans war and dumped in mass graves.
In 2015, the Coroner’s office sent 24 samples from cold cases to a lab in Bosnia that had advanced testing procedures. Twenty-one results came back and they closed seven cases.
“That was incredibly satisfying,” says Laura, adding that the lab at BCIT now uses some of the techniques developed by the Bosnian lab.
That will come in handy in the future, because while whoever murdered the two little boys in Stanley Park is likely long dead, Laura remains optimistic that one day we’ll be able to give them back their names.
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