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A forensic dentist examines dental x-rays.

Forensic dentists helping ID human remains in RCMP investigations

To identify human remains, forensic dentists analyze the teeth and possibly other identifying structures of the skull using x-rays and other dental records. Credit: Shutterstock


When human remains need to be identified, and the usual ways of putting a name to the deceased have been exhausted, the RCMP often calls in an expert who can help – a forensic dentist.

Also known as forensic odontologists, these professionals compare dental records from before and after death to determine human identity.

"Every death certificate needs a positive ID," says Dr. William Blair, a forensic dentist based in Calgary. "And if we have teeth, there's a good chance we can make an identification."

The RCMP doesn't employ forensic odontologist, but work in collaboration with them as they support the provincial coroners or medical examiners when human remains need to be identified.

The work of odontologists includes the analysis of teeth, hard and soft tissues of the mouth, dental appliances, and possibly other identifying structures of the skull and lower jaw, using written records, x-rays and a visual examination.

Their efforts are used to identify individuals involved in criminal investigations, victims of mass disasters, and missing persons' investigations cases where identification is required. Forensic odonotologists also support the identification of individuals where visual identification or fingerprints may not be possible.

Blair recalls working on a mass-casualty bus accident in 1980, when 26 people died in a two vehicle accident, in southwestern Saskatchewan. He says there were challenges collecting the evidence from the deceased.

"At the beginning I was comparing teeth to the wrong dental records that I was provided," says Blair. "But when I had the correct records I was able to make the proper IDs."

Dr. Lowell Riemer retired from a private dental practice in Edmonton 13 years ago, but he has remained active as an odonotologist. On average, he performs about 20 forensic dental examinations annually.

"We work toward the goal of establishing a positive identification, but sometimes this is not supported by the evidence. Other conclusions to the comparison would be possible identification, insufficient evidence or, exclusion," he says.

Riemer testified at the 2016 murder trial of Shawn Wruck, who was ultimately found guilty in January 2017 of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Shannon Collins.

Riemer testified that he matched the teeth found in the remains to the dental records belonging to Collins, which were recorded prior to her death.

"What I remember most is what happened after I testified," he says. "Her family approached me afterwards and thanked me. Thanked me for standing up for their daughter and for their family and that was obviously a good feeling."

In British Columbia, a team of forensic dentists known as the Forensic Odontology Response Team, or BC-Fort, has taken the added step of voluntarily maintaining a Provincial Dental Databank. There are more than 1,100 forensic dental profiles of known missing persons in it.

"If a body of an unknown person is found in the jurisdiction of any police force in this province, their forensic dental information can be entered into the databank and compared against dental profiles of missing persons" says Cpl. Jennifer Sparkes, coordinator for BC RCMP's Southeast District Missing Persons Unit.

Sparkes acknowledges and praises the work of the forensic experts who maintain this databank.

"Without their commitment we wouldn't have this resource to help ID the missing persons," she says.

Police investigators and forensic dentists are part of a multi-disciplinary team that need each other to solve cases, according to Cpl. Gillian Dunn, a member of Alberta's Missing Persons Unit.

"It's up to the police officers to collect the evidence they need, so [forensic dentists] can perform and record their work so it can stand up to the test of the courtroom," she says. "We're all part of a team with the same goal, to find people and ID them."

She says families have ultimately come to count on those experts to provide closure.

"When we can identify remains, that offers an immense amount of comfort to families who've not known for years, or even decades, what happened to their loved one," she says.

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