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The sketch of a woman's face being held by a man sitting at a desk.

Small details help officers find missing woman

Patience and attention to detail allowed two RCMP officers to identify the remains of a woman missing since 1974 and return her to her family in New Brunswick. Credit: RCMP New Brunswick


Tenacity and a two-year investigation paid off for two RCMP officers searching for a missing Indigenous woman from New Brunswick.

In October 2017, Cpl. Merl Millier became aware of Martina Marion Sabbatis, a woman from Kingsclear First Nation who was last seen in the early 1970s but who had never been reported missing to police.

The following month, Millier opened a missing persons file for Sabbatis. Cpl. Peter Lach was assigned to lead the investigation.

"We had a woman who people did not know where she was — she was a missing person," Millier recalls. "She deserved to have police look for her."

"It was going to be a challenging investigation," says Lach, who remembers thinking the odds of finding out what happened would likely be slim. "But I followed every lead that I could, and that's what got us to where we are."

Millier and Lach didn't just need to find out if Sabbatis was missing. They first had to confirm her very identity.

Starting with basic information gathered from family members, they undertook extensive research on her, consulting everything from the Canadian Police Information Centre to the New Brunswick Archives. They compiled Sabbatis' vital statistics, description and details of when she was last seen.

Eventually, they were able to create a profile. In August 2018, Martina Sabbatis was added to the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR) website, also known as Canada's Missing.

Just over a month later, a critical tip came in through the website. A woman in Manitoba who reviews the site from time to time made a connection between the short report on Sabbatis and a case in Toronto from 1974.

The Toronto case involved a woman who had died, but little other information about her was known.

"She was buried under a name they thought was hers — a different name than Martina Sabbatis," says Millier. "But the descriptions were similar."

Lach contacted the Ontario Provincial Police Missing Persons Section to compare the two cases.

He reached out to Sabbatis' family in New Brunswick and arranged for DNA samples to be collected. He then obtained permission to have the body in Toronto exhumed and a comparison conducted.

In September 2019, the Ontario Forensic Pathology Services confirmed that the body buried in Toronto in 1974 was Martina Sabbatis. For Millier and Lach, the news was bittersweet.

"My first reaction was 'Oh, wow. That's great,'" says Lach. "But it was also sad because I had a window into her lifestyle, the world she was in at the time, and how no one knew anything about her when she died. Back then, there was almost no way someone looking for her could have found her. It wouldn't have been possible to make that link."

Millier is now going beyond the Martina Sabbatis file to ensure others who've gone missing can be found.

He started reviewing missing persons files in New Brunswick daily. He also reached out to NCMPUR for tips to ensure profiles are as complete as possible.

As a result, a team from NCMPUR travelled to New Brunswick to review cases and provide advice on publishing them and obtaining DNA. It was the first time such a review had been conducted, and it has led to best practices for NCMPUR for future reviews with other provinces.

"Making sure the case was published was the key to solving this case," says Millier. "In any investigation, the more information you have, the better. But any detail can make a difference. The smallest details can solve a case."

Arrangements are currently being made for the body of Martina Sabbatis to be repatriated to her home community for burial with her family.

"Everybody deserves to go home," says Lach. "And Martina Sabbatis gets to go home, too."

Both officers received an RCMP Commander's Commendation for their work.

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