A missing person case in Prince Rupert from 1981 has finally been laid to rest.
Robert (Bob) William Johnston went missing when he was only 19-years-old. In 1995, hikers found human remains on the south side of Mount Hays.
The evidence was sent to the BC Coroners Service, and the Johnston family donated DNA to see if the remains belonged to their son but the results were inconclusive.
Johnston’s sister, Ann Marie Sexton, has been put through a wash of emotions over the years, waiting to find out what happened to her brother.
“When they weren’t able to create a profile that was disappointing. It was reopening a wound and then not having that closure, not even a Band-Aid to put on it,” Sexton said.
The Johnston family used to live in Terrace, where Sexton remembers her brother would disappear for a few days to trek in the mountains — without telling a soul.
When the family moved from Terrace to Surrey, and Sexton moved to Cold Lake, Alberta, her brother moved to Prince Rupert on his own.
He often spoke about living off the grid, and when he disappeared Sexton said it was always in the back of her mind that was what he did.
Fourteen years later when the hikers found the remains on Mount Hays, Sexton said that her family thought that it might be Bob.
“He loved the outdoors and he loved being in the bush, he loved hiking. It’s not surprising where he was found because that was one of his favourite places,” Sexton said.
Another 22 years later with improved technology and lab technicians, new testing proved that the DNA was a positive match for Johnston.
“It’s been worked on since 1995, it’s just taken that long for technology to catch up,” said Laurel Clegg, the manager of the Identification and Disaster Response Unit. The special team works on difficult unidentified remains cases and has a list of 176 individuals they are trying to identify.
As technology improved the unit tried in 2000 and again in 2003 to extract DNA from the remains found at Mount Hays.
“Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. It’s just the nature of how the remains are found, what they’re exposed to: water, weather, cold, heat, all that affects the ability to extract DNA from bone,” Clegg said adding that the unit had to let it go at that point.
In a last ditch effort, the unit decided to send samples from 24 difficult-to-identify individuals, including the bone samples found at Mount Hays — to Bosnia.
“This laboratory in Bosnia is set up as a result of the war where they became very good at extracting the DNA out of remains that have been exposed to weather and so forth. They’re one of the best in the world at doing this,” Clegg said.
The Bosnian International Commission of Missing Person (ICMP) laboratory was created in 1996 after the conflict ended in the former Yugoslavia.
The organization was tasked to identify more than 40,000 people who were reported missing between 1991 until 1995.
ICMP’s reputation grew internationally and with additional funding from governments around the world Bosnian staff took on missing person cases from the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Libya after the Gaddafi regime fell in 2011.
It costs about $400 to $500 per sample. Clegg said they always go through B.C. labs first, but in some cases they don’t have any more options.
The BC Coroners Service was able to get 23 profiles out of the 24 samples, and made at least four identifications — Johnston was one of them. Clegg will now work toward identifying the other 170-odd cases.
The cause of Johnston’s death is still unclear and the coroner will continue to pursue that information until it is deemed undetermined.
When the Johnston family was contacted by the BC Coroners Service 35 years of grief hit them all at once, Sexton said.
“You can’t even describe what a mix of emotions that was being so relieved that we had closure but having to say goodbye,” she said.
“In no matter what state he came home in, he came home.”