MONTREAL — More than 50 years later, Isabel Marcotte still feels the pain of her sister's murder every day.
On Sept. 12, 1969, 14-year-old Teresa Martin got off the bus near her home in Montreal's north end after going to a movie with friends. Her body was found several hours later in a parking lot, carefully placed in a seated position with a message carved into her stomach.
Marcotte remembers every detail of that night and the next day: her sister not coming home to the bedroom they shared; her parents' growing concern; her father going to view the body and lying to his wife over the phone, saying it wasn't Teresa, because he wanted to tell her in person.
"When my Dad came home, I knew it was her," Marcotte said in a recent interview.
Nearly 53 years later, Teresa's case remains unsolved — and it's far from the only one.
The Quebec provincial police announced in 2018 that they were increasing their cold case squad from five officers to nearly 30 in order to tackle hundreds of cases dating back to the 1960s. On its website, the police list 292 cases of unsolved murders or disappearances where murder is suspected.
Since the squad was expanded, they haven't solved a single one.
"If your question concerns these files only, no file of this type has been resolved since 2018," Lt. Benoit Richard wrote in an email. Provincial police declined a request for a follow up interview.
Quebec's lack of success in solving cold cases is no surprise to John Allore, a former Quebecer whose sister Theresa Allore was found dead a few months after going missing in Quebec's Eastern Townships in 1978. Allore, who runs a crime website focusing on his sister's case and other unsolved Quebec homicides, says police have been "no help" in investigating his sister's death.
He said that in his experience, the squad takes a passive approach, waiting for people to call with tips rather than taking the initiative by interviewing witnesses or searching for evidence.
"I say that's not good enough — you need to be knocking on doors," Allore said. "They freaked when I said they need to be re-interviewing key witnesses. They said, 'We don't have the manpower for that.'"
Officially, cold case officers in Quebec are assigned full time to unsolved cases, but Allore said they appear to be regularly getting deployed to other projects. He said that in the past year alone, the last two officers working on his sister's case have been reassigned.
Marcotte said she became hopeful a few years ago when the provincial police asked her for a photo of her sister to put online on a dedicated cold case page. She, too, has become disappointed.
She said she has had trouble reaching officers assigned to her sister's case over the years. When she does, it's a "different person every time."
When she asked questions, she said officers sounded like they were merely reading from the file. "They never came to you and told you anything they were doing," she said.
This is happening at a time when cold cases elsewhere are being solved by advances in DNA extraction and a technique known as genomics, which allows police to match crime scene DNA to that uploaded to public databases such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe to search for family members.
The technique, which shot to prominence when it was used in the United States to help identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State killer, is now being used to solve cases on a "weekly" basis, according to Michael Arntfield, a Western University criminologist who is also a former police officer. DeAngelo pleaded guilty in 2020 to 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges from the 1970s and '80s.
Arntfield said that while the technique has been used a few times in Canada — most notably to solve the 1984 killing of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in Ontario — it is underused by many police forces in Canada.
He said the method, which allows police to compare a crime scene sample to every DNA sample that's been uploaded to a database — criminal or not — is proving highly successful and costs only a few thousand dollars, far less than the salaries of officers on a cold case squad.
While some police forces, including in Toronto, have begun using the technique, Arntfield said he can only speculate on why others appear slow to embrace it.
"My guess is it comes down to the usual Canadian hand-wringing over privacy interests," Arntfield said in a phone interview, "and the reluctance of law enforcement in Canada to, a) partner with a private sector lab that's dealing in people's genetic information and, b) pursue investigative avenues that a lot of people, I think wrongly, believe breaches their privacy interests."
Quebec provincial police said in their email that "technological advances, whether at the DNA level or of any other nature, are always taken into account by the team" and used when possible, but they did not elaborate.
Diane Seguin, the head of biology and DNA at Quebec's forensics lab — the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaries et de médecine légale — says Canadian and Quebec police forces are "just starting" to embrace genetic genealogy.
It's being used on a few "very high profile cases," she said. However, Canadian researchers are slowed down by the fact there are fewer Canadian DNA profiles uploaded to public databases compared with American profiles, she added.
She noted that case evidence built through the use of genealogy and family trees has not yet been fully tested in Canadian courts.
Allore believes Quebec provincial police may not be able to avail themselves of advanced DNA work in many cases because the police work of the 1970s and 1980s was so shoddy that evidence was often thrown away.
His 19-year-old sister's death was initially treated as a suspected drug overdose — even though she was found face down in a pool of water wearing only a bra and underwear with no evidence of drugs in her system.
He said police threw away his sister's clothing after five years and the only remaining piece of evidence is her wallet, which only survived because it was given to her family. Similar careless work has occurred in other cases, he said.
Seguin confirmed that evidence has not been retained in many cold case murders. In others, evidence has been contaminated — for example, by officers not wearing gloves — which makes it nearly impossible to extract usable DNA.
Marcotte nonetheless believes DNA evidence represents the best — and probably only — chance of finding her sister's killer.
She said that every few years, when she hears of another case solved, she calls the provincial police to ask them to try to find DNA on her sister's clothing. So far, she says she's received only vague responses.
Now in her 60s, she's still hoping for a resolution for the sake of her late parents, who were never the same after the murder, and for Teresa, the sister whom she remembers as shy, brilliant and kind to animals.
"I wish I still had a sister," she said. "It always stays on your mind."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press