Cst. Michael Simpson is the lead investigator on a cold case murder investigation which recently successfully identified a man found dead near Dawson City in the 1980s. (Jim Elliot/Yukon News)

Cst. Michael Simpson is the lead investigator on a cold case murder investigation which recently successfully identified a man found dead near Dawson City in the 1980s. (Jim Elliot/Yukon News)

Forensic advances helped to identify man found dead near Dawson City

Remains found in 1980s eventually lead to identification of man believed killed in the Yukon.

Putting names to the unidentified dead and offering closure to their families is of great importance to the Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit and an advanced forensics lab that assists with the investigations.

Modern technology helped identify a man’s body found near Dawson City almost 40 years ago. It is the second Yukon cold case in recent months that has been brought to new light by identifying formerly nameless bodies. The more recently identified man was Theodore Frederick Kampf, a New Jersey resident who police believe was killed in July of 1981.

In May 1983, Kampf’s remains were found in a wooded area near the North Fork Dam and the Dempster Highway. According to the Yukon RCMP, an extensive investigation proceeded at the time but the dead man was not identified. The death was investigated as suspicious from early on.

The investigation into the man’s death was revived in 2019 when the newly-formed Yukon RCMP Historical Case Unit took it on.

Cst. Michael Simpson is a member of the Historical Case Unit who was the lead investigator searching for Kampf’s identity and the ongoing hunt for his killer. He said because cases of this nature require thousands of hours of time from investigators, some go unsolved. Simpson said he believes the unusually violent year of 2017, which saw eight homicides in the Yukon, was part of the push for the creation of his three-officer unit focused mainly on resolving older cases. The search for answers about what happened to Kampf decades ago was one of those cases.

“I worked on that file a little before, but last year I got some tips and information on possibly what happened and that kind of got me really working on the case,” Simpson said.

“The big, big question always was who he was.”

Simpson said a national and international search for comparisons with retrieved DNA was unsuccessful.

Further forensic assistance in the search for Kampf’s identity came from Texas-based Othram Inc. in the fall of 2020.

Othram had previously assisted the Historical Case Unit with the identification of Nathan Eugene Hine whose remains were found on the shores of Lake Laberge in 2016.

Michael Vogen, Director of Case Management for the Othram Lab, said the identification of Kampf and Hine were two of four or five cases in Canada that Othram has assisted with over the past year.

He said that generally in cases where identifying a deceased person is the goal, skeletal remains are sent to Othram for analysis.

Vogen explained that Othram’s lab was designed from the ground up with this kind of forensic analysis in mind. He said their lab was built around dealing with low DNA quality, contaminated evidence and other conditions that are less than ideal. In the case of the work that was done to identify Kampf, the age of the remains led to difficulty.

“Every day that a piece of evidence sits in a storage room on a shelf it continues to degrade,” Vogen said.

He added that some samples have had repeated DNA tests conducted on them earlier, leading to further degradation. Despite this, he said they were able to glean good samples from Kampf’s remains and elsewhere they have worked on cases that have been cold for more than 100 years.

With forensic-grade genome sequencing, Vogen said the lab can track tens or even hundreds of thousands of DNA markers compared to the approximately 20 markers most labs will be able to identify.

The greater specificity allows for people who are more closely related to the deceased to be found using a DNA database. This is important because according to Simpson, direct DNA comparison with one of the presumed relatives is an important part of confirming the identities of the deceased.

Vogen said with each case the lab works on they are refining their methods and are now revisiting cases they turned down as early as six months ago, because they can now make the most of the old or contaminated evidence. He said along with human remains Othram’s methods can be put to work on other DNA-bearing evidence, like sexual assault kits and stained clothing, both to help solve cold cases and to stop them from going cold in the first place.

Vogen added that Othram is seeing a lot of interest from law enforcement in reviving cold cases.

“It takes a while for police to buy in but once they see a win or two they are more encouraged and excited to go back and look at other cases,” he said.

Simpson said the work done by Othram on Kampf’s remains was a valuable tool which eventually led investigators to a second cousin of Kampf’s and a more direct DNA comparison helped to confirm the dead man’s identity, closing the book on the missing persons case and offering long-awaited answers to his surviving family.

Vogen said it is extremely rewarding to know that the work his lab does can offer closure to victims caught in the “ripple effect” of violent crimes. Simpson echoed the satisfaction with offering families closure but added that although he now has an identity to work with there are other unanswered questions which will now have to be answered. Among them are why Kampf’s body was concealed in a shallow grave near Dawson City, how the truck he was travelling through Canada in came to be found in Montana three months after his initial disappearance.

Simpson said a future break in the case will likely hinge on someone coming forward with information. Anyone with knowledge about Kampf or the events leading up to his death is asked to call the Yukon RCMP Historic Case tip line at (867) 667-5500 or email them at MDIV_HCU@rcmp-grc.gc.ca.

Vogen said Othram Inc. also requires assistance from the public to ensure their forensic lab can be used in as many cases as possible. The company maintains a website called dnasolves.com which profiles cases Othram has been involved in. The site contains details on how people can contribute their DNA to a database used exclusively to assist law enforcement with human identification investigations like the ones that identified Kampf and Hine. Vogen said financial donations, which allow Othram to expand its work to assist smaller rural police departments, are also accepted.

Contact Jim Elliot at jim.elliot@yukon-news.com