BEHIND THE CRIMES: Investigators conduct forensic dig in hunt for girl missing since 1967

Ella carefully sniffed a pile of soil, working hard to detect any scent of human decomposition. The highly trained cadaver dog is part of a larger team that was on the ground earlier this month in rural Acton, searching for traces of Marianne Schuett, a 10-year-old Kilbride girl who was abducted on her way home from school in 1967.

While 54 years have passed, the volunteer group — led by — remains hopeful their efforts will bring closure for a grieving family once and for all.

It didn’t take Ella long to find what she was looking for. She sat down beside the soil and barked excitedly — her method of indicating that she discovered the human scent she’s trained to pick up. The forensic dig team clapped and cheered.

“That’s what we were hoping was going to happen. The dog has picked up the scent of human decomposition,” said Linda Gillis Davidson, a former RCMP inspector who headed up the search with retired Peel police forensics investigator Gord Collins.

“Through the soil samples, we will be able to find DNA. Somebody’s family member is coming back to them — we just don’t know whose yet. We’re hoping it’s Marianne because the evidence brought us here.”

By the end of the weekend, three areas at the site were verified to contain the smell of human decomposition by the cadaver dogs, and 20 to 30 soil samples were taken for testing. No bone fragments were found.

FORENSIC DIG

Forensic anthropologists and volunteers search a wooded area in Halton Hills for any trace of Marianne Schuett, who disappeared in 1967. The Sept. 11 effort was led by two retired police investigators. – Graham Paine/Metroland

Results from the lab are expected in three to six weeks. If the DNA found doesn’t point to Marianne, Gillis Davidson said she and Collins will look to other missing person cases in the area to hopefully find a match.

Although Marianne has been missing for more than five decades, it’s safe to say she hasn’t been forgotten. The investigative team had to turn down hundreds of volunteers, who were eager to help in any way possible at the forensic dig on Sept. 11. Donations of food also poured in throughout the search.

Those who did attend — including forensic anthropologists — meticulously dug through the soil in one-metre by one-metre squares, gently scraping the earth with trowels, brushing the material into a dust pan, then placing it in a bucket.

Once an area was fully searched by excavating down at least 10 centimetres or more, the soil and vegetation was screened twice, and carefully set aside under tarps for the dogs to sniff. Every step of the process was carefully documented.

Collins said the work was conducted exactly like a police crime scene — something he knows plenty about. The retired investigator grew up in Burlington and said he was about 14 years old when Marianne went missing.

“I never forgot that little face, and that’s motivated me all along,” he said.

SCHUETT

Marianne Schuett, 10, was last seen on her way home from school in 1967. – Schuett family photo

Others who were forever touched by the beloved youngster’s disappearance also came out to volunteer at the dig, like Bev Mehlenbacher (nee Jackson), a schoolmate of Marianne’s who still lives in Kilbride to this day.

“I was a young girl when it happened and I always remember it,” she said, recalling the hundreds of cars that flooded her village in search of Marianne, and her mother making sandwiches to feed the masses. “I would just like to see closure for the family.”

Closure is certainly something the Schuetts have long been hoping for — hopes that have been dashed so many times over the years by potential leads that ultimately led nowhere.

was among those who rolled up their sleeves to help out with the dig. He was a mere six years old when his big sister went missing, meaning this was the first time he had such a hands-on experience in the search for answers.

“It would be nice if this turns into something significant, but we don’t know yet,” he said.

“The biggest thing to me is the amount of people who stepped up to volunteer. It’s so many years later, and people still care. It restores your faith in humanity.”

To date, the only physical evidence ever located in was a blue sneaker, similar in size and colour to the shoes worn by the young girl, found in the Speyside area near Highway 25.

The person considered to be the prime suspect in the case took his own life in January 1991, several months after Halton police investigated his possible involvement in Marianne’s abduction.

The man had been living in Burlington with his wife and children when Marianne disappeared. Halton police have previously confirmed the suspect was jailed in 1972 for the attempted abduction of a 17-year-old girl on Hampton Heath Road in Burlington. The same suspect was also investigated for alleged sexual assaults of two Ancaster girls aged three and nine between 1971 and 1978.

Gillis Davidson said the research she and Collins conducted, which included everything from interviews with the family and retired police to information from a jailhouse informant, placed this suspect within the vicinity of two sites in rural Halton Hills — the one recently searched near Highway 25 and 22 Side Road, and another location nearby that will be investigated further at a later date.

Information gathered by the duo has also led them to believe this man was involved in several other missing person cases across southern Ontario.