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Man arrested in DNA-linked 1983 cold case murders of two Toronto women

TORONTO — A 61-year-old man living in northern Ontario has been arrested in the murders of two Toronto women who were found dead in their homes nearly four decades ago, police announced Monday, saying advances in genetic technology helped them crack
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Sean McCowan speaks as Kaelin McCowan looks on, brothers of Erin Gilmour, during a press conference in Toronto on Monday November 28, 2022. Toronto police say they've arrested a 61-year-old man in the DNA-linked cold-case murders of Gilmour and Susan Tice, who were found dead in their homes within months of each other almost four decades ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — A 61-year-old man living in northern Ontario has been arrested in the murders of two Toronto women who were found dead in their homes nearly four decades ago, police announced Monday, saying advances in genetic technology helped them crack the cold cases.

Interim police chief James Ramer said officers arrested Joseph George Sutherland in Moosonee, Ont., last week on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Erin Gilmour and Susan Tice.

Gilmour and Tice were found dead in their homes within four months of each other in 1983. Ramer said both women were sexually assaulted and stabbed to death.

"As relieved as we are to announce this arrest, it will never bring back Erin and Susan," Ramer said at a news conference.

Detectives were able to link the cases in 2000 using DNA recovered from the scenes, with investigators suspecting the same man killed both women, Ramer said. 

Tice was a 45-year-old mother of four who held a master's degree in social work and worked with disadvantaged children, and Gilmour was a 22-year-old aspiring fashion designer, police said. The two women did not know each other. 

Gilmour's brother, Sean McCowan, said the arrest gave the family an answer to a question they have asked for 39 years.

"It finally puts a name and a face to someone who for all of us had been a ghost," he said.

McCowan said while they never gave up hope, the family started to wonder, after so many years, whether his sister's killer would ever get caught. 

The recent arrest provoked a "full spectrum of emotions," McCowan said, as relief mixed with reflections on what Gilmour's life might have been like had it not been cut short by a "brutal, senseless murder." 

"Our family never wanted to give up on her," he said. "There was an incredible life to be lived that was taken away from her and the rest of us."

In 2019, genetic samples in the two cases were sent to a lab in Texas, with the results cross-referenced with samples uploaded to Family Tree DNA, a Houston-headquartered commercial genetic testing company, police said. 

From there, detectives worked backwards, building a family tree of the suspect's nearest common relatives, said Det. Sgt. Steve Smith. 

As they narrowed in on Sutherland, police said they served him with a warrant for his DNA to test directly against the samples recovered from the scenes. 

Smith said the same lab had helped the force in a different case, analyzing DNA samples police used to identify the man who likely killed nine-year-old Christine Jessop in 1984. Police said they would have charged the man with murder in that case, but a lawyer for the Jessop family said he died by suicide in 2015.

Smith said Sutherland had not previously been a suspect or person of interest in the cases of Gilmour and Tice. 

"If we hadn't had utilized this technology, we never would have come to his name," he said. 

Toronto police said they will now investigate whether Sutherland is connected to any other unsolved cases from the past 39 years. Detectives are also reaching out to police services in communities across the province where the man might have lived or visited, Smith said. 

Officers with the Ontario Provincial Police arrested Sutherland without incident in Moosonee. He was thought to be living in Toronto in 1983, at the time of the killings. 

Sutherland, who was brought from Moosonee to Toronto, remains in custody and is next set to appear in court on Dec. 9.

Smith said that out of the Toronto police's 700 cold cases, there are 43 where a DNA sample recovered at the scene is thought to belong to the offender. 

With support from a three-year provincial grant, Smith said police are able to put 15 Toronto cases and 15 cases from the rest of Ontario forward for DNA technology investigation each year. 

- with files from Sharif Hassan. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press

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