Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Snowtown Murders

Search for Identities

The comparatively new discipline of DNA profiling offered the best hope for positively identifying the badly decomposed bodies. Fortunately, Taskforce Chart's information suggested specific missing persons whose identities — through blood relations — could be verified. DNA matching is an expensive process, each test costing just under $300 Australian. It relies on police being able to trace the relatives of the suspected deceased, who can then provide samples for microscopic comparison.

DNA "identification" of an offspring means that a subject is 20 million times more likely to come from the sampled parents than from anyone else. Those are very persuasive odds, and the testing procedure itself is relatively fast. What can hamper the matching process is the time and difficulty involved in locating and sampling living relatives. Parents, for example, who may not have shared their lives — or geography — for many years. But the process' strength lies in the resilience of human DNA. Whether a body has been buried, burnt, or, in the case of the Snowtown vault corpses, immersed in acid, that which survives is often substantial. Bone marrow, blood, and even hair follicles can continue — despite being pickled in corrosive fluid — to hold enclosed DNA in the nuclei of their cells. Regardless of the overall state of the body or body parts, this human blueprint can still be extracted, mapped and compared.

In the first week of June, with DNA cross matching under way, police lined up 2 more properties for comprehensive searching. Again, one lay in the Riverland near the Murray River, another in the State's mid-north, in the wheat belt that includes Snowtown. While efforts to match the victims' identities continued in the laboratory, others worked on their behalf in a different way. The Christians of Snowtown held a poignant "combined churches" service on June the 7th in the local hall. Less than 60 people attended, representing Uniting, Lutheran and Anglican churches. They lit 8 candles, one for each of the vault's victims. As rain pattered on the roof, the group prayed for both the dead and those accused of killing them.

Farmhouse searched for other bodies
Farmhouse searched for other

By the following day, 7 of the 8 bank vault victims had been identified. The two bodies exhumed from the Salisbury North property had yet to be DNA matched. Yet a picture of past events that had shaped the disturbing case was emerging, one that police felt confident enough to share — in snatches — with the waiting media and public.


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