Eleven years ago Susanne Tam, a psychologist for the Howe Sound School District, disappeared in Whistler. Partial remains were found by a hiker in 2005, more nine years after the 33-year-old Tam was last seen, but it took recent advances in DNA testing before the remains were identified.
The B.C. Coroners service announced the positive identification on Monday.
Early in its investigation, the Whistler RCMP collected DNA samples from Tam’s family, which were stored for possible future testing.
Initial DNA testing was unsuccessful as the remains were too degraded.
Recently, using an advanced forensic technique called mitochondrial DNA analysis (mtDNA), Dr. Dean Hildebrand of the British Colombia Institute of Technology was able to determine a positive mtDNA match with Tam.
Mitochondrial analysis is more sensitive than regular DNA testing and is sometimes used in cases where the remains are degraded and not suitable for standard testing. Standard techniques analyze DNA extracted from the nucleus of a cell. mtDNA technology analyzes DNA from a different part of the cell, the mitochondrion.
Tam was last seen on July 13, 1996. Her vehicle was located July 15 at the Rick’s Roost mountain bike trail. Articles of her clothing were also found at Rick’s Roost and on the Nicklaus North golf course.
Doug Courtice, superintendent of the school district at the time, issued an open letter to parents, staff and community members of the school district. Help lines for parents and staff were established to help people deal with Tam’s disappearance and a Tragic Event Committee was also formed to provide direction and support.
No other signs of Tam were found until Sept. 27, 2005, when a hiker found the partial remains near Alpine Meadows.