A 61-year-old Northern Ontario man has been charged with first-degree murder in the grisly killings of two women in Toronto nearly four decades ago, with police saying advances in DNA technology helped them find him.
Joseph George Sutherland was arrested by provincial police in Moosonee, Ont., on Nov. 24 and brought to Toronto to face two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour.
Interim Toronto police Chief James Ramer announced Sutherland’s arrest at a Monday morning news conference.
Tice, 45, and Gilmour, 22, were both sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in their beds in August and December 1983. They lived just kilometres apart in the city core — Tice in the Bickford Park neighbourhood and Gilmour in a Yorkville apartment.
Gilmour was an aspiring fashion designer and the daughter of mining tycoon David Gilmour, and Tice was a family therapist and mother of four teenagers.
“As relieved as we are to announce this arrest, it’ll never bring back Erin or Susan,” Ramer said.
Gilmour’s brothers Sean and Kaelin McCowan also appeared at the news conference.
Sean McCowan thanked police for their work and said the family will “always wonder what could have been” if Gilmour had not been killed.
“This is a day that I, and we, have been waiting almost an entire lifetime for,” McCowan said. “It finally puts a name and a face to someone who for all of us had been a ghost,” he added.
“In a way, it’s a relief that someone has been arrested. But it also brings back memories of Erin and her brutal, senseless murder.”
WATCH | Erin Gilmour’s brother expresses his relief and sadness:
Detectives were able to link the two killings using DNA technology in 2000, Ramer said, with investigators determining the same man killed both women.
In 2019, police began using a technique called “investigative genetic genealogy” to identify the suspect’s family group. The process involves cross-referencing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA samples voluntarily submitted to services like 23andMe or Ancestry.ca and then uploaded to open-source databases.
Researchers worked backwards, building a family tree of the suspect’s relatives, said Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, lead investigator on the cold case. The same process was used to identify the man Toronto police say raped and killed nine-year-old Christine Jessop in 1984.
As they narrowed in on Sutherland, Smith said police served him with a warrant for his DNA to test directly against the samples recovered from the scenes.
Smith called the investigation the “most complex” case he’s worked in his 25 years on the force and credited the recent development to genetic genealogy. He said that Sutherland had never previously been a person of interest in the killings.
“If we hadn’t utilized this technology, we never would have came to his name,” he told reporters.
Smith said the Toronto Police Service has developed a rigorous process for using the technique and added that he is “very confident” the conclusions will hold up in court.
In 2021, Smith spoke in detail to CBC’s The Fifth Estate about the cold case investigation into the deaths of Tice and Gilmour.
WATCH | The Fifth Estate: The Gene Hunters
Smith said Sutherland was living in Toronto at the time of the killings and has lived in multiple other locations since. He said that police will be exploring any possible connection between Sutherland and other killings in the province in the intervening 39 years.
Smith added that Sutherland has a family of his own, and has extended family members living mainly throughout northern Ontario. He said a publication ban prevented him from disclosing any further details about Sutherland, who is scheduled to next appear in court on Dec. 9.
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, Smith said.
Under 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.
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