Judy Peterson has spent the last 25 years looking for her daughter and while her efforts have been unsuccessful, she hopes her work will bring solace for others whose loved ones have disappeared.
Lindsey Nicholls was 14 when she went missing August 2, 1993, near Comox, B.C.
Since then, Peterson has spent 18 years lobbying the federal government for the creation of a DNA databank of missing persons, hoping that a match between DNA evidence collected in crime scenes across the country might reveal some clues about her daughter.
Peterson entered her daughter’s DNA into a provincial database operated by the coroner’s service. She knew that could be a critical step in finding her, even though it felt like she was giving up the search.
It’s also when she started looking into the creation of a national database for missing persons, which was created in mid-March.
“I don’t think I understood that I could have any effect at the time, but I did in the end,” she said in a telephone interview from Sidney, B.C.
Lindsey had been missing for five years when Peterson was told she could not enter the DNA into existing national databases for crime scenes and convicted offenders because of privacy concerns. At first, Peterson thought the privacy issue was because Lindsey might still be alive and making her DNA publicly available would violate her privacy.
When she tried again to enter Lindsey’s data in 2000, she made what she said was a “horrific” discovery.
“It was only then I understood that the DNA databank doesn’t exist because of privacy. And I went ‘Oh you’re kidding me.’ ”
Peterson provided a sample of her DNA to the BC Coroners Service in the hope of finding a link to her daughter. The coroner confirmed there were no matches to its unidentified bodies.
She said once B.C. was crossed off the list it only made sense to keep searching for matches across the country. Unfortunately for Peterson, no national database existed, and the RCMP couldn’t find a DNA match.
But even that negative result produced a positive for the mother.
“That was wonderful to know, and at least I know that going forward, if something does get submitted, I will know.”
Her campaign included putting up three billboards in two different spots across the Comox Valley, inspired by the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”, a story about a mother angry with police inaction in solving her daughter’s murder.
Peterson said she’s had comments on her Facebook page and calls from other parents who lost children, thanking and congratulating her for the tireless work she has done in a community bonded by loss.
“Working on the legislation was cathartic because the case would get to a certain point, and I felt like there was nothing more I could do,” she said.
“I could only go so long without doing something, and then I’d start letter writing and it made me feel better, made me feel like I was doing something to search for her.”
Beyond finding missing people, Peterson said she hopes DNA samples from the two original databases will be connected with the new one for missing persons.
“It’s not just comfort for the families of the missing, it’s the fact that if we can connect a crime scene to more than one victim, then whoever they arrest for that crime can be kept in jail and off the streets and make everybody safer.”
The national DNA databank was introduced in 2000, built from two separate databases: the convicted offender index, and the crime scene index. The first database is made up of samples obtained from criminals convicted of crimes ranging from murder to human trafficking, and the second database is built using DNA profiles found through crime scene investigations.
When legislation creating the databases was proposed in 1998, it included collecting DNA from missing persons and unidentified human remains, Peterson said, but those databases became hurdles to passing the law.
“The missing persons index was the most contentious issue, so the government at the time pulled it out so that the crime scene and convicted offenders (indices) could go through,” said Peterson.
Cpl. Jason Jenkins of the Comox Valley RCMP has led the investigation into Lindsey’s disappearance since 2014 and he said the creation of the database brought a renewed vigour to a woman who’s placed a great deal of trust in him.
“When these things come together for us you can see that life in her, the excitement in her, and that hope that we strive to keep alive and get some answers for,” he said in a phone interview.
The RCMP in Ottawa declined to speak about the missing persons DNA databank. In a written statement, the department said it could not comment on the specifics of Lindsey’s case, but more coroners, medical examiners, and investigators across the country should submit DNA samples to make the databank more useful.
Peterson said she believes the work she’s done in pushing for the creation of the database is helpful for all Canadians, regardless of what happens in her daughter’s case.
“Just knowing that if something is found either in a crime scene or in human remains anywhere in Canada, we (the families) would know.”