Police cleared suspect’s brothers before arresting him for grisly 1983 killings of 2 Toronto women

The man charged in the gruesome 1983 killings of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour in Toronto was arrested after police eliminated his four brothers from their investigation of the cold cases, The Fifth Estate has learned.

Crime scene DNA and genetic genealogy helped police narrow suspect down to 1 of 5 brothers

In the afternoon of Nov. 24, OPP officers and Det. Const. Andrew Doyle from the Toronto Police Service arrived at the Moosonee, Ont., home of 61-year-old Joseph George Sutherland.

They were there to serve him with a DNA warrant to obtain a blood sample they planned to compare against the DNA from the crime scene of the unsolved 1983 killings of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour in Toronto.

Typically, police will attempt to surreptitiously collect DNA from a suspect and then match it against the crime scene evidence before executing a DNA warrant to confirm what they already suspect to be true.

In this case, police had tried but been unable to surreptitiously collect Sutherland's DNA. In a rare move, they managed to convince a judge that it was reasonable to believe that Sutherland had committed the killings, and that his DNA could help prove it.

  • Watch "Cold Case Ghost" on The Fifth Estate on CBC Gem

Sutherland is from a family of five brothers. The Fifth Estate has learned that police had already cleared the other four, and the process of elimination led them to Sutherland's door. He was arrested and has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Police had employed a technique known as investigative genetic genealogy. It involves entering suspect crime scene DNA into public DNA family tree websites to identify if not the suspect themselves then distant relatives from whom police and genealogists can eventually connect back to a suspect.

Erin Gilmour's brother told The Fifth Estate that his family knew police had narrowed the search to one family, which made the waiting process that much more difficult.

"I think it [was] just … driving us crazy. Because we … know that you've got it … down to three people," said Kaelin McCowan.

Det. Sgt. Stephen Smith from the Toronto Police Service's cold case unit declined to comment about the warrant or any other details related to the arrest.

"We're looking forward to the judicial process and being able to test the process of IGG [investigative genetic genealogy] in a Canadian courtroom," said Smith.

If the case proceeds to trial, it will be the first time a person has been tried in Canada after being arrested from genetic genealogy research.

In 2020, genetic genealogy was used to identify a killer in the case of Christine Jessop, a nine-year-old girl who was abducted from a small Ontario town and killed in 1984. However, the suspect died in 2015 before charges could be laid.

'I literally burst into tears'

Erin Gilmour, 22, was killed on Dec. 20 1983. Her mother, Anna McCowan-Johnson, died two years ago, but she is survived by her father, David Gilmour, and her two younger brothers, Kaelin McCowan and Sean McCowan. Both brothers were present at the police news conference announcing the arrest this week.

"[Det. Steve Smith] called … and I picked up the phone and he goes: 'We got him,'" said Sean McCowan. "I literally burst into tears … there was a lot of swearing and a lot of happy and a lot of tears.… It was the best phone call I've ever had in my life."

McCowan said the first person he contacted after that was his younger brother, Kaelin.

"I was stunned. I mean, we knew that there was sort of action happening and leading into the narrowing down … exactly who this was," said Kaelin McCowan. "I think knowing a name and seeing a face was like … a huge, huge moment."

He thought back to his mom and what she must have felt losing her only daughter.

"For my mom to have gone through this — and I know that as soon as I had kids — it was like, I can't imagine dealing with this … losing a child like that."

'This was like torture'

Susan Tice's family did not attend the news conference. Tice had four children: Ben, John, Christian and Jason.

Christian, her only daughter, was 16 at the time of her mother's death. She was away at camp in Calgary when her mother was killed in Toronto on Aug. 17, 1983.

She recalls the moment she first saw Sutherland's photo shown at the police news conference on Monday.

"The most shocking thing for me was how young he was [in 1983]," said Tice. "Of course I'm so relieved. And there's a part of me … doing a little happy dance. There's joy."

While a criminal charge is not a conviction, Tice is convinced police have arrested the right person. She said she did a fist bump on her mother's photo in her home and said out loud, "We finally got him for you."

"That's the thing that's been sitting with me for 39 years is that the guy got away with it."

But she said it's important to her that people don't lose sight of how brutal the killings were.

Police say both women were sexually assaulted before they were killed.

"Knowing that their last moments in life were so filled with terror … let's not beat around the bush, this was like torture. It's probably the scariest way that we have as women to go," said Tice.

The first person Tice called after receiving the news of the arrest was her mother's best friend, Anne Chisholm.

Met as teenagers

Chisholm, 85, and Susan Tice were the same age. They met at camp when they were teenagers.

Chisolm said she learned of the arrest from watching the news on TV. And while a trial and potential conviction are far from certain, the first thing she thought was: "They got the bastard."

"It really irritates the hell out of me that she didn't have all these 40 years that I had," said Chisolm. "That we didn't grow old together because I had a great life and it's terrible that she didn't."

The day after his arrest, Sutherland was flown to Toronto, where he is being held in custody without bail.

Sutherland has his first court appearance via video on Dec. 9 at the Old City Hall courthouse in Toronto.

WATCH | Inside the 39-year search for a suspect in the brutal killings of 2 women:

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