It’s like a scene out of a crime show.
Police and coroners really do rely on dental records to identify the dead when they otherwise can’t — maybe if the body was pulled from a fire, removed from a car after a bad crash or scooped out of a river.
And there’s been a nearly 400 per cent spike in requests for them in Ontario so far this year.
There were 48 requests between Jan. 1 and July 31 in 2023 compared to 10 during the same period in 2022, according to the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, which sends the requests to all dentists in the province.
That’s already more than 2022 and 2021, which saw 38 and 41, respectively.
But Ontario’s Chief Coroner told Global News it’s likely not because more people are dying.
Dr. Dirk Huyer said it’s because police are investigating more cold cases and requesting more records when they search for people who have gone missing.
“I know that some municipal police services and the (Ontario Provincial Police)… are doing much more work right now in trying to identify past unidentified deceased persons,” Huyer said, speaking from his office in Toronto.
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He also attributed the changes to coroners reaching out to the dental governing body instead of individual dentists as well as new missing persons legislation for police and more efficient workflows.
“The quicker we have those records, the quicker we can do the notification, the quicker we can let the families know, and the quicker they can move forward with their after-care plans,” he said.
He told Global News the records can provide key clues.
“There could be (an orthodontic) plate or an appliance or a bridge — those sorts of things might also be well documented in the notes,” Huyer explained.
As an example, he mentioned the Nation River Lady, who the OPP recently identified nearly 50 years after she went missing.
“That was one that we made all sorts of efforts to try to get dentists engaged with us,” he said.
Huyer told Global News his office sent out requests to Ontario and Quebec dentists – though they didn’t receive a response since the woman was American.
Overall, Huyer couldn’t completely account for the increase in requests. Statistics his office sent to Global News show the Provincial Forensic Pathology Unit (which, the spokesperson said, accounts for about 70 per cent of all autopsies in the province) is on track to receive fewer unidentified bodies this year versus 2022.
He said the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS) have also taken on many more cold cases.
Toronto police, as well those in York and Peel, which are nearby regions, said they couldn’t provide statistics and that the increase is likely due to officers requesting records earlier for missing persons cases.
Cst. Phil Gavin of the NRPS said they’ve had 174 missing persons investigations so far in 2023, with 25 still outstanding — historical and ongoing — though he added he expects the numbers to decrease. The Niagara police had just nine unsolved missing person cases in 2022.
He said the region sees a lot of people go missing because the city, with its nightlife and casinos, has many tourists and is next to a massive and fast-moving body of water.
And while he told Global News the police service doesn’t keep track of the dental records requests because individual detectives send them, they now ask for them after someone has been missing for 14 days.
He said it’s about being proactive.
“If it leads to (police finding a body of a missing person), we can close cases out faster and give some degree of closure for family members.”
He also said the records can help police find next of kin so officers can alert them.
The alerts have the patient’s name, date of birth, last known area of residence or case number, and who to contact in the police department.
Dr. Greg Olivieri, a dentist in Niagara Falls, said he hasn’t yet had any of the records police sought.
He wondered how helpful they are in solving very old cold cases, since dentists are required to keep the files only for 10 years from the patient’s last appointment or 18th birthday, whichever is longer.
He added, however, that many dentists “have rooms and rooms filled with files and never actually purge them or destroy them,” and that many are now digital — which won’t degrade like a 40-year-old x-ray will.
He said he reads each alert.
“It’s always a sort of a sad feeling because… typically someone is missing or presumed to be deceased.”