In a life punctuated by cycles of chaos, there was always one thing that 35-year-old Nathan Brosnan kept constant. “It didn’t matter if he was having a mental health problem, committing a crime, in prison or living normally,” says his sister, Claire Brosnan. “He was always in contact with someone.”
The youngest of four siblings – “the baby of us” – Claire says her brother fluctuated between mental illness and addiction. “He was happy and sad at the same time,” she says. “He would take the prescribed medication until he felt better and then stop taking it. And then he would self-medicate with illicit drugs and alcohol and fall into crime. And things would start. Then, in jail, he would take the prescribed medication again. So he got caught up in that circle.”
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In 2021, newly released from his last prison term, Nathan lived and worked in construction in Munruben, a town in the city of Logan, south of Brisbane. Claire says that while she knows her brother “was no saint, he did terrible things”, he was a skilled mechanic and metallurgist and, when he was well, took the job with ease.
On September 6, Nathan called his father for a regular check-in. Nathan’s youngest son lives with Nathan’s father, so this house was his most frequent point of contact. But since that brief, indescribable conversation, Nathan never called or answered the phone again. When Claire checked her bank account, she discovered that since she used an ATM in the neighboring suburb of Jimboomba on September 7, it had left her untouched. So far, police investigations have found no trace of him.
Nathan’s disappearance has plunged Claire and her family into immense grief.
“Until you experience it, you don’t understand the depth of pain when there are no answers,” she says. “You’re just stuck. It’s like walking through wet cement every day.” In the 11 months since he disappeared, Claire’s marriage broke up, her sister quit her job, and her parents became depressed.
Claire believes that the only explanation for her brother’s disappearance is that he is dead, that “something sinister” has happened. But while the family has had to complete the grueling chores required to accept this – like telling Nathan’s son “your father is gone” – they can’t have the rituals, like a funeral. “We could have a memorial for him, but we’re divided on that,” she says. “Because what if in another year his remains are found, and we have to go through it all over again?”
“There are no answers, there is no conclusion. Everything is open, and possibly staying that way.”
Like the Brosnans, many families of Australia’s 2,500 long-missing people are experiencing what’s known as “ambiguous loss”. According to forensic scientist and missing persons advocate, Associate Professor Jodie Ward, “ambiguous loss is a very unique type of trauma and is often considered by psychologists to be the most traumatic type of loss and the most uncontrollable form of stress. And that is because of not knowing.”
An effort to end ‘not knowing’
In July 2020, largely due to Ward’s advocacy, the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons was launched by the Australian Federal Police. An audit revealed that there were 750 sets of unidentified bones hidden in various forensic and mortuary facilities across Australia – some for many decades – and the program aims to connect these bones to a known missing person using new forensic techniques. Testing began in December 2021 and this week AFP announced it was extending the program to the end of 2023.
Ward, who leads the program, aims to end “not knowing” for as many families as possible. “We are here to use forensic science to provide as many answers as we can to the families of the long-lost missing. It might not be the answers they want or need, but it is an answer,” she says.
We’re taking a box of bones and trying to humanize them as much as possible.
Associate Professor Jodie Ward
State and territorial police decide which remains they want to present. As soon as a team arrives at the AFP Forensics Facility in Canberra, Ward and his team start looking for clues. Traditional methods such as examining dental records are used; and if DNA can be collected, the results are run through the national DNA database. If there are no matches here, Ward moves on to new DNA techniques — ones that have only evolved in the last decade.
A tool called forensic DNA phenotyping can estimate a person’s genetic ancestry and hair and eye color. “So, for example, if a leg bone turns up on a beach and we get a DNA profile, but there’s no match in our national DNA database, traditionally it was a dead end,” says Ward. But with this new technique, “I’m able to go back to the investigator and potentially say to him, ‘OK, we know it’s a missing person. We know she is of European descent and has blonde hair and blue eyes.’
DNA tools are combined with other techniques. If a skull is available, a new digital cranial facial recognition feature can take a three-dimensional scan and create a replica of the face – with the correct eye and hair color. Isotope testing of bones can reveal where someone lived in previous decades. “The things we eat and the things we drink and the air we breathe leave a signature on our bones,” says Ward. “We have what we call isotope maps where we have these chemical signatures plotted [to locations] across the world.”
“We’re taking a box of bones and trying to humanize them as much as possible,” says Ward. If police investigations hit a dead end, the image and story of this partially reconstructed person could be circulated in the media in hopes of sparking recognition of someone with a missing loved one.
The program also uses investigative genetic genealogy – a new field of forensic science in which DNA is uploaded into public genealogy databases to try to connect to a distant relative, as deployed in the US to capture the Golden State Killer.
So far, 36 samples have undergone specialist testing, with five matches made to long-missing persons. One case involved bones that washed up on a beach near Whyalla, South Australia, in 1977. After forensic scientists in Canberra extracted DNA, South Australian police located a living relative of whom they thought the remains might be. . Correspondence was made with the missing person, Mario Della Torre, 54, who disappeared in 1976.
Ward says it’s impossible to predict how many of the 750 sets of remains will be processed over the course of the program — DNA can’t always be extracted, and some could turn out to be animal bones, Aboriginal ancestral remains, or lost medical and medical bodies. . teaching specimens. But, she says, “every family wants to know that everything has been tried and tested to locate and identify their loved one and I don’t think we could have said that a decade ago.”
‘We could say goodbye’
For the Australian program to be a success, Ward says the families of missing persons need to participate by recording their DNA. So far, only 44 families have registered. “We can generate all this forensic data for one set of remains, but if I don’t have the right things to compare, we’re never going to identify each set of those remains,” she says.
Claire Brosnan says she and her family “are not keeping our hopes of finding one person. We are holding out hope that the remains will be found. At least we could say goodbye. That final goodbye.”
She would gladly provide DNA if it offered a chance to find Nathan, “even if we never find out what happened to him…
“When he wasn’t struggling with mental health and drug addiction, he was a good guy,” she recalls. “He was helpful. He was funny. He loved his family, he loved his children, he was protective of all of us.”