Still waiting for cold case answers

[attach]3876[/attach]Sean McCowan still remembers the December evening almost three decades ago when his sister died.

It was five days before Christmas, a year and a half after Erin Gilmour had moved from home on Oriole Parkway to a Yorkville apartment.

The Bishop Strachan School graduate had studied fashion at Ryerson and was taking her first steps towards a career in that field, working in a nearby boutique.

“It was a snowy evening,” McCowan recalls. “My mom and my stepfather had gone out for the evening. Erin had been at my mom’s house that day and she was heading out that evening for some Christmas-related function.

“I had stayed at her apartment the day before. I was supposed to see her the next day as well.”

But McCowan, 13 then, never would see his sister again. Nor would the beautiful, 22-year-old reach the Christmas event she planned to attend with a male friend. Shortly after she closed up shop at the Yorkville boutique where she worked, somebody raped and murdered Erin Gilmour and then vanished.

Just 35 minutes or so after she closed up Robin’s Knits, her friend arrived at her Hazelton Avenue apartment to find the door ajar. Inside he discovered her body.

McCowan didn’t find out he’d lost his sister until the next morning.

“I woke up the following day, on the 21st, and had a massive crowd of people in my room and had the news broken to me,” McCowan recalls.

Those hours would stay with him and his family forever.

[attach]3877[/attach]“It’s an absolutely earth-shattering event. It was a tough day, a tough week, a tough month. It was a tough year. And it’s still there.”

He is still surprised his family, especially his mother, was able to get through the ordeal.

“To this day, I’m not sure where she found the strength to guide us through it. The fact myself and my brother — he’s two years younger than I am — made it through without any real, real issues is a testament to my mom.”

Yet the unknown killer has remained a shadow throughout his life. Although 27 years have passed and McCowan now has a family of his own, does charitable work and is employed as an equity trader, the circumstances of his sister’s death remain an unsolved puzzle in the back of his mind.

“You don’t officially ever move on. It’s always a bit out of focus.”

Despite their efforts, Toronto police were never able to identify the culprit. Although Gilmour’s murder is considered a cold case, officers continue to investigate.

“The biggest challenge in the work is to find that new evidence,” says Detective Sergeant Steve Ryan, head of the cold case unit. “Cold cases go cold for a reason, so the challenge is to find new tips, new witnesses.”

Sometimes new technology helps the six-member unit move things forward. That happened a decade ago when it came to light that whoever killed Erin Gilmour wasn’t a novice murderer. In 2000, police used newly available DNA testing to link another murder to the Gilmour case.

[attach]3878[/attach]Just four months before, 45-year-old Susan Tice had been discovered in her apartment at 341 Grace St., a 10-minute drive from Gilmour’s apartment. The mother of four had recently moved to Toronto from Calgary after separating from her husband. After failing to make contact with her for several days, a relative became concerned and went to check on her, only to find her dead with several stab wounds.

The connection to Gilmour’s murder spurred investigators, who saw it as a major step forward in a case gone cold. But nothing else turned up. Then, in 2008, they launched a new homicide website and announced a $50,000 reward for further information in the cases.

Had anyone seen anything and not reported it? Did anyone remember having a wild suspicion at the time about who might have done it? All police needed was a name. With DNA evidence in hand, they would be able to conclusively test whether the person had committed the crimes. They even set about testing old suspects and persons of interest.

“We go out and every person that was named in those two investigations, every person who lived in the area who may not have been so law abiding, we try to track them down and get consensual DNA samples from them,” Ryan says. “And that’s what we’ve been doing the last few years now.”

But they still haven’t turned up a match. It’s a predicament that frustrates Ryan.

“We have DNA at both crime scenes,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than that. But you need a person to match that DNA. And every person we’ve investigated thus far — none of them match.”

The task may get more difficult with passing years, Ryan concedes.

“The longer time goes on, you run into witnesses who may have passed away or left the country,” he says. “That can be a challenge. It’s something we haven’t run into yet.”

[attach]3879[/attach]It’s also possible, Ryan says, that whoever killed Tice and Gilmour is dead himself, in prison for another crime, or far away now. To that point, he notes, it’s strange there was never another crime linked to the two murders through DNA evidence.

Still, he remains confident in the existence of the information he needs to lead him to the person whose DNA would match that found at the two crime scenes: the killer.

“Somebody out there knows who committed those two murders and that’s who we’re looking for,” Ryan says. “Twenty-five years have passed — they’ve gone on with their lives and they just don’t want to get involved.”

He’s hopeful someone who didn’t report a suspicion years ago, for whatever reason, will have a change of heart.

“What I like to say in cases like this is, I ask people to take their mind back 27 years ago to the water cooler or dinner table, to when those two murders happened,” he says. “In a conversation perhaps someone might have said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if person X had done it, or my creepy uncle, or so-and-so.’ That’s what we’re looking for: just a name.”

McCowan, who stays in touch with Ryan, shares that belief and has a message for anyone who might know something that could help police find the person who took his sister Erin away.

“It is something that’s been haunting our family for 27 years now,” he says, adding that finding the killer “would bring closure, not just to my immediate family, but to friends, relatives, friends of Erin’s — my mom most importantly.

“It would be a life-changing event, as the original crime was.”