‘Septic Tank Sam’: Canadian police ID victim of 1977 torture murder using DNA, genetic genealogy

ALBERTA, Canada — Canadian authorities have identified a man found tortured and murdered inside an Alberta septic tank in 1977 as an Indigenous man taken from his family as a child.

The man known as “Septic Tank Sam” for 44 years was identified as Gordon Edwin Sanderson, of Edmonton.

“He was known as Gordie to his family and friends,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff Sgt. Jason Zazulak said Wednesday at a virtual news conference. Zazulak oversees the Alberta RCMP’s Missing Persons Unit, as well as the Historical Homicide Unit

RCMP officials said Sanderson, who was born in Manitoba in October 1950, appeared to have been about 25 years old when he died. His killing is one of the most horrific in Alberta’s history.

Editor’s note: This story contains disturbing details of a violent crime.

A torturous death

Sanderson’s badly decomposed body was found April 13, 1977, when a man named Charlie McLeod went scavenging for the pump in a septic tank on the abandoned farm he and his wife, Mavis, owned near Tofield, about 35 miles east of Edmonton.

McLeod instead found Sam, who had been wrapped in a yellow bedsheet and bound with nylon rope.

The McLeods drove to the Tofield RCMP detachment, where Sgt. Ed Lammerts, now retired, and another officer accompanied them back to the farm. According to multiple accounts of the case, the Mounties used old ice cream pails to scoop the liquid from the tank and begin recovering the body.

“Upon examination, it was noted that parts of the body were mutilated and that the victim was shot twice with a .32-caliber semi or automatic weapon,” authorities said in a statement.

News reports over the years indicated that Sam, aka Sanderson, had been beaten, tied down and tortured with a butane blowtorch and lit cigarettes. Evidence of the burns was found on his tattered clothing, including the sole of one of his socks.

Sam had also been sexually mutilated, most likely with farming shears. He was then shot at least twice in the head and chest and dumped, headfirst, into the abandoned 6-foot-deep tank.

“They had to be cruel and vindictive,” Lammerts later told author Peter B. Smith for his book, “CSI Alberta: The Secrets of Skulls and Skeletons.” “To impose that much pain on someone who was most likely alive is extremely bizarre. It’s amazing what some people will do to other people.”

Sam’s body, which had been covered with a massive amount of quicklime, was too decomposed to be identified. Experts theorized that he’d been in the septic tank for at least a year.

In addition, the mutilation of his body was so severe that it took time for the medical examiner to determine the victim’s sex.

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Investigators reported that the man was likely Indigenous, somewhere between 23 and 32 years old and about 5 feet, 10 inches tall. He was wearing jeans, a blue Levi’s shirt, gray work socks and imitation Wallabee shoes.

It was one of those brown shoes that McLeod first spotted when he discovered Sam. McLeod’s now-65-year-old daughter told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that her parents, who have since died, never liked talking about the gruesome discovery.

“I always thought that (the killer) would be somebody local, because they would have had to know that the septic tank was there,” said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld.

Lammerts agreed, telling author Smith that the killer or killers likely thought no one would ever look for the body on that abandoned farm. If not for Charlie McLeod’s frugal nature, they may have been right.

A long, unsuccessful search

Over the years, authorities interviewed many possible witnesses and tracked down thousands of leads, but got no closer to identifying Sam or determining who took his life, RCMP officials said. Despite finding that he’d undergone extensive dental work, forensic dentists were unable to identify Sam through his teeth.

They were able to tell, however, that Sam had suffered a serious illness around the age of 5, an illness that left its mark on his teeth and bones. Detectives believed he was possibly an itinerant worker passing through Alberta at the time of his murder.

For more than four decades, Sam lay nameless in a pauper’s grave in Edmonton.

Hope was renewed in 2018 when California cold case investigators used a new DNA technology — forensic genealogy — to identify the notorious Golden State Killer, who killed at least 13 people and committed at least 50 rapes and more than 100 burglaries between 1973 and 1986. Joseph James DeAngelo, 75, pleaded guilty last year to 13 counts of murder and kidnapping and was sentenced to multiple life terms in prison.

The bombshell DNA technique, through which investigators use a suspect’s DNA and public genealogy databases to create his family tree, has helped solve dozens of cold cases in the three years since DeAngelo’s arrest.

“We in the Serious Crimes Branch saw the potential of this new technique and were also mindful of exploring this in a manner consistent with the Canadian rules of evidence and investigation,” Zazulak said.

In 2019, the Alberta RCMP Missing Persons Unit, which had by then launched a national DNA program to identify unidentified remains, sent a partial DNA profile from Sam to the new database, but had no luck.

Last year, cold case detectives turned to Othram Inc. in the Woodlands, Texas. Othram CEO David Mittelman said Wednesday that his technicians had their work cut out for them.

“It was very degraded. There was a lot of bacteria in it,” Mittelman said of the DNA, according to the Edmonton Journal. “It was only a small minority (that) was actually human DNA, but there was sufficient material.”

With that material, Othram was successful in developing a DNA profile. The profile was compared to those uploaded into public DNA databanks.

“As a result, they were able to develop a family tree with a number of possible relatives to the unidentified remains,” according to a statement from the RCMP.

Detectives reached out to those possible relatives and obtained their DNA, which was sent in August for testing. In October, they learned that the DNA was a match to Sam’s.

Watch RCMP Staff Sgt. Jason Zazulak speak about the identification of “Septic Tank Sam” below.

Sanderson’s identity had been restored, and detectives began investigating anew who might have wanted him dead. Because the more in-depth homicide investigation began only after Sanderson was identified, it remains in its early stages, Zazulak said.

“We believe that Gordie Sanderson was killed by associates of his (who were) involved in various criminal acts in the Edmonton area,” he told reporters.

Zazulak said authorities want to speak with anyone who knew Sanderson or has information about his murder. He acknowledged that witnesses, as well as the killer, may have since died.

“Between the passage of time and just some of the lifestyles that people were involved in at the time, as well, it’s very possible that they have passed away,” the sergeant said.

The ’60s Scoop

Gordie Sanderson’s life was not a particularly happy one.

“Gordie had a hard life. He was separated from his family at 9 years old during the ’60s Scoop and placed in foster care,” Zazulak said Wednesday.

The ’60s Scoop was a widespread practice between the 1960s and the 1980s in which thousands of Aboriginal children in Canada were removed from their families and placed in the child welfare system. According to the University of British Columbia’s First Nations Studies Program, the practice had existed before the 1960s but grew much more common around that time.

“The drastic overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in the child welfare system accelerated in the 1960s, when Aboriginal children were seized and taken from their homes and placed, in most cases, into middle-class Euro-Canadian families,” the program’s website states.

The practice made international headlines earlier this month after the remains of hundreds of children were found buried on the grounds of at least three church-run residential schools that housed Indigenous children taken from their parents.

Aboriginal children went from comprising about 1% of children in provincial care in 1951 to making up more than 34% of Canada’s foster children by 1964, the university’s website states.

Sanderson became part of those statistics. According to Zazulak, his adult life was troubled, as well, as he battled addiction and had run-ins with the police.

Sanderson’s family last heard from him as he planned to meet up with his younger brother, Arthur Sanderson, in Calgary. He never made it, Zazulak said.

His sister, Joyce Sanderson, reported him missing in the early 1980s but never received news of her brother’s fate.

“Joyce had lost track of her two brothers over the years, Gordie and Arthur,” Zazulak said.

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RCMP officials were finally able to give her that closure this year. They were also able to tell her what happened to their brother, Arthur, who died in Edmonton several years ago, according to police.

Zazulak said the identification was a lot for Joyce Sanderson and the rest of the family, including Gordie Sanderson’s daughter, to process.

“I think it was a combination of a sense of mourning but also relief, definitely some feelings of anger towards what Gordie went through in his life and what was done to him,” the sergeant said.

Alberta RCMP detectives are looking for anyone who may have known or spoken to Gordon Sanderson before his death, or who may have information regarding this homicide.

Anyone with information should contact the Tofield RCMP Detachment at 780-662-3353, or their local police. They can also reach the Alberta RCMP Historical Homicide Unit via email at RCMP/KHHU-KHHU.GRC@rcmp-grc.gc.ca.