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Winnipeg police identify woman’s body three years after it was pulled from river

Police tape marks a crime scene in this file photo.

JOHN LEHMANN/The GLOBE AND MAI

Police have identified the body of an aboriginal woman found in the Red River three years ago and are acknowledging the help of her daughter who provided the DNA that finally cracked the case.

But the circumstances of Audrey Desjarlais's death remain a mystery.

Ms. Desjarlais, who was from the Saddle Lake community in Alberta but was living in Winnipeg, is believed to have died sometime in January, 2012, at the age of 52. Her body was found five months later. "The body was pretty badly decomposed when it was discovered," Winnipeg police Superintendent Danny Smyth said Friday. "The medical examiner was never able to ascertain a positive cause of death. The only thing they could tell us for certain was there were no obvious signs of trauma or injury."

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Smyth said the case was complex. Ms. Desjarlais had not been reported missing. Police released a composite sketch of the then-unidentified woman shortly after the body was found along with pictures of unique jewelry she had been wearing.

More than 20 tips came in and investigators compared about 300 profiles of women the Winnipeg Police Service had had contact with.

One of the tips that came in pointed them to the possibility that the body was that of Desjarlais, so they contacted her daughter in Regina in September 2012.

But the following month, two witnesses reported seeing Desjarlais shopping in the Manitoba communities of Steinbach and Grunthal.

"These sightings of Ms. Desjarlais were believed to be credible. As a result, investigators shifted their focus away from Ms. Desjarlais, assuming that she was still alive," Smyth said.

"We now know that those witnesses were mistaken," Supt. Smyth said.

The investigation remained open, but few leads came in. Police credit Desjarlais's daughter, Barb Desjarlais, and the CBC for keeping the case front and centre. After a story broadcast in April, police went back to Desjarlais and obtained a DNA sample from Barb that matched DNA of the body pulled from the river.

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Police said their investigation is ongoing and they are asking anyone who had contact with Ms. Desjarlais in January, 2012, to come forward.

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