In a life characterized by cycles of chaos, there was always one thing 35-year-old Nathan Brosnan held constant. “It didn’t matter if he had a mental health problem, committed crime, was in prison or lived a normal life,” says his sister, Claire Brosnan. “He was always in touch with someone.”
The youngest of four siblings – “our child” – Claire says her brother alternated between mental illness and addiction. “He was happy and sad at the same time,” she says. “He would take his prescribed medication until he felt better and then stop taking it. And then he would self-medicate with illegal drugs and alcohol and get into crime. And things would start. Then in prison he would take the prescribed medication again . So he got caught in that circle.”
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In 2021, just released from his last stint in prison, Nathan was living and working in construction in Munruben, a locality in the town of Logan, south of Brisbane. Claire says that while she knows her brother was “no saint, he’s done some terrible things”, he was a skilled mechanic and metal worker, and when he was healthy he took up work easily.
On September 6, Nathan called his father for a routine check-in. Nathan’s young son lives with Nathan’s father, so this household was his most frequent point of contact. But since this brief, indescribable conversation, Nathan has never called or picked up the phone again. When Claire checked his bank account, she discovered that since he used an ATM in the nearby suburb of Jimboomba on September 7, he had left it untouched. To date, the police investigation has found no trace of him.
Nathan’s disappearance has plunged Claire and her family into immense suffering.
“Until you experience it, you don’t understand the depth of grief when there are no answers,” she says. “You’re just stuck. It’s like moving through wet cement every day.” In the 11 months since his disappearance, Claire’s marriage has broken up, her sister has quit her job, and her parents have become depressed.
Claire believes the only explanation for her brother’s disappearance is that he is dead, that “something scary” has happened. But while the family had to complete the grueling tasks required by accepting this—like telling Nathan’s son “his father is gone”—they can’t have the rituals, like a funeral. “We could have a memorial for him, but we’re tired of that,” she says. “Because what if in another year his remains are found and we have to go through it all again?”
“There’s just no answers, no closure. Everything is just open, and possibly will remain so.”
Like the Brosnans, many families of the 2,500 long-missing people in Australia experience what is known as “ambiguous loss”. According to forensic pathologist and missing persons advocate, Associate Professor Jodie Ward, “ambiguous loss is a very unique type of trauma, and it’s often considered by psychologists to be the most traumatic type of loss and the most unmanageable form of stress. And that’s because of don’t know.”
An attempt to end “the not knowing”
In July 2020, largely due to Ward’s advocacy, the National Unidentified and Missing Persons DNA Program was launched by the Australian Federal Police. An audit revealed there were 750 sets of unidentified bones stashed away in various forensic and mortuary facilities across Australia – some for decades – and the program aims to link those bones to a known missing person using new forensic techniques. Testing began in December 2021, and this week the AFP announced it is extending the program until 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-term missing. It may not be the answers they want or need, but it is an answer, she says.
We take a box of bones and try to humanize them as much as possible
Associate Professor Jodie Ward
State and territory police decide which remains they will submit. When a kit arrives at the AFP forensics facility in Canberra, Ward and her team begin hunting 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 hits here, Ward moves on to new DNA techniques — ones that have only developed in the past decade.
A tool called forensic DNA phenotyping can estimate a person’s genetic ancestry and their hair and eye color. “So, for example, if a leg bone washes up on a beach and we get a DNA profile, but it doesn’t have a match in our national DNA database, traditionally that was a dead end,” says Ward. But with this new technique, “I can go back to the detective and potentially tell him, ‘OK, we know there’s a missing woman.’ We know she is of European ancestry, and she 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 face – with the correct eye and hair colour. Isotope testing of bones can reveal where someone has lived in recent decades. “The things we eat and the things we drink and the air we breathe leave a signature in our bones,” says Ward. “We have what are called isotope maps where we have these chemical signatures plotted out [to locations] over the world.”
“We take a box of bones and try to humanize them as much as possible,” says Ward. If the police investigation hits a dead end, the image and backstory of this partially reconstructed person can be published in the media in the hope that it may spark recognition in someone with a missing loved one.
The program also uses investigative genetic genealogy — a new field of forensic science in which DNA is uploaded to public genealogy databases to try to connect a distant relative, like the one deployed in the United States to catch the Golden State Killer.
So far, 36 samples have been submitted for specialist testing, with five matches on long-term missing persons. One case involved bones that washed up on a beach near Whyalla in South Australia in 1977. After forensics in Canberra extracted DNA, South Australian police found a living relative of who they thought the remains might be. A match was made for missing person, 54-year-old Mario Della Torre, who disappeared in 1976.
Ward says it is impossible to predict how many of the 750 sets of remains they will process over the course of the program – DNA cannot always be extracted, and some may turn out to be animal bones, ancestral Aboriginal remains or misplaced medical and educational samples. But, she says, “every family wants to know that everything has been tried and tested to find and identify their loved one, and I don’t think we could have said that a decade ago.”
“We would be able to say goodbye”
For the Australian program to be successful, Ward says the families of missing people must participate, by registering their DNA. So far, only 44 families have registered. “We can generate all this forensic data for a set of remains, but if I don’t have the right things to compare it to, we’re never going to identify every set of those remains,” she says.
Claire Brosnan says she and her family “have no hope of finding a person. We have a hope of objects to find. At least we would be able to say goodbye. The last goodbye.”
She would willingly provide DNA if it offered a chance to find Nathan, “even if we never found out what happened to him … even if it’s way down the road, when we’re gone.”
“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, loved his children, he protected us all.”