In a life punctuated by cycles of chaos, there was always one thing 35-year-old Nathan Brosnan kept constant. “It didn’t matter if he was having a mental health issue, committing crime, in jail, 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 veered between mental illness and addiction. “He was happy and sad all at once,” she says. “He would take his prescribed medication until he felt better and then stop taking it. And then he’d self-medicate with illicit drugs and alcohol and spiral into crime. And things would start. Then in jail, he’d take the prescribed medication again. So, he was caught in that circle.”
In 2021, just released from his latest stint in jail, Nathan was living and working in construction in Munruben, a locality in the city of Logan, south of Brisbane. Claire says 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 well, picked up work easily.
On 6 September, Nathan called his father for a regular check-in. Nathan’s young son lives with Nathan’s dad, so this household was his most frequent point of contact. But since this brief, nondescript conversation, Nathan has never called or picked up his phone again. When Claire checked his bank account, she discovered that since using an ATM in the nearby suburb of Jimboomba on 7 September, he’s left it untouched. To date, police investigations have 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 the grief when there’s no answers,” she says. “You’re just stuck. It’s like moving through wet cement every day.” In the 11 months since he went missing, Claire’s marriage has broken down, her sister has left 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 sinister” has happened. But while the family’s had to complete the gruelling tasks required by accepting this – like telling Nathan’s son “his dad’s gone” – they can’t have the rituals, like a funeral. “We could have a memorial for him, but we’re torn about 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’s just open-ended, and possibly staying like that.”
Like the Brosnans, many families of the 2,500 long-term missing people in Australia are experiencing what’s known as “ambiguous loss”. According to forensic scientist and missing persons advocate, Associate Prof Jodie Ward, “ambiguous loss is a very unique type of trauma and it’s often considered by psychologists as the most traumatic type of loss and the most unmanageable form of stress. And that’s because of the not knowing.”
An effort to end ‘the 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 there were 750 sets of unidentified bones, tucked away 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 started in December 2021, and this week the AFP announced it was extending the program until the end of 2023.
Ward, who spearheads the program, aims to end the “not knowing” for as many families as possible. “We’re here to use forensic science to provide as many answers as we can to the families of long-term missing. It may not be the answers they want or need, but it is an answer,” she says.
State and territory police decide which remains they want to submit. Once a set arrives at the AFP Forensics Facility in Canberra, Ward and her team begin hunting for leads. Traditional methods, like examining dental records, are used; and if DNA can be gathered, 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 their hair and eye colour. “So, for example, if a leg bone washes up on a beach and we obtain a DNA profile, but it has no match on our National DNA database, traditionally that 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 female missing person. We know she’s 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 capability can take a three-dimensional scan and create a replica face – with correct eye and hair colour. Isotope testing of bones can reveal where someone has lived over previous decades. “The things we eat and the things we drink and the air we breathe leaves a signature in our bones,” says Ward. “We have what’s called isotope maps where we have these chemical signatures plotted out [to locations] across the world.”
“We’re taking a box of bones and trying to humanise them as much as possible,” says Ward. If police investigations hit a dead end, then the image and back story of this partially rebuilt person can be released in the media in the hope it may spark recognition in someone with a missing loved one.
The program also uses investigative genetic genealogy – a new field of forensic science where DNA is uploaded to public genealogy databases to try and link to a distant relative, as deployed in the US to catch the Golden State Killer.
So far, 36 samples have been submitted for specialist testing, with five matches made to long-term missing persons. One case involved bones that washed up on a beach near Whyalla, South Australia in 1977. After forensic scientists in Canberra extracted the DNA, South Australian police located a living relative of who they thought the remains could be. A match was made to missing person, 54-year-old Mario Della Torre, who disappeared in 1976.
Ward says it’s impossible to predict how many of the 750 sets of remains they will process over the course of the program – DNA can’t always be extracted, and some may turn out to be animal bones, ancestral Aboriginal remains, or misplaced medical and 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 would be able to say goodbye’
For the Australian program to be a success, Ward says the families of missing people need to participate, by registering their DNA. So far, only 44 families have registered. “We can generate all of this forensic data for a set of remains, but if I don’t have the right things to compare to, we’re never going to identify every set of these remains,” she says.
Claire Brosnan says she and her family are “not holding our hopes to find a person. We’re holding our hopes for remains to be found. At least we would be able to say goodbye. That final goodbye.”
She would willingly provide DNA if it offered a chance of finding Nathan, “even if we never found out what happened to him … even if it’s way down the track, when we’re gone.”
“When he wasn’t struggling with the mental health and drug addiction, he was a good bloke,” she recalls. “He was helpful. He was funny. He loved his family, loved his children, he was protective of us all.”