Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery

Duncan's Body Emerges/ Cause and Manner of his Death are Concealed

Fourteen years later, on Friday, July 18, 2003, at 3:00 P.M., employees of the Stubai Glacier informed officers at the Neustift gendarmerie station that they had found a corpse on the Schaufelferner. Initially the Austrian Presse Agentur, the Canadian Embassy, and the MacPherson family were provided with a false location of the body's discovery (120 meters east of the T-bar lift, outside of the controlled ski area). However, as the MacPhersons later discovered, an Alpine Special Investigator recorded the exact location in a report dated 10 September 2003--seven weeks after the case was closed. This report was not provided to the MacPherson family; Lynda saw a reference to it in another document and was obliged to submit numerous requests through the Canadian Embassy for a copy of it. She finally received it two years later (the statute of limitations period for filing a civil suit was three years after the body was discovered).

Though the glacier was easily accessible by gondola, no officers went to the site to supervise the body's recovery. At 4:57 P.M., a police officer landed a helicopter on the glacier and photographed the corpse as it lay partly encased in ice. After attending the scene for seven minutes, he authorized Stubai Glacier personnel to recover the body, and then flew away. In his report, this officer noted the true location of the discovery site--i.e., approximately 25 meters east of the t-bar lift, in the middle of the slope.

In spite of this singular fact, gendarmerie officers in Neustift notified the Canadian Embassy that the body (identified by means of ID cards as Duncan Alvin MacPherson) had been found 120 meters east of the tow-lift--i.e., a location well outside of the east boundary of the ski slope. The following day, the Austria Press Association issued a release stating that that "the then 23-year-old fell into a crevasse with his snowboard in the out of bounds ski area." This misinformation implied that Duncan had been legally responsible for his death.

With no investigation whatsoever and without even knowing the cause of death, Innsbruck prosecutor Thomas Schirhakl immediately released the body for burial. The examining magistrate in charge of Duncan's missing person case was not informed of the discovery. After the body was released, gendarmerie Inspector Koch called district medical officer Kurt Somavilla, who viewed the frozen and clothed corpse in the funeral chapel of the Neustift parish church, which had neither lighting nor equipment for a forensic medical exam. After Dr. Somavilla attributed the cause of death to polytrauma, the body was transported to a funeral home, where it was to remain in cold storage until the MacPhersons arrived.

The following Monday, July 21, 2003, Inspector Willibald Krappinger informed Prosecutor Schirhakl that the body had not been found off-piste, but on the ski slope. This indicated that Stubai Glacier personnel had not only failed to control a crevasse, they had also filled the crevasse with snow (using a snow groomer) without first checking to make sure that no one was in it. Krappinger reasoned that, "worst case," the workers were guilty of negligence. Schirhakl then cited the statute of limitations for negligent homicide and closed the case. As I argue in Cold a Long Time, Schirhakl's reasoning was fallacious and outrageously unfair to the MacPhersons.

For his part, Inspector Krappinger overlooked a number of suspicious circumstances:

1. At the end of Sept. 1989, in response to a confidential Canadian External Affairs query, a man who worked at the Eisgrat station claimed he was certain that Duncan's snowboard had been returned, which indicated that Duncan had come off the slope. And yet, a Duret snowboard was found with his corpse 14 years later.

2. Duncan was still wearing a pair of grey nylon gaiters inscribed with "Rental 3000"--the rental department of the Sport Shop 3000.

3. Duncan's wallet contained all of his IDs except his Saskatchewan Driver's License--the most likely document he would have left as a deposit for the snowboarding gear. Someone must have thrown this away.

4. His body was found with hard ski boots whose size was inscribed on them with an indelible marker--a common rental shop practice. Duncan certainly wore street shoes from the parking lot to the Eisgrat station. These were never returned to the MacPherson, indicating that someone had thrown them away.

5. All of the above raises the question: Why didn't Stubai Glacier personnel search for Duncan at the end of the day when he failed to return his equipment and pick up his clothing, driver's license, and street shoes?

6. A red ski glove, a pair of blue cross country ski gloves, and a blue work glove were found with Duncan's body. He obviously didn't go snowboarding with three different pairs of gloves. To whom did the other gloves belong, and why were they found with Duncan's body?

7. Three of Duncan's limbs were amputated. The sleeves of his rain jacket and sweatshirt were shredded, as were his left sweatpants' leg and left gaiter.

8. The snowboard found with his body bore obvious marks of contact with a machine that is not suitable for excavating objects from ice.

A few days after the public prosecutor closed the case, Inspector Krappinger took cursory statements from Stubai Glacier maintenance workers, who theorized that Duncan must have come off the Eisjoch t-bar lift and decided to go through the glacier's active crevassing area, which, they claimed, was always fenced off in the summer due to the elevated risk of collapsing snow bridges. They presented no records to support their claim that the danger area had been fenced off, and Inspector Krappinger didn't ask for any.

On Monday, July 21, 2003, district medical officer Kurt Somavilla filed his official Report of Death at the Neustift municipal office. To the question, "Was an autopsy performed?" he checked the box for "Yes" and checked the margin to confirm. When later asked why he had checked the "Yes" box, he insisted that he had sent the body to Innsbruck for autopsy.

On the same day, Dr. Bernhard Knapp--then head of public security at the Innsbruck District Administration--ordered the body transferred from the funeral home to the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine. In his official order, dated July 29, 2003, Knapp stated that this was for the purpose of identifying the body with forensic medical procedures. However, a Canadian Embassy memo dated July 23, 2003 states that Knapp called on that day to advise that the body had been transferred to the institute "for dental [identification] and pathology." Moreover, in a follow-up letter to Canadian Vice-consul William Douglas dated March 26, 2004, Knapp stated that "the exact cause of death was established by the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine." As I show in Cold a Long Time, Vice-consul Douglas was repeatedly misled about how Duncan's case was handled in Innsbruck.

Unfortunately for the MacPhersons, they arrived in Innsbruck on July 24, 2003 without a consular escort or lawyer, which left them highly vulnerable to deception. Their first meeting was with Inspector Krappinger, who told them very little and refused to give them copies of the discovery site photos. Later they managed to obtain copies of these from a different police officer.

From Inspector Krappinger's office, they went to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, where they met Dr. Walter Rabl, who is now head of the Austrian Society of Forensic Medicine. Dr. Rabl told them that he had not received an order from the Innsbruck public prosecutor to perform an autopsy. The District Administration Office had ordered him to identify the body--nothing more. However, Rabl explained, the circumstances indicated that Duncan had died after falling into a crevasse, most likely from non-asphytic suffocation as a result of being buried under snow. Rabl said that this was not an unpleasant way to die--that avalanche victims rescued at the last minute had reported happy feelings as they were on the verge of passing out.

Lynda repeatedly told Rabl that she wanted to know how Duncan had died, but he insisted he had not received an order from the prosecutor to perform an autopsy. The MacPhersons therefore went to the prosecutor's office and spoke with Rudolf Koll, who insisted that the case was closed and that there would be no autopsy.

Dr. Rabl did not tell the MacPhersons that his institute is an independent institution that may, under Austrian law, perform private forensic exams for a victim's next of kin. As I show in my book, this was the first of many omissions that Rabl made over the course of his long and peculiar relationship with the MacPhersons.

To prepare Lynda and Bob for viewing their dead son, Rabl showed them two photos of the body. In looking at the images, they focused primarily on Duncan's face, which struck them as remarkably well-preserved. When they viewed the body a few minutes later, most of it, including his limbs, was covered with a sheet, and it didn't occur to them to remove the sheet.

Again Lynda told Rabl that she wanted to know how Duncan had died. He replied that, as an alternative to autopsy, he could arrange a CT scan of the body. A CT scan, he explained, would reveal if Duncan had sustained bone fractures consistent with a violent death. In his words, the CT scan would, at the very least, tell them how Duncan "had not died."

On July 31, 2003, Dr. Rabl and a radiologist at the Innsbruck University Clinic named Peter Waldenberger (now at a hospital in Linz) performed a CT scan of Duncan's body. The following day, Rabl told the MacPhersons that--according to the radiologist--the scan revealed no fractures of the skull, neck, or back, indicating that Duncan had not died as a result of a severe injury. As this seemed to confirm Rabl's estimation that Duncan had died of non-asphyctic suffocation, the MacPhersons decided to cremate his body in Innsbruck.

Dr. Rabl said nothing about the fact that three of Duncan's limbs had been amputated. This was a remarkable omission, as it is common knowledge that a man will bleed to death from three severed limbs unless he quickly receives emergency medical care.

At his final meeting with the MacPhersons, Rabl said he would send copies of the CT scan and radiology report to their home in Saskatoon as soon as he received these from Dr. Waldenberger. In this same meeting, Lynda asked Rabl for the photos he had shown them to prepare them for viewing Duncan's body.

With these two photos, along with the snowboarding equipment found with the body, the MacPhersons returned to Saskatoon. Back home, Bob studied the images and noticed that both of Duncan's forearms and his left leg had been amputated. The damage to his lower left leg was spectacular.

In spite of Dr. Rabl's assurance that he would send the MacPhersons copies of the CT scan and radiology report, these items did not arrive. Over a four-month period, Lynda repeatedly requested by email that he send the images. He replied that he was having trouble contacting his colleague in radiology--a facility that was, unbeknownst to Lynda--located 300 meters from Rabl's institute. Finally, on November 21, 2003, Rabl sent four low-resolution digital radiographs in the form of JPEGs attached to an email, including the following image:

Because Dr. Rabl did not send the findings of the radiologist, the MacPhersons showed this image to Dr. Brent Burbridge, head of radiology at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. He explained that, due to its low resolution, he could not study the arm fractures closely, though it was clear that both forearms had been severed, and the right elbow had been dislocated and rotated 180 degrees. He wondered if these injuries had been caused by contact with the ski hill grooming machine.

At this point, Lynda asked Dr. Rabl for hard copies of the radiographs (as distinct from the low-resolution JPEGs) and for any other photos he might have taken. Two months later, in early 2004, he sent several radiographs, as well as additional photos of the body. Among these images was the following.

Note that the above image is the same that Rabl sent on Nov. 21, 2003, only it is less cropped. Why did he initially crop the legs out of this radiograph? And given that the entire body goes into the CT scanner, why were the lower legs left out of the field of view?

The MacPhersons took the above image to a forensic pathologist in British Columbia named Dan Straathof, who had examined the Canadian Ice Man--a mummified corpse found melting out of the Grand Plateau glacier in 1999. Dr. Straathof told the MacPhersons that Duncan's limb fractures were consistent with damage from heavy machinery.

On Feb. 12, 2004, Lynda emailed Dr. Rabl, expressing her growing concern that Duncan had been run over by a groomer. In Rabl's reply the following day, he expressed skepticism that Duncan had been "run over" by a groomer. He then offered the following alternative hypothesis:

On the other hand in crevasses the limbs of a person are more subjected to shearing injuries (better: damages) by the glacier movement--in the past I saw torsos (corpses without limbs) that were found in glaciers. On the other hand there are found single limb bones in glaciers too (the last case was a fibula found on the end of a glacier on the Nanga Parbat - supposed to be a part of the body of the brother of Reinhold Messner - a famous alpinist from southern tyrol).

Since Duncan's body was cremated, Dr. Rabl has maintained that the cause of his death was never determined. In a Dec. 5, 2003 email, he discouraged Lynda from filing a lawsuit against the Stubai Glacier on the following grounds:

My friend [a lawyer] estimates that your chances of success in such a proceeding would be very small. The main reason for this is the fact that the causal relationship between a possible misconduct of the glacier company and the death of Duncan cannot be determined with safety, because the definite cause of death remains unclear.

Rabl estimated the cause of death to be "non-asphytic suffocation," and he assumed that Duncan's limbs had been mangled by glacier ice, but he did not perform a forensic exam in order to confirm his estimation and his assumption.