Septic Tank Sam

The Murder of Gordon Sanderson

Septic Tank Sam

"Sam's killers were cruel and vindictive"

In April 1977, a gruesome discovery was made by a Canadian couple who had returned to their farm in Tofield, Alberta. The remains of a decomposing body were found floating in a septic tank, having been placed there and covered in quicklime. Unidentified for decades, the body found that day would become known as Septic Tank Sam.

The medical examiner found that Sam had died a brutal death. Beaten, tortured and mutilated by his killers, the victim suffered greatly before he was shot dead. After 44 years as a John Doe, the victim found at Tofield was formally identified as Gordon Sanderson. Although finally given his name back, Sanderson’s murder remains unsolved.

Discovery at Tofield

On April 13, 1977, in the small town of Lindbrook, located some thirteen kilometers from Tofield, Albert in Canada, farmer Charlie McLeod along with his wife, returned to their abandoned farm. McLeod had come to retrieve a pump from a septic tank on the proprty. As they entered farmhouse, the couple made a gruesome discovery. Protruding from their tank was a human foot.

Upon closer inspecition, McLeod saw the foot was attached to a leg that was submerged in the murky water. He then went immediately to the Tofield Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachment, and showed officers there a shoe and woollen sock he had pulled out of the tank. RCMP Sgt. Ed Lammers accompanied McLeod back to his property and there saw the remains of a human body inside the McLeod’s septic tank.

Lammerts would later say how he and another officer spent over an hour scooping out gooey liquid from the 1.8-meter deep tank, by using ice-cream pails, before they came across actual bodily remains. The decomposing body was taken to the county medical examiner who determined the victim was Caucasian.

From the bones and teeth it was believed the victim suffered from an unspecified illness at five years old. The cause of death was from two gunshot wounds to the head and chest. However, from the advanced stage of decomposition, there could have been more bullet wounds that did nor penetrate the skeleton.

At first the examiner was unable to determine whether the body was male or female. “How the hell do you reconstruct from there?,” Lammerts said. However, the reason why the examiner found it difficult to determine the sex, because the victim had been tied up and suffered an extreme level of mutilation prior to their death.

The autopsy found that the victim was male, and had been beaten, burned with a small butane blowtorch and cigarettes. The killer or killers had also sexually mutilated the victim before he was shot by use of a sharp object. This mutilation was so severe that it took the examiner several months to identify the sex of the victim.

A photograph showing the clothing found with Septic Tank Sam.
The clothing found with Septic Tank Sam.

Although not conclusively determined due to the condition of the remains, it was believed the weapon used to commit the mutilation was farming sears. After the murder, the body was rolled up in a yellow bed-sheet tied with nylon rope and dumped headfirst into the septic tank, which had been partially filled with water. The body was then covered in quicklime, most likely in a mistaken attempt to hasten decomposition.

Septic Tank Sam

At the time of his death the victim was determined to be roughly 28-year-old, five foot six, and wearing a blue work shirt, white T-shirt, blue jeans, grey woollen socks and imitation Wallabee shoes. He still had all of his teeth, some fillings, and had signs of recent dental work. With such little evidence left at the farmhouse, it was likely he was murdered somewhere else, and his body transported to the septic tank dumpsite.

Because his killer or killers had used quicklime, a chemical compound that can speed up decomposition, it was suspected they had knowledge of methods in how to dispose of a human body. With no identification on the body, the unknown victim became known as “Tofield John Doe,” “Sam Doe,” more commonly by the nickname “Septic Tank Sam”.

Investigators suspected Sam was not native to Alberta, and had likely been a migrant worker, owing to his upper body strength, which suggested he was a labourer, or a transient passing through. The identity of his killer was equally unknown, but some suspected it was possible the perpetrator was local to Tofield, or were at least familiar with the area, due to the location of the septic tank on rural property.

The fact that a gruesome murder had taken place in their quiet community, left many of 1,200 Tofield residents unsettled and horrified by the crime. Farmers began searching their own properties and septic tanks for bodies, and many wondered who could have committed such an unspeakable murder. Sgt. Lammerts said of the perpetrators, “Sam’s killers were cruel and vindictive.”

“To impose that much pain on someone, who was most likely alive, is extremely bizarre,” he added. It was Lammerts assertion that the killers knew the area, as well as the abandoned farm site, and never expected the remains to be discovered. There was some speculation at the time that Septic Tank Sam had been sexually mutilated after committing a sex crime, or caught being unfaithful in a relationship. There were also more insidious rumours that the victim had been a child molester, and his torture and death the result of such a crime.

RCMP “Septic Tank Sam” Investigation

In an effort to identify the body, Lammerts sent off X-rays of the victims teeth to 800 Alberta dentists in the hope of finding a match, as well as publishing them in dental magazines. However, there was little progress in determining his identity, and the body was interred in an unmarked grave in an Edmonton cemetery.

There is laid until it was exhumed in 1979, and the remains flown out to Forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow and medical illustrator Betty Pat Gatliff, at the Federal Aviation Administration in Oklahoma, who had been creating 3D facial composites from skulls since 1967. It was hoped such a reconstruction might help the investigation.

As well as creating the facial composite for Septic Tank Sam, the two discovered many other details about the victim. Snow believed Sam was of Indigenous origin and around 35 years old, contradicting the RCMP’s belief of him being Caucasian and between 26 and 32. By measuring his hands they also found that he was right-handed.

The facial reconstruction of Septic Tank Sam by Betty Pat Gatliff.

One specific lead that was reported concerned a missing Alberta man who went missing in June 1975. 27-year-old Edward Joesph Arcand left his residence driving his 1969 Ford Falcon station wagon, which was later found abandoned in either June of July that same year some 80 km north of Coleman on Highway 940.

Arcand was described as Indigenous, 5’8” tall and 139 lbs, with a medium build. He had brown eyes and short black hair. He was last seen wearing a blue, denim jacket, a red shirt, and blue, denim pants. However, Arcand was ruled out as Septic Tank Sam after it was discovered he was missing six teeth, while Sam’s teeth were all intact.

Despite the new details from the facial composites, the were posted in various newspapers around the country, tips and new leads, which had to that point numbered more than a thousand, soon petered out and eventually the case grew cold. By the end of the original investigation, as much as $1,000,000 CAD had been spent investigating the case. DNA samples were taken from the body and it was interred once again the pauper’s grave. It was hoped that advances in DNA techniques might be the only answer to unlocking the identity of Septic Tank Sam.

There he rested until August 2000, when the remains were exhumed a second time by Cyril Chan, a forensic artist with the Chief Medical Examiner’s office. Chan hoped to create a clay reconstruction of Sam’s face in an effort to finally help identify him. “We’re having a crack at this case once again,” Chan said in an Edmonton Journal interview.

Chan used brown clay which he moulded into a three-dimensional model, underneath which, were Sam’s real skull and teeth. After spending three weeks examining the skull, in an effort to determine tissue thickness of the face, marked by pins in the skull, Chan than used a scientific game of connect-the-dots, and added the clay for flesh and wooden balls for eyes.

The facial reconstruction of Septic Tank Sam by Cyril Chan.
The facial reconstruction of Septic Tank Sam by Cyril Chan.

Chan believes his reconstruction is better than the 1979 version, and more accurate. “I’m fairly confident,” he said, “I never fail.” For Cyril Chan, it was once of the last cases he’s worked on that remains unsolved. “This one is my Waterloo,” he said to journalist Chris Purdy, a staff writer with the Edmonton Journal newspaper.

By the time of Chan’s reconstruction, the case had been taken over by Constable Jane Spaans, after Lammerts retirement. Spaans, who works with the major crimes section at the RCMP’s K Division, inherited the case and the eight boxes of files in December 1999. The last tip she received in the case had been two months previously, which turned out to be a dead end.

It was Spaans hope that the new facial reconstruction would lead to more tips. It was he belief that given the amount of time that has passed, will make some people more willing to talk. “I think with age come conscience,” she said. For Spaans, the identity of the killer or killers is as equally important as finding out the real identity of Septic Tank Sam. “I’m confident, eventually we will identify this person. Then out real work begins.”

Septic Tank Samp – Gordon Sanderson

On June 29, 2021, it was reported that the remains of Septic Tank Sam had been identified thought genetic genealogy, some 44 years after his discovery. DNA taken from the body had been submitted by police to Othram Inc., a private laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas, some five months previously, in January 2021. The body was identified as that of Gordon Sanderson.

A photograph of Septic Tank Sam victim Gordon Sanderson.
Gordon Sanderson, the victim previously known as Septic Tank Sam.

Known as “Gordie,” to his friends, Sanderson was born on October 22, 1950 in Manitoba. An Indigenous man, Sanderson was only nine years old when he became a victim of the Sixties Scoop, when many children were put into foster care. As a result, he struggled with addictions and had various run-ins with police.

In the 1970’s, he was living in Edmonton, and had planned to visit his brother, Arthur, in Calgary. He was also known to have a daughter and a sister, who’s DNA was used to confirm his identity. At the time of his death, Sanderson was aged 26, and living in Edmonton. The last time he spoke with family, he mentioned going to visit his brother.

Police now believe Sanderson was killed by associates with whom he was involved in various criminal acts in Edmonton. With the passage of so much time, investigators believe that his killer may no longer be alive. Although his killers have not yet been brought to justice, the identification of Gordon “Gordie” Sanderson brings police one step closer to solving his murder.

Written by Nucleus

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