WHEN MY ARTICLE ABOUT EVERETT was published in the Spring 1999 issue of National Geographic Adventure, Bud Rusho took it as a personal challenge. Over the phone, I gave him detailed directions to the old campsite on the trail to Jackass Bar. Immediately he set out with three companions to investigate the place.
Rusho found the site, then, with no compunctions about the Antiquities Act, started digging. As he later wrote,
Convinced that the mound could not be a grave, we tentatively began discarding rocks and loose sand. But within twenty minutes of digging to a depth of about eighteen inches, we found only sandstone bedrock! Apparently the mound had been formed by a natural disintegration of a small sandstone hoodoo, leaving sand covered by broken slabs of rock. It was not a grave; neither was it a repository for Everett’s journal and camp gear.
I reacted to Rusho’s debunking mission with relative equanimity. My hunch about the mound, I had always known, was a long shot. And the fact that the protuberance in the earth turned out to be a natural bulge did not disprove the possibility that the trail to Jackass Bar had been the route taken by Everett’s killer or killers on their way to dumping his body in the Colorado River. The campsite itself, dated by the tin can to around 1935, could very well have been the overnight stopping place of the ranchers who might have perpetrated the crime.
On the other hand, nothing I had discovered in 1998 and early 1999 really proved anything definite about Everett’s fate. All I had to go on was Keith Riddle’s confession to Norm Christensen, and the persistent Escalante rumor about rustlers murdering the vagabond and throwing his body into the Colorado River.
For the next nine years I kept Everett Ruess on my personal back burner, even as I made many further hiking and backpacking trips into the Escalante canyons. During that time I never returned to Davis Gulch. But in 2002, I spent a blissful week exploring the top of Kaiparowits Plateau. As preparation for that outing, I once more interviewed Escalante old-timers, especially DeLane Griffin, who knew Fifty-Mile Mountain (as the locals call it) better than any other man or woman alive. During my prowls atop Kaiparowits, I kept an eye cocked for any vestige of a sign that Everett might have explored the remote mesa, but, as I expected, I found nothing of that kind.
Throughout those nine years, I hiked the canyons of Utah and Arizona every chance I could get with Vaughn Hadenfeldt, the wilderness guide who had shared my research forays in 1998 in quest of Everett. In 2004, Vaughn, our mutual friend Greg Child, and I made what was apparently the first complete traverse of Comb Ridge, 125 miles over eighteen days, as we started just east of Kayenta, Arizona, and ended northwest of Blanding, Utah. Following the crest of that dramatic sandstone escarpment day after day, we also looped low on its eastern flanks to explore Anasazi ruins and rock art, as well as Navajo petroglyph panels dating back as far as the end of the nineteenth century, along with the occasional ruined sweat lodge where Diné sheepherders had long ago cleansed their bodies and souls.
Two thirds of our journey crossed the Navajo reservation. In camp several nights, as Vaughn cooked up tasty dinners, he told Greg and me about his friend Denny Bellson, a Navajo who lived just east of Comb Ridge in a house he had built for himself in 1993. Denny’s favorite pastime was to explore the nooks and crannies of the Comb, as well as the benches of Chinle Wash, which carves a sinuous gorge through the escarpment as it makes its erratic journey north toward its junction with the San Juan River. Never having met Denny, I imagined him, I suppose, as a bit of a kook, for the primary goal of his sleuthing was to find old Spanish treasure—this despite the fact that there is little or no evidence that the conquistadors of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries ever reached the Comb. But Denny was all the same a repository of local lore. He had told Vaughn, for instance, that in more than twenty years of exploring Chinle Wash, he had never found its silt-laden current clean enough to drink, even after filtering a potful and letting it stand for hours to settle.
One day in May 2008, Vaughn called me up at my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Out of the blue, he said, “Denny thinks he may have found Everett Ruess.”
I could not suppress a derisive snort. “Yeah, you bet,” I rejoined. “Tell him to keep looking.”
“Shut up and listen a minute,” Vaughn countered. Then he told me an extraordinary story.
* * *
Denny’s grandfather was a man named Aneth Nez. Born in 1899, Aneth was a tall, well-built, stern-faced man who wore his hair tied back in the traditional Navajo ponytail, kept in place with a tight bandanna. His hogan, the six-sided house in which he had grown up, stood only a few miles east of Comb Ridge.
One thing that Aneth did for hours at a time was to sit on the crest of the Comb and survey the country beneath him. Sometimes those vigils were practical, for he was a sheepherder tending the flocks that grazed below him on the willows and tamarisks fringing Chinle Wash, or on the grasses stubbling the rocky slopes. But sometimes Aneth’s outings were simply idle and contemplative. Like all traditional Navajos, he had a deep connection with the land. It spoke to him in ways no white man or woman could understand.
One day in the 1930s, Aneth’s eye had been caught by a novel and unexpected phenomenon. Some three hundred feet below his airy perch, a young man was traveling along the wash. The intruder was an Anglo. He had two pack animals, one that he rode and one that was packed with gear dangling from the saddlebags. Aneth saw a frying pan, a coffeepot, and other items that suggested the youth was on a camping trip. But he moved with an urgent purposefulness, as if searching for something.
In the 1930s, the presence of white strangers in such a remote corner of the Navajo reservation was an unusual event. It was all the more surprising that this traveler was so young, and that he was there by himself. Aneth stayed out of sight: the youth never realized that he was being watched. Where had he come from, Aneth wondered. Where was he going? What was he looking for?
During the next several days, Aneth spotted the young traveler again. But on the third or fourth occasion that he caught sight of the wanderer, Aneth realized immediately that something was desperately wrong. The young man was yelling and riding as fast as he could. And the men who were chasing him were Utes.
Traditional enemies of the Navajo, the Utes are an entirely unrelated people. In the 1930s, the band of Utes nearest the Navajo reservation resided near Blanding, Utah. Aneth had grown up afraid of the Ute ruffians who had routinely robbed and beaten up his older brother, who as a teenager had been hired by white ranchers near Monticello, north of Blanding, to tend their sheep. But south of the San Juan River, on the reservation, Aneth felt safe, for Utes seldom ventured anymore into the homeland of their ancient foes.
As Aneth watched, the Utes caught up with the young man, hit him in the head, and knocked him off his pack animal. Then they stole all his belongings, took the pack animals, and rode away north.
After the Utes were gone, Aneth climbed down from the crest of the Comb to the bottom of Chinle Wash. The young man was dead by the time Aneth got to him. Rather than look for a burial site in the sandy stream bank, the Navajo man carried the body up to the rim, probably slung across the saddle of his horse. In the process, he most likely was smeared with the victim’s blood. In a rock crevice on the crest of the Comb, Aneth buried the young stranger.
* * *
For at least three and a half decades, Aneth told nobody about what had happened that day in Chinle Wash. Only in 1971 did he feel compelled to share his dark secret with his granddaughter, Daisey Johnson. Thirteen years older than her brother, Denny Bellson, Daisey waited another thirty-seven years to tell Denny the story.
A few weeks before Vaughn had called me in May 2008, Daisey had come from her home in Farmington, New Mexico, to Bluff, Utah, to visit relatives, including Denny. A dispute over sheep grazing rights was the ostensible reason for the rendezvous. But, as Daisey later recalled, “One of the grandkids asked us how the Utes used to treat us.” So she told the tale that Denny had never heard before—about Aneth Nez, the Comb Ridge, and the young Anglo riding away from his pursuers on the bench beside Chinle Wash.
Fifty-six years old in May 2008, Daisey was a troubled woman. A year and a half earlier she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had undergone a round of chemotherapy that nauseated her and caused her hair to fall out. But the cancer had gone away. Now, just in the last few weeks, it had come back. This time Daisey went to a medicine man.
“He asked me, ‘Have you been messing with the dead?’ ” Daisey would later explain to me. “So I told him about Grandpa.”
In Bluff, Denny listened to his sister’s story in electrified silence. In 1971, at the age of seventy-two, Aneth himself had fallen ill with cancer. He had paid a medicine man to diagnose his trouble. Either Aneth had told the medicine man about witnessing the murder on the Comb, or the man had divined it. “He said,” Daisey narrated, “ ‘You had no business messing around with that body.’ ” To her relatives, Daisey added, “When Grandpa carried the boy up to the grave, he must have got a lot of blood on him—that’s what made him get sick later.”
The medicine man told Aneth that the only way he could cure his cancer would be to retrieve a lock of hair from the head of the young man he had buried decades earlier, then use it in a five-day Enemy Way curing ceremony. “I was nineteen,” Daisey said. “I was home for the summer. I heard Grandpa and Grandma arguing about something. Grandma said, ‘You should have left him alone! Left him be!’
“So I asked Grandpa, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I’m going to tell you this story, and I’m only going to tell you once.’ That was the first time I ever heard anything about the young dude the Utes had killed down there in Chinle Wash.”
Daisey drove her grandfather, who had never learned to operate a motor vehicle, out toward the Comb in the family pickup. She waited in the cab for two hours. “He came back,” Daisey recalled, “and said, ‘He’s still there.’ ”
A few days later, Aneth drove out to the Comb again with another medicine man. This time he retrieved a lock of hair from the grave.
In the curing ceremony, Daisey explained, the medicine man dusted the lock of hair with ash—“so it will never bother the patient again.” On the fifth day, “The medicine man said a prayer, thanking the spirits for making the patient well again. Somebody yelled, ‘It’s ready now!’ The medicine man put ash on the lock of hair, then shot it with a gun, to destroy it completely.
“And then Grandpa got better.”
According to the medicine man whom Daisey consulted in 2008, it was not her role in 1971 as driver for Aneth Nez that was the sole cause of her own cancer. A far more grievous event had occurred ten years after the pickup ride. “Grandpa got sick again in 1981,” Daisey reminded her relatives in Bluff. “He was eighty-two years old. I told Grandma to take him to the hospital in Cortez [Colorado]. The night he was admitted, we all went over there, my mom and my aunts and all. We asked the doctor what was wrong with him. The doctor said he had stomach cancer, and that they couldn’t do anything for him.
“Two weeks later, I went to Cortez to drop in on Grandpa. There was a nurse coming out of his room. She said, ‘I just took his temperature. You can visit him, but he’s not talking much.’
“I went in, but Grandpa had already passed. His mouth was open. I started shaking him. He was already gone, but I kept shaking him, and saying, ‘Grandpa! Grandpa!’ He didn’t answer.”
Daisey paused in her storytelling and took a deep breath. “This year, when I went to the medicine man, I told him about shaking Grandpa in the hospital and calling out to him. He said, ‘That would have done it. You don’t ever touch the dead or talk to the dead. You don’t mess with death.’ ”
Denny Bellson lives on the Navajo Reservation, just off U.S. Highway 191 south of Bluff, not far from where both he and Daisey had grown up, and where Aneth Nez had lived. As he listened to his sister’s story, Denny realized that the grave must lie somewhere near the house in which he had resided for the last fifteen years. Throughout his adult life, Denny kept a close bond with the land on which he grew up, as he prowled around Comb Ridge and Chinle Wash, looking for hidden treasure. Now Denny was seized with a passion to find the grave where Aneth had buried the young man back in the 1930s.
For several days, Denny spent the time he had off from his carpentry and craftsman jobs out hiking Comb Ridge, looking into every corner and cranny along the rim. Then he returned to Bluff to visit Daisey again. This time he brought with him a USGS topo map, annotated with penciled-in landmarks—the hogans and grazing pastures of the neighbors and relatives with whom he and his sister had grown up.
“I tried to get her to show me where she’d parked the pickup with our grandpa,” Denny later told me. “When I showed her the map, she recognized a Y in the road near Colored Rock Woman’s house. She gave me real good directions.”
It was May 25, 2008. Denny rushed back out to the Comb, while Daisey drove home to Farmington. In less than two hours of searching, in an obscure crevice just under the crest of the Comb, Denny found what he was looking for. And he saw at once that the person whose bones lay in that unlikely tomb had been buried in haste, and perhaps in great fear.
When Daisey got home, the phone was ringing. It was Denny on the line. He blurted out four words: “I found the grave.”
Neither Denny nor Daisey, nor anyone in their family, had ever heard of Everett Ruess. Shortly after first listening to his sister’s story about their grandfather, Denny had summarized the tale to a friend in Bluff, Michael Peed, a retired art professor originally from Montana. At once Peed remarked, “Gosh, that sounds a lot like Everett Ruess.” Peed wrote down the vagabond’s name.
Denny got on a computer, Googled the name, and learned the basic outlines of the story of the artist and poet who had vanished near Davis Gulch in 1934. Later, Peed lent Denny a copy of Rusho’s A Vagabond for Beauty.
A few days after he found the grave, Denny took Vaughn Hadenfeldt out to the site. Denny showed Vaughn how, rounding a corner on a ledge, he had stumbled across a few stringy pieces of black, desiccated leather, then the wooden framework of an old saddle, and then a single wooden stirrup. All these objects were lying open to the air, in plain sight, yet in a remarkably obscure location. Just beyond the stirrup a narrow crevice gaped in the bedrock, beneath an eight-foot-high cliff. From a distance, Denny thought he could see bones in the dim recesses of the crack. He approached, verified that the bones were human, but touched nothing. As a traditional Navajo, Denny scrupulously observed the taboo about not coming in contact with the dead. Now, on his second visit with Vaughn, the strips of leather, the saddle, and the stirrup lay just as Denny had found them, as did the jumble of bones in the crevice.
That evening, Vaughn telephoned me. Listening to my friend’s synopsis of the bizarre story about Aneth, Daisey, and Denny, I clung to my skepticism. “It’s a coincidence,” I told Vaughn. “Everett’s burros were found in Davis Gulch. How’d they get over to Chinle Wash?”
“Yeah, that’s a problem,” Vaughn acknowledged. But he went on, “The grave could be a Navajo crevice burial, but there’s something pretty weird about it. Denny says if it was a Navajo grave, they’d have buried the saddle and the other stuff with the dead man. And it doesn’t look like the guy was carefully laid out in the crevice. It looks like he was jammed in there in a hurry.”
Vaughn sent me a few digital photos he had snapped at the site. One was a good shot of the stirrup. I got out Vagabond for Beauty. In a couple of photos of Everett on burro-back, the stirrups looked very much like the artifact Denny had found. But for all I knew, stirrups in the 1930s in the Southwest were all of a single make. To take another photo, Vaughn had leaned into the opening of the crevice and shot straight down. The upper half of a smooth white skull protruded intact from the dirt. Beside it was a leather belt decorated with metal studs, buckled closed in a twisted loop.
The photos intrigued me, but it took another call from Vaughn to plant the hook. “Hey, David,” he said over the phone, “I think you ought to take this seriously. What if it really could be Everett?”
I pondered the wild improbability. What did I have to lose? “Okay,” I said to Vaughn. “It’s worth a trip out there, I guess. Ask Denny if he’s willing to take me to the site.”
I called my editors at National Geographic Adventure to see if they were interested in this possibly new wrinkle about Everett Ruess. Guarded but curious, they agreed to finance my junket to Bluff.
Before I could get to Utah, however, Denny called the FBI in Monticello. If by some remote chance the grave was that of Everett Ruess—or of some other Anglo who had been killed by Utes—it was thus a crime scene. Fearful of violating legal sanctions, Denny felt it his duty to call the authorities.
I called up Rachel Boisselle, special agent in the Monticello office. Over the phone, she seemed friendly. She, too, had never heard of Everett Ruess, so I filled her in on the seventy-four-year-old saga. Boisselle was planning to head out to the site with Denny in a few days. But she was plainly skeptical. “Denny’s already dragged us out to another place down near Poncho House where he found bones coming out of the ground,” she told me. “When we got there, we could see right away that it was an Anasazi mother and child. We covered the bones back up.”
The Ruess story plainly intrigued Boisselle, however. “You can be sure we’ll treat this new burial with the utmost respect,” she told me just before we hung up. “We won’t disturb a thing.”
I had my misgivings. I called Greg Child, who lives in Castle Valley, Utah—only 120 miles north of Bluff—to tell him what was going on. Greg was as intrigued by the developing enigma as Vaughn and I were. Now Adventure commissioned Greg to photograph the strange crevice burial.
Greg drove down to Bluff and found Denny, who took him out on the Comb. “At the grave, Denny didn’t touch a thing,” Greg told me later. “And on the way back, he made me wash my hands in this spring he knew about. I had to wash them over and over again before Denny would let me get into his truck.”
At the site, Greg spent an hour photographing the burial—not only the “artifacts” (saddle, strips of leather, stirrup) lying on the ledge, but the top of the skull protruding from the dirt inside the crevice and the buckled belt beside it.
Greg’s photos, it turned out, would provide the only careful documentation of the burial site before the FBI team came in and trashed it completely.
* * *
In Bluff on July 7, I met Denny Bellson. Forty-three years old in the summer of 2008, he had a quiet demeanor but, I sensed at once, an alertness that took in every nuance of his surroundings. Of medium build, with dark hair flecked with gray and a mustache drooping past the corners of his mouth, he squinted through rimless spectacles that a professor might have worn.
With Vaughn, we drove south on Highway 191, then turned west on a gravel road. At the wheel, Denny took one fork after another, as the branching trails petered out in vestigial slickrock tracks. “When I was a kid,” Denny said, “I asked my dad, ‘Do people live out there?’ ” He pointed through the windshield at the stark plateau ahead of our truck. “Dad said, ‘Nope. You go out there and it just drops off into a big canyon.’ I thought it was like the end of the world.”
Finally we parked the truck and started hiking. It was 96 degrees and windless, and within minutes my face and chest were covered with sweat.
I noticed that Denny was toting a .357 Magnum in a holster strapped to his belt. “Why do you carry that gun?” I asked.
“Might step on another bobcat.” On a search for the grave back in May, Denny explained, he had put his weight on a rock beneath which a bobcat was crouching. “Spooked him bad,” Denny said. “Bobcats can be vicious.”
We came to the rim. Just below us, I recognized the shelf Vaughn, Greg, and I had hiked in 2004 on our traverse of the Comb. We had passed within a hundred yards of the grave site, I would soon realize, without suspecting there was anything interesting just above us on the right. Now Denny dropped one level, scuttled around a few corners, then stopped before a cranny so nondescript I wouldn’t even have bothered to search it for potsherds.
“Who piled up those rocks?” Vaughn asked, pointing at an assemblage that covered some six feet of crevice.
“FBI,” Denny answered.
As we pulled the camouflaging stones away from the grave, Vaughn groaned, and I cursed out loud, for I had seen Greg’s photos of the site before the feds had gotten here. “What the hell did they do?” I asked.
In a deadpan voice, Denny narrated his outing a week before with the FBI. The team had consisted of Rachel Boisselle from the Monticello office, two Navajo criminal investigators, and the San Juan county sheriff, who had invited his three sons along. “One of the CIs tried to lift up the skull,” Denny recounted, “and it broke into pieces. The FBI lady decided right off that it was a Navajo crevice burial. They acted like I was wasting their time.”
I was staring at the desecrated grave. The heavy saddle, the stirrup, and other odds and ends that Denny had originally found on the ledge in front of the crevice had been jammed into the tight space, further damaging the skeleton. When they were done, the whole team had covered up their work by piling stones to hide the grave.
“Sounds like they thought they were out on a fucking picnic,” I muttered.
Denny smiled. “It kinda was.”
“You just sat there and let them do it?”
“Wasn’t up to me. They’re the FBI.”
The three of us sat on boulders, surveying the wreckage. I wiped my brow with a bandanna. “I can smell those bones,” Denny said. I couldn’t, but Vaughn nodded. Denny added, “I could smell ’em when I got here the first time.”
“How did you find the grave?” I asked.
“Came around that corner there.” Denny pointed north. “I saw part of the saddle. That led me to the crevice.”
“Was it exciting?”
Daisey’s story about Aneth Nez was dancing in my head. “Why did your grandfather haul the body up here?”
Denny shrugged. “Dunno. Preserve it, maybe. Use it later.”
“For medicine?” I was out of my Navajo depth.
“For his ceremony.”
From the rim we could see Chinle Wash stretching north into the distance. Denny pointed to a pair of tall cottonwood trees three hundred feet below and a mile away. “They call that place the Standing Tree. I think that’s where the kid was killed by the Utes.”
At Vaughn’s urging, we scrambled down to the wash. None of us expected to find anything from the 1930s—flash floods over the decades would have scoured clean the creekbed and its banks. Vaughn, Greg, and I had backpacked this very stretch of the Chinle in 2004. But now the hike down from the rim and back up gave us a visceral sense of the effort Aneth Nez must have undertaken to bury the young man in the high crevice.
Back at the grave site, I asked Denny, “You think the saddle was Aneth’s?”
He nodded. “It would’ve been contaminated.”
“Why did Daisey wait thirty-seven years to tell you your grandfather’s story?”
“Dunno. You’ll have to ask her.”
I hestitated before posing what felt like an intrusive question. “Denny, is it dangerous for you to come here?”
“It is,” he answered right away. “Doesn’t matter if this guy is white, Mexican, or Navajo. It will probably affect me later.”
I thought about that. “Why are you willing to take Vaughn and me here?”
“I want to find out who this guy is.” Denny stared at the crevice. “Well, he sure picked the loneliest place to die.”
I was impressed. Denny had been doing his homework.
The next day I drove to Farmington to talk to Daisey Johnson. We met for lunch at the International House of Pancakes, her favorite restaurant. She had dressed up for the occasion, wearing a bright red blouse and a brooch made of concentric rings of turquoise stones. Her wavy auburn hair seemed to belie her age—but after a moment I realized that it was probably a wig, for I knew the chemotherapy had caused her hair to fall out. Now Daisey’s face bore a frown of anguish—the residue of her months of suffering from a cancer that would not go away.
A week earlier, over the telephone, Daisey had told me a brief version of Aneth Nez’s story. Now she recounted her grandfather’s saga in much greater detail.
“When Grandpa brought back the lock of hair, it was in a plastic bag,” Daisey explained. “I saw it later for just a second. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to see it. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know what Grandpa did with that white man.”
Daisey retold the story of the five-day Enemy Way curing ceremony her grandfather had undergone, culminating with the covering of the lock of hair with ash, then shooting it with a gun. “After that,” Daisey said, “once the ceremony was done, I didn’t hear anything more about the guy down there in Chinle Wash. But I kept thinking about him. He must have family somewhere. I kept thinking if my son was laying out there somewhere, I would want somebody to tell me where he was. Plus, what was even more shocking was that the guy was only twenty years old.”
There was a long pause. I asked, “Do you have any interest in going out to the grave site?”
“No.” Daisey’s answer was emphatic.
“Because it would be harmful for you?”
Daisey sighed. “The medicine man warned me just last week not to hang around the dead, not even to go to any funerals.”
“Denny told me,” I said, “that he thinks having found the grave site is dangerous for him.”
“It is. I don’t know why he’s doing it. I hope he puts ash on himself every time he goes out there.”
There was another long silence. Daisey had ordered dessert, but the pie and ice cream sat untouched on her plate. “How do you feel about the possibility this could be Everett Ruess?” I asked.
“I hope it is,” she answered. “I hope they solve it. He was such a young guy. What was he doing out here all alone? I hope they take him back to wherever he came from. He’s got family there.”
* * *
Before I had gone out to Utah in July 2008, I had telephoned Brian Ruess, who lives in Portland, Oregon. One of four children of Waldo Ruess and his wife, Conchita, Brian and his three siblings were Everett’s closest living relatives, though all four had been born too late to have met their vagabond uncle. Waldo had died in 2007, the day after his ninety-eighth birthday. During his last years, the lifelong quest Waldo had pursued to solve the great mystery of his brother’s fate had been redoubled by his four children. But after decades of fielding leads and hints and theories that had never panned out, the family had become skeptical that any new evidence would ever surface.
After my long phone conversation with Brian, however, he instantly e-mailed his siblings. “How is this for weird?” his missive began. He deftly summarized the story of Denny, Daisey, and Aneth Nez. Brian closed, “Pretty fascinating!”
By now I had another assignment from National Geographic Adventure. For its tenth anniversary issue, in April–May 2009, the magazine would run a second story about Everett Ruess, a decade after my report on the mystery in the premiere issue.
Was there any way, I wondered, to prove or disprove whether the bones Denny had discovered in the Comb Ridge crevice could possibly be Everett’s? What about DNA?
The same day that I called Brian, I got in touch with Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, a Texas-based firm that has done consulting work for the National Geographic Society for many years. Once more I related the haunting story Daisey had told me over the phone. After a pause, Greenspan gave me an answer. It was a long shot—a very long shot. But with the right pair of samples and the most sophisticated sort of lab work, Family Tree might just be able to demonstrate a match. Or prove a mismatch.
But if we were ever to probe the mystery deeper, by retrieving a DNA sample from the Comb Ridge skeleton, that was a business that had to be done with the utmost delicacy and through proper channels. On our various visits to the site, Vaughn, Greg Child, Denny, and I had not so much as touched a single bone. If “messing with death” was a dire Navajo taboo, it would be flagrant desecration for white folks to disturb what might well be a Native American burial.
Before heading out to Utah, I had also gotten in touch with Ron Maldonado, the supervisory archaeologist in the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, based in Window Rock, Arizona. Maldonado was instantly intrigued by the unfolding saga—and instantly cautious. He agreed, however, to go out to the site with us and have a look around. Though a Hispanic, Maldonado, I soon learned, was married to a Navajo woman. He also had vast experience with crevice burials on the reservation.
Several days after my first visit to the grave, Vaughn, Denny, and I met Maldonado at the café-cum-convenience store that amounts to the town of Mexican Water. The archaeologist was a hefty fellow in his early fifties, with hippie-length salt-and-pepper hair and a Burl Ives beard and mustache. He spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice, often after long pauses.
With Denny leading the way, we drove three vehicles through the maze of dirt roads west of Highway 191 out onto the slickrock plateau, then hiked to the rim of Comb Ridge. The day was as hot as on our previous foray, and my tongue was parched long before we arrived.
Rachel Boisselle had called Maldonado before the FBI had headed out to the Comb, and I had forwarded to him Greg’s photos of the grave as it looked when Denny had found it. Now, as soon as Maldonado peered into the crevice, he sucked in his breath. “Rachel promised me they wouldn’t move anything,” he complained. “I’m just really ticked off at what they did.” Gently he removed the saddle and the other “artifacts” from the crevice. “In a crime scene,” he said, “you don’t just shove the goods into the grave.”
For the next hour, lying awkwardly on his side, sweating profusely, Maldonado reached into the crevice and deftly wielded a trowel to pick the dirt away from the bones. He, too, avoided touching any part of the skeleton. Instead, he studied its layout. As he had two days before, Denny sat about ten yards away, watching and saying little.
After a while, Maldonado commented, “It’s definitely a full-sized skull. But it’s still growing. It looks like a guy in his twenties.” Many minutes later: “He’s not facing east. As far as I can tell, he’s facing to the southwest. If it was a Navajo burial, he’d be facing east.”
Later still: “It just doesn’t look like a Navajo burial. They would have put the saddle in the crevice with him.”
Denny spoke up: “They would have killed the horse, too. Hit it with an ax, and left the ax handle in the grave.”
Still later, Denny asked, “Smell the bones?”
Maldonado sat up, trowel in hand. “Yeah. You can smell them even when they’re a thousand years old. It gets into the dirt. It’s a smell I can never forget. This guy I used to work with calls it ‘people grease.’ ”
We took a break to sit in the shade and eat lunch. Maldonado mused out loud, “Look at that crevice. It’s not a likely place to bury somebody. You could make a much better burial right over there, or there.” He pointed to a pair of ample slots in the rimrock cliff just behind us. “He may have been trying to hide the body in a hurry,” Maldonado went on, referring to Aneth Nez. “Just stuff him in there, then maneuver him around. He had to get him in the ground before sunset.
“It all makes sense. The 1930s were a really volatile time on the reservation. The government had started wholesale livestock reduction, killing thousands of Navajo sheep and cattle. They were hauling the kids off to boarding schools. Here’s a Navajo guy who witnesses a murder. Your grandpa”—Maldonado nodded at Denny—“doesn’t want the remains just lying out on the ground. In the thirties, if a white guy gets killed on the rez, they call out the cavalry. Round up a bunch of Navajos, pick a suspect, and lock him in jail. I can see why your grandpa would have tried to hide the guy. And then I can see why he wouldn’t tell anybody about it for thirty-some years.”
After lunch, Maldonado went back to work. Finally, toward late afternoon, we sat in the shade again. The archaeologist lowered his head and wiped his brow as he pondered, silent for so long that he seemed to be meditating. Finally he spoke: “It just doesn’t look like a Navajo burial. Who else lives in this area?”
“Nobody,” said Denny.
“Who else could be buried out here?”
Denny shook his head. He had asked his neighbors. There were no old stories of grave sites on this part of the Comb. “Mom and Dad,” Denny added, “always told us to stay away from here. They never told us why.”
“According to Navajo Nation policy,” Maldonado said, “we’re supposed to protect graves, whether Native American or not. But we’re also supposed to try to find the lineal descendants, if there’s an unidentified body.” He turned to me. “Who’s the relative you talked to?”
“Brian Ruess. He’s Everett’s nephew.”
“Ask him to request a DNA sample.” It was obvious that Maldonado’s decision had not come easily to him. He stood up and hoisted his fanny pack. “Out here,” he said, “Navajo oral tradition is pretty accurate. Based on that tradition, I think there’s a good chance this is Everett Ruess.”
* * *
For the grave that Denny had discovered on the crest of the Comb Ridge to be Everett’s, a couple of logical puzzles would have to be solved. The most troublesome was what I had started calling “the burro problem.” According to Aneth’s story, the young Anglo who was chased and killed by the Utes in the 1930s had been riding one animal and leading another. Yet in 1982 Bud Rusho had been told by the surviving search party members that they had found Everett’s burros ranging inside the open corral in Davis Gulch.
But if, as the old-timers told me in 1998, Gail Bailey had indeed found the animals on his own, before the March 1935 search had been launched, and had taken the animals up on “the mountain,” where they were never seen again, how could we credit the truth of any Escalante testimony about the burros? Rusho’s Vagabond for Beauty reprinted a photo of the searchers on horseback leading what looks like a pair of burros up a livestock trail. Could they be different beasts from Everett’s Cockleburrs and Chocolatero?
If one supposes that Everett had left his burros in Davis Gulch while he explored eastward, another logical snag immediately presents itself. Chinle Wash lies sixty miles as the crow flies east of Davis Gulch, maybe ninety miles as a hiker might wend his way. In his three years of exploring the Southwest, Everett had never been known to stray far from his burros or horses. After his first foray into Yosemite in 1930, when he had struggled with the burden of a fifty-pound pack, Everett had sworn always to use pack animals in the future.
It seems highly unlikely that in November 1934, Everett might have left Cockleburrs and Chocolatero in Davis Gulch, then covered the ninety rugged miles to Chinle Wash carrying his belongings on his back. It is doubtful that he even had a pack large enough to hold camping gear, food, clothing, and painting kit for an extended journey.
What eventually seemed the most logical solution to the burro problem came to me after another old Southwestern crony, Fred Blackburn, commented, “The hardest thing to do with a pack animal is to get it to cross a big river.” Fred owns and trains horses, and has led many a wilderness outing with those animals, as well as other treks with mules, burros, and llamas. His remark reminded me of the passage from Everett’s last letter to his parents, in which he described the extreme difficulty he had had coaxing Chocolatero to cross the Colorado on a sturdy suspension bridge, solved only when “a packer dragged him across behind his mule, and he left a bloody track all the way across.”
In the same letter, Everett had anticipated crossing the Colorado during the days to come, noting, “The water is very low this year.” In fact, Bureau of Reclamation records that go back to the first decade of the twentieth century reveal that the Colorado was flowing at 2,400 cubic feet per second in early November 1934, and that that level was as meager a flow as was ever recorded in the 105 years from 1906 to the present. It is possible, then, that at a place such as Hole-in-the-Rock, Everett could have waded the Colorado rather than having to swim it.
The parsimonious solution, to my mind, was that after all his troubles with Chocolatero and river fords, Everett had decided temporarily to leave behind or even to abandon his burros in Davis Gulch, cross the river with his camping gear and personal equipment, make contact with Indians on the east side, and buy or trade for new pack animals so that he could explore farther to the east. In previous years he had sometimes bargained with Navajos for burros. And as he had left Escalante, he wrote his parents, he had “more money than I need.”
With Denny’s discovery of the burial on Comb Ridge, the NEMO carved on the granary in Grand Gulch and the Music Note panel inked on the sandstone wall upstream took on a heightened significance. Grand Gulch lies almost exactly halfway between Davis Gulch and Chinle Wash, smack on the most logical trail between those two canyons. Since Everett had started signing himself NEMO only in late 1934, did the Grand Gulch inscriptions mark his midway passage from one place to the other?
To solidify the authenticity of the NEMO in Grand Gulch, Vaughn and I took Fred Blackburn in to see it in April 2009. Despite having served for several years in the 1970s as a ranger in Grand Gulch, Fred had never found the inscription. But if Vaughn was an expert at deciphering historic signatures scrawled on rock walls and ruins, Fred was a genius of the craft. Sometime schoolteacher, rancher, writer, and historian living in Cortez, Colorado, Fred had received numerous government grants to record the Kilroy-was-here’s of early Anglo and Hispanic visitors to such places as Cliff Palace on Mesa Verde and Inscription House in Navajo National Monument. There, using one trick of vision after another, he had teased out scores of badly faded signatures that no one had ever been able to read before.
We reached the granary just before noon. During the eleven years since Vaughn’s and my 1998 visit, the NEMO inscription had faded even more, or perhaps been further obliterated by some do-gooder who disapproved of graffiti, no matter how old. Fred couldn’t find it until Vaughn pointed out where the four letters made a downward tilt in the mud on the left side of the granary. I doubted that Vaughn himself could have seen it had this been his first attempt.
Suddenly Fred grew animated, narrating his excitement out loud. “N, E, M, O—that’s what it says!” he blurted. “And I really doubt it’s a copycat. It’s a weird place to put it on a wall. If you’d put up a copycat, you’d pick a sucker like Bannister, right on the trail.” Bannister Ruin, one of the most prominent in the Gulch, lies several miles upstream from the obscure granary on the ledge where we peered at the fugitive characters.
Photography is useless for such faint inscriptions. For the next hour, using a physician’s magnifying glass to amplify his vision, Fred laboriously sketched the signature in pencil in a large notebook he carries with him wherever he documents historic writing in the wilderness.
“Somebody’s obviously tried to rub it out,” Vaughn said.
“It just takes one more asshole,” Fred added, “and it’s gone.”
As Fred sketched the faint letters, I stared over the winding canyon to the south. A cottonwood downstream blazed with young green leaves, and the opposite wall rose in a smooth, ruddy parabola. For all its defensiveness, the granary site had a lordly command of its surroundings. “It’s a real Everett kind of place,” I murmured.
“Yeah,” said both Vaughn and Fred simultaneously.
It had been years since Fred had looked at Rusho’s Vagabond for Beauty. Back at the trailhead late that afternoon, I got out a copy and opened it to the photo of the charcoal inscription in Davis Gulch. Fred’s voice rose to a gloating screech. “Damn right!” he declared. “That’s it! It’s the same! The ‘O’ is more oval, the ‘M’ is short-cropped at the top, the ‘E’ is slanted.”
“It sure does look similar,” said Vaughn.
“The same damn guy wrote it, that’s why!” Fred crowed.
* * *
After I telephoned Brian Ruess, he consulted his three siblings. They agreed to request the DNA sample. On the advice of Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA, I helped Brian and his sister Michèle determine which family specimen the Texas lab might test. Greenspan was bent on looking for mitochondrial DNA, which is carried only in the maternal line, so samples from Waldo’s four children could not be used as a match for the bones in the crevice. But there was no living person related to Everett by a strictly maternal connection. Waldo would have been the ideal source for mitochondrial DNA, but he had died the previous year.
Michèle Ruess came up with a clever possible solution. After Waldo’s death, his wife, Conchita, had kept her husband’s favorite hairbrush, which still had fragments of his hair tangled in the bristles. Hair itself contains no DNA, except in the follicles attached to the roots. Here was the long shot—but Greenspan was willing to give it a try. Michèle carefully wrapped the hairbrush and sent it to the lab in Texas.
On July 22, Ron Maldonado went back out to the site with Denny and Greg Child. I would have given much to be along on this outing, but by then I had left Utah and gone home. Greenspan had briefed Maldonado on how to recover human remains without contaminating them with one’s own DNA. A molar tooth, he counseled, would be the very best thing to find.
At the site, Maldonado started excavating in as gingerly a fashion as he could. Lying loose in a cranny in front of the crevice was a 1912 Liberty dime that had been converted into a button. Maldonado retrieved it so that Greg could photograph it. The thing struck all three men as a very Navajo kind of relic (antique Navajo belts made of silver dollars fetch high prices in today’s Southwestern gift shops). But we also knew that Everett loved to wear Indian jewelry. In any event, the button gave us a terminus ad quem: the burial could not have taken place before 1912.
Almost at once, to his relief, just inches below the surface Maldonado came across two loose molar teeth. With great care, he removed and packaged them. There would be no more digging that day.
As soon as he got back to Window Rock, Maldonado e-mailed me about a bizarre event that had occurred as the men returned to their truck:
A dust devil (whirlwind) started at or near me violently sending dust into the area. It seemed that it visited each of us individually and slowly meandered down the road, lingering, appearing to die out, then starting again. It is all very strange and definitely associated with the burial. Denny stated that it was Mister Ruess. Such things are associated with the dead and should be avoided at all costs. It has been a strange day.
We all hoped for a quick answer from Family Tree, but in the end, the testing would take many weeks and involve stranger twists and turns than any of us, including Greenspan, could have anticipated. When the verdict came down, it left all of us baffled, confused, and in a sense, back at square one.
* * *
Family Tree eventually admitted that somehow one of their own lab technicians had accidentally contaminated the sample. After sorting out the consequences of this glitch, on September 30, Greenspan finally sent me an official report. Most of it was couched in technical jargon, but the conclusion was unmistakable. Greenspan wrote: “It is clear that the mtDNA from the root of the tooth and the DNA from the hair brush do not contain the same signature, and that both are European in origin and not Native American.”
Later, over the telephone, Greenspan admitted to me that he was not at all happy with the hairbrush. The DNA from Waldo’s hair was “degenerated,” and it might have been contaminated by being handled by others. On the other hand, he was one hundred percent certain that the molar DNA was Caucasian. It was not only not Navajo—it belonged to no Native American.
So the body in the crevice on Comb Ridge was most likely not that of Everett Ruess. It was instead that of some other young white man.
But who the hell was he?
Between 1912 and, say, 1940, there were very few white men of any kind wandering about the Navajo reservation. And in southeastern Utah during that era, if an Anglo vanished in the wilderness, pretty much everybody knew about it. For weeks after getting Greenspan’s DNA report, I sought out regional historians and old-timers to ask them if they knew of any tales of Anglos disappearing on the rez in the 1920s or 1930s. The best informed scholars told me that nothing in Aneth Nez’s story rang even the faintest bell.
Despite the lingering reservations we all harbored about the soundness of Family Tree’s findings, Ron Maldonado decided to complete the excavation, in hopes of coming up with further clues to the young man’s identity. A few days before our return to the Comb, I was in Boulder, Colorado, having dinner with my friend Steve Lekson. Of all the Southwestern archaeologists I had met, I considered Lekson the most brilliant.
Now I told Steve about our Comb Ridge quest. He didn’t know much about Everett Ruess, but his eyes lit up. “You can do a lot more than just DNA,” he said, when I had finished my recital. “A physical anthropogist can tell all kinds of things from bones. What kind of bones have you got?” At the end of the evening, Steve gave me the e-mail address of his colleague at the University of Colorado, Dennis Van Gerven.
On November 23, I was back on the rim of the Comb with Maldonado, Denny, Greg, and Vaughn. The blazing heat of July had given way to a late autumnal glory: soft, low-angled light, cool in the shade, balmy in the sun. Maldonado unpacked his tool bag, then lay in an awkward position on his side, as he reached into the crevice and excavated with trowel and brush. He kept up a running commentary. “Water’s been comin’ through here,” he said. “There’s a lot of disturbance, but I think it’s natural.… Seems like a jumble of bones. Not like a crevice burial—just stuff the body in any way you can.…
“Holy smokes, what’s going on in here? That looks like a tooth way over here, by the lower leg.… He’s definitely been crunched in here tight.”
Maldonado’s labor confirmed our initial suspicion that the crevice was almost too shallow to hold a human body. Everything about the confused muddle of the bones bespoke haste, concealment, and a desperate forcing of the body into a rock coffin into which it did not really fit. After two hours of steady work, Maldonado completed his excavation.
I was disappointed that we had found not a single scrap of apparel, but Vaughn said, “I’m not surprised. Leather and cloth just rot away, or the varmints get it. It’s prime stuff for pack rats to build their nests with.”
The only “artifacts” Ron’s troweling had revealed were a couple of old metal buttons and about twenty-five beads—yellow, orange, red, and green, made apparently of glass and turquoise. Some were so tiny that I could not imagine how an artisan had drilled holes through them. “Probably a necklace,” Maldonado ventured, “that he had hanging around his neck. The cord they were strung on is long gone.” To all of us, it was disconcerting to find an ornament that seemed so Native American in style. But I remembered Everett’s pride in the Navajo bracelet he had bought—“whose three turquoises gleam in the firelight,” he wrote in his last letter to Waldo.
At the end of the excavation, Maldonado had said, “I think we’ve found his lower jaw.” Now the mandible rested on the surface of a nearby boulder as we studied it. Most of the teeth were still in their sockets. Two of the left front incisors overlapped, indicating a severe overbite. Maldonado soliloquized: “No fillings. But the teeth aren’t ground down, either. He had a crooked smile, that’s for sure. Definitely an adult, not a child. He had a kind of pointy chin.”
“What do you want to do with it?” I asked.
“Give me a minute. I’ve got to think.” As he had in July, Maldonado seemed to retreat into a trance. I realized that he was weighing all kinds of moral considerations on his mental scales, including, as he had said the previous summer, the desire to give “solace and closure” not only to the Ruess family, but to Daisey Johnson. Perhaps fifteen minutes passed before he spoke again, and when he did, it was as if he had prepared a speech.
“On the rez,” he said, “when you come across a Navajo burial, you can almost always find somebody who knows who it was. In this case, there’s nothing of that sort around. I’ve never had anybody claim affiliation to a burial when there wasn’t someone really there in the ground. Especially the older people—they don’t make up stories. They don’t have any reason to make up a story.
“But on the other hand, I’ve never before found an Anglo buried in a crevice.” Maldonado paused as he looked around at each of us. “It’s okay with me to recover this mandible and get it to the guy at CU. As long as we all pledge to return it to the grave after he’s finished analyzing it. Everybody on board with this?” We all murmured our assent.
Maldonado wrapped the mandible in tissue, then inserted it in a plastic bag. I put it in my day pack and carried it out to the car, where I returned it to the archaeologist. “I’ll get in touch with Van Gerven, and have him talk to you.”
Maldonado held the package in his hands. “I have no idea what we’ll learn from this,” he said. “Maybe nothing.”
* * *
Dennis Van Gerven ignored my first two e-mails. Later he admitted he was doing his best to stiff-arm my inquiries, since he tended to get bombarded with pleas from nut cases who had watched too many episodes of CSI. His first communiqué had annoyance written all over it, as he signed off, “In short a study of the mandible from my point of view would be quite pointless.”
I persisted. “Would there not be some chance you might see something the DNA test couldn’t tell us?” He e-mailed back, still annoyed, “I seriously doubt it but Paul and I would be willing to look at it.” Around New Year’s Day, Maldonado shipped the mandible to Paul Sandberg, Van Gerven’s grad-student assistant.
Meanwhile on the Internet I had found the report of one of Van Gerven’s cardinal triumphs. In the “Hillmon case,” Van Gerven had solved a riddle of faked identity that had vexed experts since 1879, and that had been important enough twice to reach the Supreme Court. The man’s modus operandi had been to superimpose photos of an excavated skull onto historic photographs of living men, to ascertain the best match. Reading the report, I realized that Van Gerven knew his way around a skeleton.
I hammered away, e-mailing a detailed account of Everett Ruess, Aneth Nez, Daisey Johnson, Denny Bellson, and our efforts so far on Comb Ridge. And I promised to scour the Internet for all the photos of Everett I could find and forward them. Slowly, Van Gerven warmed to the challenge. On January 6 he e-mailed me, “Dig up everything that you can. We may be able to do something interesting.” By “dig up” I assumed he meant “find photos,” not return to the grave with shovel in hand.
The case had caught Van Gerven’s fancy. “The money shot is the profile,” he e-mailed on January 10, referring to a side photo of Everett taken by Dorothea Lange in 1933. Already, Van Gerven had noticed a striking similarity between the mandible and the deep jaw in the Lange photo. But the anthropologist was frustrated. “Is the portion of the mandible,” he queried me on January 12, “the entirety of the material recovered?”
“Forgot to mention,” I wrote the next day, “the upper part of the skull was intact when we first saw the site, but the FBI team managed to destroy it when they tried to yank it out of the ground! Would a picture of it pre-FBI help?”
Within an hour, Van Gerven e-mailed back, “Yes yes yes. Do you have the pieces??? God, get them and send them.… Get us the photos and try for each and every piece of skeleton. Man, let me know.” A full-blown fever had evidently seized the former skeptic.
Greg Child’s photos from before the FBI outing and mine from after pushed Van Gerven over the edge. I thought my snapshots of the saddle crammed on top of the smashed cranium would dismay anyone who saw them, but Van Gerven was jazzed. “God there is a skull!” he e-mailed back. “If it is still just that complete or even if not we will take the ID to a whole new level. The best stuff is still there!!!!” If someone could retrieve—or even simply measure in situ—other parts of the skull, Van Gerven told me over the phone, he might be able to reconstruct the whole head and compare it to the photos of Everett Ruess.
The upshot was that Van Gerven and Sandberg decided to drop everything at the beginning of a hectic spring term at CU and head down to southeast Utah. I got in touch with Maldonado, Denny, and Vaughn to arrange yet another rendezvous. On January 23 the two scholars drove all the way from Boulder to Bluff, an eleven-hour journey, their four-by-four packed with tools. And the next day the five men headed out to the grave site. For Denny, it would be the eighth visit since he had first stumbled upon the lonely grave the previous May.
On January 24, Van Gerven, Sandberg, Denny, Vaughn, and Ron Maldonado went out to the site. As I sat stewing in Cambridge, wondering what magic this team might pull off, they went to work in the rock crevice. It had rained for several days in southeast Utah, and the dirt roads were slick as they drove the plateau toward the crest of the Comb, but as soon as the men reached the hidden cranny, the sky cleared and a benevolent sun shone down upon them.
Maldonado turned the excavating over to Van Gerven and his doctoral student. In the first few minutes they made a startling deduction from the bones: these were unmistakably the remains of a male between the ages of late teens and early twenties. Piece by piece, the physical anthropologists retrieved one rib and vertebra and toe bone and tooth after another; they also salvaged many scraps of the young man’s skull. Digging deeper than even Maldonado had in November into the farthest recesses of the crevice, they found many more glass and turquoise beads, as well as a turquoise pendant. Each bone and artifact was gently handled and wrapped for removal to a CU lab. From new molar teeth, Van Gerven thought a colleague of his might retrieve another DNA signature.
There were some surprises. “I think whoever killed him stole his shoes,” Van Gerven told me two days later.
“Why do you think that?”
“The guy wasn’t out there walking barefoot. And Denny agreed, if a Navajo buries somebody, he leaves his shoes on him.”
“Vaughn thought a varmint might have taken the shoes.”
“Nope,” Van Gerven responded. “If a predator gets his teeth into the shoe, he pulls the foot loose with it. We’ve got a heel bone. We’ve got big toes, for Christ’s sake!
“The wonderful thing,” Van Gerven went on, “is that we have diagnostic bones from the lower face. The nasal region is pivotal—where the bridge of your glasses sits. If we can put all the pieces of skull together, and if the contours fit the photographs of Everett, then we’ve got a hell of a case.”
At the very end of the day, wedging himself as deep inside the crevice as he could, Vaughn found the most provocative artifact yet. It was a metal button, embossed with the logo MOUNTAINEER curving around the rim above an X, in the vertices of which the numerals 0–1-2–3 were tucked. At once Vaughn thought of Everett’s rambles in the Sierra Nevada in 1933. There the vagabond had befriended Park Service rangers and Sierra Club hikers. Was the button a vestige of some such association?
A friend of Vaughn’s who was an expert in buttons (yes, archaeology has become that specialized!) eventually e-mailed him an analysis:
[The button] probably came from a pair of Mountaineer overalls made by ZCMI in Salt Lake City. They began manufacturing Mountaineer overalls in 1872 and they were still available in the 1930s and for who knows how much later. ZCMI is the Mormon Church’s Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution. It started to manufacture all sorts of goods by Mormons for Mormons so that the Utah economy was stimulated and insulated from leakage to the outside world. We have found work clothes buttons marked ZCMI, so the Mountaineer button may be a later version.
This information, however, did not prove that the overalls in question had belonged to an Anglo, for in the early decades of the twentieth century, Indians in Utah regularly bought and traded for Mormon-made clothing.
Back in Boulder, Van Gerven and Sandberg’s first task was to stabilize the very fragile pieces of bone—especially skull fragments—they had retrieved from the crevice. Many of the bones were sun-bleached and eroded after decades of exposure to the elements. But the anthropologists were heartened to find, as Sandberg wrote me in late February, that “three fragments of the face, two of them with teeth still in place, were tightly embedded and protected in the dirt, and we had a nearly complete mandible. It seems as though a previous attempt to force the skull out of the dirt [i.e., by the FBI] had left much of the face intact under the surface.”
From the very start, Van Gerven and Sandberg were able to make what they called a “biological profile” of the victim. “The shape of the pelvis told us that the individual was male,” Sandberg explained. “The degree of developmental maturity of the bones told us that he was between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, and measurement of the femur gave us a stature estimate of five feet eight, give or take a couple of inches.”
The facial fragments were critical to reconstructing the dead man’s physiognomy. Molding the stabilized bones in place with clay representing the missing parts, the scientists painstakingly rebuilt a partial model of the head. For comparison, they had two of the splendid portraits of Ruess that Dorothea Lange had shot in 1933, one face-on, one in profile. As Sandberg explained,
Using Adobe Photoshop CS, we blended images of Ruess and the bones together. This technique is good at excluding people, almost too good because it can easily exclude the right person due to distortions that arise in photography. You’ve got to take the photo of the bones in the same manner as the portrait. Once we got the two photos superimposed, we aligned two anatomical points that were the easiest to establish on the bones and the portrait. In the profile portrait, they were the top of the nose and the bottom of the mandible. In the front view portrait, they were the edges of the teeth. Now the question becomes, do the other anatomical landmarks line up? They do. Everything matches.
“I’d be just as happy to disprove the match as I would to prove it,” Van Gerven had warned me as the two men had started their work. But day by day he grew more animated. “I have a really good feeling about this,” he told me in early February. A few days later: “So far, there’s nothing exclusionary.”
Finally, at the end of February, Van Gerven phoned me with his verdict. “All the lines of evidence converge,” he said. “This guy was male. Everett was male. This guy was about twenty years old. Everett was twenty years old. This guy was about five foot eight. Everett was about five eight.
“Everett had unique facial features, including a really large, deep chin. This guy had the same features. And the bones match the photos in every last detail, even down to the spacing between the teeth. The odds are astronomically small that this could be a coincidence.”
* * *
Van Gerven paused. “If I had to take it to court, I’d say that it matches Everett Ruess with reasonable professional certainty.”
Van Gerven and Sandberg wanted further corroboration of their find, however, so they enlisted Kenneth Krauter, a colleague at the University of Colorado, who is a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and a leading expert on DNA. Krauter and his assistant, Helen Marshall, agreed to perform a new DNA test on the bones. From one of the femurs Marshall cut a cross-section disk, used an ultrasonic method to clean it of all possible contaminants, then pulverized and dissolved it to extract the DNA at the core.
Meanwhile, the four Ruess nieces and nephews all sent saliva samples to Krauter’s lab. The aim was to compare the DNA in those samples with the DNA extracted from the femur. A nephew or niece would be expected to share about 25 percent of the DNA of his or her uncle.
Using state-of-the-art hardware and software from Affymetrix, an industry leader in gene technology, Krauter and Marshall compared no fewer than 600,000 DNA markers. (CODIS, the protocol used in most criminal forensic cases, is capable of comparing only from fifteen to eighteen markers.)
To Krauter and Marshall’s surprise and delight, the comparison with the saliva samples yielded an overlap very close to 25 percent of the markers for all four nieces and nephews. To double-check their results, the scientists compared the femur DNA to a database of fifty random strangers. The overlap with all fifty was infinitesimal—only tiny fractions of one percent at most. Further checking their results against possible errors, Krauter forwarded his analysis to colleagues at Harvard, who vouched for its integrity.
In April 2009, Krauter announced, “The combination of forensic analysis and genetic analysis makes it an open-and-shut case. I believe it would hold up in any court in the country.”
On April 30, 2009, with my article in Adventure just out, the National Geographic Society held a nationwide teleconference to announce our discovery. In a motel room in Farmington, New Mexico, Denny, Daisey, and I shared a telephone, as did Ken Krauter and Dennis Van Gerven from an office at the University of Colorado in Boulder; also on the line were Ron Maldonado in Window Rock, Brian Ruess in Portland, and Michèle Ruess in Seattle. Asking us questions from their assorted venues were reporters ranging from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, as well as regional correspondents in Denver, Boulder, Durango, Salt Lake City, Tucson, and other Western cities and towns.
The media response was electric. “A Mystery of the West Is Solved,” read the New York Times headline. “Enigma Unraveled,” announced the online InsideOutsideMag.com. “The Mystery of Everett Ruess’ Disappearance Is Solved,” declared the Los Angeles Times. Other publications hailed Everett more poetically, as “Kerouac of the Canyonlands” (Tucson Weekly) and “Man-Child in the Promised Land” (American Spectator). The furor reached an international audience, as publications in the United Kingdom, Germany, and even Russia picked up the story. The Russian clipping, titled “In the United States found the remains of the missing 75 years ago poet,” contained some pithy poeticizing of its own, as rendered by Google’s automated translation service:
Discovers bone Denny Bellson, a resident at the Utah Navajo Indian reservations. According to Bellsona, his late grandfather in 1934 saw Ruessa beaten to death and robbed, and hid the body in the cleft of the coyote and the vultures.
The news brought the bloggers out of the woodwork. Many of the comments were simply appreciative: “Kind of sounds like a Tony Hillerman novel,” wrote one commentator, and another, “Very fascinating story, it makes me want to go wander around the Chinle area too and see the same sites that Ruess did.” Others were downright weird, like the post of a blogger calling himself “Toy”: “I guess there’s only one thing left to do … is have an uprising against the UTE. Its the only way we can remain safe in the West.… Take away their casinos!!!”
Around Escalante, the locals reaped a grim satisfaction from the discovery. A woman identifying herself as the daughter of Joe Pollock and niece of Keith Riddle e-mailed the Ogden Standard-Examiner: “TO THOSE PEOPLE WHO MADE A VIDEO [presumably Diane Orr’s Lost Forever] AND WROTE THE STORY OF EVERTT [my 1999 article in Adventure], I THINK YOU DID A VERY BIASED VERSION OF WHAT YOU HEARD FROM OTHERS.… WE AS A FAMILY HAS BEEN HURT BY WHAT WAS WRITTEN ABOUT JOE AND KEITH AND NO ONE WHO KNEW MY DAD AND UNCLE BELIEVED ANY THING THAT WAS WRITTEN.” Another relative gloated (also in capital letters), “UNCLE JOE AND UNCLE KEITH ARE GRINNING AT THE FICTION WRITERS AND STORY TELLERS ABOUT NOW.”
A number of commentators wondered out loud whether Aneth Nez himself had committed the murder, conveniently blaming it on Utes. That thought had in fact occurred to Vaughn Hadenfeldt and me early on, but it was not the sort of speculation we were eager to share with Denny Bellson or Daisey Johnson.
On June 22, I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by the Glen Canyon Institute in the packed Orson Spencer Hall auditorium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Brian and Michèle Ruess had come from the West Coast to share their insights into the uncle they revered but had never met. Others speaking from the lectern included Denny, Vaughn, Greg Child, and Bud Rusho, who had reluctantly been won over to the Comb Ridge discovery. The audience was fervent and enthusiastic, and hung on every word that Denny, Brian, and Michèle spoke. The cult of Everett Ruess seemed to me to pulsate through the auditorium. But in the Q&A period after the discussion, two or three skeptics rose to voice their doubts about our solution to the mystery. One of them was Kevin Jones, the Utah state archaeologist. It puzzled me that Jones seemed not only to resist our findings, but to be angry that we had dared to announce them. In the coming months he would play the critical role in a slowly rising tide of doubt about the Comb Ridge find.
Although we had exchanged months’ worth of e-mails, I had never met Brian and Michèle before we came together in Salt Lake City. A few days before the June 22 panel, Michèle, her husband, Mark Travers, and I drove from Salt Lake City three hundred miles south to Bluff. Michèle wanted to visit the grave.
For weeks, Michèle and Daisey Johnson had been e-mailing each other, and they had had a sympathetic telephone conversation. Now Daisey, who was visiting her sisters in White Rock Point, a small trailer park on the reservation south of Bluff, agreed to go out to the site with us, though she had decided not to come within three hundred yards of the grave itself. As soon as the two women met for the first time, they threw open their arms and hugged. Michèle murmured, “Daisey! Thank you for coming.”
Daisey’s cancer had gotten worse. It took a painful effort for her to make her way a hundred yards from our vehicles to a rock bench from which she had a commanding view of Chinle Wash meandering off to the north. She was content to sit there and wait while the rest of us—Vaughn, Ron Maldonado, his colleague John Stein, Denny, Michèle, Mark, and I—ambled down the now-familiar route through the ledges to the crevice from which the bones had been excavated.
A few weeks before, Maldonado and Van Gerven had shipped all the bones and “artifacts” (beads, buttons, buckled belt, and the like) to Christella Campbell, Michèle and Brian’s sister, who lived in Santa Barbara, California. It was the plan of Waldo’s four adult children to have the remains cremated, then scatter the ashes over the Pacific Ocean, in a family tradition more than a century old. (In 1909, Christopher and Stella had strewn the ashes of Christella, their firstborn, who had died of spina bifida at the age of six weeks, across the waters of San Francisco Bay near the Golden Gate.)
At the grave site, Michèle sat on a boulder, pulled out a piece of paper, and recited “My Soul Set Free,” a poem Everett had written in 1930, at the age of sixteen, in which he imagines his soul floating over cliffs and forests and out to the Pacific. Its last stanza:
Where seagull shadows fall across the waves,
And high above, the sky is blue and wide,
Content, my soul drifts out alone to sea,
Upon the surging, restless, rhythmic tide.
When she was finished, Michèle addressed the rest of us with tears in her eyes: “That’s where we’re bringing him. That’s where his parents, his brother, his sister, his uncle, and his maternal grandparents are—with the sea and the waves.”
Back at the bench where Daisey waited, we took photos of each other in various groupings. The mood was almost that of a family reunion. Abruptly, Michèle unpinned a piece of antique jewelry from her blouse and gave it to Daisey. It was a tiny pin made of silver, with a small turquoise sphere in the center, shaped like a bird or perhaps an angel. It had belonged to Stella, Michèle’s grandmother, Everett’s mother. Deeply moved, Daisey attached it to her own blouse.
An hour later we assembled in the trailer home of one of Daisey’s sisters in White Rock Point, as she and another sister fixed us all a lunch of Navajo tacos. Sitting at the kitchen table, I asked Daisey why she had been unwilling to approach the crevice grave.
“It was an enemy thing,” she answered. “It’s twice as dangerous.”
Denny elaborated, “It’s like a lightning strike.”
“Grandpa should have buried him there, down in the canyon,” Daisey added. “Not carried him up to the ridge.”
A few minutes later, Daisey turned to her sisters, working over the stove only a few feet away. She was fingering the pin Michèle had given her. “I want this buried with me when I go,” she said. “Not this.” Her hand moved to the brooch with the ring of turquoise stones, the same ornament she had worn during our first meeting in Farmington eleven months earlier.
Shocked and upset, Daisey’s sisters turned away, refusing to answer or even meet her gaze. “I know I don’t got long,” Daisey said to me, but loud enough so her sisters could hear. “I spent so much time on the other side, it’s not so bad. I’m not afraid of it.” She nodded her head toward her sisters, who had edged even farther toward the other end of the kitchen. “They don’t want to hear me talk about it. They don’t want to hear about death.”
* * *
Through the summer of 2009, an undercurrent of backlash against our Comb Ridge discovery simmered across the Southwest. Some of it was merely romantic, the knee-jerk reaction of Ruess partisans who, after seventy-five years, simply didn’t want the mystery to be solved. And some of it was downright nasty, attacking me and the National Geographic Society for making such a public splash of our find.
But some of it was thoughtful, and came from sources I respected, veteran explorers of the canyon country who had themselves pondered long and hard about Everett’s fate. A fellow named Chuck LaRue, based in Flagstaff, Arizona, sent me a long e-mail laying out his arguments against what he was calling “Comb Ridge Man” being Everett, despite the apparently conclusive DNA result obtained by Ken Krauter and Helen Marshall. Among LaRue’s arguments:
ER would never in a million years [have] left his burros in Davis Gulch. These were his lifeline and he would have been very strongly bonded with them. He would not have abandoned them.…
ER’s pattern wherever he went was to go into towns and hang out awhile. For him to get to Chinle Wash/Comb Ridge he would have either gone through Kayenta or into Bluff where the people would have noted him and remembered him. To go straight to Chinle Wash would have been an aberration of his previous patterns.
Another Flagstaff native who was skeptical was the writer Scott Thybony. I had never met the man, but had read him for years, admiring such books as his Burntwater, a collection of sly, slender meditations on the Southwest. He was also far more of an expert on Navajo culture than I was. Vaughn knew Thybony well, and put him in touch with me. By e-mail, Thybony argued,
Aneth’s story doesn’t fit the pattern of what I’d expect from a traditional Navajo in the 1930s. If he witnessed Utes killing a white man, I can’t see any reason why he wouldn’t report it to the trader or Indian agent and a number of reasons why he would. The tribal police and the feds were active on the rez and investigated other murders. And I’ve seen how Navajo react around a body. For him to mess with the remains of an outsider who died violently, a life cut short, is hard to imagine.
A few weeks later, Thybony added,
The fact that no one reported seeing ER between Soda Gulch and Chinle Wash is a problem. That was big, remote country and essentially roadless with nobody permanently living there, but lots of people passed through—cowboys, trappers, outlaws, Indians, a few prospectors. The Ruess family did a good job of getting the word out to the traders, ranchers, rangers, and other government types. Nothing, no sightings.
The most strident objections focused, curiously enough, on a single digital photo I had taken of the mandible we had removed from the crevice in November 2008. National Geographic Adventure had put the photo online. It was clear that the teeth still fixed in the mandible showed no trace of dental fillings. Among the files archived at the University of Utah were two pages of Everett’s dental records. These had been mailed to Stella on July 16, 1935, from the College of Dentistry at the University of Southern California. At the time, Stella and Christopher had been alerted to the discovery of the burned corpse near Gallup, New Mexico, and it was these records that had ruled out the possibility that the victim could have been Everett.
The records documented two inlays and one gold foil, work performed in December 1932 and January 1933, while Everett was home in Los Angeles between his second Southwest expedition and his upcoming jaunt into the high Sierras. The tooth chart, however, was at best ambiguous—the squiggles on certain molars might indicate where the fillings had been placed, or they might identify problem areas for future work. Further complicating the evidence was the fact that the records had been drawn up not at the time that Everett had visited the USC dentist(s), but only two and a half years later, in response to the parents’ plea. Who knew how reliably the School of Dentistry had kept track of routine office visits that had occurred thirty months earlier?
Nonetheless, the more vehement of the naysayers seized upon these records to discredit our discovery. Dennis Van Gerven was inclined to dismiss such canards, for, as he pointed out, from the complete assemblage of bones he and Paul Sandberg had removed from the crevice, no fewer than thirteen teeth were missing.
My photo of the mandible created other problems, however. It was here that Kevin Jones, the Utah state archaeologist, entered the fray. At our Salt Lake City panel discussion, Jones had come up to Greg Child at the end of the evening, fixed him with a glare, and whispered, “It’s not Everett.”
In June, on the Utah State History website, Jones published an online paper titled “Everett Ruess—A Suggestion to Take Another Look.” Although Jones had never examined the University of Colorado scientists’ work firsthand, nor actually seen the mandible, his broadside poked holes from every direction in the chains of reasoning that had led first Van Gerven and then Krauter to declare that the Comb Ridge skeleton was Everett’s.
Vexed by the fact that Jones had not sent his critical article to me, Ron Maldonado, or any of the CU scientists, I called him up when I was in Salt Lake City and asked if we could meet. Instead, he insisted on a phone call that lasted, as it turned out, more than an hour. The barely suppressed anger in his voice disconcerted me, as Jones derided the CU experts (none of whom he knew personally) for being completely out of their professional depth.
Why, I wondered, was Kevin Jones, whom I had liked when I’d interviewed him for other articles, so pissed off? I suspected that he was miffed that because the grave lay on the Navajo Reservation, it was entirely out of his own jurisdiction as state archaeologist. Yet Jones never called Maldonado to ask the Navajo Nation archaeologist about his decision to excavate.
In his paper, Jones laid out a dozen sources of doubt about the identification of the Comb Ridge skeleton. But over the phone, he focused on the mandible. “I know a Native American jaw when I see it,” he told me. The incisors, he went on, were “shovel-shaped,” possessing marginal ridges on the inner or tongue side that resulted in a scooped-out surface. The trait is very common in Asian and Native American populations, but rare in Caucasians. In addition, Jones went on, all the teeth in the mandible looked heavily worn, most likely as the result of decades of grinding by sand in the typical Native American diet.
Since Jones seemed reluctant to convey his doubts directly to the CU scientists, I passed on his criticisms to Van Gerven, who responded,
A great fuss is made about the skeleton having shovel-shaped incisors. There was a time when anthropologists viewed such traits as proof of racial identity—racial typology. Sadly, some still do. The fact is that no race possesses any trait exclusive to itself. In the case of shovel-shaping some 8% of Euro-Americans and 12% of Afro-Americans possess the trait while 10% of Native Americans lack the trait entirely.
Van Gerven and his assistant, Paul Sandberg, also pointed out that shovel-shaped incisors are found almost exclusively on the maxillary teeth—those of the upper jaw—not on those in the mandible. As Sandberg later wrote me, “People don’t talk about shoveled lower incisors. It’s not a trait that is typically scored and recorded. I don’t even think there are any data on the frequency of shoveling in lower incisors in human populations.”
About the grinding down of the teeth, Van Gerven stated,
The wear is absolutely consistent with the kind of diet that Ruess is likely to have had out in that sandy environment as well as preparing and cooking food in an environment where sand and grit gets into everything. So nothing there is at all surprising. Indeed given Everett’s many years in the deserts of Utah and Arizona, I would be puzzled if there was no wear! On a personal level, back in my 20’s I spent 6 months in the Sahara Desert [in the Sudan] and lost almost as much enamel as the Ruess skeleton! That didn’t make me a Nubian and it didn’t make me 70 years old.
Had the naysayers been confined to armchair second-guessers, Michèle and Brian and their two siblings might well have ignored them and gone ahead to cremate the remains. All of us had been alarmed by the looming possibility that the crevice on the Comb might become a pilgrimage site, like the bus on the Stampede Trail in Alaska in which Chris McCandless had died. The last thing the Navajo Nation needed was a stream of Ruess cultists illegally traipsing across the rez to leave their mementos strewn about the grave site, like the graffiti and kitschy treasures that litter Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Already, in fact, Denny Bellson had fielded and turned down numerous requests from strangers who wanted to be guided to the crevice. Not only in print but in conversation, Greg Child and Vaughn Hadenfeldt and Ron Maldonado and I had been as vague as possible about the precise location of the site.
And given the fanaticism of the more ardent fans of Everett Ruess, it was even conceivable that someone might try to steal some of the bones. During the week or two between our NGS teleconference and Van Gerven’s shipping the bones to Christella Campbell, he had fended off several bizarre inquiries from total strangers demanding to see, photograph, handle, and even X-ray the “evidence.”
But criticisms from someone with Kevin Jones’s undeniable credentials gave the Ruess family pause. Instead of cremating the remains, they decided to heed Jones’s request for another—a third—DNA test. In Boulder, Ken Krauter welcomed the decision, so certain was he that a third test would corroborate his findings.
And at this point the four siblings took charge of the business, leaving Jones, Maldonado, Van Gerven, Krauter, Denny Bellson, Daisey Johnson, and me out of the loop. Already the Ruesses had been stung by accusations that the NGS, to score a publicity coup, had orchestrated the whole shebang, putting pressure on the family to go along with a sensational detective story that the Adventure writer (me), perhaps in cahoots with Denny and even Daisey, had concocted out of whole cloth.
At this point, Kevin Ruess, who lives in Virginia, and who so far had been the sibling least caught up in the controversy, appealed to his professional contacts to find the best possible DNA lab to undertake the third test. So as to fend off any hints of complicity, the family did not even tell any of us which lab they had chosen.
* * *
More weeks passed, then months. On August 25, 2009, Daisey Johnson died, succumbing at last to the ovarian cancer she had first contracted in 2006. She had turned fifty-seven two weeks earlier. At a burial service on August 29, her relatives gathered at her mother’s house to mourn and remember her. A memorial pamphlet the family printed up captured their grief: “When we think of your beautiful face it all seems so wrong. You had so much to look forward to and so much left to do.” Yet her sisters had honored the wish she had expressed in June in the trailer at White Rock Point. The eulogy continued, “Jewelry you loved and now you have new accessories, a pair of Angel’s wings. The world has lost a wonderful girl, a true and amazing individual.”
The pamphlet also reproduced two pictures of Daisey with Michèle Ruess on Comb Ridge, a painting and a woodcut of Everett’s, and the famous stanza from his “Wilderness Song”: “Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary.…”
In September, Brian Ruess telephoned me. The news he blurted out shocked me. “It’s not Everett,” Brian said. “In fact, even worse, it’s a Native American.”
At first I refused to believe it. Of course, I did not want to believe it. How did we know this new lab hadn’t made a mistake, like the one that Family Tree DNA had apparently stumbled over in 2008? But Brian revealed that the new test had been performed by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), in Rockville, Maryland, a government-affiliated institution with vast experience in identifying victims such as soldiers on battlefields and a comparably vast DNA database, as well as the stored blood samples from thousands of veterans who have served in the armed forces.
AFDIL took an entirely different approach from Krauter and Marshall’s. Instead of comparing DNA extracted from the skeleton’s femur with that in the saliva samples from all four of Everett’s nieces and nephews and using Affymetrix software to compare as many as 600,000 markers, the government lab did a Y-chromosomal test of DNA from two skeletal samples, a tooth and another piece of femur. Because the Y chromosome that is crucial to this test is passed down solely in the male line, AFDIL compared the skeletal DNA with a sample only from Kevin Ruess.
Had Everett’s nephew been related to the person buried in the crevice grave, all seventeen key markers in the Y chromosome should have matched. Instead, AFDIL found only one matching marker. Scanning their database of Y-chromosomal types from all over the United States, the lab did not find any exact match. It did, however, find close matches with three individuals. All three were Native Americans.
The brief summary an AFDIL scientist finally e-mailed me was full of technical terms such as “Y-STR profile” and “mtDNA sequence” and “Y-haplogroup,” and was thus beyond my comprehension. But the work seemed sound enough to convince the family. Brian had prepared a press release announcing our collective mistake to the world, as well as the family’s intention to return the bones to Ron Maldonado for reburial on the Navajo reservation. But several of us persuaded Brian and his siblings to hold off long enough for Ken Krauter and the AFDIL technicians to make a thorough comparison of notes.
Months later, Krauter told me his initial reaction to the AFDIL finding. “I was in a state of total disbelief. At first I wanted to deny it.”
More weeks passed. Mike Coble, the AFDIL scientist in charge of the analysis, generously rolled up his sleeves to go over Krauter’s test data, as well as AFDIL’s, with a fine-toothed comb. Despite the potential for animosity between the experts, Coble and Krauter collaborated in a truly disinterested and collegial reexamination of the two tests. As Krauter later said, “This is how science is done.”
And at last Krauter found the fly in the ointment. It was not, as some had speculated, a problem of contamination of the DNA samples in the CU lab. Nor could it be chalked up to sloppy work on his and Marshall’s part. The glitch came as a result of Krauter’s application of Affymetrix GeneChip technology. Though widely considered the industry’s gold standard for DNA research analysis, Affymetrix remains unproven for this type of forensic work. Krauter saw the Ruess case as an opportunity to break new ground, and he was encouraged to do so by Affymetrix. Unbeknownst to anyone, however—including Affymetrix itself—the firm’s software can produce a false reading (what Krauter calls “noise”) when amounts of DNA that are too small are used in tests.
When my editors at Adventure tried to get the Affymetrix company, which is based in Santa Clara, California, to comment on this apparent problem, which promised to have huge repercussions for hundreds or even thousands of other DNA analyses being conducted around the world, the firm retreated like a turtle into its shell. A company spokesman maintained that its software was never intended for forensic use. But at the time the Affymetrix website contained the following claim: “Analysis of mitochondrial mutations [with GeneChip technology] is informative for a variety of applications from disease genetics to forensic identification.” The firm’s public-relations spokesman authorized only a single bland boilerplate statement for publication: “Professor Krauter is a valued customer of Affymetrix. We are happy to assist him with the review of his study, as and when he needs our help.”
What the “noise” in the software meant was that it produced a gene identification that appeared to be legitimate when it was really highly suspect. Even worse, when Krauter’s computer analyzed the bone samples alongside the data from the Ruess nieces and nephews, it biased the results in favor of the Ruess family members, yielding a partial similarity between the “noise” and the family’s DNA at a frequency of 25 percent—exactly the expected value if the skeleton were Everett’s.
Krauter refused to blame Affymetrix. For our follow-up nostra culpa in Adventure, he insisted, “We screwed up by relying on the technology too much. Fortunately, the error uncovered how the extreme sensitivity can be misleading if a researcher takes its output at face value. We will definitely reexamine how that software can be optimized, and when alternative methods should be used.” Privately, he told me, “It was a real bummer. It made me fear that all our data from all our recent work was wrong.” Also privately, Helen Marshall admitted that she was even more upset than her mentor. “It was an innocent mistake,” she told me, “but it was devastating. It involved real people and real emotions. I’ll never get over this.”
For his part, Dennis Van Gerven was dumbfounded. If the AFDIL disproof was solid, it meant that a purely coincidental match between the face and teeth of the Comb Ridge skeleton and those of Everett had happened. The likelihood of such a match was infinitesimal. For Adventure, Van Gerven said, “I will go to my grave believing that we could not exclude [the match] based on the best anatomical evidence. A random skeleton was found that by chance alone matched sex, age, and stature. That in itself is remarkable.” To Ron Maldonado in November, he e-mailed, “I still think it’s Everett. But I don’t know how.”
* * *
On October 22, 2009, Brian Ruess issued the press release, titled “Ruess Family Accepts Comb Ridge Remains Are Not Those of Everett Ruess.” The bones and “artifacts” were shipped back to Maldonado. Without telling anyone when or where he was going, Maldonado later went out alone with the remains and reburied them—not in the same crevice from which they had been extracted, but in a safe, obscure location that he felt would suit the dignity of an unidentified Native American.
The newspapers seized upon the collapse of our discovery. The Associated Press headline read, “Family: Remains Found in Utah Not Poet Ruess.” National Public Radio chimed in: “Mystery Endures: Remains Found Not Those of Artist.” Kevin Jones refrained from uttering I-told-you-so’s, at least publicly. A single piece in High Country News stuck it to all of us who had collaborated in the apparent find on Comb Ridge. Titled “Skeletons in the Closet,” it celebrated Jones’s detective work by way of a profile of his varied career (“aspiring novelist,” bluegrass mandolin player, dedicated pursuer of grave-robbing criminals around Blanding, Utah). The photo showed Jones squinting at an arrowhead as he held it up to the light. The subhead: “Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones Knows His Bones.”
Back in May 2008, when Denny Bellson had first taken him out to the Comb Ridge site, Vaughn Hadenfeldt had knelt before the crevice, peered inside it, and gently touched the top of the protruding skull with his index finger. “Is that you, Everett?” Vaughn had whispered.
Now we knew the answer.