Modern history


William Maples, after his examination of the bones and his presentation of his findings at the Ekaterinburg conference in July 1992, was unwilling to let go of the Romanov inquiry. In his talk at the conference, he recommended that there be further archaeological exploration of the burial site and more extensive photo documentation and DNA testing of the remains. Apparently, he intended to do—or at least to supervise—most of this himself. In April 1993, Maples, Dr. William Hamilton, and Mrs. Maples returned to Siberia, assisted by two airline tickets provided by the television program Unsolved Mysteries. In Ekaterinburg, Maples rephotographed the skeletal remains more carefully than he had been able to do on his previous trip. He also removed one tooth from each of the skulls, except that of Dr. Botkin, which had few teeth to spare, and that of Kharitonov, where only the top of the skull was available. From Botkin and Kharitonov, he took leg bone fragments. The teeth, he believed, would be far more suitable for accurately identifying the Imperial family by DNA testing than the pieces of femurs taken to Britain by Pavel Ivanov. Along with these teeth, Maples carried away from Ekaterinburg a decree from the Sverdlovsk regional prosecutor authorizing him to export the bones, oversee DNA tests, and report the results back to the Sverdlovsk authorities. Curiously, no one bothered to tell Dr. Vladislav Plaksin, the chief medical examiner of the Russian government, or Pavel Ivanov, then in his seventh month working with Peter Gill at Aldermaston.

Returning to Florida, Maples held the Russian teeth in his laboratory for six weeks, then “transferred custody” to Lowell Levine, who carried them to California and, in June 1993, gave them to Dr. Mary-Claire King, who held two professorships at the University of California, Berkeley, one in epidemiology in the School of Public Health, the other in genetics in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. According to Maples, Dr. King “is the foremost forensic genetics scientist in the United States and one of the most highly regarded scientists in this field anywhere in the world.” She drafted the report prepared for the National Academy of Sciences on the use of DNA for forensic identification purposes. She has worked with a United Nations team in Argentina to identify kidnapped children and reunite them with their families. She has assisted the United Nations in El Salvador to try to identify the remains of victims of a mass murder in the village of El Mozote. Doctors Maples, Levine, and Baden knew her because she had worked with them on the remains of American servicemen brought back from Vietnam. By 1993, Maples said, she had more experience with mitochondrial DNA than the British Forensic Science Service. And she had a far larger database. According to Maples, Dr. King’s database held mitochondrial DNA information on one thousand people; Peter Gill and Aldermaston had only about three hundred. “In this field,” said Dr. Maples, “there simply isn’t anyone to compare with Dr. King.” Michael Baden and Lowell Levine agreed.

Maples and his colleagues had a secondary regard for Peter Gill, and, until they met him at the Ekaterinburg conference in 1992, they had never heard of Pavel Ivanov. Unable to understand Russian, they were not sure what Ivanov had told the meeting about his arrangements to test the bones in England. Nevertheless, Ivanov was friendly and tried to be helpful. Their return to Moscow that summer was disagreeable for the American team: a dog ran up and down the aisle of the Aeroflot plane; at the domestic airport in Moscow, people shoved and shouted at them. Dr. Ivanov, whose English is fluent, appeared and confidently steered the Americans to safety. The following day, wearing his FBI Academy T-shirt, he showed them through Red Square. He explained what he was doing, that he had been in touch with Gill and was making arrangements to do DNA tests in England. The Americans attempted to change his plans. “We offered him the chance to come and work in an American laboratory,” said Baden, “but he went to England because he could get there quicker and they would pay his way.” “The best thing for Ivanov,” Levine said, “was that he personally was going to take the bones to England and he was going to get to stay there.”

William Maples met Peter Gill for the first time and Pavel Ivanov again in July 1993, soon after Gill’s press conference announcing identification of the Romanov bones. Maples was in England, returning to America from his third visit to Ekaterinburg, where he had been filmed by Nova examining and describing the remains. From London, Maples and his wife drove to Aldermaston, where they took Peter Gill and Pavel Ivanov to lunch. The luncheon conversation was polite, this ambience being achieved by both sides ignoring feelings of mutual grievance. Maples was annoyed that Gill had just announced that he was 98.5 percent sure that the bones he had tested belonged to the Romanovs; this event had occurred just as Dr. Maples was arriving in Russia to be filmed byNova. Ivanov was indignant that Maples, with the permission of the Sverdlovsk authorities, had initiated a second round of DNA tests at Dr. King’s laboratory in California without his being informed and while his own tests with Gill were still under way. There was no discussion at lunch about the heteroplasmy which Gill had discovered in Tsar Nicholas II, or the possibility that it had been caused by a mutation. The scientists did talk briefly about the Aldermaston finding that the three young females had the same mitochondrial DNA as one of the older females and therefore undoubtedly were mother and daughters.

Until their meeting at lunch in July 1993, Peter Gill had been only dimly aware of William Maples. Within six months, this situation radically changed as Maples became the source of a vigorous attack on Gill’s findings, his administrative procedures, even his competence as a scientist.

Dr. Maples, believing that Ekaterinburg, not Moscow, possessed the primary authority to dispose of the Romanov bones, began by suggesting that the Aldermaston tests were illegal under Russian law. In fact, when Pavel Ivanov carried the Romanov bones to England, he did so on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Health and on the specific instructions of the chief medical examiner of the Russian government, Vladislav Plaksin. And earlier, at the July 1992 conference in Ekaterinburg, when Ivanov had announced his forthcoming mission to England, none of the Russians present, including those from Ekaterinburg, had objected. Nevertheless, Dr. Maples thought there had been wrongdoing. “I have no idea what permission was given Ivanov, officially or unofficially,” he said. “Ivanov got the samples somehow, but I don’t know how official it was for him to take them to England for DNA purposes. They had bone samples in Moscow for blood typing, serology, and they probably used those samples for the DNA tests. Whether they asked the people in Ekaterinburg for permission to send them out of the country, I don’t know.”

Dr. Levine supported Maples’ belief that Ekaterinburg, not Moscow, was the legal proprietor of the bones and therefore had the sole right to arrange for DNA testing. “My impression is that the person in whose jurisdiction the remains were found has the legal responsibility to identify them and sign a death certificate,” he said. “Right now, he has nine homicides that occurred in his district of Sverdlovsk and that’s all. He’s the person who should have all the evidence coming back to him.”

Levine had a further complaint. He argued that even if he was wrong about proprietorship and the Aldermaston tests were legal under Russian law, Gill’s announcement of his findings at a press conference in London constituted improper scientific procedure. “His report should have gone back to whoever it was who commissioned this work,” Levine declared. “If it was Plaksin, then the report should have gone back to Moscow, to the Ministry of Health, to be released there. Look, if you give me a piece of evidence to analyze for you, my scientific report goes to you. It doesn’t go to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and CNN. Then I would expect you, the donor of the evidence, to release the results. That’s the way we did it with Mengele. We gave our report to the Brazilians. Then they arranged a joint news conference. What Gill did was to shoot before he should have. How could he release a report that says, ‘I did DNA studies and this is the tsar; I’m 98.5 percent certain of it’? That’s ridiculous. He should have sent his report back to Moscow to be correlated with all the other evidence. And when he released it, he only should have said, ‘I did DNA studies and these are my findings.’ The fact is that the way Gill did this in London was a PR thing, a glory grab.”

More serious charges by the Americans struck at the scientific competence of the Aldermaston team. To begin with, Maples questioned whether Gill and Ivanov even used the right bones for their study. “Ivanov brought long bone samples to England for their DNA sources,” Maples said. “And I personally know that in the Ekaterinburg morgue, the long bones may not be on the correct table. That’s why I used teeth drawn directly from the skulls. There is no problem mixing up the skulls, and my teeth came directly from the sockets of Nicholas, Alexandra, the three daughters, and from one of the male servants. Botkin’s skull had only a few teeth left in the lower jaw so I used a long bone sample for him.”

The most critical of Maples’ charges against Peter Gill and Pavel Ivanov were leveled against the Aldermaston finding of heteroplasmy in Tsar Nicholas II’s mitochondrial DNA, and Gill and Ivanov’s statement that they were 98.5 percent certain that they had identified the bones of the Romanovs. This attack appeared in print in November 1993, when William Maples prepared and signed an affidavit to be used in a court case in Virginia. In this affidavit, he wrote:

I … am familiar with the mitochondrial DNA research into Romanov remains from Ekaterinburg being conducted at the Aldermaston Laboratory in Britain.

 … Because Aldermaston is relying on bones from varying parts of the human anatomy, they cannot be certain that they have received samples from each of the human remains at Ekaterinburg, as I can.

 … A press release [provided by the Home Office at Dr. Gill’s press conference] … indicates that the Aldermaston Laboratory has had difficulty identifying the remains of Tsar Nicholas II …

 … The evidence of heteroplasmy interpreted by Aldermaston more likely is the result of contaminated samples.

 … Aldermaston’s public statements that they found different mitochondrial DNA (heteroplasmy) in the remains of the Tsar means that they have been unsuccessful in determining the true mitochondrial DNA for Tsar Nicholas II. For this reason, Aldermaston’s public statements do not show that they have definitively identified the remains of Tsar Nicholas II.

Two months later, in conversation, Maples amplified his criticism of Gill and Ivanov: “They were claiming heteroplasmy in the DNA of Tsar Nicholas, and that, more than likely, is just some contamination of the DNA. It’s called shadow banding and is frequently seen. No one, in most circles, interprets that as heteroplasmy. So I would assume that the DNA letter code which Gill said was off, probably wasn’t.”

“And Gill just got it wrong?”

“That’s correct.”

Baden and Levine shared Maples’ opinion. “That’s silly,” Baden said about Gill’s figure of 98.5 percent certainty. “With DNA, it’s either 100 percent or it isn’t.” Levine agreed, more colorfully. “Ninety-eight point five percent doesn’t make any sense. That figure would never be allowed in a courtroom in this country.* You know, if you really think about it, 98.5 percent means that three of the next two hundred elderly men you come across could be the tsar.”

Peter Gill was surprised by Maples’ attack. When he read the statements in Maples’ affidavit, he did not understand why this respected forensic anthropologist had ventured so far outside the field in which he is an acknowledged expert. Assuming a normal regard for scientific accuracy and professional courtesy, he did not understand how Maples could condemn him solely on the basis of a press release and newspaper stories; when Maples signed his affidavit in November 1993, publication of Gill’s paper inNature Geneticswas still three months away.

Nevertheless, even before his paper was published, Gill responded vigorously to the two main points of the American attack: that the heteroplasmy found in Tsar Nicholas’s mitochondrial DNA was caused by contamination, and that the 98.5 percent probability assigned the Aldermaston findings was insufficient, unscientific, or “silly.”

“The possibility of contamination of our sample is highly unlikely,” Gill said, deliberately choosing his words to avoid emotion. “We tested two different kinds of DNA, mitochondrial and genomic [nuclear]. Yes, we managed to extract nuclear DNA from these samples; they are probably the oldest samples from which this kind of DNA ever has been extracted. Then we tested this genomic DNA for STR, short tandem repeat, to confirm the tsar’s paternity. It was very difficult, much more difficult than the work with mitochondrial DNA. But it was crucial in showing that this was a family; that the father’s DNA was present in the daughters. This is the first major historical investigation in which both STR and mitochondrial DNA have been used as investigative tools. We spelled this out in detail in our Nature Genetics paper. No, STR was not mentioned in the press release. I don’t think people realized that we did STRs.”

This bears directly on Maples’ charge of contamination because, as Gill explained, “The nuclear DNA we used came from the same bone segments as the mitochondrial DNA. If there was contamination, you would have seen it in the tsar’s nuclear as well as his mitochondrial DNA. We didn’t see anything like that.” Dr. Gill paused, smiled slightly, and said, “This knocks the contamination theory on the head quite nicely.”

In addition, Gill continued, Aldermaston verified its findings with a number of backup tests. “We duplicated our findings several times ourselves, obtaining identical results from two different bones, each extracted in duplicate at different times.” Further, as a precaution against precisely the kind of laboratory contamination of which they were accused, Gill and Ivanov sent samples of bone from each of the nine remains to Dr. Erika Hagelberg of Cambridge University. Hagelberg is a specialist in the use of polymerase chain reaction techniques to investigate DNA in ancient, archeologically recovered bones. She used it, for example, to extract DNA from a leg bone of salted pig meat recovered from Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose, which capsized in 1545. Several years after Lowell Levine and other specialists identified the remains of Josef Mengele by forensic means, a German court, insufficiently satisfied, asked Alec Jeffreys to verify the finding by DNA testing. Jeffreys chose Hagelberg to assist him. Now in 1993, independently and without knowing the results of the Aldermaston tests, she extracted, amplified, and sequenced DNA from the nine remains in her laboratory. Her results were consistent with Aldermaston’s.

Dr. Gill was equally secure about his use of the figure 98.5 percent to describe his degree of certainty that these were the Romanovs. “We had an upper [most likely] and lower [least likely] boundary figure,” he explained. “The lower boundary is based on what we call the likelihood ratio. That’s the probability of the evidence if this is the tsar and his family, divided by the probability if it is an unknown family. You end up with a likelihood ratio. When we worked out this lower boundary probability, assuming that a mutation did take place, we arrived at a likelihood ratio of seventy to one. That is, it is seventy times more likely that this is the tsar and his family than that it is an unknown family. A likely ratio of seventy to one is equivalent to a probability of 98.5 percent. [When you divide seventy by seventy-one, the result is .9859.] On the other hand, when we worked out the probability assuming that a mutation did not take place—which you can argue that we were entitled to do because we did find a sequence in which the tsar’s mitochondrial DNA was identical to his relatives’—then the likelihood is in the thousands, many thousands. It would be at least 99.9 percent. We were very cautious. We took the lower boundary. That’s why we said 98.5 percent.”

The certainty of the identification can be reinforced beyond 98.5 percent when adding in all the other evidence available, Gill continued. “We are one hundred percent sure about the women. We have the mother of three daughters; we have the father of the same three daughters. The mother is a relative of Prince Philip. Beyond DNA, you have the anthropological evidence. Before we had any DNA results, Dr. Helmer [and Dr. Abramov] estimated that the odds that this was the tsar’s family were ten to one. It is fair to multiply those odds by the odds given by the DNA evidence. So if we ended up with seventy to one on the DNA evidence and ten to one on the anthropological evidence, you multiply the two together and you get a probability of seven hundred to one that these are the tsar’s remains.” In sum, Gill declared, the figure of 98.5 percent was the most cautious available.

In February 1994, Peter Gill and his laboratory had been moved from Aldermaston to new, larger quarters in Birmingham. By then, he was aware that Dr. Maples was working with Mary-Claire King and that Dr. King was doing DNA testing on the teeth and bone samples which Maples had brought from Ekaterinburg.

What did Gill think of Maples?

“I have no comment to make,” Peter Gill replied. “It is my understanding that he does not do DNA testing.”

What does he know of Mary-Claire King, and how does he feel about her doing further DNA tests on the Romanovs?

“Why not? I met her briefly on one occasion. She’s got a pretty good reputation in this field. In principle, scientists don’t have any problem with people repeating their results, just to make sure. So, if anyone wants to look at our results again, they’re welcome. There’s a lot of effort involved, especially if they want to do it with short tandem repeats. That would be very difficult for another laboratory because not many laboratories have the necessary skill to do it. Maybe one or two. Remember, also, that Dr. Hagelberg already has repeated and independently verified our tests in her laboratory. So Mary-Claire King’s would be the third laboratory to do this.”

Pavel Ivanov, as Gill’s principal colleague in the Aldermaston testing and as the only Russian scientist involved, deeply resented Maples’ criticism. A part of Ivanov’s indignation was directed at Maples and a part at the Ekaterinburg authorities, who, as Ivanov sees it, abetted Maples’ illegal—or at least improper—removal of the Romanov teeth from Russia.

“Maples was never officially invited by the Russian government,” Ivanov said. “He was invited by the local authorities. There is great jealousy there. It is not a good story, not good at all. It is very much Russia. You know”—Ivanov grew angrier as he spoke—“this is an official investigation. It is a criminal case. This is under the jurisdiction of Russian law. Then Maples arrives, and the local authorities write the law by themselves, for themselves. They just took some bone samples and teeth and gave them to Maples. And he put them in his pocket and carried them through the border. I am a Russian scientist and must have official permission from the general prosecutor to take bone samples to England. But, for Maples, it is different. Plaksin doesn’t know. Nobody knows.

“It was a sad story. For me and for Russia. Because, before I went to England, the English said, ‘Yes, we will pay for Dr. Ivanov’s visit. We will pay for all of the analysis.’ It was very expensive. And the only request they made to Dr. Plaksin, our chief coordinator, was that there not be any competition, that no one be allowed to perform parallel tests until we had a result. Plaksin said, ‘Yes, I agree. Dr. Ivanov will be our official representative according to Russian law. He will come to England, and, until you give your opinion, we will never recheck you.’ Then the British learned from their own channels that Maples had taken samples from Russia to perform tests in Mary-Claire King’s laboratory. The British didn’t know or care who gave Maples these samples. I called Plaksin and said, ‘Why? Why? I am in Britain in a terrible situation. The British authorities have said to me, ‘We know that some samples have gone to America. Why?’ And I had to tell them truthfully, ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ There was an official inquiry from England to Plaksin. Plaksin was very uncomfortable because he had to say, ‘I don’t know why this was done. It is beyond my control. It is over my head.’ This seemed very strange to the British, because he is the chief forensic expert of Russia. The reason is that this is Russia. But the British are not Russian, and they do not understand.

“I thought that I might find out from Maples what was happening, so I called and asked him. He said, ‘I’m sorry, but they have asked me not to talk about this until Mary-Claire King has done her analysis.’ I wrote two letters to Mary-Claire King asking for her results for discussion. She did not answer. Later, in the autumn of 1993, when I was in Arizona, I telephoned Maples again and asked him to arrange a meeting with Mary-Claire King. There was no answer, so I had no possibility of seeing her. But Maples did tell me, ‘You know, it is not so interesting. She has done her analysis and confirmed your result.’ I thought that this was a very strange comment for a scientist to make. If she used one method and we used another and we both got the same results, that is very interesting.”

Ivanov is furious that Maples ascribed the heteroplasmy found in the tsar’s mitochondrial DNA to laboratory contamination. “It is very strange that Maples should say this, because he is not a specialist in this field. He doesn’t know these things. Our article inNature Genetics was reviewed by specialists. He should have waited to read it before he attacked our work.” Ivanov is particularly unhappy that Maples’ attack followed soon after their lunch in Aldermaston. “He came to us, we had a good conversation, and we explained our methods to him. Then he made his announcement that we had contaminated the bones. He understood nothing. It is the same as if I said, ‘Maples made a mistake because he doesn’t know his cartilage.’ ”

Did Ivanov believe that this kind of competition was normal between scientists when a high-visibility, high-prestige case was involved? “Not to such an extent,” he replied. “Of course, everyone would like to be first. But not to such an extent. Maples is a bad example. I can’t speak of Dr. King. I never reached her.”

The strangest part of the story of William Maples, Mary-Claire King, and the teeth that went to California for DNA testing is that no report has ever been released. In November 1993, when Maples signed his Virginia court affidavit, he declared that Dr. King and her associates had been working for five months extracting and sequencing mitochondrial DNA. In her research, Maples told the court, Dr. King had found no heteroplasmy in the tsar’s mitochondrial DNA (as Gill and Ivanov had done), and therefore she “needed no speculation about rare genetic conditions [a mutation] to establish family relationships to a very high degree of scientific certainty.” King was in the process of preparing her report, Maples declared, which had to go to the Sverdlovsk government before she or he could make a general announcement.

In December 1993, Dr. Levine said that King would “put out a final report within the next month.” In January 1994, Dr. Maples said that he expected to receive King’s report “within a month or two.” In February, Maples anticipated an imminent press conference in Berkeley. In the middle of April, Levine said, “Yes, we are hoping.” At the end of that month, Maples revealed that Dr. King herself had not done the DNA testing; he said it had been performed in her laboratory by her associate, Dr. Charles Ginther. Ginther, Maples was told, had written a report in technical language decipherable only by an expert. Dr. King was not pleased with the report and therefore was holding it until such time as she herself was able to write it in a form suitable for the Sverdlovsk authorities and for general release. In fact, at this point, Maples was “totally upset” with King. He had just been invited back to Moscow to testify before a Russian government commission, and he was eager to take her findings with him. “I am sending her a fax,” he said, “telling her that her report is desperately needed because, if we can’t produce the results now, it will seriously damage our entire credibility.”

Dr. Maples’ fax produced no result, and, in June 1994, one year after Dr. King had received the teeth and bone fragments, she still had not released her report. Maples’ trip to Moscow was postponed; he continued calling her and receiving no reply. Ultimately, King did return his call and told him that her findings were ready and that, if he wished, she would accompany him to Moscow to testify before the Russian government commission. At that point, however, Maples’ Moscow invitation had evaporated.

In June 1994, although Maples had not seen King’s final report, he did pass along startling information: “Dr. King and Dr. Gill,” he said, “both have difficulty in the same area of Tsar Nicholas’s mitochondrial DNA.” King, Maples reported, still needed to resolve whether this difficulty “is a problem of contamination or whether the tsar had an unusual genetic anomaly (that is, a heteroplasmy) or whether there was a mutation.” The possibility of heteroplasmy and a mutation, of course, was precisely what Peter Gill and Pavel Ivanov had reported eleven months before and what William Maples and his American colleagues had vehemently attacked.

* Dr. Walter Rowe of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is a professor of forensics who works closely with DNA identification teams at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the FBI, and Cellmark Diagnostics in Bethesda, Maryland, the largest commercial DNA identification laboratory in the United States. Frequently, on behalf of one or another of these organizations, he gives courtroom testimony. He admires William Maples’ work in forensic anthropology and has great respect for Peter Gill’s reputation in DNA testing. Rowe’s quarrel on the matter of the Romanov bones is with Dr. Lowell Levine’s assertion that 98.5 percent probability “wouldn’t stand up in court.”

“Well, I’d tell Dr. Levine that it stands up in court all the time,” said Dr. Rowe. “We go to court many times with a lot less certainty than that. I’m sure Dr. Levine is knowledgeable about some aspects of forensic science, but I don’t think he’s quite as knowledgeable as he’d like to believe. I notice he’s often given to making statements that are frankly contrary to my personal experience in court. Most chemists [Rowe’s Ph.D. is in chemistry] are happy to operate at a 95 percent confidence level on most things they do, so why does 98.5 percent bother anybody?”

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