Comments on the announcement that Everett Ruess's remains have been found, by Kevin Jones and Derinna Kopp:
David Roberts’ recent (2009) piece in National Geographic Adventure tells an exciting tale of the discovery of human remains in the Chinle Wash area of the Navajo Reservation in Southern Utah that seem, according to several lines of evidence, to be those of the long-missing artistic wanderer, Everett Ruess.
According to stories told by a Navajo Tribal member to his grandson, Denny Bellson, a white man was killed by Utes in Chinle Wash in the 1930s. The grandfather did not tell anyone about what he had witnessed for many years. When he did, he suggested that it might have been Ruess.
In the last few years, Bellson determined to find the remains and ascertain if they were indeed those of the missing vagabond. He enlisted local law enforcement officers and even the FBI as he visited isolated burials and opened them to see if the lost white boy was buried there. After digging into several burials only to find the remains of American Indians, Denny found a burial that he thought might be the one they sought. When he revisited the site with officers from the Navajo Nation, San Juan County, and the FBI, they tore into the sand and bones with vigor, even breaking the skull in the process. After pulling the bones and artifacts from the burial site they piled them back in the crevice, damaging the skeleton.
Navajo Tribal archaeologist Ron Maldonado visited the site and documented what was left of the ravaged burial site. Examination of the bones by University of Colorado forensic scientists determined that the remains were of a white male in the right size and age range to be Ruess. DNA tests comparing DNA taken from a femur and DNA taken from Ruess’s nieces appears to University of Colorado geneticists to be a match.
So why not consider the case closed?
While scientific analyses have been mentioned in the popular article and press releases, the actual investigator reports have not been made available for peer review. At this point, all we have is a magazine article and a few tidbits on various websites. Based on available data, we think there are several evidentiary reasons to keep the investigation open, and to have the analyses replicated by independent researchers. We also think that the case of Everett Ruess is of such a high profile that it is imperative to leave no stone unturned.
First, although this is not critical to the case, the story told by Aneth Nez, Bellson’s grandfather, seems a little bit odd. The Utes and Navajos were not great friends in the 1930s, and it would seem that a Navajo seeing Utes murder a white man would report the murder to authorities rather than risk the consequences of being accused of the deed. Additionally, touching a dead man and getting covered with his blood is not something a traditional Navajo does lightly, and carrying the body from Chinle Wash to its final resting spot hundreds of feet above is no easy undertaking. We think there may be more to the story.
Next, the photos of the mandible show well-worn occlusal surfaces of the teeth, something we are accustomed to seeing in Native Americans who ate a diet rich in stone-ground corn, but rarely if ever seen in non-natives. Additionally, the mandible exhibits a very distinctive case of anterior crowding, with the left second incisor having moved behind the canine. This should be an obvious trait that would be seen in photos and remembered by the family. The mandible also appears to show a large cavity in a left premolar that could have been painful and which a person like Ruess might have sought to have treated.
The photos showing the match between the photographs of Ruess and the bone fragments do not seem to us to line up very well, causing us to question the accuracy of the match. First, there is no indication of how the researchers scaled the historic photographs to those of the skeletal elements to ensure the images superimposed were accurately sized. The photo showing the mandible places it in such a position as to be nearly protruding from the skin under his chin, and at a great distance from the surface of his face in other places. We think this superposition does not support the contention of a match. Additionally, the positioning of the nasal bones on the frontal photograph is problematic. The photo shows the right nasal bone, but it is lined up where the left nasal bone would be in the photograph, again not suggesting a good match.
The most convincing bit of evidence, the DNA, seems to be unassailable, as the analysts made strong statements such as: “I believe it would hold up in any court in the country." (U of Colorado Professor Kenneth Krauter). However, the first attempt to match DNA between the bones and hair from Everett’s brother Waldo’s hairbrush failed to turn up a match, because, it was surmised, the DNA from the hair on the brush was degraded. What about the DNA from the badly-weathered bones? Was it not degraded? Were the samples from the bones collected by a lab or scientists experienced in collecting ancient DNA?
A number of questions still remain, including those regarding Everett’s burros, and the distance between where he was last seen and where he was purportedly murdered. The fact that the evidence at the burial site was badly botched before an archaeologist could get to the scene detracts from the neatness of the story.
We think some of these questions and issues, including those we have raised here, should be enough to warrant a reexamination of the bones by an independent researcher, a thorough study of the artifacts, publication of all the results, and an independent DNA study conducted by researchers experienced in collecting and analyzing ancient DNA. If asked, the Utah Antiquities Section would be happy to assist in any way possible.
We’re not suggesting that the mystery of Everett Ruess’s disappearance has not been solved. We do hope, however, that additional, independent studies will be conducted to address questions that still remain. It would be unfortunate if the family were to have the remains cremated and scattered before all stones are turned in seeking to solve the mystery of Everett’s disappearance. This unfortunate boy has been missing for 75 years. To do him justice, we would suggest that the case remain open until the unresolved issues are carefully investigated.