email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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Meanwhile, on the Internet I had found the report of one of Van Gerven’s cardinal triumphs. In 2007 the professor led a team that exhumed a body in Kansas that had been at the center of a legal dispute stretching back to 1879. When the excavation failed to turn up sufficient DNA material, Van Gerven used 47 bone fragments and a technique called facial superimposition to ID the corpse, which was long considered unidentifiable. Reading the report, I realized that Van Gerven was something of a forensic genius.

I hammered away, emailing a detailed account of Everett Ruess and our efforts so far on Comb Ridge. Slowly, Van Gerven warmed to the challenge. By the end of the month, he and his grad-student assistant, Paul Sandberg, were fully on board. On January 24, having driven from Boulder to Bluff, they joined Ron Maldonado and Vaughn Hadenfeldt at the site, where they excavated the crevice completely.

Piece by piece, the anthropologists retrieved one rib and vertebra and toe bone and tooth after another; they also salvaged many fragments of the young man’s skull. Each bone was gently handled and wrapped for transport to a university lab. The only artifacts the men found were scores of beads—yellow, orange, white, and blue, made apparently of coral or shell—and a metal button, embossed with the word “mountaineer” curving around the rim above an “X.” We later learned that the button could have been produced only by one of three manufacturers, all of which were out of business by 1936.

Back in Boulder, Van Gerven and Sandberg’s first task was to stabilize the very fragile pieces of bone—especially the skull fragments. 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 [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 19 and 22, and measurement of the femur gave us a stature estimate of approximately five feet eight inches.”

The facial fragments were critical to reconstructing the dead man’s physiognomy. Joining the stabilized bones with clay, the scientists painstakingly rebuilt pieces of the skull. For comparison, they had two of the splendid portraits of Ruess that his friend, the famed photographer 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.”

When the two men had started their work, Van Gerven warned me, “I’d be just as happy to disprove the match as I would to prove it.” But day by day, he grew more animated. “I have a really good feeling about this,” he said 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 20 years old. Everett was 20 years old. This guy was about five foot eight. Everett was five eight.

“Everett had unique facial features, including a really large, jutting 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.”

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  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
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