email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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Of the partially buried body itself, the most striking feature was the top of the skull, intact but fragile, protruding from the dirt, almost as if the victim were in a sitting position. Bellson and Child both observed a dent in the back of the cranium, suggestive of a mortal blow.

Child’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 last summer I met Denny Bellson. Forty-three years old, 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 the rimless spectacles of a professor.

With Hadenfeldt we drove south on Highway 191, then turned west on a gravel road. Bellson took one fork after another as the branching trails petered out in vestigial slickrock tracks. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I asked my dad, ‘Do people live out there?’” He pointed through the windshield at the stark plateau ahead of us. “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 in sweat.

We came to the rim. Now Bellson 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?” Hadenfeldt asked, pointing at an assemblage that covered some six feet of crevice.

“FBI,” Bellson answered.

As we pulled the camouflaging stones away from the grave, Hadenfeldt groaned, and I cursed out loud, having seen Child’s photos of the site before the Feds had gotten here. “What the hell did they do?” I asked.

In a deadpan voice, Bellson described his outing a week before with the FBI. The team had consisted of Boisselle, two Navajo criminal investigators, and the San Juan county sheriff, who had invited his three teenage sons along. “One of the CIs tried to lift the skull,” Bellson recounted, “and it broke into pieces. The FBI lady decided right off that it was a Navajo burial. They acted like I was wasting their time.”

I was staring at the desecrated grave. The saddle frame, the stirrup, and other odds and ends that Bellson 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 team, including the teenagers, had piled up stones to hide the grave.

“Sounds like they thought they were out on a goddamned picnic,” I muttered.

Bellson 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,” Bellson said. I couldn’t, but Hadenfeldt nodded. “I could smell ’em when I got here the first time,” Bellson added.

“How did you find the grave?” I asked.

“Came around that corner there.” Bellson pointed north. “I saw part of the saddle. That led me to the crevice.”

“Was it exciting?”

“No. Spooky.”

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  • I've read this several times. Kudos to the author who condensed a long and convoluted experience in…
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  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
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