email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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By now I was captivated. I got in touch with Brian Ruess in Oregon—Everett’s nephew, born too late to have met the vagabond. Everett’s older brother, Waldo, had pursued a relentless quest to solve the great mystery. Even before Waldo’s death in 2007, his son Brian and Brian’s three siblings had redoubled the search. Over the decades, the family had fielded scores of leads and hints and theories, none of which had panned out. They had become jaded and skeptical that any new evidence would ever surface.

After my long phone conversation with Brian, however, he immediately emailed his siblings. “How is this for weird?” his missive began. He deftly summarized the story of Bellson, Johnson, and Aneth Nez, and signed off, “Pretty fascinating!”

Was there any way to prove or disprove whether the bones Bellson had discovered in the Comb Ridge crevice could possibly be those of Everett Ruess? What about DNA?

I contacted Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, a Texas-based firm that has collaborated with the National Geographic Society. Once more I related the bizarre story Daisy Johnson had told me. 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 just might be able to demonstrate a match. Or prove a mismatch.

If we were ever to probe the mystery deeper—by retrieving a DNA sample from the Comb Ridge skeleton, for instance—that was a business that had to be done with the utmost delicacy and through the proper channels. On our various visits to the site, Hadenfeldt, Bellson, 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 us to disturb what might well be a Native American burial.

Before heading out to Utah, I had gotten in touch with Ron Maldonado, the supervisory archaeologist in the Cultural Resource Compliance Section of the Navajo Nation, based in Window Rock, Arizona. Maldonado was instantly intrigued—and instantly cautious. He agreed, however, to go out to the site with us and have a look around. Maldonado, I learned, was married to a Navajo, and he had vast experience with crevice burials on the reservation.

Hadenfeldt, Bellson, and I met Maldonado at the café cum convenience store that amounts to the town of Mexican Water, Arizona. With Bellson leading the way, we once again drove the maze of roads out onto the slickrock plateau, then hiked to the rim. The day was as hot as on our previous foray, and my mouth was parched long before we arrived.

FBI agent Boisselle had called Maldonado before heading out to the Comb, and I had forwarded him Child’s photos of the grave as it looked when Bellson found it. Now, as Maldonado peered into the crevice, he drew in his breath. “Rachel promised me they wouldn’t move anything,” he said. “I’m really ticked off.” 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 expertly 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, Bellson sat ten yards away, watching and saying little.

After a while, Maldonado commented, “It’s definitely a full-size skull. But it’s still growing. It looks like a guy in his 20s.” 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.”

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  • It sure is taking National Geographic Adventure a long time to follow up on this story since the con…
  • I've read this several times. Kudos to the author who condensed a long and convoluted experience in…
  • I do not understand why dental records were not compared!?
  • 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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