Sherlock bones

Who stole part of Kennewick man? The feds are investigating a classic locked-room mystery.

The human remains known as "Kennewick man" have been tied up in civil litigation for more than two years, with scientists claiming a constitutional right to examine them and Native Americans saying the law requires their reburial. Now it's looking like the bones may be dragged into court again, this time as evidence in a criminal trial. Four of the human bones collected back in August 1996 by Richland archeologist James Chatters are missing, and the US Attorney's office in Spokane is actively investigating the theft.

Even though K-man's skeleton is in more than 350 pieces, there's little possibility that someone's just miscounted. The four bone fragments in question are large (averaging 6 inches in length) and clearly visible in photos and videotapes taken in August 1996 by Chatters and others. They are just as clearly missing from the detailed inventory of the remains made by Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Douglas Owsley prior to their transportation from storage at Richland's Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) to the University of Washington's Burke Museum for further study.

If the bones could have walked any time over the last 28 months, even Sherlock Holmes might despair of ever tracking down the guilty party. But the government's snoops have a hole card they haven't been waving around in public. Owsley's inventory of the bones, it turns out, isn't the only one that was made by a scientist. Another, made shortly after Chatters turned the remains over to the government for safekeeping, narrows down the period when the bones disappeared to a few days in late summer of 1996, and prunes the range of possible suspects to a manageable few.

Shortly after the Kennewick remains were locked up for safekeeping at a high-security building at Richland, they were unpacked and displayed once more at the request of a group of Native Americans who saw them as those of an ancient ancestor. As reported by the Tri-City Herald almost a year later, the event was, in the words of a government spokesman, little more than a "'short spiritual observance' lasting five to 10 minutes."

Prayers indeed were said in the lab locker of Building Sigma V of PNNL that day. But by far the bulk of the three and a half hours that afternoon weren't spent on prayers but on a detailed inventory of the Kennewick remains, in the presence not only of members of the Umatilla, Yakama, and Colville tribes but of at least four witnesses trained in the science of archeology.

Why was an inventory taken during what was ostensibly a religious ceremony? Jeff Van Pelt, a member of the Umatilla tribe who serves as manager of the Cultural Resources Program for the Umatilla, has a blunt answer for that. "Given the misleading and concealment and misinformation we'd been given from the very day the remains were first discovered, we weren't prepared to take anything we were told on faith. The elders were very reluctant even to open the container the bones were stored in, but I persuaded them that we had to, if only to make sure that we weren't praying over a boxful of rocks."

Van Pelt, who has some training as an archeologist, is not a professional one. But fortunately, he had a pro in his employ: Julie Longenecker, who has an advanced degree from the University of Idaho and 15 years experience at archeological sites around the High Plains and Pacific Northwest. Under the eyes of tribal elders and archeologists from the US Corps of Engineers, the Colville tribe, and the PNNL cultural resources staff, Van Pelt removed the tape securing the lid of the wooden box in which Chatters had placed the remains, removed the 67 plastic Ziploc bags it contained one by one, and held them up for Longenecker to identify.

Longenecker recalls the inventory as "one of the most stressful 90 minutes of my entire life," but the stress doesn't show in her three-page enumeration of the box's contents, from "No.1-innominate—acetabulum fg." To "No. 68-cranium—was not taken out of box." Of the list, the crucial items are numbers 47 and 56, which confirm that only two of the six fragments of leg bones visible in Chatters' late-August videotape were in the box when Longenecker examined the collection.

Between video and inventory, the chronology is remarkably clear. On August 30, 1996, on instructions from the Benton County prosecutor, County Coroner Floyd Johnson took possession of the remains at Chatters' Richland home, where they had been stored since their discovery. Johnson watched Chatters place the bones (most of them in protective plastic Ziploc bags), in a wooden box, cover them with a wooden lid, and seal the edges of the box with duct tape. Joining the sheriff's deputy waiting outside Chatters' home, Johnson took the box to the evidence locker outside the sheriff's office in Kennewick, where he has often stored materials before.

Three days later, on September 3, the prosecutor, coroner, Chatters, the corps, and tribal representatives agreed that until the controversy over their ownership was resolved, the remains would be stored at PNNL. The next day, the boxed remains, sealed with red "evidence tape" to prevent tampering, were convoyed from the sheriff's lockbox to Building Sigma V. There PNNL staff archeologist Paul Nickens admitted them to the high-security building and escorted them to the locked room known as "the laboratory." There the sealed remains were placed, unopened, in a locked storage case.

After the inventory and ceremony on September 10, the remains were put back in the container they'd originally been delivered in and locked up again. Longenecker's handwritten inventory went into the case record in the Umatilla Cultural Resources Office near Pendleton, Oregon. It wasn't until mid-February 1998 that, as the result of discovery motions and submissions of evidence to the litigants in Portland, the discrepancy between the evidence of Chatters' videotapes and photographs and Longenecker's inventory came to light.

Two questions face the government investigators. During the two weeks or so between photographic and inventory evidence, when did the bones disappear? And who had the motive and opportunity to disappear them? Fans of classic English murder-mysteries will recognize one of their favorite genres: the "locked room" story. From the time they were packed up until the time they were inventoried, the box containing the bones was either (1) under the eye of at least two independent witnesses or (2) under lock and key and tamperproof seal. So how could anybody get at them?

Coroner Johnson can testify that he saw bones—already in their plastic bags—put into the box, but he doesn't claim to know what bones they were. All he could tell the Tri-City Herald when its reporter called in mid-March about the investigation was "if any bones were stolen, said Johnson, someone other than Chatters did it. 'I have a complete faith in Dr. Chatters' honesty.'"

Not everyone familiar with the whole saga is prepared to go that far. The primary reason Native Americans laying claim to the bones give for their intransigent refusal to allow scientific examination is their feeling that Chatters deliberately concealed vital information from them in the course of his solo investigation. Even more offensive to Indians was the secret cast Chatters made of the skull, in clear defiance of correct protocols for handling remains of unknown origin. The Indians' later discovery that he planned to deliver the remains to Owsley at the Smithsonian, without consulting them as clearly spelled out in the law, disincline them to take anything he says at face value.

When it was discovered that bones were missing from the collection, Chatters (through a letter to the Department of Justice from his lawyer) denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. And it's hard for the average person to understand why he or anyone would risk a felony rap by purloining a couple of unimpressive 6-inch chunks of bone. A souvenir hunter would have gone for the skull, or the piece of pelvis with its chip of spearpoint, evidence of a murderous attempt on Kennewick man's life.

For scientists, though, the choice of femurs is just what raises suspicion. Though it's not one of the showier bones in the human skeleton, the femur is among the most valuable for a physical anthropologist, who can estimate height, weight, age, health, physical condition, diet, and even lifestyle from it.

In reporting the loss, Owsley, a longtime critic of the federal government's policy of returning ancient remains from museum collections for reburial, found himself agreeing with Native Americans on the subject, calling the removal of the bones "a deliberate act of desecration" and hoping that "diligent efforts will be made to recover these elements and to determine who is responsible for their loss."

Whether in favor of further scientific examination of the remains or of reverently returning them to the earth, we can all agree with Owsley's sentiments.

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