JUST WHEN THE Kennewick Man case seemed about to expire of legalistic anoxia in a Portland courtroom (see "Kennewick Man in Court"), it got a rousing boost in the real world. Last Thursday Benton County Sheriff's Office detectives may have, by accident, solved one of the many mysteries surrounding the nearly complete 9,000-year-old skeleton discovered in the Columbia River five years ago: the location of certain key K-Man bones.
The detectives were preparing the department's old evidence storage facility for demolition, cleaning out the last of its contents. Among the dregs, they found a small cardboard box. It rattled. That, and the fact that they found it in a storage locker where Kennewick Man's remains were stored briefly nearly six years ago, made them wonder if they had come upon the bits of K-Man the FBI has been looking for.
How any of K-Man managed to go astray has always been a puzzle. Discoverer Jim Chatters swears he packed up all the 350 bits of bone collected from the Columbia River shallows in a wooden box and screwed down the lid in the presence of an assistant and Benton County Coroner Floyd Johnson. Johnson, in turn, avers that he put the box into his locker in the evidence storage facility.
According to records, nobody visited the locker before the box was moved again to a high-security location nearby. Yet when it was opened only a few days later before a dozen witnesses, several bones, clearly visible in photos taken while the skeleton was in Chatters' custody, were not to be found.
If it turns out the bones discovered last Thursday are those that went missing in September 1996 (a government archeologist thinks they may well be), there will be merry hell to pay. Chatters (who has hinted that Native American opponents of scientific study of the bones somehow abstracted them during the 1996 inventory) and Johnson now have to explain how the bones got from the bottom of a sealed wooden crate into a cardboard shoe box.
For his part, Johnson declines to account for their reappearance in a place that only he is supposed to have access to, saying only: "It was just a mix-up."