Skeletal remains 

The long road home for Montana's mystery bones

Greg Hintz says he’s got a reputation as a joker among his colleagues in law enforcement, but there’s something in his friendly, heavy-lidded appraisal that suggests he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Captain Hintz is the county’s acting coroner. He doesn’t miss much. If your bones ended up somewhere they don’t belong, you’d be glad to have him looking out for them.

It doesn’t happen very often, but human bones turn up in unlikely places in Missoula County enough for people—mostly hunters and hikers, Hintz says, and mostly in the spring and fall when more of them are out in the woods—to find them. And when human remains do turn up, Hintz is usually the first to know.

This week he’s waiting for a human jaw to arrive by registered mail. Part of an incomplete skeleton found by a mountain biker in Sawmill Gulch last month, the mandible has been in Great Falls for the past few weeks, where it’s being examined by a dentist. Although the case is still being treated as a potential crime, Hintz says he’s essentially ruled out the likelihood of foul play. But, if the dental profile provided by the Great Falls dentist can be matched to existing dental records in a missing-persons database, he might still be able to match the skeleton—skull, mandible, 10 teeth, left and right femur, tibiae, pelvic cradle minus the pubis portions, left radius and right fibula—to its former owner.

Then again, maybe not. There’s already a stack of potential candidates—missing persons—half an inch thick sitting on his desk. Right now, waiting for the jawbone, Hintz doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for answers to many of his questions.

Fifty-year-old blood
You never know when you’re going to go, but for many of us it’s a matter of no small comfort to make arrangements, while still alive, for the final disposition of our earthly remains—interred next to a loved one, maybe, or cremated and scattered around a favorite fishing hole. No one ever thinks their bones are going to come to rest in a ditch by the highway, or in the pit of an outhouse, or tossed around an alpine meadow, ravaged by bears and gnawed on by rodents.

But it happens.

When human bones turn up in unlikely places—in the woods, on the future site of a new septic tank or school building—one story ends and another begins. A second journey, you could say, that might take the bones through the offices, delivery trucks, examination rooms and laboratories of nearly half a dozen different agencies, departments and organizations. It could be years, or even decades, before such bones well and truly come to rest.

Hintz’s office is the on-ramp for the journey ahead. Once the coroner has had a look, the next stop for skeletal remains found in Missoula County, and anywhere else in Montana, is the Forensic Science Division of the Department of Justice, better known as the state crime lab.

Lab administrator Bill Unger says that skeletal remains arrive at the facility, tucked away in a professional suite just off West Broadway in Missoula, four or five times a year. If that. Most of the material the lab receives is mineral or vegetable—clothing, baggies of marijuana, sachets of white powders—and less often animal. But, as with the coroner’s office, all material, including skeletal remains, is treated as evidence in a potential crime.

Dr. Gary Dale, a Choteau native and one of three certified forensic pathologists in Montana, is the person at the crime lab in charge of sorting out human remains. Old bones represent a very small fraction of his annual caseload, and they don’t usually lie around long before he calls someone from UM’s anthropology department to come pick them up. They’re the ones, Dale says, who will spend the most time actually examining them.

Once in a great while, however, bones come back a second time for DNA analysis. Not long ago, says Unger, a law-enforcement agency in the state sent them remains that had been in storage since around 1950 for DNA testing.

“It was an old case,” he recalls, “where everybody involved has since gone. And I don’t know if they made the DNA to a particular individual or not, but we got a great profile off 50-year-old blood.”

For cross-referencing purposes, technicians at the lab use “junk” DNA, the genetic “padding” in the double helix common to humans, rats, chickens and fish, and dating from a time when all shared a common ancestor—about 400 million years ago. Junk DNA, as Unger explains, reveals practically nothing about a person’s physical makeup. Of the 16 genetic markers lab technicians use, “male/female” is the only one that can be expressed in words. The other 15 are just numbers and Greek letters.

But the industry-standard 16 markers technicians look for are extremely effective in matching DNA samples extracted from evidence with blood, hair or cheek-swab samples taken from potential suspects. If even one marker doesn’t match, the person from whom the sample was collected could not have provided the DNA lifted from the remains. But if all 16 markers match, the statistical likelihood of someone besides the suspect leaving a genetically identical sample on the evidence can be calculated in the billions- or even trillions-to-one.

It rarely comes to that with thoroughly skeletalized remains, though. If the soft tissue has been obliterated over time, says Dale, it’s probably not—or at least no longer—a criminal issue. Likewise, if bone still has soft tissue on it, it’s generally not historical.

“It’s a lot harder than you’d think to make the age of skeletal remains,” Dale says. “But if there’s soft tissue, even if it kind of looks like jerky, then it’s probably something contemporary, as opposed to a 200-year-old Native American burial. Those are pretty obvious.”

If UM anthropologists Garry Kerr or Randall Skelton agree with Dale that the remains appear to be Native American in origin, the bones have arrived at their first big fork in the road.

The question of ownership
“So let’s say,” says Forest Service archaeologist Mike Beckes, “that these things are found indeed to be modern and potentially a victim of some sort, or a lost person. That goes off into the criminal justice system, end of discussion. If the remains appear to be prehistoric—American Indian—then a whole different process kicks into gear.”

It’s only happened once that Beckes has found human remains where he wasn’t specifically looking for them. As a student, he recalls, he was walking down a dry arroyo in Texas and saw what looked to him like human bones poking out of a cut bank. Further investigation revealed that there had once been a native village in the vicinity.

Beckes likens bones to arrowheads. He could give a rodent’s behind, he says, about finding arrowheads for the sake of finding them—what matters is what they can tell him about the people who made them. Normally, he says, when he’s out in the field he isn’t looking for bones at all.

“If I were to look at human remains coming out of a cutbank or an arroyo or something exposed by erosion,” he explains, “I wouldn’t be looking at the bones so much as the associated artifacts—ash, burned rock, things that might suggest a fire hearth, things that to an archaeologist would say ‘American Indian.’”

That, Beckes admits, is a fairly rare occurrence around here. In this region over the last decade, he estimates—speaking of an area encompassing Montana, Northern Idaho, the grasslands of North Dakota and “one little grassland” in South Dakota—it’s happened maybe six times. And when pre-historic remains do turn up, they rarely fit the romantic picture of a complete skeleton reposed in a cave.

“The idea of finding the classic skeleton is a very rare event,” says Beckes. “You generally wouldn’t even recognize what you found as human. It would more likely just be a disarticulated bone brought out by natural forces or burrowing animals—badgers and things like that.”

Still, the procedure for reporting such finds is the same: Notify the local law enforcement agency first. If the remains are found on National Forest land, Beckes says, calling the local ranger or Forest Service station is a good idea as well. Regardless of where they turn up, the remains should not be disturbed, much less removed from the site, until the proper authorities can be notified and summoned to the scene.

The most recent case Beckes can recall of someone finding human remains in his region involved a boater on Lake Koocanusa, who spotted what turned out to be a partial skull of Native American origin on a remote beach. Reservoirs, says Beckes, are likely places for remains to turn up because of rising and falling water levels, slumping banks and wave action chewing away at beaches.

Land ownership is the most important determining factor in the disposition of American Indian remains unearthed by erosion or excavation. Private land, Beckes says, is a little different than state land, which is a little different than federal land.

“There are different controlling statutes,” he explains. “If human remains are encountered on private or state land, the controlling regulation is the Montana State Burial Law. Montana has a pretty strict, explicit burial law that instructs law enforcement how to behave if they encounter human remains, or if they get a phone call from a hiker saying ‘hey, I found something out in the woods.’

“On federal land,” Beckes continues, “there’s a law called the Native American Graves Protection Act—NAGPRA for short—that adds an additional level of regulation to state law. Obviously, we comply with state law, but we also have the additional federal requirements.”

NAGPRA was signed into law by former President George Bush in late 1990—the result of decades of concerted effort by Native American groups to protect burial sites from desecration, stop illicit trafficking in Native American remains and artifacts, and recover sacred cultural objects in possession of federal and state agencies and museums.

“American Indians,” says Beckes, “had literally gone to Congress and said, ‘Hey, when the Corps of Engineers built all those big reservoirs on the Missouri River, they flooded sites that my great-grandfather lived in! They flooded his grave! Or they dug it up and took it back to the Peabody Museum, or Harvard, or God knows where else, and I want them back!’ Congress finally heard that and decided it wasn’t just the values and interests of science that needed to be considered. It was also the relatives of these people.”

In cases where the remains or artifacts in question prove to be many thousands of years old, however, the issue of ownership can get a bit contentious.

“The way NAGPRA was written,” Beckes says, “and the reason it was written, had to do with fairly recent ancestors. It can be oral history, it can be archaeology, it can be ethnohistory, it can be forensic data, but you need a preponderance of evidence that you indeed have a cultural affinity to these remains—that they are, let’s just say, Blackfeet or something like Blackfeet. More than just a map. More than just somebody asserting that claim loudly.”

Which, he continues, is precisely why federal judges ruled against the various tribal claimants in the case of Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found under the surface of Lake Wallula—a reservoir—on the Columbia River in 1996. The extraordinary age of the remains simply made it impossible for the various American Indian groups asserting claims to conclusively demonstrate that cultural affinity.

“My guess,” says Beckes, “is that they’ll seek a legislative remedy and try to amend the law. But the way it’s written now—well, you saw how it came out. The judge ruled the only way he could have, given what the law says. You read it as it’s written, not how it ought to be or how you want it to be or how you wish it would be.”

Nothing so rancorous has ever happened around here; if American Indian remains were discovered in the greater Missoula area, Beckes reckons, a call to the Salish-Kootenai would “pretty much get it covered.” Not so in eastern Montana, where the extreme mobility of Plains tribes resulted in overlapping inhabitation of the same piece of real estate. Sometimes, Beckes says, he’ll have to consult with officials from five or six different tribal groups before one comes forward with a reasonable claim to remains found on erstwhile aboriginal territory. When that happens, and if no other tribe contests their provenance, the relics or remains are generally handed over with a minimum of publicity—and without many further inquiries.

“We very quietly hand them over,” Beckes says. “We keep it low-key because essentially we’re talking about religious and ceremonial issues, and they don’t want every white guy from here to New York reading about it, or even thinking about it. The stuff is no longer property of the federal government. It is repatriated, and what they do with the remains is their business. We don’t ask questions, and we rarely hear.”

Does a bear croak in the woods?
Beckes says that he’s usually not contacted about human remains found in the wild until a coroner, sheriff and other investigating officials, usually through consultation with UM forensic anthropologists, have determined that the remains are probably not linked to a crime or a missing person. He’ll get the call, he quips, after they’ve established that “It’s not Jimmy Hoffa.” Before this can happen, forensic specialists first have to determine whether or not the bones are human.

Just as decomposing bacteria make no distinction between a human leg and a Virginia ham, certain mammals demonstrate a distressing lack of respect for human bodies deposited in wild places. Rodents nibble the bones trying to get at the marrow. Larger mammals like bears and coyotes carry off their own prizes, often confusing things further by adding bones from other carcasses and bones of their own. The remains retrieved from Sawmill Gulch in late April, in fact, consisted of perhaps a dozen human bones, not counting teeth, mixed in with six times as many animal bones—and a stick.

UM anthropologists usually pass the animal bones along to zoologist Dave Dyer, who identifies them before packing them away in one of the brown cartons stacked to the ceiling in his jumbled animal ossuary in the Health Sciences building. Where there’s a question of species, Dyer says that deer and elk bones are the usual suspects. A turkey bone once threw everybody for a loop before Dyer identified it. But perhaps the most unnervingly humanoid animal bones to be found in Montana’s wild places, he says, belong to bears.

Dyer keeps a mostly decomposed bear paw encased in a saucer-sized chunk of plastic resin. Minus the fur and the opposable thumb, the bear’s flattened phalanges are dead ringers for human digits—little surprise, Dyer affirms, that anyone would leap to the direst conclusions if they found something similar.

Though really, he says, you’d be surprised at some of the conclusions people leap to when they find bones in the woods. He chuckles as he hefts the fibrous dome of a caribou skull—the person who brought it in was sure it belonged to a sasquatch. A disappointingly small sasquatch, to be sure, but such is the intrigue of finding bones. The temptation to read too much into them can be great.

Dyer quickly discerned, from the position of the hole in the base of the skull where the spinal cord would have attached to the brain, that the skull belonged to a quadruped—not a trait generally associated with sasquatches. The holes where the antlers once sprouted have been worn smooth by the elements. Dyer keeps it around as a kind of object lesson in leaping to conclusions.

And because he keeps almost everything around. Dyer’s collection is the last stop for animal bones turned over to the university. He rarely throws anything away, and new specimens come in all the time, waiting to be filed away somewhere between the opossum bones on his work-table and the slab of whale baleen sitting on top of a cabinet. And the desiccated ostrich currently getting the Dermestid beetle treatment in his Plexiglas “bug box.” If you think the bug box stinks now, says Dyer, you should have smelled it the time a student filled it with fresh bobcat.

The way of all flesh
When something big dies in the Montana woods, Dermestid beetles are among the last to arrive on the scene. They feed on dried tissue, which is usually all that’s left by the time anaerobic bacteria have had their feast, causing the carcass to bloat with gas produced by their metabolic activity, and the larvae of various fly species have made off with most of the biomass. Dermestid beetles, with their finicky diet requirements, are useful to zoologists and taxidermists for removing the last scraps of soft tissue from things to be stuffed, mounted, or wired together.

Bone doesn’t generally last long in hot, humid climates—one of the reasons tropical areas generally produce fewer prehistoric human remains than areas with temperate climates. Repeated freezing and thawing, which essentially describes Montana’s climate, is tough on bone, too. Under certain circumstances, however, decomposition of human remains skips the usual routine and proceeds to alternate processes.

They’re not mummy mummies, trailing tatters of embalming cloth, says Gary Dale, but Montana’s dry climate does sometimes produce partially mummified remains. Generally infants and fetuses, which haven’t yet recruited the full army of bacteria lurking in the human body, like a Fifth Column, to start dismantling it once it’s stopped working.

Then there’s adipocere, another relatively rare state of decomposition produced under special circumstances. Adipocere is a waxy substance that clings to bone when bodies decompose in wet, oxygen-poor environments like coldwater springs. It’s basically natural soap caused by the hydrolysis of fatty acids, and its antibacterial properties may preserve the remains in that state for decades. It also stinks to high heaven, says Dale, who vividly recalls the time he examined a body recovered from a car that had been in a Texas pond for over 10 years.

Dale performs most of his examinations in a mortuary with some unlikely decorative touches inherited from a co-worker—lots of SpongeBob SquarePants paraphernalia, including a pair of SpongeBob boxer shorts sagging from the pelvis of “Oscar,” the resident skeleton (obtained, mind you, through a reputable scientific supply company).

He rarely sees skeletal remains—most of what he gets to work with is considerably fresher when it arrives at the crime lab. Like Greg Hintz, however, he’s obliged to treat all remains, even those that clearly look very old to him, as though they were evidence from a crime scene. Occasionally he’ll simmer skeletal remains in a solution of trisodium phosphate with a few added ingredients—secret recipe of UM forensic anthropology professor Garry Kerr, who sometimes assists Dale with examinations. Dale also assists Kerr: When Kerr took some of his anthropology students to the Petty Creek site where a man had been killed by his family, incinerated in a woodstove and thrown down an outhouse, Dale went along to take pictures. He says he’s got a great shot of Kerr and an assistant tipping over the outhouse.

Removing the last of the flesh affords Dale, and Kerr, a better view of any “defects” on the bones—not congenital or pathological ones, but marks like cuts or scrapes that might have been caused by stabbing. Once in a great great while, Dale says, skeletal evidence reveals foul play that might have occurred decades earlier.

“We’ve had at least one case like that,” says Dale, “where there was cut-up bone. They were from the basement of a bar in Ryegate. They weren’t missing anybody in that small town, so we figured they had probably been there since the 1930s. Somebody ran the head through a bonesaw. The butcher shop was right next door at the time.”

Pictures from an excavation
In a room down the hall from his office, coroner Hintz sets up the projector for a grim slideshow he sometimes gives to high school students. There’s Betty Beavertail, her weatherbeaten bones wedged against a chain-link fence east of Rock Creek where a railroad worker spotted them, perhaps 30 feet down the embankment from the place where someone rolled or threw her from the shoulder of the road. She was subsequently identified through the Green River Task Force as a runaway from the Seattle area.

And there’s the skeleton of a man found in the woods up Pattee Creek, flesh still clinging to the ribs in greasy brown ribbons. Astonishingly, crime lab technicians were still able to lift a fingerprint and make another positive ID.

“See that trauma up around the ribcage?” asks Hintz, jabbing the screen with his finger. “He’d been shot with a .303 rifle. And there were no clothes on the scene. That tells you something’s wrong.”

And there’s the Petty Creek investigation that Gary Dale took pictures on, the case of the man shot with a .22, burned in two locations and thrown down the family outhouse. What Garry Kerr’s students retrieved from the privy pit looks more like potsherds than bone, but here, too, police were able to make an ID from a surgical pin found in a piece of ankle not much bigger than a coin. The victim’s wife had already confessed.

“But you have to make an identification,” says Hintz. “Who’s to say that his brother isn’t down there, too?”

There’s Debbie Deer Creek, one leg sticking out of the shallow grave where a hunter and his dog found her on December 18, 1984. Investigators set up a tent and installed a heater to thaw out the ground. There’s an arm, says Hintz, and an elbow. Debbie Deer Creek’s first name is thought to be Robin, and that’s nearly the extent of what authorities know about the person. Her bones offer many clues as to how she lived and how she died, but they’re conspicuously silent on where she’s from or who might miss her.

And there, finally, is what’s left of Chryssie Crystal Creek (if “you call ’em all Jane Doe,” says Hintz, “you get mixed up.”), scattered around an East Missoula drainage not far from where Debbie Deer Creek was found, each piece marked with an orange plastic flag. For Chryssie Crystal Creek’s bones, and for those of Debbie Deer Creek, it’s been a long detour on the road to resting in peace.

The road home
If no modern crime is suspected, bones with no more tales to tell are eventually returned to the submitting agency in the county where they originated. Once there, Greg Hintz says, they’ll probably be buried, in some cases a second time, with a minimum of fanfare. You’re unlikely to see them on display in your county museum, adds Mike Beckes.

“Display of human remains is pretty much passé,” he says. “Our social conscience has moved beyond that. There used to be some pretty garish sideshow-like displays around this country—come see the two-headed calf and the skeleton of the Indian! and all that—but that is a rare event anymore. People are offended by it, and it rarely happens.”

In life, bones provide structure. And so they sometimes do in death. Skeletal remains supply a significant amount of hands-on training to UM anthropology students. For that very reason, forensic anthropology professor Randall Skelton is currently declining interviews. So is Garry Kerr. As Skelton explains:

“Out primary mission is our students, and they come first. At present we enjoy an excellent reputation with the law enforcement community, and therefore they send us cases. Working with these cases is a vital part of my students’ education. However, if we speak with even one reporter in a way that seems inappropriate to the law enforcement community, they won’t send us cases. We have had this happen in the past and spent years rebuilding our reputation.”

Faculty are bound by law and rules of evidence, Skelton adds, from commenting on any open case; Debbie Deer Creek and Chryssie Crystal Creek, though old now, are still open cases. Law-enforcement officials, on the other hand, can share many details of these cases that would be verboten coming from Kerr or Skelton. It’s a professional courtesy, adds Kerr—a world-class talker who, in this case, simply can’t talk.

One person who can, and who has permission to do so from all agencies concerned, is Syd Wimbrow. Wimbrow is writing a paper for her master’s degree in forensic anthropology on Chryssie Crystal Creek, whose bones are now lying, more or less reassembled, on a lemon-yellow bedsheet in a lab on the UM campus. Ordinarily, Wimbrow prefers to work with bones on a red cloth, a color that confers respect in many Native American cultures. There’s nothing in the skeletal morphology of Chryssie Crystal Creek to indicate Native American ancestry, but Wimbrow generally observes the tradition just in case. As it happens, yellow is just more photogenic.

Forensic anthropologists make a cumbersome number of distinctions when it comes to skeletal parts. A skull, for example, is not always a skull. Without the mandible, it’s the cranium. If it’s missing the face, what remains is the calvarium. If it’s just the face, it’s a splanchnocranium. If it’s the cup-like dome of the skull without the base, it’s a calotte. Anthropologists also differ in their pronunciation and pluralization of certain bones: One’s radii are another’s radiuses.

“Some forensic anthropologists,” Wimbrow says, “just make up their own words for everything.”

Wimbrow suspects that she differs from most forensic anthropologists in referring to her subject as “she.” For her paper, a detailed forensic report on Chryssie Crystal Creek, Wimbrow says she finds ways around it, generally with definite articles instead of personal pronouns, and by calling her “the victim.” But privately, among friends, she’s “my girl.”

Syd’s girl was shot twice in the head and apparently dumped in a creek bed near East Missoula, probably in early 1984. By the time a bear hunter found her in September, 1985, all that was left was hair and bone, which Wimbrow retrieves one piece at a time from a box of individually labeled freezer bags. Some of the bones have been nibbled by rodents; Wimbrow knows every tooth mark. The clump of brown hair is matted with dirt and leaves, but Wimbrow plucks a single curl from the tangle that looks like it could have been swept from a hairdresser’s floor yesterday.

She marvels at her girl’s dental work—so unique, she enthuses, that it’s amazing no one has been able to identify her. She has a root canal under one of her incisors. And gaping cavities in some of her molars. Wimbrow suspects that her girl had access to excellent tooth care until about a year before her death, when she “let them go to pot.” One of the things Wimbrow wants to know is why. Other examiners have speculated that Chryssie Crystal Creek was a smoker and, judging by the distribution of the tobacco stains, that she was right-handed.

One expert has speculated from the condition of the pelvis, which was found in three pieces, that she had had a baby. They base this assumption on a tiny divot called the preauricular sulcus. Others contend that the preauricular sulcus doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with childbirth. Striking a balance between objectivity and subjectivity, science and its interpretation, is one of the things that intrigues Wimbrow about forensic anthropology.

“What I think is so interesting about it is solving something. I like to figure things out, from the TV remote to the new stereo to a bone. It’s also interesting to me to know what the body’s made of. I’d like to have a full x-ray of my bones because I’m not going to be able to see them when I die, but I’m really curious about them.

“Also,” Wimbrow adds, though hardly as an afterthought, “it bothers me that she’s still unindentified. It bothers me that even though this world is so big, some family member somewhere doesn’t miss her. I’m not going to be really, really disappointed if I can’t determine her identity, but I know that I’m going to have a complete skeletal inventory with details of her bones to give back to the police. I know that what I’m doing is going to give them just a little more information than they already have.”

And when they have it, Chryssie Crystal Creek might get her old name back. She might yet make it home.

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