No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


July 28, 1996
Kennewick, Washington

“I think I’ve almost got the route we’re going to take all figured out,” Floyd Johnson announced, appearing in the bedroom doorway, his putter in hand. He had just come in from the front yard, where he had been chipping golf balls.

“Honey, did you remember to get the oil changed on the car?” Suzanne asked, knowing what his response would be. Although their annual three-week vacation was still four days away, Suzanne packed early, eager to get to Southern California.

“I’m going to do that tomorrow,” he said, grinning sheepishly. After placing his putter back in his golf bag, Floyd reached for the atlas. “Suzanne, did you pack me enough underwear?”

She clenched all twelve pairs in her hand and held them up over her head. “While you were practicing for the PGA out in the front yard, I packed them for you.”

“Well, you are doing such a fine job at packing, maybe I’ll just leave the rest to you and go take a few more shots,” he said.

“I have a better idea,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Why don’t you finish packing and I’ll go sit in the car and honk.”

Suddenly the phone rang. They both looked at the clock. It was nearly 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon.

“I’ll get it,” Floyd said.

Suzanne did not have a good feeling about this.

Johnson recognized Kennewick Police sergeant Craig Littrell’s voice immediately.

“We need you to respond to Columbia Park,” Littrell said.

“What’s up?”

“A human skull has been recovered,” Littrell said. He explained that two boys attending the Tri-City Water Follies boat race found it. They were wading in the Columbia River just off the shoreline when they discovered the skull, which was submerged in the river. There were additional bones found on the shoreline that appeared to be human.

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Since retiring as a homicide detective years earlier, Johnson, fifty-seven years old, had served as the Benton County coroner. Every time a death occurred within the county, unless the deceased had been in the care of a physician thirty-six hours prior to death, Johnson responded to the scene, examined the body, and determined whether the cause of death warranted a criminal investigation.

Johnson hung up and returned to the bedroom, silently placing the atlas back on his nightstand. Recognizing the solemn expression on his face, Suzanne knew someone had died.

“Sweetie pie, I gotta go,” Floyd said. “They got one down in the park.”

“How long do you think it will take?” Suzanne asked as Floyd changed into a pair of long pants.

“I don’t know,” he said, fastening his belt as he walked out to the driveway toward his brand-new green four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee. The white lettering on the side said, BENTON COUNTY FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY. Inside, a dozen white body bags were neatly packaged in plastic on the backseat, each one bearing a warning notice: “Use universal blood/body fluids precautions with all patients.”

The Jeep held everything he needed: his black leather medical bag, a box of disposable latex gloves, flashlights, a 35-mm Canon camera, and a Polaroid camera. He also kept a Smith & Wesson .380 automatic pistol under the seat.

Johnson turned the ignition. His black Kenwood police hand radio came on with the engine. Backing out of the driveway, Johnson glanced at the tray under the glove compartment, double-checking for the blue jar of Vicks VapoRub. When going to a death scene that had a decomposed body, a dab of VapoRub under the nose was his best defense against the odor.

Johnson drove five miles to the Columbia River. Spectators from the boat race were congregated around an area cordoned off by yellow police tape. Inconspicuously dressed in blue pants, a short-sleeve green pullover shirt, and black shoes, Johnson slipped under the tape and found Sergeant Littrell.

“Dr. Death is here,” another officer joked as Littrell handed Johnson a white plastic bucket.

Johnson peered inside. At the bottom, a skull rested in a puddle of muddy water. A dark yellow residue covered its surface. Two ominously empty eye cavities in the cranium stared up at him.

Johnson lifted the skull, mud and water oozing out. “This is pretty heavy,” he said, rotating it in his hands. He observed a fracture line just below the cheekbones, about where the bridge of the nose was. Johnson reached back into the bucket and pulled out a plastic bag. It held two pieces of the jawbone. The top and bottom teeth were still intact.

Littrell told him that a number of other bones had not yet been removed from the river.

Silently, Johnson stared at the yellowish brown streaks on the skull, convinced that the skull had to be over a hundred years old. He had seen his share of murder victims whose remains had been reduced to skeleton. But these bones looked different from anything he’d seen before. He suspected the skull was from a deceased Indian. Numerous tribes lived in the area, and ancient burial grounds were plentiful in the river basin region. It wouldn’t be the first time that river erosion had exposed Indian remains.

Gingerly, he placed the skull back in the bucket. “This looks old to me,” Johnson told Littrell. “But I want to have an expert look at it.”

The bearded 47-year-old Dr. James Chatters met Johnson at the doorstep to his house. Chatters, a paleontologist in Richland, worked as a consultant to the county coroner’s office and to numerous Native American tribes. Saying nothing, Chatters knelt down under the large white birch tree in his front yard and performed a quick forensic study of the skull. He checked the length of the skull, the shapes of the seams where joints of the skull came together, the prominence of the chin, the structure of the jawbone, and the features of the other, smaller facial bones. Then he gently placed the skull on his green lawn and lifted the jawbone from the bucket. After looking at it, he put it back down and lifted up the skull again.

“This is very unusual,” he whispered. To him it looked like an old European skull.

“I thought it was probably an old Native American’s remains,” Johnson offered.

“No, this is not Native American,” Chatters said. To him there was nothing Native American about it. There were unusual characteristics in the skull, narrow, sloping features. And the prominent nose, distinct from the more rounded, Mongolian-type features found on early Native American remains.

Chatters decided it would be best for him to see the discovery site.

It was dusk when they reached the river. Chatters went directly to the riverbank with a police officer to see if any bones were visible onshore. None were. Quickly walking the beach, Chatters found various artifacts: white ceramic, a horseshoe, a piece of wood with old square nails stuck in it, and a cow bone.

The dive team ready, Chatters and Johnson boarded the Benton County Sheriff’s rescue boat and trolled fifty yards offshore, where they began circling within a two-hundred-yard radius. Using flashlights, the team spotted more bones in the shallow water, protruding from the mud on the river floor. Chatters hastily removed his leather sandals and climbed overboard. Feeling a hard surface against his toes, he bent over, reached into the muck, and lifted a piece of pelvis bone. He handed it up to Johnson. Next he located another piece of the lower jawbone, more pieces of the pelvis, a femur, bones of the lower leg, and then pieces of the upper arms.

Convinced the media and curious spectators would overrun the site once news of the discovery leaked out, Chatters groped along the riverbed until it got too dark to see. Before climbing back into the boat, he had retrieved dozens of bones to go with the skull. Noting their position in the river, Chatters figured the skeleton had recently washed out of the riverbank because of erosion. Few of the bones contained algae, and even fewer of them showed signs of surface erosion. The bone matter was in extremely good condition, something rarely seen in recent materials.

Chatters concluded from the physical characteristics of the skull and the fact that there were a lot of historic artifacts strewn on the beach from around the turn of the century that they probably had a skeleton from the early settlement era, the early 1800s, when Lewis and Clark camped nearby. It was presumably somebody who had been buried in a family plot outside a homestead. Often people were buried not far from the house.

After helping Chatters load the bones and other objects into the back of his Jeep, Floyd pulled out of the park, passing a historical marker overlooking the Columbia River. He had passed it countless times before, never paying particular attention to the wood sign, it being intended to aid tourists unfamiliar with the spot’s significance. The words LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION were engraved in yellow across the top.

“The large island seen from here marks the furthest point upstream in the Columbia River reached by the Lewis and Clark expedition, on October 17, 1805,” the sign read:

During the encampment of the party at the mouth of the Snake River, Captain William Clark with two men ascended the Columbia in a small canoe. They found the Wanapum Indians, who lived in mat houses along the shores, engaged in drying large quantities of salmon. “The multitudes of this fish are almost inconceivable,” they reported. “The water is so clear that they can readily be seen at a depth of 15 or 20 feet.” At one of the houses visited, a boiled salmon was served to each explorer. Joining them in 18 canoes, the Indians pointed out the mouth of the Yakima River which they called the Tapteal. As they were making the return trip downstream, Captain Clark shot a sage grouse that measured 42 inches between wing tips.

Just after 9:30, Johnson arrived back home. The suitcases on his bed had been moved to the floor. His golf bag was in the corner. “You were gone a long time,” Suzanne said.

Seated on a stool in his laboratory, Chatters carefully cleaned and sorted the bones that he had laid out the previous night to dry. Using a soft brush, he removed mud and residue from the exterior surface. Suddenly, Chatters squinted, raising the pelvic bone closer to his eyes. A gray object appeared embedded in it.

Realizing it was a potential clue to the skeleton’s age, Chatters immediately took the pelvic bone to Kennewick General Hospital and had it X-rayed. But the X-ray equipment failed to detect the projectile. It indicated to Chatters that the object was not metallic.

His adrenaline rushing, Chatters had the pelvic bone CAT-scanned. The more precise computerized image homed in on the object, revealing a spear point with a rounded base and serrated edges. Chatters thought the original wound appeared to have healed over the spear point, then reerupted.

He could scarcely believe his eyes. A stone spear point lodged in a Caucasoid skeleton conflicted with traditional views of American history. Outside some of the battlefields in the Midwest, researchers hadn’t found stone points stuck in European settlers. Was this an early Kennewick pioneer who got in trouble? Or perhaps he was an explorer who was not on record? That would be a historical discovery.

Seeking a second opinion, Chatters took the skeleton to Catherine J. MacMillan, a physical anthropologist at the Bone-Apart Agency at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. While she closely examined the skull and its other bones, Chatters waited outside her office. Finally she emerged.

“Caucasoid male, forty-five to fifty-five years old at death,” she said matter-of-factly.

Her conclusion supported his. Chatters then handed her the pelvic bone, which he had withheld from her during her initial observation. He pointed to the stone object embedded in it. “Does this change what you think?” he asked.

Stunned, MacMillan stared at the stone projectile. “Well, how can that be?” she said, asking to see the skull again.

Silently, she reexamined it. No wide cheekbones, she observed. No shovel-shaped incisor teeth.

She picked up the pelvic bone again. “It’s interesting that it’s in there,” she said, staring at the stone projectile. “But my opinion remains the same—Caucasian male.”

Chatters hurriedly returned to his office, eager to call Floyd Johnson, who was due to leave on his three-week vacation in less than twenty-four hours. Chatters needed Johnson’s authorization for what he wanted to do next: send a bone sample to the University of California, Riverside, for radiocarbon dating.

Reached at his office, Johnson weighed Chatters’s request. He knew the remains were found proximate to an area traditionally known as a Native American burial ground. But two scientists had independently determined the skeleton could not be Native American. And the stone spear point suggested the skeleton predated the Lewis and Clark expedition. They were potentially sitting on a very important historical find.

Johnson approved Chatters’s request.

August 26, 1996

It was 8:30 A.M. when flimsy white fax paper started scrolling from Floyd Johnson’s machine. The letterhead alerted him that the transmission was coming from the AMS Research Facility at the University of California, Riverside. Johnson had been back a week from vacation, and he had thought often about the case while away.

“Dear Mr. Johnson,” the letter began. “The results from the Columbia Park remains, designated as radiocarbon sample APS-CPS-01 are as follows.” Intrigued, Johnson scanned down the page, looking past a complicated chart with numbers and formulas. His eyes stopped at the heading “Calibrated Age.” Beneath it he noticed the date: “7265 B.C.–7535 B.C.”

Confused, Johnson searched the page for further explanation. His eyes zeroed in on a number: “9,800 years.” He looked back up at the date: “7265 B.C.–7535 B.C.” Johnson kept reading. “The calibrated value is expressed with a 95% confidence level in years B.C.,” the letter said.

Motionless, Johnson looked up from the fax. The skeleton in his custody was approximately 9,800 years old. Never mind Lewis and Clark or Christopher Columbus; the man in Jim Chatters’s basement laboratory seemed to predate every documented account of people migrating to the Americas. The date raised more questions than answers. Where did he come from? What was he doing in North America back around the time of the Ice Age? And how did he get here?

Unsure of the implications, Johnson wanted to call a press conference the next day and announce to the world that Kennewick, Washington, was home to North America’s oldest human. The skeleton would be aptly named: the Kennewick Man.