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

Chapter 15. DESTINATION UNKNOWN

As soon as he hung up with Owsley, Chatters notified Floyd Johnson about the plane ticket. Then his doorbell rang. Grover Krantz, Chatters’s former professor at Washington State University, had showed up. Days earlier, Chatters had asked him to come and see the Kennewick Man, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have one more physical anthropologist examine him. Krantz spent an hour before saying he believed the skeleton could not be associated with Native Americans or any other modern populations that he was familiar with. He agreed to provide a letter verifying his opinion.

Floyd Johnson had barely arrived home from work when the phone rang. It was almost 5:00 P.M.

“Hello.”

“This is Linda Kirts. I’m an attorney with the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Johnson cleared his throat. “Yes.”

She wanted to know why he was still involved with the remains.

“Well…” He hesitated, unprepared for her direct tone. “It falls within my jurisdiction to—”

“Those remains were found on federal land,” Kirts interrupted.

“Well, all remains that are found in the county are under the coroner’s jurisdiction,” Johnson said.

“You may be violating federal law by keeping those remains, not to mention angering Native Americans.” She demanded to know where Johnson was storing the remains.

“Well, they are in Dr. Chatters’s office,” Johnson said.

“Are they secure?”

“Yes, they’re secure.”

“Well, I think they should be locked up somewhere other than in Dr. Chatters’s office.”

“They’re being cared for in a proper manner.”

“Just what are you planning to do with the remains?”

“Dr. Chatters has a plane ticket and is preparing to take the remains to the Smithsonian.”

There was a long pause, causing Johnson to wonder if Kirts had hung up.

“Hello?” he said.

“You better rethink this process,” she finally said, informing him that he had no right to send the remains to the Smithsonian. Kirts told Johnson that it was beyond his scope of authority to make that determination, and insisted he would be violating the law by letting Kennewick Man go to the Smithsonian.

“But these are not Native American remains,” Johnson said, explaining that Chatters and several of his colleagues concurred with these findings. “And I don’t believe the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is applicable here.”

“I’m not talking about NAGPRA,” Kirts said, raising her voice. “I’m talking about ARPA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.” In 1979 Congress passed ARPA to protect from commercial exploitation all federal or Indian lands containing archaeologically important human remains or artifacts. Before excavation or removal of such material can take place, the federal agency over the land in question has to issue a permit. The permit that Chatters had obtained from the corps was issued under this law.

Johnson was confused. “Ms. Kirts, I’m not familiar with that law. And I don’t have to talk to you. I feel I have jurisdiction. If you want, you can talk to my attorney. You can call Andy Miller, the county attorney. Good-bye, Ms. Kirts.”

Hanging up, Johnson stared at the pictures hanging on the wall next to his desk. In each one, Johnson stood next to famous country singers: Johnny Cash, Crystal Gayle, Rick Skaggs, and others. The pictures were taken in the mid-1980s, when Johnson was still a police officer. Providing security to famous singers at the annual county fair was the closest Johnson had ever been to the spotlight. He had a sinking feeling that was about to change.

He quickly called Andy Miller, hoping to get to him before Kirts did.

“Hey, Andy. This is Floyd,” he said, launching right into a blow-by-blow account of his conversation with Kirts. Unable to get a word in edgewise, Miller just listened. “Andy,” Johnson continued, “she was so harsh and condescending, I just told her, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna talk to you.’ And I hung up on her.”

Miller tried not to laugh. In all the years he had known Johnson, he had never heard him angry. It was almost comical. Who is this person that got Floyd so upset? he wondered. As soon as he hung up with Johnson, Miller found out.

“We need the remains in federal custody right away,” Kirts demanded, after announcing herself.

Put off by the tone and volume of her voice, Miller said nothing. Kirts complained about the remains being at Chatters’s office and argued that he could not be trusted to store them in safekeeping. Up to this point, Miller, whose job was to prosecute crimes, had had no involvement with the remains and no idea where they were being stored or what their status was.

Miller listened politely as Kirts started quoting the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Kirts told Miller that under ARPA he had no choice but to order Floyd Johnson to surrender the remains to the corps.

Miller had never heard of ARPA and did not intend to make decisions based on a law he hadn’t read. “Look,” said Miller, “I don’t have the law in front of me.”

Kirts interrupted again, this time threatening to call the U.S. attorney’s office to report Miller’s unwillingness to comply with federal law.

Miller took a deep breath. It was Labor Day weekend and all state and federal offices were closed until Tuesday. “You are calling me at home on a Friday night, on Labor Day weekend,” Miller said. “Why don’t we all sit down and discuss this.”

They agreed to meet first thing Wednesday morning.

“But I want those remains secured right now,” Kirts demanded.

Irritated, Miller sighed. “Look, Ms. Kirts, if there’s any concern, I can make sure the remains are secure. The coroner can secure them at the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.”

Miller hung up with Kirts and called Johnson back.

Hardly able to wait to take Kennewick Man to the Smithsonian, Chatters loaded film into his camera, preparing to make his own photographic inventory of the skeleton before the trip. The phone rang.

“Paleoscience.”

“Hey, buddy, I got some bad news,” Floyd Johnson said.

“What?” Chatters asked.

“I’m gonna have to come over and get the bones.”

“What? Why?”

“Because that’s what the Corps of Engineers and my attorney say has to be done.”

“Floyd, I thought you said you were in charge of this until the analysis was over, and they couldn’t interfere with you.”

“Well, the lawyers are in it now, and the county attorney has advised me to do what the corps wants.”

“But I’m not through yet.”

“Well, I’m supposed to come right away.”

After hanging up, Chatters told his wife, Jenny, the news.

“This is bizarre,” she said, noticing that her husband’s hands were shaking and he was breathing irregularly. “What in the hell is the government doing?”

Frantic, Jim scurried to load film into his camera. “I haven’t taken enough photographs,” he said.

Jenny suggested using a videocamera too.

Before he could answer, Chatters’s friend Tom McClelland came downstairs into the lab area. A sculptor, he had made a cast of the Kennewick Man’s skull.

“What’s going on?” McClelland asked, observing the look of panic in his friend’s eyes.

“Floyd called, and they’re coming to pick up the bones,” Chatters said, looking into the camera.

“When are they coming?”

“Right away.”

“What can I do to help?”

Jenny had located the video camera and inserted a cassette. Jim handed the camcorder to McClelland. “Here,” he said. “One of the things we need to do is videotape the skeleton. That would be a big help.”

The skeleton was laid out on the table. “Just pan this thing back and forth,” Chatters said. “Zoom in and out on the skeleton as much as you can.”

McClelland stood at the foot of the skeleton and started recording. Chatters got back behind the camera and began snapping. He had gone through five rolls of film by the time Johnson and his deputy arrived at 7:00 P.M.

“Don’t panic, guys,” said Johnson, observing Chatters racing around the lab. “Take your time. Go ahead and finish up what you’re doing.”

Chatters stopped taking pictures and started unscrewing the plywood top to the wooden box that he had planned to use for transporting Kennewick Man to the Smithsonian. Carefully, he picked up four bones that constituted the two femurs—the largest bones in the skeleton—and placed them in two oversize Ziploc storage bags. He put the femurs in the box first. Then he lifted the skull, gingerly placing it in a Ziploc bag, and set it in the bottom of the box opposite the femurs.

Johnson, his deputy, and McClelland watched silently as Chatters systematically packed each bone in plastic, then stacked them in the box.

Jenny watched her husband too, knowing he felt a sense of failure. As a scientist who had been entrusted with the Kennewick Man, he felt a responsibility to learn everything he could about him. The more Jenny watched him pack the bones to give to the government, the angrier she became. How can the government do something like this? she thought. She felt like a government agency was telling a scientist that his work was basically contraband. To her, Jim was just doing his job.

After placing the last plastic bag inside the box, Chatters screwed the cover back on. Johnson wrapped the box in yellow “Evidence” tape, forming a protective seal. Jim and his wife trailed Johnson to their front door, where they stood and watched him load Kennewick Man into his Jeep. Neither of them spoke. Kennewick Man had rested in their basement lab for a month.