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


March 26, 1992
Washington, D.C.

Against a backdrop of Gothic columns and massive granite walls, an elephant-size ivory statue of a brontosaurus stood erect in front of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Hustling down Constitution Avenue, forty-year-old Doug Owsley glanced at the dinosaur before entering the museum’s gold-encased doors. He flashed his ID and nodded as he passed a security guard and headed to a staircase in the far corner of the lobby. Wearing a jammed backpack and a windbreaker, he took a staircase beyond the exhibits, climbing all the way to the top floor of the museum, an area off-limits to the public. He unlocked a secured door and entered a labyrinth of tall metal cabinets. They contained the Terry Collection, more than 1,600 cadavers collected by anatomist Robert Terry for training purposes to the St. Louis University Medical School, which were later donated to the Smithsonian.

Owsley passed the cabinets and turned down a cavernous, dimly lit hallway. Both sides were lined from floor to ceiling with cast-iron shelves holding green wooden boxes filled with skeletons from infants to adults. In all, the Smithsonian housed more than thirty thousand skeletons, more than any other institution in the United States. Its collections included remains from the Colonial period, nineteenth-century farmers, American Indians, African Americans, soldiers from the Civil War and Custer’s army, Chinese immigrants who had worked in Alaska, and the famous Huntington Series, an anatomical collection of three thousand European immigrants who had died in New York City.

After Owsley graduated from Tennessee with his Ph.D. in 1978, he taught part-time there for one year while job hunting. During that time, he continued to hone his forensic skills by going to crime scenes with Bass to identify and recover bodies. He also did postdoctoral studies on the skeletal collections of American Indian remains Bass had recovered from the Midwest. In 1980 he took a full-time teaching position at Louisiana State University. During the summers he returned to Tennessee to continue his research on American Indians. Doug had been at LSU for five years when he heard that the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History was looking for a curator to take over responsibility for its vast collection of American Indian remains. Convinced that the Smithsonian would attract a who’s who of applicants from the field of anthropology, Doug was not going to bother applying. He had had his Ph.D. for only a few years and had held only one job. His credentials, he felt, would be inadequate to satisfy the Smithsonian, an institution that had obtained almost mythic status in his mind.

Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 after English scientist James Smithson left his fortune—over four hundred thousand dollars—to the people of the United States. In his will, Smithson, an internationally recognized chemist who died in 1829, specified that the money be used to found an institution in Washington “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

His gift triggered a controversy. Some members of Congress argued that it was inappropriate for the United States to accept a gift from a British nobleman and name an institution after him. President Andrew Jackson disagreed and felt Americans would benefit from such an institution. He asked Congress to pass legislation authorizing the acceptance of the gift. Massachusetts congressman John Quincy Adams, the former U.S. president who was chairman of the congressional select committee charged with reviewing Smithson’s gift, agreed. In 1836 Adams drafted legislation authorizing Congress to take possession of Smithson’s fortune and to create a national museum. He wrote:

If, then, the Smithsonian Institution, under the smile of an approving Providence, and by the faithful and permanent application of the means furnished by its founder to the purpose for which he has bestowed them, should prove effective to their promotion; if they should contribute essentially to the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men, to what higher or nobler object could this generous and splendid donation have been devoted?

Ten years later, in 1846, the Smithsonian was founded. Today it is the world’s largest museum complex, with more than sixteen museums, four research centers, the National Zoo, and vast libraries. When Doug told Bass about the curator position at the Institution’s Museum of Natural History, Bass insisted that he apply.

“The Smithsonian would be the perfect place for you,” Bass told him. “It has great collections and it’s a great place to be in terms of forensics. You’ll be called to help the FBI and other law enforcement agencies identify bodies. You’ll see it all. The Smithsonian is a high-stakes playground.”

Bass’s connection to the Smithsonian dated back to 1956, with the Missouri River and Dakotas excavations, a project that had stretched over fourteen years. A number of Bass’s students had gone on to become some of the Smithsonian’s top curators. But none of Bass’s students had impressed him as much as Owsley. “Trust me,” he told Doug, “you’ve got the knowledge to work there.”

Bass recommended Doug to the Museum of Natural History, noting that besides his academic credentials, Doug’s experience handling skeletons was unparalleled. A skeletal biologist with advanced training in human anatomy and forensics, Owsley had worked on over two thousand human bodies from archaeological sites, morgues, crime scenes, graveyards, and battlefields.

In 1987 Doug was shocked to learn that he had been chosen to be a curator in the museum’s Department of Anthropology. His chief responsibility was the preservation and study of the museum’s vast collection of North American Indian remains. His work at Tennessee and LSU had made him an expert on the skeletal biology of Plains Indians, focusing primarily on their health conditions and the mortality rates of women and children. In his first few years at the Smithsonian he would publish a landmark textbook about the migration, warfare, and health and subsistence practices of Plains Indians.

His experience working with skeletal remains at modern crime scenes had also caused his star to rise fast at the Smithsonian. As a federal agency partly funded by Congress, the Smithsonian encouraged its scientists to aid other federal agencies, a tradition that dated back to 1938. That year, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to the secretary of the Smithsonian requesting assistance from Dr. Aleš Hrdliimagevka, the museum’s first curator of physical anthropology and the founder of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Hoover wanted Hrdliimagevka’s assistance in evaluating specimens thought to be human. Back then the country had few scientists qualified to study skeletons for clues to crimes, and the FBI’s offices were across the street from the Smithsonian. Hrdliimagevka went on to report on thirty-seven cases for the FBI, determining whether remains were human or nonhuman, and estimating the sex, age at death, ancestry, living stature, and time since death.

After Hrdliimagevka died in 1943, the use of Smithsonian anthropologists as consultants to the FBI increased. By the time Owsley joined the Smithsonian, his predecessors had assisted the Bureau on over eight hundred cases. In addition to doing some work for the FBI, Owsley got requests from other federal agencies, such as the State Department, the ATF, and the Park Service, as well as branches of the military. When unidentified bodies surfaced or when the cause of death needed to be ascertained, the government increasingly turned to Doug.

Halfway down the hall he stopped at an oversize brown metal door with a large double-paned window. A paper sign taped to the door read, “Room #345 Dr. D. W. Owsley.” Inside, the observation tables and countertops were cluttered with human teeth, bones, microscopes, X-ray sheets, and dental picks. In the corner stood a china cabinet full of skulls. He went directly to his private office adjacent to his lab.

His computer screen off and a stack of anthropology and anatomy books and neglected correspondence littering his desk, Owsley stared at a State Department telegram marked CONFIDENTIAL. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala had sent it to the secretary of state’s office back in 1985, confirming the disappearance of two American journalists who had ventured into the Guatemala highlands to interview left-wing guerrillas entrenched in a three-decades-long civil war against the Guatemalan government.

Rubbing his eyes and adjusting his wire-rim glasses, Owsley picked up a copy of the telegram and began reading.

Two EMBOFFS [embassy officials] traveled by helicopter on April 18, 1985, to the [provinces] of Huehuetenango and El Quiche [Quiché] in an investigation of the welfare and whereabouts of two missing AMCITS [American citizens), Nicholas Blake and Griffith William Davis. The missing AMCITS were not found, but their movements up to March 29 or 30 were traced and verified. Given the dangerous nature of the area where Davis and Blake may have gone, Embassy does not plan to send staff into the field further to look for them.

The area is rugged high sierra, with few roads and an active guerrilla insurgency. The route that Blake and Davis planned to hike is along the northern face of Los Cuchumatanes, the highest mountain range in Central America. The elevations along the route vary from about 6,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level. The entire area is included in the Embassy’s Travel Advisory, which identifies places which are not considered safe for tourist travel because of frequent clashes between the guerrillas and GOG [Guatemalan army] Security Forces.

It would appear that Davis and Blake…did not go to Salquil where they were told they could go. It is possible, instead, that Davis and Blake took the path to the guerrilla-controlled village of Sumal, where they were told not to go. If this is what Davis and Blake did, it must be assumed that they are now out of contact because they do not wish to be found, are being held captive by the EGP, or they are dead. End Summary.

Owsley put the telegram on his desk. The request to find and identify the missing remains of photographer Griffith Davis and freelance writer Nicholas Blake came directly from Blake’s brothers Randy and Sam, who had been searching for their brother for seven years. When the initial investigations by the U.S. embassy failed to turn up their brother and Griffith Davis or the cause of their disappearance, the Blake brothers aggressively lobbied the embassy and other agencies in the United States government to keep looking. Their missing brother Nick knew Vice President George Bush’s daughter Dorothy, and they appealed through her to the vice president for help. On their behalf, Bush directly called Guatemalan military dictator Mejia Victores and requested his personal intervention in the case.

Over the next two years, no solid leads materialized until the Blakes established contact with a Guatemalan schoolteacher from the village where Blake and Davis were last seen alive. The schoolteacher gave the Blakes a chilling report. He said that in March 1985 Blake and Davis had spent the night in a schoolhouse in the village of El Llano, an area policed by a ruthless paramilitary force—civil patrols—charged with doing the army’s dirty work, from identifying guerrillas to killing suspected sympathizers. The following morning, five or six civil patrol members led Blake and Davis out of the village and shot them. Details on motive were slim. But the Blake brothers suspected that the army, which issued orders to the paramilitary civil patrols, had a role. Nick had previously gone to the highlands and exposed other atrocities committed by Guatemala’s military regime. And the army knew he was back in the war-ravaged area with a photographer.

The bodies were dumped in some brush and covered with logs. As much as two years later, villagers were ordered by the Guatemalan military to move the bones one kilometer from the murder scene, where they were to be broken up and burned. The schoolteacher reported that the bones were destroyed out of fear that the United States would retaliate not only by killing the persons responsible for the murders, but by wiping out the entire population of El Llano. Burning, they hoped, would remove all traces of the crime.

By the time the schoolteacher’s report reached the Blakes, George Bush had been elected president, and the U.S. embassy reactivated its investigation. And early in 1992, the Blake brothers reached a private agreement with Felipe Alva, a regional commander who oversaw forty thousand of Guatemala’s approximately nine-hundred-thousand-member paramilitary forces. Convinced that men under Alva’s command were responsible for the killings, the Blakes nonetheless agreed to pay him ten thousand dollars when Alva claimed he could deliver the human remains. The Blakes made a partial payment up front, with the balance contingent on the bones being positively identified as those of their brother Nick and his friend Griffith Davis. They also assured Alva that they would not press international criminal charges against Alva and his men. They just wanted their brother’s remains.

In March 1992, Alva notified the Blakes that he had recovered two crates of remains. Hearing that Owsley was their best bet to identify the bones, the Blakes called him. They had to give him some background on the situation in Guatemala. Seven years had passed since their brother and his colleague had disappeared. The Guatemalan government blamed their disappearance on the Cuban-backed Communist guerrillas whom Blake and Davis had gone to interview. Since then, the rebel forces had been defeated by Guatemala’s military regime. In the process of rooting out the guerrillas, Guatemala’s military killed or caused to disappear an estimated two hundred thousand civilians and destroyed roughly 650 villages. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced from their homes and forced to live as refugees. Guatemala’s military tactics during the late 1970s and 1980s were so brutal that the U.S. Congress eventually cut off foreign aid to the government and the State Department placed travel restrictions on Americans desiring to visit Guatemala.

Owsley agreed to work with the Blakes and helped them obtain from the U.S. Department of Agriculture a permit to bring foreign soil into the United States. Sam Blake went to Guatemala and transported the remains to Washington. Which brought him to today. The bones had arrived.

Owsley’s phone rang.

“Dr. Owsley, you have some visitors here to see you,” a security guard said. “Randy and Sam Blake. They’ve got some boxes for you.”

“I’ll be right down.”

Moments later, Owsley, in his white lab coat and khaki pants, approached the loading dock behind the museum. Reaching the security guard post, he spotted two rectangular wooden boxes that resembled coffins. Randy and Sam stood beside them, visitor badges in hand.

“Hi, Dr. Owsley,” Randy said, offering his hand and introducing his younger brother Sam, a special assistant to the director of the Pentagon-funded National Security Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“Nice to meet you,” Owsley said.

“This is it,” said Randy, patting the top of the boxes.

“Well, let’s go inside and take a look,” said Owsley.

In Owsley’s laboratory, the Blakes placed the crates on a metal observation table. Owsley pulled out a release form and on the line next to the heading “Human skeletal remains and/or material evidence consisting of” he wrote, “Two boxes with soil and possible human remains recovered from a site in Guatemala.”

He assigned Smithsonian Case No. 92-3 to the form, and Sam signed it.

Setting the form aside, Owsley gently pried open the two boxes, both of which were lined in violet velvet. Each box contained seventy-five pounds of dirt with lumps of red clay and tissue-thin pieces of gray ash. With his bare hand, Owsley reached into the boxes, plucking out the largest items he could feel: four metal tent stakes, a bone socket approximately two inches in length, some tiny charred bone fragments, and a tooth. One by one, he placed them on the box top.

Other than the one bone socket, the boxes contained no bone fragments bigger than a fifty-cent piece. “These are fully cremated bones, long past the charred stage,” he said. He noted that the bone fragments were in a calcined stage, wherein the organic components of the bones—cells and proteins—had been destroyed, leaving only the mineral portion of the bone. “This is just bone mineral,” Owsley said, holding one fragment up to show the Blakes. “These bones were exposed to a high-intensity fire.”

Randy picked up a tiny bone fragment and looked at it, pursing his lips, while Sam kept his hands in his pockets and said nothing. The scarcity of bones, combined with their charred and cremated status, left scant evidence for Owsley to work with. Randy and Sam seemed deflated.

The challenge only provoked Owsley, convinced he could solve the identity mystery with a few more clues.

“Don’t worry,” Owsley said, trying to rally them. “We’ll figure it out. People put their victims through wood chippers and burn them and we still figure it out.”

Before the Blakes left his office, Owsley provided them with a list of additional information he would need to help identify the remains: whether Nick and Griffith were packing a tent what kind of clothing they might have been wearing what, if any, medical X rays existed on both individuals.

The Blakes gave Owsley the phone number for Griffith’s mother, Dolores Davis, and suggested he call her about X rays for Griffith. The Blakes had maintained contact with Ms. Davis since the disappearance, keeping her apprised of new leads and developments. She remained hopeful that her son would one day be found—alive.

For the next two weeks, Owsley thoroughly examined the entire contents of the two boxes. Using a one-eighth-inch wire mesh screen, he sifted out all the larger items from the soil: plant roots, charred wood, and 1,610 tiny bone fragments, none of which exceeded an inch in length. Two bones, each about the size of a dime, stood out. Owsley fit them together, partially forming the right frontal sinus, a small bone cavity in the center of the forehead, about an inch above the nose. When he X-rayed the two pieces together, he noticed an irregular groove running through the two bone fragments. The groove was well defined and appeared to run from the top of the nose toward the hairline. Unable to completely reconstruct the right frontal sinus without the missing third bone fragment, Owsley crossed his fingers, hoping that head X rays existed for either Blake or Davis that would confirm whether one of the men possessed an irregular groove.

While Owsley analyzed the bones in his lab, the New York Times ran a headline story, “Progress Is Seen in Guatemala Case,” reporting that the recovery and delivery of bones to the Smithsonian marked a major breakthrough in the seven-year-old unsolved disappearance of two American journalists. “We are very hopeful that these are my brother’s remains,” Sam Blake told the Times. “What we are still not sure of is exactly what happened in those mountains before his death.”

Soon after, Sam Blake called Owsley with answers to some of his questions.

According to a contact the Blakes had developed in Guatemala, Nick and Griffith were probably packing a tent at the time of their disappearance, since they were traveling in late March, the rainy season for the region. Both men were almost certainly wearing blue jeans—khakis too closely resemble military clothing and would have subjected them to potential danger. And they were probably carrying five to six days’ supply of food in their packs.

Sam also reported that, as a result of a bad car accident in 1978, Nick had skull X rays on file at a Vermont medical center. But when he examined them, Owsley found no evidence of an irregular groove in Nick Blake’s frontal sinus bone. So the two bone fragments did not belong to him.

On April 15, Owsley received a phone call from Colonel Al Cornell, the defense attaché with the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. After updating Cornell on the status of the forensic investigation, Owsley told him that he had found something unusual. Two of the bone fragments had metal fragments embedded in them. He was curious about weaponry used by the guerrillas.

Cornell explained that they had a variety of guns that discharged lead-core bullets with copper jackets.

After hanging up with Cornell, Owsley packed the metal fragments in an envelope and sent them to a firearms expert at the FBI laboratory for analysis.

Two days later, an Express Mail package arrived at Owsley’s office from Griffith Davis’s mother in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Owsley tore it open. It contained the skull X rays, including one of Davis’s frontal sinus cavity. Immediately, he flipped on the X-ray viewing machine in his office and clamped the sinus X ray to the light board. It revealed an irregular groove in the sinus bone. This is him, he thought, thrilled at the first break in the case. It had to be. But Owsley could not be sure if he had that missing third fragment.