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

Chapter 28. THE COVER-UP

April 6, 1998
Kennewick, Washington

Its blades cutting through the dry spring air, a helicopter with a long steel cable bearing a bucket packed with rocks hovered over the shoreline where Kennewick Man had surfaced nearly two years earlier. Wearing a yellow hard hat, a construction worker standing on the shore guided the bucket until it dumped its contents on the shoreline, generating dust and drowning out the sound of a drum being pounded by an Indian who watched as the workers relentlessly dumped buckets of rock and fill atop the Kennewick Man discovery site.

“I feel good,” the drummer said. “This is a good thing.”

“This is preservation of our culture,” said Umatilla Indian leader Armand Minthorn, on hand to watch the site covering.

The Earth Construction Company, hired by the Army Corps of Engineers, brought in tons of fill, enough to cover 250 square feet of shoreline. Russian olive trees—fast-growing trees that quickly establish deep root systems—were planted on top of the fill, further preventing any access to the geological time capsule below.

Hours later

Portland, Oregon

Schneider laughed when the press called and told him that helicopters were unloading landfill over the discovery site. But he didn’t think it was funny. The corps had floated the idea of doing this earlier in the case, and members of Congress had disapproved. When he hung up, he pulled a letter from his file. Senator Slade Gorton and U.S. representative Doc Hastings had written it to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. “We urge you to show greater respect for the legislative branch than has thus far been exhibited by the Corps of Engineers and put a stop to this needless destruction,” wrote Senator Gorton and Representative Hastings, who also stressed the financial cost of burying the site. “We can see no reason to intentionally damage the site by depositing tons of rock and soil.”

Schneider looked at the date: April 3, 1998, just three days earlier. The corps had acted before Congress passed the bill to protect the site. Schneider laughed again, grimly this time, then dialed Barran’s phone number.

“Paula, they covered the site,” Schneider said.

“Oh shit, really.”

“The rocks are actually falling on the site. Can you believe that these people are actually defying Congress?”

“We’ll never know what was under there,” she said softly. “If you think of investigating K-Man as a big jigsaw puzzle, we now have a couple of holes. There are pieces that will forever be missing.”

“This is outright defiance,” Schneider said, raising his voice.

Schneider wanted to investigate. Barran encouraged him. She had come to believe that Schneider was as tenacious at pursuing legal facts as Owsley was at pursuing scientific ones. If there was anyone who could find out what prompted the corps’s actions, it was Alan.

He did not disappoint. Relying on a paper trail of internal memos from the corps and other government correspondence that he tracked down, Schneider discovered that in early November an unidentified White House official ordered Lieutenant Colonel Donald Curtis to proceed with an “armoring project.” The project’s aim was to cover the discovery site before January 1, 1998. The Army Corps was given a budget of $200,000 to complete the task. When the legislation to protect the site passed the House and Senate, the corps told Congress it would comply with the legislation. But while the Congress enjoyed a brief April recess, the corps hastily ordered the armoring project to go forward. The decision was made at the highest level of the corps. The top brass knew full well that the move would generate a public outcry. But General Joe Ballard, the Commander of the corps, predicted that “the din will die out very quickly.” The corps spent nearly $170,000 of taxpayer money to carry out the site cover-up.

When Schneider shared his findings with Barran, she was incredulous.

“I’m flatly appalled that the corps could walk in and do that knowing that there’s a law that’s almost passed to tell them not to,” Barran said. “This is uncontrolled government.”

When Barran hung up with Schneider, she wondered how the site cover-up would impact the litigation. She likened the situation to setting fire to the library at Alexandria. She knew that her clients were going to be gravely disappointed. But in terms of the litigation, she saw a potential upside to the government’s tampering with the site; however, she was unsure how best to use it to her clients’ advantage. There was the possibility of arguing a spoliation-of-evidence theory, or that the corps had demonstrated contempt of Congress. Either way, the scientists’ loss of access to the site amounted to a fairly substantial advantage in the litigation.