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

Chapter 32. ONE LOOK

U.S. Attorney Robin Michael and Alan Schneider had negotiated the final terms governing the examination and inventory of Kennewick Man by Owsley. By mid-September, they had drafted a joint memorandum of understanding, spelling out the terms. Owsley would be permitted one personal assistant and the Army Corps would supervise the inventory. The details were vague. Schneider wanted more specific guarantees that the corps would not impose any last-minute restrictions on Owsley that would crimp his standard method of operation for inventorying the bones. “This is as good as it gets,” Michael said, insisting that the restrictions that Owsley and his colleagues had encountered in the past were initiated by her predecessors. She assured Schneider that she had cleaned house and brought in a new team of lawyers with a different approach to the case. “Trust us.”

Schneider didn’t, but he reluctantly signed the joint memorandum of understanding with the Justice Department. Days later, Owsley spoke by telephone with a curator from the corps who was assigned to monitor Owsley. Together they ironed out specifics of the protocol for the inventory, including the names of the individuals who would be present and their specific roles. Owsley followed up the phone call with a letter to confirm their verbal agreement. “This letter follows our phone conversation of a few weeks ago,” he began, acknowledging that numerous government-appointed conservators would be on hand to assist, as well as tribal officials to observe. “With this many people in a small space for an extended time, the observers probably should wear masks to reduce the possibility of airborne DNA contamination. It would be good to check with a molecular biologist and with the conservators to assess the risk of further contamination.”

Owsley asked if the corps would supply masks. “I’ll bring a lab coat, to wear, one sliding caliper, the accepted forms, and a laptop,” Owsley wrote. “The software for the laptop is WordPerfect. Thanks for allowing me to participate in the inventory. Best wishes.”

Days after Owsley sent his letter, the government notified Schneider that Owsley would not be permitted to bring a laptop inside the facility. And they weren’t going to let Owsley’s designated personal assistant, Cleone Hawkinson, accompany him unless Jim Chatters got left behind. They would not let more than two representatives from the plaintiffs enter the facility. I’m getting really pissed off, thought Schneider. From the moment we said we wanted Chatters to participate in this process, the corps has been waiting for some way to hit us in the chops.

Judge Jelderks resolved the dispute on October 20. “Pursuant to this court’s order of June 12, 1998, plaintiffs may have two representatives present during the exit inventory,” he ordered. “Dr. Chatters is not disqualified from being one of those representatives. If Ms. Hawkinson is present, she counts as one representative. Dr. Owsley may use an audio recording device to take notes in lieu of Ms. Hawkinson.”

Forced to choose between Chatters and Hawkinson, Owsley chose Chatters, opting to use a tape recorder rather than a computer to record the inventory results.

Wednesday, October 27, 1998
Alan Schneider’s law office
Portland, Oregon

To Schneider, the corps was practicing petty politics by denying Owsley access to his laptop in the inventory process. It was just another attempt to make things difficult.

Seated beside Owsley, Hawkinson had a package of blank ninety-minute tapes that she had prelabeled. She had also rented a high-performance tape recorder with a clip-on microphone for Owsley to wear during the inventory. Owsley had never done an inventory this detailed without an assistant to record. Hawkinson hoped to make the new experience as easy as possible.

“At this point, the government is playing absolute hardball with us,” Schneider said. “So there are a few things I want to go over with you about tomorrow.”

He told Owsley to document everything, but he insisted that Owsley keep all of his observations to himself, particularly any unusual features or trauma in the bones. He coached Owsley to be discreet and limit what he said on tape. The less Owsley said, the less opportunity the government would have to look for inconsistencies in his statements.

Owsley’s problem was that he liked to identify unusual characteristics in bones and hypothesize on potential explanations until he figured out the cause. That’s what scientists do.

He told Owsley to be sure to keep the audiotapes, reminding him that they were his personal property and the government had no right to ask for the originals.

“Just remember, you’re going into an environment where the people are not your friends,” Schneider said to Owsley and Hawkinson. “There’s nobody up there that’s going to be our friend except the two of you and Chatters.”

On the 225-mile drive to Richland, Washington, Owsley sat in the passenger seat of Hawkinson’s car, reviewing the bones in an articulated foot. He didn’t normally work with feet, and he didn’t want to make any mistakes on Kennewick Man. He knew he could end up being the only scientist to handle Kennewick Man, making his bone inventory the only source for future scientists to rely on. Yet he would be racing the clock to identify roughly three hundred bone fragments. And he would have no laptop and no personal assistant, only the watchful eye of an adversarial team.

October 28
6:45 A.M.
Battelle Laboratory

As sunlight peeked over the horizon, Hawkinson parked her car outside the Battelle facility. Bottles of orange juice and cranberry-apple juice tucked under his arm, Owsley stepped out. With his free hand, he grabbed his backpack and the case with the tape-recording device. “Call me when you’re through if you need a ride,” she said. “Otherwise I’ll see you when you get back to the motel.”

Wearing a windbreaker over his dark blue tie and collared shirt, he approached a set of glass doors bearing a sign: “Identification badges are required and must be worn in this building.” He entered and signed in.

Inside, Owsley encountered three conservators hired by the corps, tribal members, and Justice Department lawyers who looked on as Owsley opened his briefcase and pulled out six perfectly sharpened pencils and clipped them to his shirt pocket. He plugged in his tape-recording device and inserted a blank ninety-minute tape labeled “#1.” Then he clipped the microphone to his shirt.

“I’m ready,” he said.

At 7:00 A.M. a technician brought out rectangular plastic storage boxes with lids. Two of the corps’ anthropologists, Rhonda Lueck and Teresa “Terry” Militello, both of whom studied under Owsley previously, stepped forward. Terry and Rhonda began removing Ziploc bags from the container. Each bag contained groups of bones, and had an identification number taped to the outside. The individual bones did not have identification numbers. Over the next two hours, Terry and Rhonda removed the bones from each bag and placed them on metal trays that had sheets of paper with numbers corresponding to the numbers on the bags. Owsley put on a pair of latex gloves and began individually identifying approximately 380 bones and fragments taken from the bags.

He handed Rhonda a form—the words “Coding Instructions for Skeletal Inventory” appeared across the top—and explained how to code each bone on the form. “I’m going to start a series of small fragmented pieces of bone that is in the ‘unidentified’ category,” he said. “OK?”

Rhonda nodded her head.

One by one, he picked up unmarked fragments, piecing them together and identifying them. Concentrating, Owsley worked through the bones as if he were alone in the room. Plodding through tray after tray, he never paused except to change tapes every ninety minutes. It was 2:30 by the time he identified the last unidentified fragment.

Stopping only momentarily to call Chatters and notify him that he was moving on to the larger, identified bones, Owsley started first with the skull. He immediately observed its weight. “The cranial vault is heavy,” he began, holding it up to the light to get a better look inside it. “It has soil inside the vault, especially in the frontal area, especially in the upper nasal area. In the cranial surface there is caked dirt. The largest quantity of soil available for this individual is found inside the cranium.”

Cradling the cranium in his hands, he examined the suture lines running through the skull. They were closed. Owsley figured Kennewick Man had to have been middle-aged when he died.

He rotated the skull in his hands. A huge fracture on the side of the vault intrigued him. He wondered what caused it and itched to study it more closely. But he only had time to scan. He observed a much more subtle fracture line along the right side of the skull. He tried to determine whether it had occurred before or after death. “It has postmortem breakage,” he concluded, “relatively recent breakage a little lighter in the fracture margin. It has soil embedded.”

Carefully studying the base of the skull, he spotted a depression in the bone, signaling to him that the bone had previously been injured, then healed. He measured the healed area with his calipers. Uninterested in Kennewick Man’s injuries, Owsley’s observers instead studied him, frowning stoically as he took extra time to interpret the skull’s pathology. Oblivious of their stares, Owsley instinctively noted Kennewick Man’s sloped forehead and slightly developed brow ridges, classic male features. But the extremely narrow frontal bone struck Owsley as unusual.

Owsley looked at the rim of the right eye orbit. Then he picked up a small piece that appeared to fit there. “With the right malar, these two attach together to form a complete right eye orbit,” he said as he started reconstructing the face by fitting miscellaneous fragments from the table to the cranium. “It will articulate and match perfectly with the right malar and also joins up with the nose.”

Kennewick Man’s face started to take shape. “There is a depression, an oval-shaped depression, in the frontal area of the right malar, and we’ll need to think about what significance that is.”

“How should I score that?” Rhonda asked.

“Say inferior orbital margin,” Doug said, never looking away from the cranium.

Suddenly, Jim Chatters entered the lab. After being introduced to the curators, Chatters sat opposite Owsley. Relying on the black-and-white photographs he had previously taken of the skeleton, along with some hand sketches he had drawn of the skull, Chatters analyzed the existing fractures to see if they had expanded or whether new fractures had surfaced. He noticed two hairline cracks, one above each eye socket. The cracks had not been there when the skeleton left his house two years earlier.

Then he examined the cracks in the skull that had been there before, observing that they had enlarged and expanded. “Doug, can I borrow your calipers?”

Without looking up, Owsley passed him the calipers.

“You can’t do that,” Rhonda interjected, looking directly at Chatters.

Chatters froze.

“You can’t take any data!” Rhonda said.

“Look, I’m here to assess the condition of the skeleton,” Chatters said. “I can’t do that unless I measure the cracks.”

Owsley stopped working. “He’s not going to make any measurements of research quality,” he said calmly. “He’s just trying to measure to see what the condition of the skeleton is.”

As Chatters confirmed that the width of the cracks on the left side of the cranium had doubled since being in the federal government’s custody, Owsley started looking at Kennewick Man’s teeth. A lot of the facial surface enamel had worn away, as had most of the crowns. Then he observed a tooth that appeared to have been abscessing at the time of Kennewick Man’s death. The roots were clearly visible.

At 6:30 the group inside the laboratory insisted on breaking for dinner. Owsley, who tended to forget about eating and drinking while working, agreed. After the break, he reattached his microphone. Energized and appearing youthful, Owsley reached for the proximal half of the left femur, the only fragment remaining since the disappearance of the femur parts. He fully extended his caliper. “The caliper isn’t long enough to measure the length exactly, but it’s approximately two hundred twenty-two millimeters in length,” he said. “The left femur has a transverse fracture, postmortem with a somewhat lighter fracture margin, indicating relatively recent postmortem damage.”

Working through the fragments took hours. Fatigued and struggling to concentrate, the curators yearned to call it a day. Owsley had no intention of stopping. The corps was limiting him to one visit. He wasn’t leaving until he had gone over every last bone fragment in the collection.

Doug turned to Chatters. “What else have I not seen? You have hands taken care of?”

Chatters nodded his head affirmatively.

“You have hands and feet taken care of?”

“Yes.”

“You have it listed in a way that there’s a record as to what there is?”

Chatters nodded.

The bones were all accounted for. Only the preliminary taphonomy examination remained, an evaluation for clues about the position of the body after death. Determining whether the body was flexed, flat, or faceup or-down was critical for establishing whether Kennewick Man had received an intentional cultural burial or had fallen victim to an accidental burial, such as from a mud slide, landslide, or homicide.

It was now past midnight. Owsley had been at the facility for nearly eighteen straight hours. Everyone else was struggling to keep their eyes open. But Owsley had a penchant for working through the night and going without sleep when engrossed in his work. Back in college he had developed unusual sleep patterns that enabled him to study for twenty-four hours without sleep. Or he would get by on five hours’ sleep per day when he would engage in marathon or “binge” studying, a process where he would study for two or three straight days on little sleep. Since coming to the Smithsonian, he had taken this practice to another level. It was routine for him not to leave his laboratory for two or three days. Instead of going home to sleep at night, he would catnap on the floor in his office. Sleep was the enemy whenever he was engrossed in studying a skeleton.

To the dismay of the corps officials, Owsley took no account of the lateness of the hour. He examined the bone color, looking for evidence of stress. Most of the tones were tan to light brown. Some of the bones had a greenish tone, probably due to algae discoloration from being in the water.

Owsley paused. “I saw no well-defined rodent tooth marks. I saw no significant carnivore tooth marks. I did see evidence of plant rootlets in a few of the vertebrae. But there’s no obvious damage due to root etching.

“And I saw no warpage due to ground pressure. There’s no evidence of burning.”

He had just two categories left: cultural modification and adherent materials.

“I saw no cut marks; no intentional fracturing; no evidence of postmortem drilling, cutting, or other modifications. As far as adherent materials go, there is no desiccated tissue; no textile impressions; no hair or fur; no unknown material associated with it.”

Doug looked at his watch. “It is 2:30 A.M. on October 29,” he said. “This concludes this analysis at 2:30 A.M. The conservators are still working to get things packed up.”

Owsley stopped the recording device, removed the microphone from his shirt, and helped repack the Kennewick Man bones into containers. At 4:12 A.M., twenty-one and a half hours after starting, he signed the log and exited the facility. Three conservators from the facility drove him back to his hotel.

After three hours of sleep and talking with a local reporter about Kennewick Man, Owsley rode with Hawkinson to the discovery site. She parked facing the Columbia River in a lot that held only one other car and a dented garbage can chained to a post. Following directions they had received from Chatters, they searched for the area along the bank where Kennewick Man surfaced.

“Jim said there should be a track through there,” Hawkinson said, pointing at a mass of tangled limbs, tall brush, and blackberry brambles.

“I don’t think a rabbit could get through that,” Owsley said, suggesting they go back up to the road and look for another way in.

Owsley led Hawkinson along the road, searching for a less overgrown area to pass through to get to the shore. Pushing branches from his path and climbing over thick brush, Owsley trudged along. Soon they came upon a bunch of spindly Russian olive trees, planted by the corps the previous May. In five months they had grown to over six feet in height.

Owsley looked down. Fiber matting emerged through places in the soil, covering the rocks that the corps had poured over the area. The rocks and matting stretched toward the shore, where the Columbia River lapped against the rocks. “The corps made sure nobody would get at this place again,” Owsley said, determined to search the area. “I want to take a closer look in that grove of trees along the curve to that point.” It’s secluded and shielded, perfect forensic conditions, he thought.

He stooped over, his eyes focused on the ground. It would have been great, he thought, to find more evidence of Kennewick Man’s contemporaries. There had to have been more evidence to find. For Owsley, there was always more evidence; it was just a matter of digging. But this time there would be no digging for more clues. He wished they could somehow have stopped the corps.

An hour and a half later, Owsley emerged, his hands gripping a collection of empty beer cans and other litter. “They even went to the trouble to put in a sprinkler system,” Owsley said to Hawkinson, lamenting the cover-up of the site by the corps as he deposited the litter in a nearby trash can. “They were very thorough.”

Before Owsley and Hawkinson returned to Portland, the Kennewick Man had arrived at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Under court order, he was placed in a curation room, out of public view and off limits to anyone not authorized by Judge Jelderks. Over the next year, a team of government-selected and court-approved scientists studied the skeleton in secrecy, attempting to determine if it was affiliated to the Umatilla and other tribes that had claimed him. The judge agreed to delay proceeding until their report was complete.

When the results came in, they confirmed what Owsley had been predicting all along. Kennewick Man did not resemble modern American Indians. He looked much more like the Ainu.