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


May 13, 1992
Washington, D.C.

Owsley had completed his analysis of the materials shipped up from Guatemala, and was eager to discuss it with Randy Blake. That afternoon, Blake arrived at his office to learn the results.

“This is what we’ve done,” Owsley said, leading him over to a countertop covered with ten-by-twelve-inch plastic freezer bags of soil. The bags were numbered 1 through 25. The bags contained all the soil from the two crates. He had X-rayed every bag. “These are some of the things we found in the soil,” he said, pointing to tiny metal fragments, zipper teeth from blue jeans and one nail from a shoe or boot. “I’ve sent the metal fragments over to the FBI for analysis.”

Owsley turned to his right. “Over here are all the bones, which we separated from the soil by screening with wire mesh. Now, there’s not a lot of bone here.”

Blake stared at distinctly colored sets of bone fragments; one set identified as “Individual A” and the other set as “Individual B.” Individual A’s bones were creamy yellow. Individual B’s were white. Blake was intrigued by the difference in color.

“That happens with different bones of different people,” Owsley said. “The burning process brings the color out. I’ve seen it in various situations.” He explained that he had been to burn scenes and sorted out family members’ remains partly by the bones’ colors. The burning, combined with the bodies’ differences in body fats and oils, and variations in how the minerals transform, can cause bones to color differently.

While all the fragments Owsley had collected represented only 3 percent or less of the bones from Davis and Blake, Owsley was positive there were two people represented here.

Owsley picked up two fingertip-size bones from the set marked “Individual B.” One was a left malar, and the other was a right malar—cheekbones that support, respectively, the left and right eye orbit.

Then Owsley picked up another fingertip-size bone from the group marked “Individual A.” “This is another left malar,” he told Blake. “See, I’m looking for duplication of elements. I’ve got two left malars, telling me I’ve got two people here.”

There were other duplicate bones. Owsley handed Blake two occipital bones, the skull bone at the back of the head. Not only did he have the base of two different skulls, but he also knew they belonged to males. Owsley explained that the occipital bone is where the powerful muscles that come up from the neck attach to the back of the skull. Those muscle-attachment sites tend to be more pronounced in males because their muscles are bigger and heavier.

Next Owsley picked up two other fragments with fine-looking fracture lines that zigzagged down the surface. “These are sutures, or the cracks that separate different bones in the skull,” Owsley said as Blake looked on intently. “Growth occurs along those lines of union. If you took the suture down the middle of the skull of a child and put a nail on each side of that midpoint area, you would see those nails get farther and farther apart as the child grows, because that’s where growth occurs.”

In adults, the skull stops growing, causing the suture lines to start disappearing. “So you can start to identify a person’s age by the suture lines on the skull,” Owsley said.

Owsley pointed at one skull fragment; its suture was open. Then he pointed to another fragment; its suture was partially closed. “Do you see that?” Owsley said.

“Yes. There’s a real difference in the two skull fragments,” Blake said.

“This could be your younger guy,” Owsley said, pointing to the open suture fragment. “And this more closed suture could be your older guy. This fragment is consistent with someone in his mid-to late thirties.” Davis was thirty-eight when he disappeared. Nick Blake was twenty-seven.

“Griff Davis?” Blake asked.

“Well, I think so. Let me show you why else this might be him.”

Owsley led Blake over to the X ray viewer. “Look at this frontal X ray of Griffith Davis’s sinus. He has a very irregular sinus morphology.”

Then Owsley put up the X ray of the two dime-size bone fragments that formed a partially reconstructed sinus. “If you notice here,” he said, pointing to it, “there’s an irregularity here too.”

“I see it,” Blake said.

“This is probably Griffith Davis. But I don’t have enough to make a positive ID. And I can’t identify Nick,” Owsley said, pointing to the other fragments. “These are consistent with someone in his mid-to late twenties. But I can’t definitely say it was your brother because I don’t have enough evidence.”

Owsley turned off the X-ray viewing light.

“What else can we do?” Blake asked.

“Well, we’re on the right track here,” Owsley said. And now he had gotten to the bottom line. He knew it meant more work and great risk, but it had to be done. “What we have is a piece of the story. But not the whole story. To really get this done right, we need to go there, locate the site, and dig it the way that it should be dug.”

Owsley’s offer to go to Guatemala and assist the Blakes in searching for their brother’s remains delighted Blake. But it confounded him too. Owsley was an extremely busy man with no ties to the Blakes. Guatemala was far away, and the area they would have to search in was highly dangerous. Yet Owsley was volunteering to go. He had not even asked for payment or anything else in return for his services.

Blake didn’t understand Owsley’s motivation. It was not that Owsley wanted to go; he had to go. Owsley became a scientist because it fulfilled a desire to question and answer mysteries arising from skeletons. Many individuals—such as athletes, actors, models, and politicians—are extrinsically motivated, that is, they are motivated by external rewards such as money, praise, recognition, accolades, or a quest for power. Scientists often are intrinsically motivated; they are driven by the need to satisfy an inner urge to answer questions. But the really brilliant scientists go beyond high performance. They are driven to a point of compulsion. They become wedded to the science, as opposed to being merely a master of the science.

For Doug, the excitement of discovery takes over and he cannot rest or be satisfied until he has solved the mystery that the discovery presents. The boxes of soil brought up from Guatemala had ignited his investigatory juices, and his inability to solve the mystery was compelling him to go to Guatemala—no matter how great the risk—to dig for the answers.

“You think there are more bones in Guatemala?” Blake asked.

“There have to be more remains there,” Owsley said. “There have to be. I’m sure of it.”