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


First week of June 1992
Museum of Natural History

WARNING. The word was stamped across the top of the State Department travel advisory Owsley had received.

“The Department of State warns all Americans to exercise caution when traveling in Guatemala,” it read. “Violent crime is a serious problem, and armed robberies of public bus passengers are frequent. Visitors should avoid intercity road travel after sunset. Visitors driving cars should exercise particular caution; armed car thefts are common and those involved in car accidents are often put in jail.” The advisory also suggested precautions to avoid cholera, yellow fever, and malaria.

Owsley’s wife, Susie, had no idea he was going to Guatemala. The time had come to tell her—that evening, over dinner.

Susan Davies grew up four blocks from Doug in Lusk. Her parents—Marguerite Thomas and Marvin “Jake” Davies—met right after World War II in Denver, where Jake was stationed at the time and Marguerite was enrolled in a nursing program. Before Susie was born, they settled in Lusk, where Marguerite’s family was from. Jake took a job setting up oil rigs in western states. He was often away from home, and Susie’s mother worked as a secretary in Lusk, frequently leaving Susie in the care of her grandmother.

In second grade Susie went to Doug’s birthday party. He decided then that she was the cutest girl in his class. He developed a crush on her before high school, so much so that by their sophomore year he assured her he would ask her to marry him. She hoped he would keep his word. Beyond his handsome face, Susie was much more interested in Doug’s personality. His self-confidence, optimism, and down-to-earth approach to life made her want to be with him. She never saw him get discouraged.

After high school, she went to nursing school in Colorado while Doug attended the University of Wyoming. He immersed himself in his studies and stayed in contact with her. After college, true to his word, they returned to Lusk and married in the church located in their childhood neighborhood.

While he earned his Ph.D. at Tennessee, Susie worked as a nurse at the school’s affiliated hospital and had two baby girls, Hilary and Kim. They were now ages fourteen and eleven.

“I’m going to Guatemala next week,” he said, figuring it was best to just get it out of the way.

“Why are you doing that?” she asked.

He explained the situation.

“Doug, this sounds too dangerous, too risky.” Susie leaned back in her chair, her eyes fixed on Doug.

“Oh, I’ll be all right,” Doug said. “The family knows George Bush, so they have some political connection. We’ll be guarded by the U.S. military and the Guatemalan army.”

“If you need to be guarded, then maybe it’s not worth doing,” she pressed.

Doug said nothing.

As a teenager, Susie fell in love with the way he treated her, as a gentleman who both communicated and showed his affection. And the qualities she saw in him—fierce loyalty and relentless persistence—convinced her early on that he was not just another boy who would be content to hang around Lusk for the rest of his life. No, he would develop into someone extraordinary. She had followed him to Tennessee, then Louisiana, and now D.C. At each stop, there was always something new to contend with.

In college, she tolerated the dead animals—roadkill, as she referred to it—that Doug would pick up from the highways and bring home in order to examine and study their bones. At Louisiana she gave up her summers with him so he could travel back to Tennessee and immerse himself in the bone lab there doing research. And since arriving at the Smithsonian, she had assumed virtually all of the day-to-day domestic responsibilities, from car maintenance to balancing the checkbook to child rearing, as Doug was increasingly traveling around the country—and sometimes the world—to work on cases.

She made the sacrifices because she knew and understood Doug fully. He was, to her, faithful, loyal, and reliable. He had no hobbies, played no leisure sports, and belonged to no clubs. He had no vanity and no vices; he did not drink, gamble, or smoke. He never raised his voice in anger or acted violently. He never spent money. All he did was work. But to Doug, his job was not work. It was an excellent and never-ending adventure. And Susie understood that. Doug was not consumed by a job. He was consumed by the pursuit of knowledge, and his job provided him with the chance to go after it. Susie was his safe harbor because she allowed him the space and the freedom to exercise his gift: this uncanny ability to see the past through skeletons. But when she felt he was neglecting his own health or welfare, she did not hesitate to intervene. It happened once while they were at Tennessee.

The year was 1981, and Doug had decided to spend the summer doing research at Tennessee. They brought the girls—then three and one—and lived on campus in Knoxville for the summer in order to be near Doug. One day Bill Bass stopped in the bone lab to talk with Doug and found him sitting down, fatigued and short of breath. Bass had never seen Doug tired, even when he used to study virtually around the clock. He encouraged Doug to go see a doctor at once. Instead, Doug went home.

That night, he started coughing up blood. Susie did not hesitate. She brought him to the university hospital, where she used to work as a nurse. Left to his own devices, Doug would not have sought medical attention. Susie set him up with a doctor she used to work with, explained Doug’s symptoms, and predicted he had a lung infection of sorts.

Doug provided sputum specimens—spit elicited from the lungs—and was told the results would be back within a week. In the interim, he went back to work. Then the doctor summoned him back to the hospital.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” he told Doug. “I’m just going to tell you. I think you have lung cancer.” He wanted Doug admitted within twenty-four hours to begin more advanced testing. Doug’s first thought was: I have to beat this. I have to fight it.

But as the news sank in, so did the realization: There was no cure for lung cancer.

The only place he knew to go was Susie, his safe harbor. He drove straight home. The moment he walked through the door, she knew something had gone terribly wrong.

“What did the doctor say?” she asked.

“Well,” he said slowly, “I have lung cancer.”

Face-to-face, they stared at each other in silence. Doug handed her the test results. “Oat cell carcinoma,” the report said. “Positive for malignancy.” In her days at the hospital she had read many similar diagnoses, and those words were a death sentence. She folded the paper, her eyes welling up.

She looked up at Doug, subdued and looking lost in his own home. That was the first time she had ever seen Doug vulnerable. A tear trickled down Susie’s face as she threw her arms around him and pressed her lips to his cheek. He had just turned thirty. “I’m not going to go down easy,” he whispered unconvincingly.

Later, Doug stood in the bathroom doorway and watched silently as Hilary and Kim played innocently in the bathtub. Bent over the tub, Susie fought back tears, struggling to soap them. They are going to be without a father, she thought.

By the time she had dressed them in their pajamas, she had decided to start acting like Doug’s nurse instead of his wife. And she applied his approach to problem solving: attack it immediately and relentlessly. Before going to bed, she called the doctor at home and challenged his diagnosis, pointing out that Doug’s age and habits did not fit the profile of a lung cancer patient.

The doctor stood his ground but offered to take another sputum specimen. She said that was a waste of time and insisted on a bronchoscopy at once. The following morning she took Doug to the hospital, where a scope was inserted down his trachea to explore his lungs. He remained hospitalized for forty-eight hours. The results confirmed that there were no tumors on his lungs. Rather, he had scar tissue and inflammation, a condition that can make normal cells look different and appear like cancer cells. Further consultation with the doctors traced the source of Doug’s lung infection to the bone lab. Being underneath the university’s football stadium, the lab was unusually damp and musty. Worse still, many of the bones Doug was working on were mildewed, and he was handling them for up to sixteen hours per day. The high exposure had likely weakened his lungs, making them susceptible to infection.

Susie had shepherded Doug through a medical crisis. As soon as he received antibiotics to treat the infection, Doug returned to the bone lab. Bass brought in some dehumidifiers. She tolerated that. But charging off to Guatemala was different. The stakes were much higher.

“Doug, it’s too dangerous,” Susie said, picking at her food, then putting down her fork. “Americans are killed every day in situations like this. They wouldn’t think twice about killing you too.”

Doug kept silent and stared at his food.

“Doug, you’ve got responsibilities,” Susie said, getting up from the table and walking into the kitchen. “You’ve got kids. It’s too dangerous to go.”

Doug still said nothing as he began to eat. The pull to go was irresistible. The dangers only made it more enticing, more adventurous. Cases like this were what had appealed to him when he applied to the Smithsonian.

Susie returned to the table and said nothing more. When he was like this she knew he wouldn’t change his mind. She vowed to herself not to tell the girls where their father was going. And she prayed he would return.