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


June 11, 1992
Nebaj, Guatemala

Flying at an altitude of 8,600 feet, the twin-engine plane veered dangerously close to a mountain as it dipped into a landing pattern. Seated beside Owsley and looking out the window, fellow anthropologist John Verano saw nothing but a vast green mountain range that stretched as far as the eye could see. Fluent in Spanish and having worked at the Smithsonian since 1987, Verano had been invited by Owsley to assist him.

“Looks like we’re here,” said Colonel Al Cornell, the military attaché from the U.S. embassy. He was all business with his blue military cap, khaki uniform, and a Swiss 9-mm pistol.

Owsley and Verano looked down, seeing only a tiny gravel road with some military bunkers beside it. “Where’s the runway?” Owsley asked.

“You’re looking at it,” the pilot said.

Owsley removed his navy blue baseball cap with the words Smithsonian Institution Physical Anthropology emblazoned across it in yellow stitch and scratched his head. It wasn’t what he had expected.

The plane touched down, its wheels churning up gravel and mud as it skidded to a stop beside a convoy of vehicles: two Nissan Pathfinders, an Isuzu Trooper, a Suzuki Samurai, a white Nissan double-cab pickup truck, and a blue U.S. embassy Suburban.

Owsley grabbed his gray nylon carry-on bag and his archaeological screen—a lidless wooden box with a wire mesh bottom for sifting dirt and separating out bone fragments. Verano tossed out his backpack and camera bag. Randy and Sam Blake, who had rented the plane and the vehicles, began loading shovels and bags into the Suburban.

“Dr. Owsley, why don’t you and Dr. Verano ride with me?” said Guatemalan army lieutenant colonel Otto Noack, who was an imposing six feet, three inches tall. Middle-aged and soft-spoken, he would be their military escort. Unlike the American colonel, he was dressed casually in a white, short-sleeve polo shirt and blue jeans. “We’ll be going in the Pathfinder.”

“OK,” Doug said, tossing his belongings behind the backseat.

Colonel Cornell climbed into the Trooper. The Blakes’ guide-for-hire, civil patrol leader Felipe Alva, slipped into the pickup truck with another member of the army’s civil security force. The Blakes still owed Alva eight thousand of the ten thousand dollars they had offered to pay him for delivering their brother’s human remains. He would not get the balance until leading them to the burn site.

After an hour of driving, Alva stopped the convoy at a dirt path, telling everyone that the burn site was only reachable on foot. Following a two-hour hike over steep hills and rugged terrain, Alva finally stopped.

“Allí,” Alva said, pointing down into a steep bowl-shaped valley. “Este es el lugar donde los restos humanos fueron quemados.”

“What did he say, John?” Owsley asked his colleague between breaths. They were all breathing hard from the exertion.

“He says that the remains were burned down there,” Verano said.

The Blake brothers were angry at the length of the hike and skeptical of Alva. Squinting, they strained to see precisely where Alva was pointing. A vast corn and potato field blanketed the landscape beneath them, a misty fog hovering above it. The path leading to the field wound through a deforested area. Some of the land had been logged, while other stretches of forest had been destroyed simply to reduce cover for the guerrillas.

Suddenly Alva sat down on the edge of the path. “I’m going to sit here out of respect for the dead. He will lead you to it,” Alva said, pointing to a short Guatemalan man in his thirties who had been alongside Alva since the start of the trek. Wearing a white cowboy hat, a black nylon jacket, and brown dungarees, with a machete attached to his belt, the man started briskly down the path without saying a word.

Owsley and Verano looked at each other.

“I’ll stay with him,” Verano said, readjusting his pack as he hustled ahead of the others.

Passing uprooted tree stumps and stepping over dead tree boughs that obstructed the path, Owsley and the others lugged tools and bags until they reached the cornfield. The corn stalks brushed just below the pens and pencils clipped to the chest pocket on Owsley’s denim shirt. Finally, Alva’s assistant stopped.

“Este es el lugar,” he said.

Verano turned to Owsley and the others. “He says this is the place.”

While the others caught their breath, Owsley put down his bag and assessed the area. He noticed a thin layer of ash and charcoal on the brown soil. His first thought was that the burn area was too small. Then he noticed another inconsistency: there were not enough trees around the immediate vicinity to build a big fire.

Skeptical, he knelt with a small trowel and began peeling back soil. The others formed a semicircle around the area. Verano screened the soil that Owsley dug up. The Blakes hoped they’d finally have their answers.

No one spoke as Owsley felt the soil through his fingerless black gloves. Then he picked up a handful of it. Brown and moist, it did not match the red, claylike soil contained in the crates that Alva had previously delivered to the Blakes for analysis at the Smithsonian. Nor did the plant roots in the soil match the roots found in the crates.

Verano helped Owsley shovel dirt into the screen. Shaking it to separate the soil from any artifacts, Owsley found no bone fragments. He stopped working and looked at Verano, who was equally puzzled. “This guy’s lying to us,” Owsley said softly.

Both men stood up and brushed the dirt off their knees. Owsley turned to Sam and Randy. “This isn’t the site,” he told them.

“Damn it. F——this,” Sam seethed, clutching the straps of his 35-mm Nikon around his neck.

“Are you sure?” Randy asked.

“There’s not enough ash and charcoal present to account for the extensive burning in the bones,” Owsley said. “There’s not enough wood around to build a fire. And the soil and roots here don’t match what came to my office in the coffins.”

Sam cursed and removed his glasses.

“Confront Alva’s assistant,” Randy said, looking directly at Verano. “Tell him what you’ve concluded.”

Verano, flanked by Colonel Cornell and Lieutenant Colonel Otto Noack, approached Alva’s assistant.

“Sí, este es el lugar,” the assistant said, fidgeting. “Vine aquí en marzo y cave la tierra yo mismo, una area de cincuenta pies cuadrados.”

“What’s he saying?” Sam asked.

“He says this is the site,” Verano said. “That he came here himself in March and dug here.”

“It can’t be,” Owsley said, his hands on his hips. “It’s not right.”

Bringing his right index finger and thumb together to form a point, Verano moved his hand back and forth to emphasize his words. “Hemos examinado este sítio y no puede ser el lugar donde los restos fueron quemados y enterrados,” Verano told the assistant.

The assistant hesitated. “Estuve aquí. Este es el lugar,” he began, motioning with his arms as he went into a long explanation.

When the assistant finished, Verano turned back to Owsley. “He said, ‘I was here. There were men with guns on the hill. I was afraid. I was digging with a machete. I dug out as much as I could. I filled it up. And I got out of here.’”

All eyes turned to Owsley, who let out a deep breath. “He’s lying,” Owsley said.

His arms still folded, Noack took a step closer to Alva’s assistant and stared down at the smaller man. “Que pasa aquí?” Noack asked.

The assistant reassured Noack that he had led them to the true burn site.

“Pues, los doctores no te creen,” Noack said. “Eso no lo creen.”

“We’re being set up here,” Sam Blake said.

“Doug, do you really believe he’s lying?” Randy asked. “Do you really believe this isn’t the right place?”

“There’s no question in my mind.”

Randy threw his hands up in the air. “This is a joke,” he complained. “Alva misled us.”

The assistant suddenly bent down and reached behind a burned log on the ground. He retrieved a very small green plastic bag and handed it to Noack, who passed it to Owsley. Alva’s assistant told Noack that he had left the bag under the log months earlier when he was excavating the site and filling up the two crates that Alva eventually gave to the Blakes.

Owsley looked inside the bag. It contained nearly twenty coin-size bone fragments. “They’re definitely human,” Owsley said, passing a couple to Verano to inspect.

Craning their necks, the rest of the group crowded around Doug.

While Verano looked at the bones, Owsley closely examined the soil and the bag. The bag weighed about eight ounces and was in good condition. It showed no signs of weathering. Yet it had supposedly been out in the field for a couple of months. While the bag had almost twenty small bone fragments in it, there were no bones on the ground. And the soil in the bag was a red clay type, just like what had been delivered in the coffins. Yet there was no red clay in that area.

“Doug, what do you think?” Randy asked.

Owsley looked up at Noack and Cornell. “The soil in this bag didn’t come from this site,” Owsley said. “The soil doesn’t match.”

“What does this mean?” Sam asked.

“The fifteen or twenty tiny human bone fragments in this bag were probably removed from the actual burn site and brought here,” Owsley said. “I think this guy may have wanted to get down here before us and sprinkle that little bag with the bones and ash around the site, to make it look like the real site. But we kept up with him and he didn’t have an opportunity to dump the bag out on the ground.”

Everyone was convinced. Furious, the Blakes decided it was time to speak to Alva.

Thirty minutes later, they found him. Noack expressed Owsley’s conclusion to Alva, who shrugged his shoulders and spoke back to Noack in Spanish.

“He says that he doesn’t know the place,” said Noack in perfect English as he turned to Owsley and the Blakes. “And that he’s separate from the civil patrollers who know the exact location, and that he never actually saw the place but that his people told him where it was.”

The Blakes were incredulous. After huddling to discuss their options, they confronted Alva.

“You took us to a false site,” Randy shouted.

“Me dijeron que este fue el sitio,” Alva said.

“Look, we’re not leaving this place until you take us to the real site,” Randy said.

“We’ve got to go to El Llano,” Sam said. “That’s where my brother spent the night before he was murdered.”

Reaching the village of El Llano required passage through a twenty-mile dangerous stretch, patrolled by roaming bands of armed paramilitary forces. Although Noack held military rank over the paramilitary bands, he knew that taking Owsley and the Blakes there would require additional military support and helicopters. The Blakes offered to pay for the chopper rentals if Noack supplied the military support.

“We don’t care how you do it,” Randy said to Alva. “But we want you to take us there.”

Alva scowled. “Me voy a casa,” Alva said in defiance. “Voy a manejar a Huehuetenango.”

“He says he’s going home to Huehuetenango,” Noack said.

“You double-crossed us,” Sam shouted. “We don’t wanna have this happen again. We’re down here in good faith. And you’re not gonna get another dime from us—which is what this is all about for you—until we get performance. Take us to the remains.”

Noack stepped directly into Alva’s face and began speaking in rapid Spanish.

“What’s he saying?” Sam asked Colonel Cornell.

“That this is a direct order from the army high command. This is a high-priority case. And you are going to help us. Basically, he said he’d kill him if he doesn’t help.”

Alva paused. “Está bien. Está bien. Iremos al Llano.”

June 12
El Llano

“Here, Doug, you may need this,” Lieutenant Colonel Noack said, handing him a grenade.

Owsley stared at it.

“Put it in your pocket,” Noack said.

Clutching the grenade tightly, Owsley slipped his closed fist into his pants pocket. He had no idea how to use it but assumed he would figure it out if he had to. He followed Noack, today dressed in military fatigues and fully armed, and a half-dozen Guatemalan army rangers he had recruited to accompany them into the village. The rangers guarded Owsley and the rest of the Blakes’ search party as they and Alva canvassed El Llano in search of people who had information on the burn site location. Eventually, the group found the schoolhouse where Griff Davis and Nicholas Blake spent their last night alive. Through bits and pieces of intelligence, the group concluded that Davis and Blake were burned and buried outside El Llano in a mountainous area more accessible by helicopter. The Blakes agreed to reserve choppers for the next day. Alva said he thought he could get someone in the village to tell him the precise burial location. They didn’t put much stock in his word, but they had little choice.

June 13

About ninety miles northwest of Guatemala City, the two helicopters flew around a mountain and came upon a small village of huts. Like ants scrambling from a dirt hill that has just been kicked, dozens of men, frightened by the sight of Americans and the chopping sounds of the helicopter blades, tore out of the huts with their guns and sprinted into the jungle.

After touching down, Owsley and the Blake brothers waited while Alva and Noack searched in a nearby area for the burn site. An hour later they returned.

Noack was upset and told the Blakes he would need to borrow a helicopter and would return as soon as possible. He left them his Uzi and some grenades.

Thirty minutes later, Noack returned with a member of Alva’s civil patrol unit. “We know where it is now,” Noack shouted from the helicopter, which was hovering above the group. “It’s about a one-mile hike from here. The pilot says we’ve got about three hours. Then the rains will be here.”

Eager to go, Owsley looked at the Blakes.

“All I know is that we may never get back to this place,” Sam said. “We’re here now. Let’s do it.”

Noack took his Uzi back and strapped it over his shoulder. With Alva’s man leading the way and Noack guarding the rear, the group hiked until they reached an area where the ground was littered with charred logs. His plaid flannel shirt stained with sweat, Owsley pulled a spade from his bag. Bending on one knee, he made rectangular cuts in the soil, sectioning it off into quadrangles. Then he carefully began peeling the soil back with a trowel. Immediately, he saw human bone fragments. He picked up a handful of soil and looked at it closely. The red clay texture matched the soil shipped to his office.

“This is the place,” Owsley said, starting to dig quickly.

“Here,” he said to Sam and Randy, handing them trowels. “Start digging in this area. Just work the soil like this.” Doug inserted his spade a couple of inches into the ground, then pulled it back, probing for fragments. “Oh yeah, see this.” His adrenaline racing, he held up a small fragment. The trip was going to be a success after all. To have failed after all the risk would have been unacceptable.

Owsley marked off a wider area that ran alongside a series of charred logs. Sam started digging. Randy spread a black plastic bag on the ground and placed the screen on top of it. Doug and Sam began dumping soil into the screen. As Randy shook the box-shaped screen, soil fell through to the bag while bone fragments surfaced on the wire mesh.

“Look at this,” Sam said. “A burnt tent stake.”

“Yes,” Doug said, taking it from his hand. “And it matches the stakes that came up in the coffins. This is definitely the place.”

Suddenly Sam froze. The tip of his spade had hit a tiny object. It was a wire rim with half of a melted eyeglass lens. The lens had a yellowish tint. Sam picked it up and studied it. Nick Blake had had a pair of gold wire-rim glasses. And he had been a heavy smoker, accounting for the slight discoloration of the lens. Due to a smoking habit, one of the lenses had a unique yellowish tinge to it. “My God,” Sam whispered. “These are Nick’s glasses.”

It suddenly struck Sam that he was excavating his brother. Randy and Doug both stopped and looked at Sam, whose hands were shaking and whose eyes started to well up. Randy took the lens from his open hand. “My God, Sam. We’ve really found him.”

Goose bumps surfaced on Owsley’s arms. Silent, Otto Noack stared down at the lens and wire rim from his perch on a burnt log.

“That’s very important, Sam,” Owsley said softly. “Put that in a separate bag.”

Owsley continued to cut away the soil, widening the excavated area to over four feet in diameter.

Struggling to control his emotions, Sam picked up his spade and returned to work.

“Oh, this is good stuff,” Doug called out, his voice getting louder and more enthusiastic. “We’re moving into the fire area. We’re hitting the main area.”

Sam turned to look at Owsley, whose hands were fully immersed in the soil. Beads of sweat ran down his face, and sweat stains had formed along the edge of his baseball cap. Completely engrossed in unearthing the remains, he was impervious to everything around him—the weather, the danger, or the fact that everyone was watching him. Even the high elevation, which forced the others to labor for breath, did not seem to affect Owsley. At that moment, Sam was grateful to have Doug there. While some might find his enthusiasm strange, to Sam it was a sign of his passion and caring.

“Oh, look here,” Owsley said. He pointed down to a cluster of eight white fragments slightly smaller than miniature marshmallows. Removing his soil-stained gloves, Owsley delicately picked through tiny white roots and green plant leaves, lifting up the objects. “Teeth,” he observed. Two of them contained the crown portion. None of them contained fillings. Owsley remembered that most of Davis’s teeth had fillings in them. None of Blake’s did. “This is very important,” he said. “These teeth may belong to Nick.”

“What do you think of this?” Sam said, handing Owsley a bone fragment.

“It looks like a piece of a jawbone,” he said. “Very good. Very important.”

Randy continued to shake the screen, separating bone fragments from soil, then placing the bones in plastic bags.

Owsley again removed his tape measure and extended it over the excavation. They had exposed a five-foot-by-five-foot area.

Overhead, darkening clouds started moving in rapidly. Owsley looked at his watch. They had already been there almost two hours. Noack emerged from the bushes. “The chopper pilots are saying we have to get out of here,” he shouted, his voice competing against the escalating wind. “Bad weather’s coming.”

“OK,” Doug yelled up, anxious to screen all the soil they had uncovered.

“Wait a minute,” Sam yelled. “Do we have enough? Do we have enough?”

Owsley looked at the fire hearth. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said quickly. “We’re going to dig up all of the remaining ashes that we haven’t screened. Get some of those big garbage bags.”

The Blakes grabbed some ten-gallon plastic bags and opened them. Owsley scooped chunks of soil and ash with his trowel and dumped it into the bags. He quickly dropped the trowel, cupped his hands together, and began scooping the soil with his hands. Over thirty minutes, he filled four bags.

“OK,” Doug said, breathing hard. “We’ve got enough.”

“Doug, you’re sure?” Randy asked. “Because we’ll stay up here overnight if we have to in order to finish this.”

“We’ve got enough.”

Everyone in the group scurried around the hole, picking up all of the Ziploc bags full of remains and artifacts. Others hefted the larger black garbage bags.

“Let’s go,” Noack called out.

In single formation, they followed Noack down the trail toward the sound of helicopter blades cutting through the air in the distance.

After they loaded everything and climbed in, the realization of what they had just done—excavated the grave of two cremated Americans—set in on the entire group. No one said a word as the choppers eased upward, then sped over the trees, away from the storm.

Sam Blake removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and buried his head.

As always, Susie was waiting at the airport when Doug arrived back from Guatemala. She was terribly relieved to see him get off the plane. But her emotions were mixed. She had still not forgiven him for going. She had worried for his safety the entire time he was gone and had hoped that no news was good news. Because of the remote region he was in, Doug had not been able to call her. To Susie, he had unnecessarily put himself in harm’s way to satisfy a selfish desire for adventure.

The car ride home was awkward. Susie almost never saw selfishness in Doug, and she rarely got angry at him. This was an exception, and Doug knew it. He also felt he deserved the cold shoulder he was getting. Much like the time his parents caught him with a dissected frog, Doug figured he had to endure some justified heat from Susie. So he eased gingerly into a summary of what happened. He purposely left out any mention of grenades, machine guns, or his confrontation with the guide whom he had accused of lying about the burial site.

June 17
Washington, D.C.

When Owsley arrived at the Smithsonian, two parcels awaited him. One was a letter postmarked from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The other was a Federal Express package from Philadelphia. Doug opened the letter first.

“Dear Doug,” it began. “Enclosed is a picture of Nick with his wire-rim gold glasses on. They are probably the same ones we found at the site.

“The photo is from August 1984, six months before he was lost,” the letter continued. “Good luck. Best, Sam Blake.”

Owsley opened the Federal Express package. It contained a handwritten note from Thomas Cush, Nick Blake’s dentist.

“I sent all the X rays we have and his original work-up sheet,” Dr. Cush’s cover letter stated. “We did not do the root canal on #8. There was a crown and post made for #8 as Nick broke it the summer of 1968.”

Owsley retrieved a black X-ray sheet bearing Nick’s name and compared it to a postage-stamp-size fragment of jawbone that Owsley had recovered from the burn site in Guatemala. They matched. So did the wire-rim glasses from the dig with the ones Nick was wearing in the family photograph.

As for Griff Davis, the irregular groove that Doug had previously detected in the two fragments of his sinus cavity proved critical. While sifting through the hundreds of tiny bone fragments he recovered from the burn site, Doug found the missing third fragment of the sinus cavity. Now complete, the sinus cavity perfectly matched the X ray of Davis’s sinus cavity.

It all confirmed Owsley’s conclusions. Despite overwhelming odds, his persistence had resulted in certainty and closure for the Blakes and Mrs. Davis.

Over the next few days, he prepared his report, then contacted the U.S. embassy in Guatemala with the news. Nick Blake and Griffith Davis were murdered, then buried in a wooded area outside a remote village in Guatemala. A year later their bones were excavated, transferred to a new location, crushed into small pieces, and burned. The embassy immediately sent out a telegram to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker:

Smithsonian medical anthropologist Dr. Douglas Owsley called Embassy June 22 to report he had been able positively to identify the remains of Nicholas Blake, based on three right molars of the lower jaw which were recovered in mid-June expedition reported. Given the extensive White House and NSC interest in this 7-year-old disappearance case, the Ambassador is writing a letter to President Bush informing him of the news.

Case No. 92-3 was closed.