Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What Would Waldo Do?

Comb Ridge
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Waldo Ruess was the brother of Everett Ruess—the explorer, vagabond and artist who went missing in the Four Corners area back in 1934 at the age of 20. Along with his parents, Waldo spent the rest of his life hoping to learn what became of his brother—whether he lost his life or simply decided to start a new one elsewhere under another name.

Next to Amelia Earhart and D.B. Cooper, there is probably not another missing person case that is more popular or mysterious than the story of Everett Ruess. Wallace Stegner, who penned Mormon Country, likened Ruess to a young version of John Muir.

Go ahead, Google “Everett Ruess” right now if you don’t know his story before you read any further.

So, after 75 years, the stars that shine for Ruess have aligned—revealing a secret story of an Anglo murdered by Ute Indians near Comb Ridge in Southern Utah; a grave on Comb Ridge appears to be that of an Anglo; and physical evidence along with positive DNA matches to surviving members of the Ruess family (nephews and nieces)—all point to a solved 75-year-old mystery.

So says National Geographic (Adventure Magazine) and one of its editors/writers David Roberts, and the University of Colorado. Yet, one has to wonder how Waldo would interpret all of these recent events surrounding the disappearance of his brother so many years ago.

Less we forget, it was National Geographic Magazine that attempted to move the Great Pyramids for one of their covers just to make for a more attractive design. Another time, the magazine’s researchers declared the exact location of Christopher Columbus’ landfall despite all the evidence that is lost or inconclusive. Their findings were dismissed by most Columbus experts.

I’m just saying.

Despite my skepticism, I don’t think of National Geographic and its armada of other publications in the same light as your run-of-the-mill gossip magazine/tabloid. I believe they are, for the most part, upfront and forthright. But, knowing they’ve attempted to pull the wool over our eyes before, one has to wonder how many times they’ve succeeded and continue to rush to judgements with their own interests in mind.

Despite my doubts, let’s look closely at National Geographic, David Roberts, and what his team has been hanging its hat on in their bold declaration that Ruess was found last spring.

The first DNA test used hair from Waldo and bone from the discovered remains. We’re told that the results were negative—the hair was likely contaminated was the explanation. Next, another test was carried out by another—more “credible”—DNA lab (University of Colorado) using saliva samples from Everett’s nieces and nephews. These tests came back with the “overlap” they were hoping to find. From this, Roberts and NG went with the news that “they” indeed had discovered the remains of the famed vagabond. They wrote about it in their magazine and about every major newspaper across the country carried the story too.

My question back then was, “When did negative results followed by positive results equal positive results?”

Photographic Evidence

Wolf Man Panel
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
To back up their data, the University of Colorado also superimposed historic photographic images from Dorothea Lange of Everett Ruess with the skull remains found on Comb Ridge via Adobe Photoshop. UC’s Dennis Van Gerven declared of the morphed portrait and skull, “The bones match the photos in every last detail.”

I found this “research” to be the most questionable. I mean c’mon, they used Photoshop! Hell, I know of college students who could fit these same remains to my own mug—proving the bones belong to me. Given all the tweaking tools in Photoshop, how would any peers validate the integrity of this “research?”

What, Dental Records?!
Besides the DNA and skeletal reconstruction via Photoshop, residing in the special collections at the University of Utah for several years now have been dental records belonging to Ruess from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry (photo to come when permissions are granted).

It wasn’t until after the NGA article on the Ruess findings were printed that a humble, BLM GIS specialist and trained archeologist from Monticello, Utah, stumbled upon the dental records. Like many people living in that part of the country, Paul Leatherbury has possessed a passion for the Ruess story and simply took it upon himself to visit the special collections after reading the Roberts story.

These records indicate that dental work was performed on Everett’s two lower molars on his right side. Leatherbury quickly contacted University of Colorodo professor of anthropology Dennis Van Gerven about the condition of the teeth found at Comb Ridge and was informed via email that the teeth were clean of dental work. Several dentists also examined these records and agree on what should be found. Yet, no evidence of any dental work was detected in the mandible teeth that were found at the Comb Ridge gravesite. The one explanation that could dismiss these dental records could be some scenario where one of Everett’s friends went in to the dentistry school using Ruess’s name. Yet, errors in USC’s record keeping haven’t been proven either. So, the records must be acknowledged or at least considered.

Despite these contradictory dental records brought forward by Leatherbury, one has to ask why Roberts and company pressed on with their insistence that the remains belong to Everett Ruess. Further, how did Dave Roberts overlook the dental records? Was it ignorance (Roberts never made it to the special collections until after the article ran), negligence (he overlooked the records when he did visit the special collections) or arrogance (he found the records, but knew they wouldn’t support the desired conclusion he was seeking so he let them stay buried with all the other documents in the special collecitions)—all of which are inexcusable when stakes are this high?

And I'm not the only one that's not biting.

Waiting for the Light
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Given how much time has passed since Ruess disappeared, the chances become slimmer every year that we’ll ever know where his remains are located—let alone what really happened to him. So, given the story passed down, along with the remains that were found in the same general location described in the story, perhaps this is as good a time as any to make a declaration of this mystery being solved. The evidence is flimsy, but 50 years from now, it will be even less firm.

One has to wonder what profits might come to those who were key figures in the “solving” of this mystery? What book contracts and movie contracts might have already been inked by National Geographic and Dave Roberts—and everyone else who propped up the Roberts conclusions.
As it turns out, Leatherbury’s insistence that the dental records be considered or outright disproved yielded a third DNA test that concluded this week thanks in part to the clout and push of Utah State Archaeologist, Kevin Jones and Derinna Kopp, physical anthropologist, who had their own suspicions about the dental remains too. Anyone want to wager on the results?

Negative. That’s right, negative. Surprised? I’m not. Despite the ever-changing DNA “evidence,” you can be assured that the USC dental records haven’t changed—they still don’t match the remains found on Comb Ridge by Roberts and his associates.

I wonder what kind of profile our friends at National Geographic and the University of Colorado will assume when this news is officially out. Whatever it is, I hope it has something to do with crows.

Even if the mystery of Everett Ruess is never solved, one has to wonder if it might become a landmark case in disputing the omnipotence/absoluteness of DNA testing. Perhaps playing the DNA card isn’t the ace of spades we have made it out to be.

And to think, what if Leatherbury’s questioning could have been easily dismissed? Surely no harm would have been done if the dental records were disproved or dental work was discovered on the teeth that were found. But as the BLM worker said it, “What is more likely: Everett’s teeth healed themselves or the DNA analysis is wrong?”

How close we were to laying to rest a mystery that wasn’t actually solved? What would Waldo think of our sloppy work?

I suppose if the third DNA testing had been positive, a book or movie would have been imminent. Even so, it already makes for a good book or movie without uncovering Ruess’ remains, or knowing his fate. But in America, we typically don’t like endings that leave us hanging—at least that’s not a formula for ticket sales at the box office.

Postscript: This just in…

Ruess Family Accepts Comb Ridge Remains
Are Not Those of Everett Ruess
October 22, 2009 - After further DNA testing, the Ruess family is now convinced that the remains found last year and reported to be those of Everett Ruess are in fact the remains of someone else.

Because of concerns as to whether the skeletal remains found at Comb Ridge in May of 2008 were actually those of Everett Ruess, the Ruess family decided to seek independent scientific confirmation of the initial findings. The family contacted the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville, Maryland. AFDIL, which is part of the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), performed an additional round of DNA extraction and analysis from samples taken from the same skeleton.

AFDIL's studies determined that remains were not those of Everett Ruess using Y-STR testing and mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) sequencing. Taken together, the MtDNA and Y-STR evidence establishes the remains are not related to Everett’s closest living relatives. Subsequent reanalysis by the original DNA team could not duplicate their original results.

As a result of the AFDIL findings and the reanalysis, the Ruess family has accepted that the skeletal remains are not those of Everett Ruess. The bones and associated artifacts will be returned to the Navajo Nation Archaeologist for disposition.

The family wishes to thank all the parties of the original research team for their interest in solving the mystery of Everett's disappearance as well those who felt it was important to undertake additional study before concluding the identity of the remains found at Comb Ridge.

The Ruess family would also like to extend its gratitude to all those who have drawn inspiration from Everett's life and work. We hope that their enthusiasm will continue whether or not the mystery is solved. Additionally, we offer our empathy to families everywhere who have lost and never found a loved one. They know, as we do, the subtle and continuous presence of a family member who has disappeared.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Revisiting Reefer Madness

Mountain Lupine
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It’s been a long time since I last smoked pot. And for the record, I really did inhale.

So much for getting elected to any kind of public office.

Looking back on it now, it wasn’t that big of a deal to me, nor did I ever come to “appreciate” its mind-altering spells. I wasn’t a regular—never bought weed from anyone, and in general, it wasn’t required for a good time. My memories of marijuana usage are mostly of delirious laughter, sudden cravings for junk food and becoming almost too aware of everything around me. I was never out of control, didn’t wreck any cars, or become hostile toward another as the result of smoking marijuana—some of which I have demonstrated as a “recreational drinker.” I never experimented with or considered other drugs either.

As a football cheerleader for Arizona State University in 1979 and 1980, I was lucky enough to visit all the other Pac-10 campuses when we travelled for football games on the road. I remember Palo Alto, California and walking across campus at Stanford University to the sights and smells of people smoking marijuana along the school’s pedestrian malls. Yes, this was the same Stanford University known for its rich history of academics—where they declared, “Harvard… the Stanford of the East.” Nevertheless, I was quite taken back because I’d never seen anything like that on the campus of my conservative and mainstream-academic ASU.

That was another time apparently.

Last week, four Northwest College students were charged for being under the influence of marijuana in Powell, Wyoming—also my workplace. Two of these students were led out of the dormitory in handcuffs and later evicted from their campus housing residence. After the dust settled, Powell Police officials and their drug dogs were unable to find any illegal substances in the dorm room. According to the student newspaper, the only thing that was found was a roach in the bathroom’s shower drain. Although it did not have any marijuana in it, the papers tested positive for THC.

Talk about a witch hunt.

They’ll probably all pee down one another’s legs if they ever uncover a student with a dime bag in their room. Maybe Powell, Wyoming and Northwest College should put in a bid as the next setting/location for the remake of Reefer Madness.

What makes all of this so embarrassing for me as an employee of this (typically) fine institution is that our campus is a “dry” campus; where the possession of alcohol—especially by those under 21-years of age—is illegal and should be considered as severe as one in possession of marijuana. Yet, students aren’t kicked out of the dorms if they are found with alcohol—even if there is a case of it in their room. But, if there is even a trace of marijuana on an individual or in their room, they’re a gonner!

As an illustration to this inconsistency of tolerance, take a stroll through one of the college parking lots near the dorms and you’ll likely see several empty beer cans in the back of just as many pick-up trucks.

But you know, marijuana is a controlled substance. And in the eyes of some, it appears to be considered more dangerous than alcohol and thus it is somehow “more illegal.” Yet, over the years our campus has lost several students to alcohol-related car accidents—not counting a brutal murder that involved alcohol several years ago. On the other hand, marijuana usage has probably contributed significantly to the late-night sales of Powell’s only 24-hour supermarket.

Some folks just don’t get it—and in this case, it appears to be the college’s administration and the Powell Law Enforcement.

Northwest College would make significant gains if it simply did one of two things in an effort to be fair and consistent—get tougher with alcohol offenders or back off on those who are found with marijuana or under its influence. I’d like to think that the latter of these two options would be sufficient especially if an offending student is making significant progress in their education.

Postscript: Another one of the four students involved in the above campus incident was evicted from his dorm room because a scale was found in his room. The campus resource officer determined it could be used for drugs, the student agreed that indeed a scale could be used for such activity although he did not say that was how he used it. Nevertheless, he was evicted for the admission. Finally, the NWC registrar stepped in and cancelled the eviction after hearing the student’s account. Finally, some rationale thinking is beginning to surface.