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?”
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?
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.
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.