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.


Frank Quarters said...

I disagree: I think we love being hung, hanging on all the way. Everett's mmortality is had as long as his remains are not. This WOULD make a great screen play and YOU should write it. Hell, get Danny to play the antagonist from NG, use some poetic justice and USE NG's use of fiction as well-what, they gonna insist on a cut? Not now. It's a great mystery and it has all the elements ... but there's no fitting ending just yet. I think we'll see something in the backlash to come maybe and fade lights, curtain, the end, badda bing and you're sipping Mia Tia's somewhere sunny. You're already writing it ...

Morgan said...

Let the crow eating begin...

Morgan said...

“The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer—they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”
—Ken Kesey

haiku curmudgeon said...

Ah the mystery, as Dave, I mean Frank says ... it has been and for some of us remains a mystery, unknown, uncertainty, ambiguous, unclear .... and that is ok. Course those who are (usually) comfortable with uncertainty are the minority. Maybe it's because there is so much sloppy reporting, careless science, ideological reporting, irrationally exuberant investing, true believer religious zealots and folks who like neat, clean, all in a row order and know most about following the rules and never questioning those in charge. In charge like attorneys, politicians, psychs of all stripes and professors who KNOW what's good for you. Ah well ...

Nicely done DQ. A big wet smoochie for you and HEY !!! I need some fresh straw and an apple.


Morgan said...

It gets better all the time... here's an email that was sent from UC's Dennis Van Gerven to National Geographic's Dave Roberts. And I don't have a problem with reproducing it here given the last sentence. Please consider me one of the "interested parties" of the future. Oh yes, the fragrance of arrogance.


I don’t how (sic) to say this strongly enough. The anatomical evidence is secondary and the dental record is irrelevant. We have a 25% match by kinship between the DNA of the skeleton and the Ruess kin base on 600,000 DNA base pairs! Is anybody getting that? That cannot happen by chance and it cannot be fabricated. It cannot be a mistake. The data was analyzed twice; that is why it took so long to complete. We took the time so we wouldn’t have to continually go though this bullshit. It is incontrovertible evidence for kinship! It established the identity of the skeleton beyond any shadow of a doubt as that of someone who is related to the living Ruess kin at the level of an uncle. Let me repeat that – beyond a shadow of a doubt at the level of an uncle. I’ll say it one more time, beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is a fact, and it trumps dental wear, dental fillings or anything else. It ends this conversation. We don’t need x-rays and we don’t need to talk about the old evidence any more. The discussion of that data is over.

A reanalysis of the dental evidence only makes sense if we actually believe that something could be discovered that would actually require us to throw out the genetic evidence. What would that evidence be? Would it be a filling (or its absence) or dental wear? Is that seriously an alternative here? Does someone actually think that the DNA evidence is so weak that it requires confirmation from the dental record?

Does someone seriously want to announce a rejection of a 600,000 nucleotide match based on two fillings and some dental wear? If so then those people had better be prepared to present some unknown Ruess uncle who also died out there who was physically a twin to Everett. I am not kidding here; that is the alternative. I repeat, that is the only alternative explanation here. I’m done now because this entire issue has become absurd and I am not interested in endlessly, and I mean endlessly, responding to people who don’t or won’t understand the power of the science that has been brought to bear here. If a mistake was made here it was getting the results out before a publication. Hopefully Ken, Paul, Helen, and I can rectify that.

In any case, people will simply have to wait because this kind of endless response is pointless. Please forward this to any and all interested parties now and in the future if you need a response from me.


Morgan said...

Two years later, Leatherbury receives vindication directly from the Ruess family via a Facebook group called Everett Ruess Disciples.

After posting multiple questions for author Philip Fradkin, Brian Ruess chimes in with the following:


I would like to publicly address a couple of matters with you.

First, I would like to apologize for my behavior to you, especially at the event in SLC. I was not as polite as I should have been. It is at times difficult to remember that although to me Everett is a private family member, to many others he has inspired quite a bit of passion. I failed to keep that in mind when interacting with you. I am sorry.

Second, I would like to set the record straight on our decision to engage in further DNA analysis. Both of the new books assign some, if not most all “credit” to Dr. Kevin Jones. This is incorrect; he played no role. Our decision was motivated by the document you sent me. Thank you for preventing a terrible mistake

Please understand that my failure to communicate with you was simply due to the overall emotion of the whole process and was not directed at you. If you have read both books, you will know we stopped communicating with everyone while we searched for answers.


Morgan Tyree said...

The esteemed (and, no doubt, bitter) Dave Roberts responds to Paul Leatherbury after receiving a copy of the Brian Ruess Facebook post:

My, aren't we pleased with ourselves, Mr. Leatherbury? Did you ask Brian for permission to forward his e-mail? I doubt it.

You may have been "right" about the dental records, but among all our critics, you were the most obnoxious, pushy, and just plain creepy with your demands.

Apparently Mr. Roberts writes words better than he reads. He doesn't even realize/understand that the feedback from Brian Ruess was not an email, but a public thread… On Facebook no less.

What a winner of the highest degree. "Obnoxious…" Paul Leatherbury? "Persistent," "dedicated," "thorough" are certainly better words to describe him in this National Geographic cluster-fuck. Too bad Roberts can't apply such words to his own work ethic/character. "Obnoxious…" He has the market cornered on that.

Have anyone in Diné Bikeyah who has met up with Leatherbury or Roberts over the years, and I guarantee they will ALL point the obnoxious finger at Señor Roberts and his eastern, over-bearing, look-at-me-because-I'm-important character/personality. Dave Roberts and the "moving of the Great Pyramids" are National Geographic's worst self-inflicted black eyes.

Morgan Tyree said...

Leatherbury responds to Roberts...

Esteemed Author,

Let me start by thanking you for your magnanimous and thoughtful reply. It doesn’t come across at all as puerile, bitter, or jealous.

How do I begin. Perhaps by thanking you again for inspiring me to inform you as to my experiences and recollection of the facts and of my opinion of you and your work. Let’s begin by responding to the 3 and one half sentences of the text of your reply.

First, yes I would say I am quite pleased that I was able to correct the horrendous mistake that was about to occur. In fact, I would say I am quite proud of that fact. I’m happy that, unlike yourself, I HELPED the Ruess family avoid a qrievous mistake as opposed to bringing pain upon them. As you must realize, it has been 2 years since the announcement that the Comb Ridge remains were not Everett. I suppose for some that is quite a pushy time frame. I am a bit confused however. Were you not pleased when you believed the remains were Everett’s? Did the prospect of a big payday not make you happy? How hypocritical of you to resent my pleasure at knowing that I was apparently the only person on the planet who prevented a tragic mistake. The difference between us is that your pleasure was based on the promise of personal fame and profit, while mine is based solely on knowing that my analysis was indeed spot on and correct and corrected a huge potential travesty. My judgment remained unclouded and unbiased while yours definitely was neither unbiased nor unclouded.

What was your advance from your publisher by the way and how much did you have to return? Certainly you would be happy to publicize that amount, as it could not possibly have influenced your actions now could it. I had no profit motive or ego gratification issues involved in this matter at all; no book deals, no movie deals, no public speaking engagements, etc.

Perhaps you could explain your use of the quotes around the word right? I think that being right in this case was huge and is beyond question at this point. Of course you were not right. You are in fact obnoxious, pushy, creepy, AND WRONG!!!! I’ll take the trio plus being right in this case over the unenviable position in which you will forever be remembered. You are entitled to your opinion, however little that can be valued today. Of course I must wonder on what you base your opinion. The only direct contact I had with you was in Moab after that presentation. As I vividly recall, I shook your hand and thanked you for presenting the talk. I said it was a fascinating case. Then, and purposefully lastly I told you my name. Your immediate reaction was to jerk your hand back out of mine. That sir is the very definition of obnoxious and creepy. As the only thing I have ever said to you was “thank you for coming to Moab” and that “it is a fascinating case”, I guess we will remain miles apart in our definition of the words obnoxious and pushy and creepy. And did I mention that I was proven correct and you have been shown to be an egotistical fool?

—continued in next message

Morgan Tyree said...

...I am aware that there was a lot of communication behind the scenes concerning my inquiries to Van Gerven concerning the teeth. It was obvious from the reaction of several people I had never met or talked to that an opinion had been circulated concerning my inquiries and hypothesizing about my intent. Of course if you were privy to unauthorized forwarding of emails, you would be quite hypocritical to accuse me of such. If you deny that you were the primary gossip of those communications please set the record straight.
To help you understand my definition of creepy, I refer you to your memory of the Univ. of Colorado video of Van Gerven handling the Comb Ridge remains. I offer up the image of him picking up and waiving the femur, as I recall, around as if it were a common classroom prop. I’m sure you remember that. That is truly creepy, not to mention unbelievably disrespectful handling of a human’s physical remains, not to mention a native americans’s remains. I doubt if that video is still available. For you to attempt to denigrate me in light of your compadre’s foul behavior is laughable. Especially since I KNOW and you KNOW that I did little other than examine the evidence at hand. No public pronouncements, no loudmouth claims or casting aspersions about others, merely the attempt to reconcile the glaring problem with the evidence.

Third, I guess it is an occupational hazard that a writer is better at putting words on paper than reading and understanding written words. If you read the text of my communiqué you will have noted that 1- the Ruess comment was posted on Facebook, which is a public forum, and 2- Ruess uses the phrase “publicly address” in his first line. I’m not sure how you interpret “publicly address”, but I assume you can understand that it is not intended as privileged information. Neither is it an e-mail. I felt that you might include it in your records so that you would at least have some factual material in that archive.

Now for some more personal opinion and insight.

Your lack of magnanimity is outrageous, but does serve as a clear and pointed insight into your character or lack there-of. Did you not just have a book on Everett Ruess published? I would have guessed that for an author that would be cause to celebrate. Instead you seem to resent me the truth of my ( and others) conclusions in spite of your book being published. Perhaps you assign blame to me for the events in which you find yourself, your neglect or mistake is not my fault nor my responsibility nor my concern. In fact, your email to me in 2009 after being informed by Van Gerven of the dental records, I found to be quite arrogant and self-important. I quote “I'm curious why you haven't tried to contact me to discuss this. If, as some people think, you want to wait till our June 22 meeting to throw your skeptical "bombshell," that doesn't seem to fit a model of disinterested inquiry” Quite some leap of assumption there, not to mention arrogant paranoia. Why would I contact you? Where was the “bombshell”? I needed to know about the teeth and you didn’t have them or the remains, Van Gerven did. I requested better photos of the teeth that were subsequently promised by Van Gerven. Several weeks later he reneged on his offer, and I said I would be willing to examine the teeth in his lab. And besides, why do you believe you are the keeper of all things Everett? You are not and never have been.


Morgan Tyree said...

...Again your concern was not with the evidence as much as it was with yourself. You are quite fortunate to have had that book published in my opinion, in light of your part in the Comb Ridge fiasco, nay comedy of errors. One can only speculate on how much was truly error. Your protestations of skepticism ring hollow to me and to most who are well acquainted with this case. You had equal opportunity to examine the Ruess archive, and as you know, mention of Everett’s dental record was made online in the list of material in that archive. Why you were unable or unwilling to decipher the record is a mystery. The dental record was not hard to figure out. And that which was beyond your understanding could have been easily explained by any dentist. Even so, you continued to try to discount the dental records, even going so far in SLC to say that they may not have had anything to do with Everett. Perhaps a better use of your time would have been to look at the records with an open mind and then get to the bottom of any discrepancy. Seems a tad self-serving doesn’t it, that you didn’t do that. Of course it had occurred to me in 2009 that if the remains weren’t Everett, it would be quite convenient if they were to be destroyed, as then there would be no way to prove that there were not Everett’s. Book and movie deals could go happily on unabated and unshackled with the inconvenience of the truth. Did the thought of the destruction of the evidence being much more profitable ever occur to you?

The fact of the matter is that I never made any comment in either Moab or SLC, nor had I intended to. I have never publicly said anything actually. If you find any quotes from me or any public mention of me in the public press, please send it to me. Others may have posted thoughts, facts, or whatever, without my encouragement or knowledge by the way, but I never have. As it turns out I didn’t need to. I fortunately compiled the evidence into my analysis, against great opinion to the contrary of my conclusions- and Van Gerven’s foolish and egotisitical attacks of my character and intelligence- and made the correct decision to send it to the Ruess family. I’m a bit shaken to think that if I hadn’t sent it to them, then they apparently would have continued with their plans to cremate and scatter the remains in the ocean. I would have never known that I could have prevented that travesty. If not for my ‘pushiness’ we would not be having this conversation. Am I proud of my efforts – absolutely. How about you?


Morgan Tyree said...

...And by the way, I was made aware of you from a magazine article from the early 90’s, I believe, that shows you climbing into a site using climbing gear. You have subsequently continued flaunting good sense and ethical journalism by publishing photos of archeological artifacts in 2 of your books. I know that the Monticello BLM archeologist contacted you after your ‘In search of’ book, and am aware of your selfish and arrogant response to his concerns, so I know you know it to be unacceptable to publish such photos in this day and age, and I am certain you knew better before then. You apparently made the choice that sales were more important than those fragile resources. You again did the same thing in ‘Sandstone Spire’, and it became clear that your concern was somewhere other than with preserving the resource. I assume your concern was your bank account or ego or both. Chasing the fame denied you but heaped upon your protégé Krakauer perhaps? You have failed miserably to prove that you are of sufficient character to qualify for respect. I would suggest you spend more effort in pursuing moral character instead of fame and fortune. I am truly disheartened that any publisher would be so callous and ignorant to publish such irresponsible books.

I do think you will provide a valuable service for future authors. You are a great cautionary tale as to the inherent dangers of shoddy journalistic work and of losing the impartiality required to be taken seriously. I doubt that you ever imagined how big a bite out of your rather prominent posterior your shoddy work would take. It is a doozy. And may the facts of this case live a long and healthy life.


Morgan Tyree said...

Mr. Roberts,
If you happen to be reading this, would you please comp me an autographed copy of your newest Everett Ruess book? Many thanks and no hard feelings.