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Remains of explorer Everett Ruess found in Utah

Paul Foy
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Everett Ruess
ALL |

SALT LAKE CITY ” A skeleton found in Utah’s redrock country was that of a talented artist, poet and wanderer of the 1930s whose disappearance became the stuff of Western lore and Navajo legend, scientists confirmed Thursday.

The bones of Everett Ruess, a self-described vagabond from California, were discovered by a grandson of a Navajo elder who, according to a family story, had witnessed the young man’s murder by other Indians and was haunted by it.

Ruess’ skeleton, along with a few artifacts, was found last May in a rock crevice against a cliff wall at Comb Ridge in remote southeastern Utah, about 60 miles from Escalante, the town where he set off for his final wilderness journey.

On Thursday, the 75-year-old mystery was finally solved, with researchers at the University of Colorado announcing that a battery of genetic and forensic tests left no doubt the remains were Ruess’, based in part on DNA comparisons with four nephews and nieces.

“I think this makes it an irrefutable case,” said University of Colorado biologist Kenneth Krauter.

The facial bones of Ruess, 20, also matched with photographs taken of the explorer a year before he vanished by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, said Dennis Van Gerven, an anthropologist at the Boulder, Colo., university.

“All kinds of people have tried to solve the mystery of his disappearance,” said David Roberts, a climber and writer who profiled the discovery in National Geographic Adventure magazine before genetic results were available. “The combined efforts of everybody got nowhere until last spring.”

Denny Bellson, who lives on the Navajo Nation reservation, discovered the skeleton last May 25 in a rock crevice where his late grandfather hid the body in 1934 from coyotes and other scavengers. The story was originally revealed to Bellson’s sister, Daisy Johnson, by a medicine man who blamed their grandfather’s cancer on having handled Ruess’ remains decades earlier.

“There was a white guy out there, and we wanted to find him,” Bellson said Thursday on a teleconference call arranged by the magazine. “It was a big mystery, another story to be told.”

San Juan County, Utah, sheriff Mike Lacy told The Associated Press that, “We went out there and looked at the bones” but said he couldn’t vouch for the skeleton’s identity and wasn’t planning to open an investigation.

In Salt Lake City, FBI spokesman Juan Becerra confirmed an agent visited the site on the same day, but Becerra had no further comment.

“A 75-year-old murder is the definition of a cold case, and we haven’t asked anybody to be involved,” Brian Ruess, a 44-year-old software salesman in Portland, Ore. and one of the explorer’s nephews, told the AP.

A niece, Michele Ruess, said the family planned to cremate the bones, now stored at the University of Colorado, and scatter the ashes in the Pacific’s Santa Barbara Channel.

“The family is deeply appreciative of everything that came together to solve the mystery,” Michele Ruess said. “We knew about him from a young age. I’ve had some people say maybe it’s better to not have the mystery solved, but that’s not how the family feels.”


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