DNA results may have solved 75-year-old Utah mystery

Published April 26, 2009 12:11 am
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He was a 20-year-old California native whose love for Utah's redrock country, longing for solitude and vivid prose fueled the imaginations of environmentalists, artists and writers from Wallace Stegner to Jon Krakauer.

Now, 75 years after he last was seen near Escalante in November 1934, the mystery of Everett Ruess' fate and final resting place may at last be solved.

The latest issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine makes a case that a small burial site discovered last summer near Comb Ridge, a canyon area in southeast Utah, contained the remains of the legendary wanderer and vagabond.

Salt Lake City writer W.L. Rusho, author of a 1983 book on Ruess, said DNA test results received since the article's publication apparently confirm the find. He learned of the test results from Ruess' nephew Brian.

"They [National Geographic] said there was a one in 10 billion chance that it was not Everett," Rusho said Friday. "In other words, it was virtually certain this was Everett Ruess."

Brian Ruess, a 44-year-old software salesman who lives in Portland, Ore., said he had seen only the summarized data of DNA tests on the remains and didn't want to comment beyond saying, "I know it comes as a relief to some of my siblings. It would have mattered a great deal to my father."

National Geographic Society spokeswoman Caryn Davis said definitive results of DNA tests, along with other genetic and forensic tests, will be released Thursday by National Geographic.

The April/May article in Adventure by David Roberts recounts how Denny Bellson, a Najavo from Shiprock, N.M., embarked on a search for Ruess' remains after his sister said their grandfather, Aneth Nez, told her about the murder of a young white man by three Ute Indians he witnessed from afar while walking the area in the 1930s. Nez told his granddaughter, Daisy Johnson, of how he then buried the young man after his attackers left him for dead and took his two burros.

Forensic anthropologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder re-created a skull using bone fragments found at the site. A photo-illustration accompanying Roberts' article matches jaw and facial bones from that skull with surviving photographs of Ruess, noting that the resulting jawbone and teeth are both "a perfect match for Ruess."

Rusho said that while he's prepared to accept that Ruess' remains have at last been identified, unanswered questions remain.

Chief among them is how Ruess ended up in Comb Ridge near Chinle Wash when his last letter to his parents in Los Angeles said he would instead head southwest toward Lee's Ferry, Ariz. In addition, an investigative mission by John Upton Terrell in 1935 at the request of The Salt Lake Tribune found that not one Navajo had heard of or seen a young white man enter their country.

More importantly, Rusho said, is that Ruess once swore never to travel the Utah desert without horse or burro. Rusho recounts in his book Vagabond for Beauty that a March 1935 search team found two burros in Davis Gulch four months after Ruess' disappearance. Gail Bailey took the animals to his home in Escalante, Rusho said.

Rusho asks how Ruess could have traveled the 60 or so miles of rough terrain from Davis Gulch to Comb Ridge without burros.

"The only way he could have done it was to go deep into Navajo country, circle the mountain and come around another way. He could have done that and maybe pick up another animal on the way. Maybe Navajos would have helped him, but why in the world was there no evidence of any Navajo knowing about it?" Rusho asks. "We maybe lost the mystery of where he ended up, but we have a new mystery of how he got there."

Roberts disputes Rusho's account in his magazine article, stating that residents of Escalante said Bailey discovered the burros before search parties had been out to search for Ruess.

Also intriguing is a link between "NEMO" inscriptions found in Grand Gulch and Davis Gulch. NEMO was an alias that Ruess chose toward the end of his life.

The Davis Gulch inscription was found in 1935 and has been submerged by Lake Powell, but photographs match it to the other inscription found in the 1960s.

Speaking from Portland, Brian Ruess said he hopes his late uncle's message of the wilderness' spiritual dimensions remain intact, even if the mystery of his final resting place has been solved.

"It [the burial find] does create almost as many questions as it seemingly answers," he said. "Now that the mystery is removed, I hope we don't lose sight of the man."

bfulton@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">bfulton@sltrib.com

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