Outside magazine, December 1996
In the somber days after she vanished, no one had reason to suspect it would take so long to find Cher Elder. After all, police in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, quickly settled on a suspect. On the night of March 27, 1993, Elder, a 20-year-old restaurant hostess, had argued with her boyfriend, Byron Powers, according to court testimony that came much later. She then drove to Central City, an old mining-turned-gambling town about an hour into the mountains, with an acquaintance of Powers named Thomas Luther. A casino surveillance camera recorded the two together later that night. Then, at about 1:40 a.m., Elder was spotted getting into Luther's car with him. Apparently she didn't know that he had just been released from state prison after serving ten years for aggravated sexual assault, a crime he had used a hammer to commit.
When Elder's family reported her missing, police, acting on tips, canvassed several mountain locations but found nothing. Her distraught family appealed to the public for help. "We don't believe she's alive," Scott Richardson, a Lakewood homicide detective, told reporters at the time. Two months passed with no result, and Richardson soon realized he needed assistance finding what he felt certain lay somewhere in the Colorado backwoods: Elder's body. That's when he called NecroSearch.
Brainstormed into being in 1987, NecroSearch is a volunteer group of Colorado scientists and law-enforcement types who share a rather ghoulish passion: A macabre Justice League of America, they focus on finding dead people. In the carefully chosen words of cofounder Dick Hopkins, a 55-year-old, mustachioed crime-lab technician, NecroSearch takes "an interdisciplinary approach to the discovery and recovery of remains and evidence from clandestine grave sites." The group's 35 members include botanists and bloodhound handlers, cops and geophysicists, pilots and computer geeks. "NecroSearch is a midlife-crisis vehicle," says Clark Davenport, a geophysicist who vaguely resembles Sean Connery but without the brogue. "We were trained as scientists, but now we're not using those skills at our jobs. Many days it's much more interesting to deal with dead bodies than with our bosses."
In other words, NecroSearch lets its mild-mannered members duck into the phone booth, so to speak, and change into crime-fighter garb. The onetime TV weatherman jumps from forecasting the five-day outlook to using frozen autumn leaves found in a grave to determine that a killer buried his victim during an October cold front. The geologist whose career highlight was finding one of the world's largest talc deposits gets to testify at a murder trial. An archaeologist with the Bureau of Reclamation goes from relocating forgotten historic cemeteries to brushing dirt off a victim's bones. None of them dons a mask and cape, but they do all carry swanky NecroSearch business cards with a grinning skeleton logo. When the call goes out that someone needs the group, the team gathers briefly and then heads into the outdoors. In places some visit to gawk at postcard views or break in new hiking boots or spot a bugling elk, NecroSearchers look for bodies. "I think it's fair to say," Jack Swanburg, the group's president, says, "that nobody else does what we do."
NecroSearch's charter is based on a grim truism: When a murderer buries a victim, no matter how carefully, that body changes its surroundings. A grave site may sink under rain or snow. Insects and larger scavengers gather, altering the remains. Body fluids, and the way a grave can act as a catch basin, may cause plants to flourish. Such changes can persist for years, even decades, after the body is hidden. And all of these signs are there for the reading, if only someone knows what to look for and where to start looking.
"These dirt clods," says Tom Adair, crouching in a parched, weedy field and clutching a chunk of baked-dry soil with a bit of dead grass poking out of it. "I've never seen this occur naturally."
Adair is a bearded, athletic-looking 25-year-old who majored in anthropology at Colorado State but began studying entomology when he learned that NecroSearch had enough anthropologists but could use a bug expert. By day, he works in a Denver crime lab. This evening, he is explaining how to read a grave site and is presently surrounded by a field full of corpses--pig corpses, laid into or onto the ground at assorted depths and tucked into assorted wrappings at this quiet suburban site so scientists can watch what happens when a pig body, which chemically resembles a human body, is planted in the middle of nowhere.
One of the youngest members of NecroSearch, Adair bubbles enthusiasm about this peculiar research lab, like a 4-H'er showing off his prize stock. Pig number six ("died from gunshot wound," a small sign explains) lies under dense scrub oak. "Look at how much this grave is sunk--the nice separation around the edges," Adair says, pointing as if at a fracture on an X ray. "If you're a NecroSearch person and you see this, you say, 'Wait a minute.'" Pig number 16 was covered with lime--which some murderers mistakenly believe speeds decomposition--and small white flecks dot the surface where insects have turned the soil. Pig number nine was wrapped in plastic. Grave number ten contains a pig in a blanket (really, it does). Pig number 19 was plunked into a trash can and left to decay, Ç la Lord of the Flies. Pig number 18, a recent arrival, confounds Adair: It was rolled up in a sleeping bag and a blue plastic tarp and left on the surface. The coyotes and turkey vultures that have scavenged half the other sites have ignored it. "It's totally accessible," Adair muses, "and it's never been touched."
As enthralled as Adair is by his pig patch, it is out in the world beyond this field that murders get solved. In its brief history, NecroSearch has taken on more than 100 cases in 27 states and nine foreign countries, and statistics suggest that demand for the group's services will only rise. As of last August, according to the FBI's Missing Persons File, 103,484 people were reported missing in the United States. Even when police have a suspect, a Thomas Luther, it's hard to prosecute a murder without irrefutable proof of foul play. Without a body. And if police are lucky enough to have a corpse, lapses in evidence-gathering can inadvertently spring a killer. Thus, in the postdiscovery stage, NecroSearch's work is just as crucial. Evidence unearthed by the team has led to murder convictions decades after the crimes. "It brings closure to some families," says Ed Pearl, a meteorologist, of the group's efforts. "They can finally say, 'That's it.'"
Many cases, however, end far less neatly, and the Cher Elder disappearance proved to be one in which nothing came easy. Even after the group took on the task, several searches inspired by informants' tips, from a roadside park on Interstate 70 east of Denver to sites in Clear Creek County to the west, yielded nothing. Months passed. "On that case," says Swanburg, "we learned how much we didn't know."
"This is where it all started," says Swanburg, waving a beefy arm in the dining room of the Denny's in Lakewood. "In that booth over there." He has gathered with five other members of NecroSearch's ensemble cast in the unlikely spot where their crime-solving collaboration began. Over breakfast one morning in 1987, Swanburg, a retired coroner, and two colleagues were grousing about a case on Colorado's eastern plains, where three bodies had been recovered with a backhoe, which trashed the crime scene and much of the evidence. There must be a better way, someone said, and the three began discussing less obtrusive ways to locate a corpse as they polished off their ham and eggs.
On this Tuesday morning, the members look a bit like a reunion of an early-seventies high-school chess club. Many of them, though trained as scientists, have been bumped up to desk jobs--but desk jobs where you can keep a beard. There's Davenport, who recruited most of his fellow members; Ed Pearl, a goateed and self-assured former TV weatherman; Al Nelson, a puckish bloodhound handler trimmed out in a powder-blue polo shirt with a bloodhound applique; Jim Reed, a quick-witted geologist who owns a software company and functions as the group's practical joker; Tom Adair, the baby-faced up-and-comer. Swanburg, a grandfatherly 67-year-old who's fond of suspenders, is causing a stir in the dining room. A coroner friend, during an autopsy of a murder victim, found undigested hash browns in the stomach, which established time of death. So Swanburg graciously offered to snap some photos of hash browns for his friend to project during a lecture. Perhaps fearing a sting by the health department, the waitress scurries to fetch the manager, and the two of them watch unhappily from a distance as Swanburg clicks away. Soon the waitress returns with refills, just in time to overhear talk of bodies crammed into garbage dumps and bloodhounds trained to sniff out the distinctive scent of decomposing human.
Before long, the coffee chatter circles around to NecroSearch's techniques. Typically, searches follow a step-by-step sequence--the ABCs of corpse hunting. Usually a cop who's stumped by a case calls Swanburg. ("A typical investigator," Reed explains, "sees maybe one clandestine grave in his career.") Once the group accepts a case, members descend on the area in a more or less standard order to begin hunting. "I call it Clue for adults," says member Gil Miceli. First, before-and-after aerial photos of the crime scene are examined for changes in terrain or vegetation. Next, Ed Pearl may scan weather records from the time of disappearance. In a Nebraska case in which a victim disappeared in 1957, Pearl says, "a significant snowstorm at the time of the crime made it unlikely they traveled far to dump the body." Pearl's forecasts also affect the timing of a search. Al Nelson consults him before taking his "decomp dogs" to a site. Wet ground is a conduit for scent; also, a drop in barometric pressure allows gases trapped underground to percolate up.
After the dog handlers leave, a botanist chimes in, marking any vegetation that stands out. In NecroSearch's first great success, botany provided the vital breakthrough. Michele Wallace, a 25-year-old, had disappeared in 1974 after going hiking outside Crested Butte. Police quickly linked an ex-con named Roy Melanson to the disappearance, but they had no body and therefore could not charge him. Five years later, a hiker in the area stumbled upon a pair of footlong blond braids attached to human tissue, which befuddled police simply stored away. When Vickey Trammell, a NecroSearch botanist, examined the braids in 1991, she found parts of conifer needles from trees that she knew grow only at about 9,000 feet. Also, the braids were not sun-bleached, narrowing the search area to shadier north-facing slopes. Armed with these details, a team of NecroSearchers and investigators quickly found Wallace's skull. Melanson was sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
After the botanists have packed up, the NecroSearch crew may crisscross the search area an arm's length apart, studying the ground. Gil Miceli, who makes his living using infrared devices to spot shorts in power lines, scans with a forward-looking infrared camera--FLIR, pronounced "fleer"--looking for hot spots on the surface. The camera detects differences of as little as one-tenth of a degree. Next, Clark Davenport may survey suspicious areas with ground-penetrating radar (GPR), dragging an antenna that resembles a Rube Goldberg vacuum cleaner to check for out-of-place objects underground. ("People who bury bodies in general are scared and lazy," he says, "so we don't have to look very deep.") He may also use a magnetometer: "You disturb the orientation of magnetic particles very slightly when you dig a hole and refill it."
If, after all this, a site still seems promising, three of NecroSearch's archaeologists will set up a grid and begin an old-style dig--mapping out the surface and then laboriously scraping off soil ten centimeters at a time until they get close to bone. Rates of decomposition vary, tellingly so. A body breaks down more slowly if buried on a north face, for instance, or at high altitude, or in acidic soil, or clothed, or wrapped in plastic. All this grim arcana not only can help solve a case, it's also good ammo for the group's get-togethers, when members try to one-up each other. One NecroSearch archaeologist, a pixieish 42-year-old named Diane France, knows of a revolting Louisiana case in which, five days after a person was last seen alive, the body was found in a car, completely decomposed and skeletonized.
In practice, a real search may unfold more quickly than this, with far fewer steps. In 1994, Phoenix police flew Davenport down to use GPR at the house of a contractor named Lyle Keidel. Twenty-eight years after Keidel's wife disappeared, an informant--Keidel's daughter, actually--suggested that her remains might never have left home; Keidel, it seems, had coincidentally cemented-over his backyard just a month after she vanished. Davenport's radar quickly signaled a disturbed area about three feet down. When a crew removed the concrete, there lay the well-preserved skeleton of Mrs. Keidel, a pair of nylons still knotted around her neck.
A few evenings after he got back home, Davenport got a call from a police sergeant in Phoenix. He said, "Detective Reynolds [the cop who handled the case] is here, and he wants to talk to you, but he can't right now because he's crying." In 1995, a judge sentenced Lyle Keidel to life in prison without parole.
Three months after Cher Elder disappeared, police tailed a car driven by a friend of Thomas Luther, the man with whom she was last seen, into the mountains. Just outside Empire, a small town 50 miles west of Denver that hordes of skiers pass through en route to Winter Park Resort, the man pulled off U.S. 40 onto a turnaround. There Luther emerged from the woods and hustled into the car.
More searches in that valley ensued, with NecroSearch members assisting. Bloodhounds led their handlers to the Empire sewage treatment plant, which was then drained. Nothing turned up. The team searched a mine shaft that gave off a noxious odor. Nothing. In the meantime, Luther moved to West Virginia. In 1994, connected to an attack on a woman there, he was sentenced to 15 to 35 years in prison.
This did nothing to slow down the Elder search, though. After more tips, in late January 1995 several NecroSearch members, along with Detective Richardson, looked over a steep, piney hill upslope from Highway 40 and even did a bit of experimental digging around--"some shovel-testing," in the words of one member. But snow covered the frozen ground, less than ideal conditions for finding a body, and again the searchers left frustrated. None of them realized then that one of their shovels had come within four inches of Cher Elder's grave.
A few weeks later, Byron Powers, Luther's friend, struck a deal with prosecutors; Luther had told him some things, he said. In exchange for reducing his sentence in an unrelated assault conviction, Powers led the searchers to the place they had sought for nearly two years. The grave was a steep hike up from the highway, more than two feet deep and under a three-foot mound of rocks. "Everybody knows a murderer's not going to carry his victim up a hill, in that kind of country, in the middle of the night," archaeologist Steve Ireland says. "But he did."
Although the hunt for Elder had ended, NecroSearch still had a vital role to play in documenting the grave site for a jury. France and Ireland set up a dig and then worked long hours at the site Thursday through Sunday night, dusting away dirt with small pieces of splintered bamboo so as not to damage evidence. "Steve showed me his chest afterward," says Jim Reed, who surveyed and built a model of the site. "He had bruises from his chin down to his stomach from lying on the edge of the dig." Elder, it turned out, had been shot three times in the back of the head.
Last spring, almost three years after Cher Elder's unlucky gambling trip, Thomas Luther was sentenced to 48 years in prison for her murder. After the verdict, members of NecroSearch assembled at Jim Reed's house in Golden (ironically, within view of the spot where Luther killed Elder). Seeing a resolution to such a hideous crime is hardly cause for gloating, but the team did feel a sense of accomplishment. "We got a murderer who's not going to murder anymore," said Al Nelson. Afterward, Jim Reed carved a notch into his geological compass--another small victory.
Even when a murder is solved, though, satisfaction soon yields to the unsettling sense that more graves await. "There are lots of bodies waiting out there to be found," says Jack Swanburg. "We have serial murderers whom we have seen convicted for only some of the murders they've committed." In fact, Summit County officials still consider Luther a suspect in the deaths of two other women. Both disappeared on the same day in 1982. Both were found near Breckenridge. Both had been shot.
Roy Melanson, the man convicted of killing Michele Wallace also became a suspect in another homicide, a case out of Port Arthur, Texas, from 1988, in between his prison terms. As in the Wallace case, the victim was last seen with Melanson, in her car, which was later found abandoned in a parking lot. The case was never solved. The body was never found.
Mike Grudowski is a frequent contributor to Outside.