Hide, and Go Seek
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Outside magazine, December 1996
Hide, and Go Seek
NecroSearch’s charter: Head into the woods, use nature skills, find murder victims
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
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
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
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
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
“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,
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.