Bone detectives dig on at Vail construction site
Ryan Summerlin July 3, 2014
VAIL — About that skeleton found in a Lionshead construction site, we know what it isn’t.
“It’s definitely not a Native American,” said Kara Bettis, Eagle County coroner.
What it is, though, takes much longer to determine.
“It’s never fast; it’s not like CSI. It takes a long time,” Bettis said.
Bettis was among the team of searchers working in dirt Monday from a Lionshead construction site. They uncovered about 70 percent of a human skeleton, including a humerus bone, skull, ribs, extremities, small bones and some vertebrae. Recovery dogs joined the search on Saturday.
The bones are on their way to a team of scientists led by Dr. Melissa Connor, a forensic archaeologists, archaeologist and associate professor of forensic science from Colorado Mesa University.
They’ll start by trying to determine gender and hopefully the age, they’ll try to extract DNA from the bones and see if there’s a match somewhere.
“If they’re a missing person and they’re in a database, we might be able to make an identification. If there’s a full set of teeth, we might be able to match dental records,” Bettis said.
It’s also too early to tell if there was foul play involved with the person’s death, said District Attorney Bruce Brown.
“We operate on the assumption that there could have been,” Brown said.
And that leads conjecture to Julie Cunningham, one of serial killer Ted Bundy’s victims. Cunningham was a Vail ski instructor who Bundy kidnapped and killed on March 15, 1975, then buried her body near Rifle.
Bundy made the confession to Vail police detective Matt Lindvall, on the day Bundy was to be executed in Florida’s electric chair, Jan. 24, 1989.
Bundy said he drove Cunningham to Rifle, but Cunningham’s body was never found.
“We can’t tie any these remains to that; it’s far too early. That would be pure guesswork,” Brown said.
The detective is doubtful
Lindvall traveled to Florida to take Bundy’s confession and said he doubts the body found in Lionshead is Cunningham.
“My gut feeling? I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” Lindvall said.
According to Vail records, utilities were originally installed at the site in 1967. Since then, numerous permits for work within the easement have been processed.
Cunningham disappeared in mid-March 1975, the wrong time of year to be able to dig a trench and bury a body in Vail.
“In mid March, even in a bad snow year that ground is frozen and covered,” Lindvall said. “Vail’s building department didn’t want open trenches in the winter, and they didn’t allow digging that time of year.”
Besides the time of year and the location, the Lionshead discovery doesn’t match Bundy’s method of operation. Bundy’s confessions don’t line up either, Lindvall said.
“He had a different agenda as he was confessing: to stay alive, get out of Florida and get to Colorado and get looking,” Lindvall said.
Anything is possible, Lindvall said, and it’s also possible there’s a Bundy victim no one knows about or something else happened.
When Lindvall was in Florida taking Bundy’s confession for killing Cunningham, a couple police officers from Idaho were also there, but they weren’t entirely sure why. Bundy told them they were there because he had killed a couple people and dumped the bodies in their part of Idaho.
Vail was also a much different place in 1975.
“Vail was extremely transient in the 1970s, people coming and going and no one knew. We used to get calls all the time, ‘My son moved to Vail last year, and we haven’t heard from him,’” Lindvall said. “We’d run across the guy and tell him, ‘Call your mother.’”
Cunningham was 26 when Bundy brutally murdered her. She was walking from her apartment in Vail’s Apollo Lodge to meet some friends in Vail Village, when she happened upon Bundy, struggling with some crutches.
She walked over to Bundy’s car, a tan 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, to offer to help, and he asked her to carry his ski boots. She had no idea who he was, how evil he was or that she was about to die. No one did. It was still early in Bundy’s five-year string of murders.
Bundy clubbed and handcuffed her, and threw her in the trunk of his Beetle. In his confession, he told Lindvall he drove her to a remote location near Rifle, 90 miles away, where he assaulted and strangled her. Weeks later, he made the six-hour drive from Salt Lake City to revisit her remains.
Bundy’s 1968 Volkswagen Beetle is now a tourist attraction at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C.
“If it does turn out to be Julie Cunningham, I hope it brings some peace to her family. It has always been a hope that she’s remembered longer than him,” Lindvall said.
Dr. Melissa Connor is an archaeologist cross-trained in forensic anthropology. They study how bodies decay.
Identifying these remains is a time-consuming, step-by-step process, she said.
“You take your time, work the scene and get all the information from it,” Connor said. “One of the worst things we can do is narrow a search based on incomplete data.”
Once they have everything, the remains go to a lab so everyone is working from the same data.
They’ll determine age, sex and anomalies in the bones — anything that should not be in the bone such as evidence of blunt force trauma and gun shot wounds. A huge number of identifications are made through dental records, Connor said.
DNA goes last because it destroys the sample from which it’s taken. However, once you have a DNA sample, you also need something to compare it to, Connor said.
“If all you have is your unknown sample, it’s still unknown,” Connor said.
That’s where NaMus comes in, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
“When we have an unknown, we have to have knowns to compare it to,” Connor said.
Both missing persons and unidentified bodies go into the NaMus system. With a lot of work and a little luck, sometimes they match.
Julie Cunningham, by the way, is missing person No. 12,084 in the NaMus database.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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