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Man finds human skull while hiking

Adam Jensen
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Vail CO, Colorado

Just as he does 20 to 30 times a year, retired South Tahoe Middle School teacher David Berne set out to hike Scout Peak from a dirt road west of Echo Summit last month.

An avid outdoorsman, Berne is accustomed to finding the remains of forest creatures on his hikes, but he was not prepared for the discovery he made Aug. 16.

“I’ve found bones before, but I knew this was a human one,” Berne said.

While walking near a wooded ravine below the peak’s summit, the 63-year-old spotted something he thought was a large mushroom.

But a closer inspection revealed the telltale sutures of a human skull.

“And I said, ‘Oh my, this is a skull,’ ” Berne said.

“To find something like this, it was really hard to believe that I would find parts of a human up here,” he said. “It was something almost like out of a thriller novel or something.”

Berne marked the skull’s location with three stones, a cross made of twigs and a global-positioning system device.

With the skull showing signs of weathering, Berne packed his discovery out and called the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, which quickly collected the skull from Berne’s South Lake Tahoe home.

Authorities believe the skull to be that of Andrew Sewell, a 59-year-old Rio Vista man who disappeared from a mountain-bike trip on Oct. 17, 2004.

In July 2005, search-and-rescue members located belongings of Sewell’s along with nine bones – confirmed by DNA testing to be those of Sewell.

While the exact circumstances surrounding Sewell’s death remain a mystery, he may have been caught in a snowstorm that hit the Sierras at the time of the trip.

The cause of Sewell’s death is listed as accidental exposure, said El Dorado County Deputy Coroner Larry Olsen.

Search and rescue scoured the area where the skull was found last week but did not locate any additional remains, Olsen said.

Sheriff’s deputies believe the skull to be that of the lost mountain biker, because the location where the skull was found is in the general vicinity of where Sewell’s bones were found in 2005.

“We can’t say for sure that the skull is that of Mr. Sewell, but it has been sent to the California Department of Justice lab,” Olsen said.

Through DNA testing at the lab, located in Sacramento, sheriff’s deputies hope to determine the identity of the skull. How long identification could take isn’t known, Olsen said.

The deputy coroner did not criticize Berne’s removal of the skull but made a recommendation to people who may find themselves in a similar situation. “Ideally, we prefer that people leave it intact and call us right away so that we can come out to the scene,” Olsen said. “I’m not faulting Mr. Berne; we appreciated him calling.”

Sewell was a semi-retired computer Web designer. He often talked about mountain-bike riding in the Tahoe area, Sewell’s son, August, told the Tribune in 2004. He reportedly was in good spirits the last time he spoke with family members.


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