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THE SEARCHERS

THESE SCIENTISTS AND COPS DIG DEEP FOR THE TRUTH. SOMETIMES THEY UNEARTH MORE.

In 1974 Michele Wallace lost her life to another human being in the Rocky Mountains. But other predators weren't through with her. For the next eighteen years, various creatures picked at her remains and scattered them in the wilderness near Kebler Pass, just west of Crested Butte. Before she turned to dust, however, a creative sheriff's investigator and members of NecroSearch, a unique Colorado-based group of scientists and cops, found her skull.

After nearly two decades, the mystery of Michele Wallace's whereabouts was solved. Many people had long suspected that the 25-year-old Gunnison freelance photographer had been killed by Roy Melanson, a giant-sized rapist on the run from Texas. Now, armed with proof that the woman was dead, prosecutors brought Melanson to justice. Case closed.

Not quite.
Grief continues to wash over Michele Wallace's father, George, a retired restaurateur in Florida. Shortly after Michele's disappearance, her anguished mother killed herself. Although George Wallace rebuilt his life in some ways stronger than ever, he had given up all thoughts that his only daughter's body would ever be found.

"It was an unbelievable shock," he says. "You just can't believe it. It was something wonderful. And it was a miracle--but a depressing one. I was 54 years old then. Now I'm 75, and you get a little more sentimental. It's actually harder this time. Very, very difficult this time. Just like you had a bullet in you the first time but got hit with a machine gun the second time."

The raw heartache of missing-person cases often intersects with NecroSearch's scientific quest for objective facts. Called in by law-enforcement agencies to help find the hidden remains of murder victims, the nonprofit organization's volunteer corps of geophysicists, anthropologists, crime-lab technicians, cops, botanists, archaeologists and others simply tries to figure out where and how to look.

"There was only one Sherlock Holmes," says veteran criminalist Jack Swanburg, the group's president and co-founder, "but if you put all of these heads together and look at the technology that's available, you've got a supersleuth that's going to be tough to beat."

This collective detective, however, often gets more than it bargains for. NecroSearch's discoveries help unearth deeply buried emotions. Even if nothing is found, the team members forge bonds with the families, the detectives running the cases and one another. It's a powerful experience: Some of the NecroSearch members find that they never feel more alive than when they're searching for dead people.

On a snowy Sunday morning at NecroSearch's PIG ("Pigs in Ground") site, there's not a pig in sight. But fifteen of them have been buried, for research purposes, at the Highlands Ranch Law Enforcement Training Facility south of Littleton, and gunshots from nearby firing ranges create the perfect mood for hanging around gravesites.

NecroSearch co-founder Clark Davenport supervises a handful of Colorado School of Mines students as they drag a couple of ground-penetrating radar units along the frozen earth. Normally, such equipment would be used to scout out environmental damage or find hidden pipe. But NecroSearch is taking readings of the ground before it buries more dead pigs. Then it will take yet more readings to see how the ground has changed since the bodies were buried.

"Radar will not find bodies," says Davenport. "End of story. But it can show you if the ground has been disturbed." Readings, however, will vary widely according to the type of soil. "If you want to find a buried pig in eastern Colorado, we're your people," cracks Davenport. "But if it's in Florida, forget it."

All this talk about pigs reminds Jack Swanburg that it was over ham and eggs one day in 1987 that he and Dick Hopkins, both with the crime lab at the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Department, and their friend Tom J. "Griff" Griffin, a blood-spatter expert in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's lab, played the age-old law-enforcement game called "Where's the Body?" (Griffin, true to his NecroSearch eye for details, can pinpoint the meeting to November 11, 1987, at the Denny's at Hampden and Wadsworth.)

The trio talked about the frustrations of finding clandestine graves and started putting together a list of experts who could be useful. Hiring outside help can be expensive, and law-enforcement agencies often are so turf-conscious that they don't want any help anyway, no matter how badly it's needed. As a result, contact between scientists and cops is often haphazard. But the three investigators figured there had to be some organized way to bring in outside brainstormers without bruising any egos.

They recalled how University of Colorado botanists Jane Bock and Dave Norris had looked at the stomach contents of a murder victim and discovered the presence of Mexican food, which turned out to be a key clue. And Griffin remembered that in 1986 a fellow named Clark Davenport had conducted a class on forensic geophysics for the CBI. Three weeks after the class, when Griffin found himself on the McCormick Ranch in eastern Colorado searching for bodies, he realized that somebody like Davenport would have been handy to have around.

At about the same time, Davenport himself was thinking that scientists should start sharing their knowledge. Watching a TV news item on sheriff's deputies futilely trying to find a deeply buried drum with ordinary metal detectors, the geophysicist realized he might be able to show them a better way. He offered his skills to local authorities.

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