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All That Remains

Bones can tell a story--and forensic anthropologist Diane France keeps digging for the truth.

The woman picked up the leg bone of Dr. Evgeny Botkin, the last physician for the last czar, and sniffed. Her Russian hosts couldn't have looked more shocked if she'd started gnawing on the royal femur of Czar Nicholas II, which lay near at hand.

Noticing their expressions, Diane France explained. She had seen adipocere--a whitish, soap-like substance that sometimes develops when a body decomposes under cool, damp conditions--on the bone. She was trying to determine the consistency of the adipocere and to detect if it had any odor. If she could smell something, then bloodhounds would easily pick up the scent.

To find any adipocere at all was amazing; for nearly eighty years the bone had been lying in a clandestine grave in the Ural Mountains of Russia along with those of the czar, the rest of the Romanov family and their servants, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Now all of the bones were laid out anatomically inside a small, bare room in the mortuary at Yekaterinburg, the city where the family had been held captive for months.

All of the bones, that is, except for those of two of the royal children. One of those missing was certainly the young son, nine-year-old Alexis. The other missing child, the Russians said, was nineteen-year-old Marie.

Using DNA comparisons with known relatives of the Romanov family, including Prince Phillip of England, American and British scientists had determined conclusively that the remains were those of the Romanovs. Now the Russians were planning a big state funeral for late July, the eightieth anniversary of the czar's murder, so they could lay to rest the Romanov family and close the casket lid on a dark night in their country's troubled history. And they hoped they might find the bones of the missing children in time to wrap up any loose ends.

The missing remains were the reason Diane France, a forensic anthropologist from Fort Collins, and Jim Reed, a geologist and computer whiz from Golden, had been invited to Russia this past February as representatives of the Colorado-based NecroSearch International, a collection of scientists and law-enforcement officers who voluntarily assist agencies in locating human remains. Peter Sarandinaki, who was coordinating the effort between the Americans and Russians, and Tony Falsetti, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida, had asked NecroSearch to join the project; they would meet up with Diane and Jim in Russia.

The trip from Colorado had begun with a bit of serendipity. The first stop in their journey was Helsinki, Finland, where Diane had spent time as an exchange student in high school. She and Jim Reed were walking through the downtown area when Reed spotted a poster for the feature presentation at a movie theater: the animated Anastasia, based loosely on the old legend that the youngest daughter of the czar had somehow escaped the slaughter. For years after the murders, various impostors had come forward claiming to be Anastasia and therefore heir to the Romanov possessions, and Hollywood had made its own fortune reviving the myth for each new generation of moviegoers.

Although fantasy, it seemed a good omen: Diane and Jim posed for a photograph in front of the theater.

Like the other members of NecroSearch, Diane was a volunteer. Considering her occupation, it was perhaps an odd choice of hobbies. She already saw plenty of murder and mayhem--had been literally and figuratively up to her elbows in its messy aftermath for years, both in her position as the director of the Human Identification Laboratory at Colorado State University and as a member of a federal team that responds to mass fatalities. Both jobs were interesting, important, all-consuming. Yet they left her wanting something more.

For distraction as much as anything else, Diane had started a small business that makes casts of bones and other mammalian anatomy for courts, colleges and museums. There was nothing more effective at taking your mind off the "goopiness" of violent death, as she sometimes called it, than piecing together a gorilla skeleton or slathering elastic dental molding on the tongue of a living tiger to make a cast.

NecroSearch offered another sort of release: the chance to work as a detective. With her official police work, she rarely learned what became of a case. With NecroSearch, she could work with a team of specialists from a wide range of fields, study remains and maybe, just maybe, give some closure to a person's survivors.

So Diane jumped at the chance to go to Russia. After all, few murder mysteries have more historical intrigue than the story of what really happened to the Romanov family that night.

The purpose of this initial trip, however, was to meet with Falsetti, Sarandinaki and the Russians and work out logistics. NecroSearch doesn't charge for its members' time or skills, but it does ask that transportation and lodging be covered. And in this case, there were also security concerns, as demonstrated by the presence of the armed soldiers who stood guard 24 hours a day outside the room in which the bones lay.

Russia in February was just what Diane expected: cold and bleak. After landing, they'd grabbed a few hours' sleep before meeting in the hotel lobby for the ride to the mortuary. Later they were to drive to the woods where the bones had been discovered in the mid-1970s, beneath railroad timbers in the middle of a rarely used dirt road. But first, the bones.

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