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.
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.
In June 1988, Swanburg and friends held their first official meeting. One of Davenport's sons had coined the logical name "NecroSearch" for the group. Since brainstorming was a priority, they agreed that everyone would be on a first-name basis at NecroSearch and everybody could question everybody else without fear of anyone, scientist or cop, trying to pull rank. And they decided not just to share knowledge, but also to add to the available data. In order to experiment with techniques that each of the disciplines would offer, they settled on burying pigs as a research tool. (Human cadavers would have been better, Swanburg notes, but there would have been a "mindset" against using them.) That same month, the group got permission from the Arapahoe and Douglas county sheriffs to stake out some land at the Highlands Ranch Law Enforcement Training Facility, and the PIG project was born.
Today the group is incorporated as NecroSearch International Ltd., and its members flash business cards featuring a drawing of the skeleton of one of Hannibal's soldiers. It's still a nonprofit venture, and members volunteer their time. Unlike, say, the Ghostbusters, they wear no official NecroSearch uniform, and there's no NecroSearch jet to whisk them from crime scene to crime scene. As forensic anthropologist Diane France notes, "We don't even have our own NecroSearch metal detector."
But they do have an increasing number of requests from law-enforcement agencies.
NecroSearch has consulted on cases in 27 states and at least half a dozen foreign countries. Some of its thirty members have worked on highly publicized local murder cases, such as those of Cher Elder (they helped on the successful search for her body) and Heather Dawn Church (they found the rest of her bones after the skull was recovered). Al Nelson and Jerry Nichols, the handlers of regionally famous cadaver dogs Yogi and Amy, are members. And in a recent case bizarre enough to attract the national press, police in Joliet, Illinois, called NecroSearch to help determine whether a muckraking journalist named Molly Zelko, who disappeared 35 years ago, is buried under a sidewalk.
Last May the Secret Service took Davenport and archaeologist Steve Ireland along on a missing-person case in southern Virginia. Spanish officials have called the group for advice on finding avalanche victims.
Several members also teach search techniques to law officers. Davenport teaches classes to the FBI at Quantico, Virginia. France lectures at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Locally, members will conduct a seminar for law-enforcement agencies later this month called "Remains to Be Seen."
The group meets once a month to kick around ideas and consider requests for help. They take on new members only if the recruits can offer something unique, and they act only on the invitation of law-enforcement agencies. If they think they can be of use, they assign one of their members as case officer, and that person picks others for the team whose skills would be particularly useful. Sometimes they wind up simply giving advice over the phone. They might suggest aerial photos or analyze ones that have already been taken.
Often, though, they go out into the field. A botanist might be able to pinpoint body locations based on what vegetation looks new or different. When a geophysicist needs to peer underground without disturbing potential evidence, he sometimes hauls radar gear--borrowed, begged or rented--to a site. Inexperienced or overwhelmed law officers often are too eager to bring in bulldozers or backhoes to root around for bodies; archaeologists can help them systematically map out a site, organize volunteers and carefully dig up remains, thereby preserving for trial such evidence as shovel marks at a gravesite.
Each case poses a different set of problems--and possible solutions.
"It goes everywhere from high-tech to incredibly low-tech," says France, who heads the Colorado State University Laboratory for Human Identification. "We go from FLIR systems--forward-looking infrared--and ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetics, all that really fancy stuff, clear down to using cadaver dogs and just looking to see what looks out of place. You know, if it just looks weird, maybe it's a place we want to investigate. If it looks different from the surroundings, why is it different?"
When NecroSearch is on the job, the members strongly believe they're performing a public service. And they really can't lose. Often they're called in when cops have exhausted all other avenues. Even if they find nothing, they probably have helped investigators by eliminating possible search areas. And at least families of victims will know that a good-faith effort has been made.
France recalls one NecroSearch mission in 1993 to Kimball, Nebraska, to look for a man who allegedly had been stuffed into a rathole at an oil-well site 25 years before. Two long, cold days of searching didn't yield a body. But a hug of thanks from the twin brother of the missing man left her in tears.
Last September Davenport took some radar gear to Arizona and helped pinpoint the clandestine grave of Diane Keidel, a suspected murder victim who possibly had been buried 28 years before. The case had come back to life when the victim's daughter accused her dad of having done the crime. After conducting and interpreting his scan of likely burial sites with ground-penetrating radar, the geophysicist returned to his home in suburban Denver. A few days later, the word came: The body had been found at one of the places he'd identified.
Helping find Diane Keidel was rewarding, says Davenport. "But there was no great joy," he adds. "There's no statute of limitations for murder, but there's also no statute of limitations for grief."
The horrific nature of the work is sometimes countered with gallows humor, typical behavior for people who work with the dead. NecroSearch scientists joke about turning their graduate students into "undergrads," and they can't seem to stop punning.
And then, of course, there's the brainstorming. NecroSearch's egalitarian approach to problem-solving can be exhilarating. "This just satisfies every craving that a person could possibly have to try to solve puzzles and try to explore," says France. "It's just free rein for exploration."
Davenport calls it "the most synergistic group I've ever been associated with." Ireland likes the work so much that he devotes his annual leave to NecroSearch.
"I'm a cop, so I work with cops all the time," explains Swanburg. "And Diane's an anthropologist, and she's working with anthropologists all the time. Each of us is working with people that think the same ways. Now we have an opportunity to reach out and pick the brains of people in twenty other disciplines. It can't do anything but broaden your own views on life, let alone help us reach our goal, which, of course, is finding bodies." Like other people in law enforcement, Swanburg has seen cases suffer because of petty rivalries. But in NecroSearch, he says, "There are no indications--at least I haven't seen it--of any jealousies."
Of course, NecroSearch's volunteers aren't the only outside experts helping law enforcement. It's odd, however, that all these experts around the country seem to have a hard time finding one another--and so far, NecroSearch is the only large, organized investigative collective in the country.
James S. Mellett, a geologist at New York University, is in the process of putting together a similar team for the East Coast. "We have a core group in the New York area," he says. A handy fellow with radar equipment of his own, Mellett hires out as Subsurface Consulting Ltd. "If you're a scientist," he adds, "you do detective work all the time."
Mellett has also used his expertise to survey historical cemeteries--that's how he discovered a new use for his profession's tools. But on a much grimmer case, his skills coincided nicely with a bit of serendipity. All searchers know that you can make your own luck.
In the late Eighties he was called in on the case of a Maryland boy who had been missing for eight years. The area where a hidden grave was suspected to be was impossibly huge. Mellett recalls scouting the terrain with the local police and concentrating first on eliminating sites. The suspected murderer wouldn't have chosen a bramble patch in which to dig. He wouldn't have dug too close to a creekbed, for fear that water would wash up the body. He couldn't have dug where there were extensive tree roots. The searchers eventually narrowed the area from 26 acres to one acre, and Mellett started setting up his radar equipment.
"I was demonstrating how it worked to some police recruits who were along," he recalls, "and I saw a depression in the ground. I needed to calibrate my instrument, so I went over it. And there was the body! I found it on my calibration run."
Typical for searchers, Mellett's thrill of discovery was tempered by reality. "You get satisfaction, but not enjoyment," he says. "The family of the boy had left their back-porch light on for him every night for eight years and had set a place for him at dinner every night, hoping he would come home."
Some families take disappearances even harder. Michele Wallace, a freelance photographer who left her home in Chicago to go to college in Utah and then landed in Gunnison, was always on the go. But she talked with her mom, Maggie, at least once a week no matter where she was.
As Labor Day of 1974 approached, the Wallace family was cruising along. "The wife and I had a very, very successful business going--a pizzeria--and everything was roses," says George. "Michele had just gotten an assignment to do some work out in the Carolinas, to shoot these mountain people. A road was going to be built, and all these backwoodsmen would cease to exist. So she had this grant, and she was going to work on it. She was going to go off in the mountains of Colorado once more before going. We expected to talk to her just after Labor Day."
There was little reason to worry about Michele. "She had a guard dog," recalls George, "and she was a tough little cookie. She climbed mountains, jumped out of airplanes and roped cattle. If you knew a boy who did half of what she did, you'd say, `What a guy!'"
But Michele never called that Labor Day weekend, and her mother quickly reported her missing. Searchers spent thousands of hours scouring the backcountry above Gunnison. No luck. Less than two weeks after she disappeared, police in eastern Colorado stopped her car; it was being driven by drifter Roy Melanson, who was wanted on a rape charge in Texas. Melanson was connected by pawn tickets to Michele's gear, and when her film was developed, he showed up on the last frame she'd shot. He finally admitted that he had taken her belongings but insisted he had dropped her off at a bar.
Police were skeptical, but they had no body. The authorities eventually shipped Melanson off to Texas.
Wallace, wife Maggie and their son, George Jr., were numb. "One minute, God was good and the next minute, you ask why," recalls George Sr. "Life was an adventure for Michele, and she was sweet and kind. And she met, all her life, nothing but nice people. Until she met this bastard."
Maggie Wallace couldn't take it. She and Michele had had "a certain closeness," says George. "And something in my wife evaporated. About five weeks later, she took her own life. She knew Michele was gone. My wife held on that long in hopes that we would find Michele's remains."
In her suicide note, Maggie Wallace asked that Michele's remains be found and then buried next to hers.
"She gave up hope," says George, "yet she had a wish that something would happen."
He starts crying as he explains this, then apologizes. "You'd think after twenty years you get calloused, but you don't," George Wallace says. "One month I had a wife and daughter, the next month I had neither. I had the restaurant, but without the two girls everything was out of it. You figure, what the hell, your life is over anyway. And that's when I met Melba. Most guys can't find one good woman. I happened to find two of the best."
Melba, a widow, and George hit it off, got married and decided to leave Chicago for south Florida. And George's life took on a new meaning.
"My second wife taught me about true love," he says. "You hear people say if you go 50-50, you'll have a good relationship. I was never a real giver, even though I loved my wife Maggie with all my heart. But Melba was 100 percent. No matter what it was, she was giving so much. You say to yourself, `How can I accept things like this?' And then you say, `I've got to be a better person.'"
Michele and Maggie remained part of George's life. Melba made sure of that by putting Michele's photo in her wallet.
"Melba carried her picture every day," George says. "Yeah, she did. It's just like we were all united. She loved my first wife and Michele. It was just a continuation."
The Gunnison County sheriff's office hadn't forgotten Michele, either. A woman named Kathy Young had fallen in love with the area, taking a job first as dogcatcher and then as police dispatcher. She got hooked on police work and in 1989 was made an investigator with the sheriff's office. She decided to take another look at the Wallace case.
Sifting through the boxes of evidence, Young came across a hairbrush collected from Michele's apartment. She noted that in 1979, some hikers had found a human scalp with pigtails on a logging road near Kebler Pass. The sheriff's office, speculating at the time that it might have been from Michele Wallace, had conducted another fruitless search, then stored the scalp with the rest of the material from her case.
Young decided to send the scalp and the hairbrush to the CBI, which determined that the hairs from the brush were a probable match to the scalp. She got deeper into the case. Roy Melanson had been imprisoned in Texas, then released, then imprisoned again in Kentucky. Young talked to Melanson, and she spoke with other inmates who said Melanson bragged about burying "an unwilling woman" in Colorado.
Authorities still had no body, but they had what they now felt was a strong circumstantial case. They charged Melanson with murder. He fought extradition, pointing out to a judge in Gunnison that there was no "corpus delicti."
Then the CBI lab worker who had tested the hair samples told Young about NecroSearch and put her in touch with Jack Swanburg. She went to Denver in October 1991 to present her case to the team.
"I really never believed we'd find anything--we'd already served him with an arrest warrant," Young says. "It was a respectful thing to show the family that we had exhausted all possibilities."
The scalp was examined by NecroSearch's Vicki Trammell, a botanist. Naturalist Cecilia Travis, also a NecroSearch volunteer, recalls that "most of the conifer needles found in the hair were associated with what grows on a north slope."
Any large-scale searching would have to wait until the winter passed, though. In August 1992, three NecroSearch members--Ireland, France and Travis--drove to Gunnison, joined by some of France's graduate students. Together with Young, other sheriff's officers and volunteers from nearby law-enforcement agencies, they embarked on an intensive search centered on where the scalp had been discovered. They found nothing on the first day. On the afternoon of the second day, still coming up empty, the team stopped for a breather.
"It was my feeling," Young recalls, "that we should go back. But Cecilia just wandered down aways, and there it was. The skull. It was lying there, a gold tooth twinkling in the sun."
"Yes," says Travis, "I was in the right place, but I was there based on what Kathy had told us about Melanson--that he likely had just dumped the body."
In a phone call to Swanburg, Young's first word was "Eureka!" Ireland, who hungers after NecroSearch fieldwork as an antidote to his deskbound managerial chores for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, remembers the jubilation. But he also recalls the "pretty sober" mood of the search-team members as they rode back to civilization later that day. Thanks to Young's exhaustive digging into the case, the searchers had come to know Michele Wallace well. This was more than a puzzle; she was more than a cranium.
"It's a very emotional time," France says. "It's a bad emotional time, and it's also just an incredible great time. There are just such extremes--highs and lows."
And the work that lay in front of them over the next few days was both exciting and depressing: a meticulous sifting, on hands and knees, along a 40-degree slope between the skull and the logging road, to search for other remains. A surveyor was called in to help plot out a grid, and the team, tethered together for safety, carefully recovered what was left of Michele Wallace. Among other things eventually found were buttons, orange thread, a boot with bones in it. The team could not determine how she had died.
Kathy Young still can hardly believe how much they found. "I think about if I had found the cranium alone," she says. "I wouldn't have recovered as many remains." And each piece would fit together well for the prosecution.
Young remembers Roy Melanson's reaction in court when he heard that Michele Wallace had been found: "His hands started to shake, he sneered or smirked and then he just stared at me."
"After weeks and weeks and months and years, you give up all hope," George Wallace says. "I never believed that she would be found. Never."
His emotions were wildly jumbled, and still are. He had already mourned Michele two decades ago; now it hit him again. And, of course, he thought of Maggie, whose final wish he was finally able to grant. "Those people are wonderful," he says of Young and NecroSearch. "Even though it takes a lot of time to acccept, it does bring closure. And I know her mother's happy."
Wallace couldn't control his emotions during Melanson's trial, but the prosecutors told him his grief made a powerful impression--as did the collected remains of his daughter.
"Some of the jurors commented that those made Michele very real to them," says Young.
Melanson was convicted, labeled by the judge a "waste of humanity" and sentenced in late 1993 to life in prison. The case is on appeal. But Melanson's term probably won't start until sometime after the turn of the century, when he gets out of prison in Kentucky.
In the meantime, George Wallace found himself again reeling from a double dose of tragedy. Melba, who had been ill for a number of years, died in January 1994, a few months after Melanson was sentenced.
Life, George says, had unexpectedly come "full circle." One week in early 1994 drove the point home.
"It was the day I went to the undertaker to make arrangements to get my wife picked up from the hospital," he recalls. "And within one hour, the phone rang. I was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, feeling sorry for myself. And it was Gunnison, saying they were shipping my daughter's remains. I told them, `How many times do you talk to an undertaker? This is two in an hour.'
"At the end of the week, the doorbell rang, and a messenger signed over a package to me. It was my daughter's remains. In my hands after all these years. The same day, the undertaker from here says to pick up my wife's remains.
"Same daughter, different wife. It's hard.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.