All That Remains | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

All That Remains

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...
Share this:
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.

Diane replaced the doctor's femur. Although she hadn't detected an odor, the cadaver dogs used by NecroSearch, specially trained to sense decomposing human flesh, still might be able to do so. That was a possibility to discuss with the group when she got back. And the adipocere might hold other clues, clues that could determine the chances of finding the other remains.

She walked over to the glass case that held the bones her hosts claimed were those of Anastasia, who'd just turned seventeen in 1918.

Diane took off her wire-rimmed glasses and picked up the skull. Only the skullcap, down to the ridge that forms the eyebrows, had survived intact; the rest had been reconstructed from dozens of bone fragments. After a moment, her polite curiosity turned to concern. The teeth didn't seem quite right for Anastasia's age.

Diane looked quickly at the growth plates of the bones. Only a few were still growing; the rest had mostly finished their growth phase--which was more consistent with an older, nearly adult, female. But she didn't say anything until she could pull Reed and Falsetti aside, away from the Russians.

"I'm not convinced that this is Anastasia," she said quietly. "Do you think this could be Marie?"

Tony replied that Bill Maples, an American forensic anthropologist who had looked at the remains years before, had also suggested they could belong to Marie. But the Russians had insisted their experts had concluded the bones were Anastasia's. Tony agreed with Diane: While the characteristics were not entirely outside the range of those for a seventeen-year-old girl, the bones in the morgue might well be nineteen-year-old Marie's.

The Americans were in a quandary. Their mission was not to question the identification of the Romanovs; they were there to work out a deal to find the remains of two missing children. They had been shown the bones only as a courtesy. Still, they were scientists...

They decided to keep quiet for the time being. Although it didn't seem likely to Diane, the Russians and their experts might be right. If not, and if NecroSearch could locate the bones of Alexis and the missing sister, they'd stand a better chance of proving Diane's theory.

"Okay," Diane said, "as long as we don't have to sign anything that says these are the remains of Anastasia to the exclusion of Marie."

The plan worked fine--until the next day, when they met with the Russians to work out a memorandum of agreement. The Russians would pay NecroSearch's expenses and provide security; all Diane France and Jim Reed had to do was sign on the dotted line that NecroSearch would provide equipment and expertise in the search for the remains. But the Russians' contract began with these words: "This is a memorandum of agreement between Obretenyie Foundation, the University of Florida and NecroSearch International to search for and identify the remains of Alexis and Marie."

France, Reed and Falsetti looked at each other. "We cannot sign the document the way it is written," Diane said. "We are not convinced that the remains are those of Anastasia."

One of the Russians turned beet-red and began to berate her. Looking outside the window, Diane thought the wind-blown, snowy landscape looked a lot like home.

It was a long way from Yekaterinburg--where Diane France, all five feet, four inches and 110 pounds of her, faced an apoplectic Russian--to Walden, Colorado.

David France had just finished his residency in Grand Junction when he was offered the job as Walden's town doctor in 1954; Diane was a few months old. After the family moved to Walden, David's wife, Dolores, bore another child, Michael. Eventually she went to work as her husband's lab technician and receptionist.

For a girl like Diane, Walden was heaven. The town was set in a nearly treeless expanse of sagebrush and rolling pastures, framed at its outside edges by snow-capped peaks. As an adult, she'd describe the bare-bones ranching community as looking like "that town in the television show Bonanza...except the main street was paved." It was so small that whenever Dr. France was out of town or unavailable, the local veterinarian, Jim Pitcher, handled the community's stitches and broken bones. And when Dr. Pitcher was absent, Diane's father looked after its pets, even sewing up the neighbor's dogs on the office front lawn.

A five-minute walk from anyplace in town and Diane was in the country. As she walked, her eyes were often on the ground, looking for anything interesting. Her room was full of treasures she picked up on her walks--a deer antler, rocks and bones.

Often she took the microscope from her father's office on her journeys--stopping to examine the tiniest flora and fauna. Why and how things were put together fascinated her; she was particularly interested in a plastic skeleton that hung in her father's office.

But although Diane's father was a doctor and the county coroner as well, she was shielded from the harsher aspects of his career. What she knew of violence were the stories the townspeople told: for example, how her father stitched up the heads of rowdies over at the local saloon, where it seemed the bartender thought the best way to break up a fight was to club the antagonists with a whiskey bottle. She remembered vividly the worried neighbors banging on the Frances' door at all hours. Doctor France, my father shot himself...Doctor France, something's wrong...can you come right away? Her father would grab his medical bag and rush off into the night. But her only clues as to what happened after that came through the town grapevine.

As an adult, she could recall only one childhood memory about death. It was the day her father lost his first patient. She wasn't told much, just that one of Dad's patients had died and that they all needed to give him some time to adjust. But she would always remember how hard her father took it. He did nothing much the next day except sit in his easy chair and read a book.

Diane's parents, noting her predilection for science, thought she might want to pursue a career in medicine. She didn't. Diane was a big fan of the Jacques Cousteau television shows, and in 1972 she went to Colorado State University, intending to become a marine biologist.

A small-town girl at a large university, she wasted much of her first months at CSU partying. She was beginning to wonder what she was doing in college at all when she signed up for a course in forensic anthropology taught by a colorful, irascible professor named Michael Charney. Physical anthropology is the study of the biology of humans and relatives; forensic anthropology is the application of scientific techniques to the law.

Diane would always think of Charney, who sported a walrus mustache beneath which a pipe seemed permanently attached, as the ultimate teacher. At any hour--it didn't matter if it was a weekend or a holiday, morning or evening--he would open the campus lab for any students who wanted to study. Then he would wait patiently in his office in case they had questions. He taught students to be meticulous about metric analysis. Measurements of bones or living bodies had to be exact and just as exactly recorded. If you were sloppy about the measurements, you were sloppy about science, and that was not acceptable.

The measurements had to be exact, but Charney's stories were much looser. Part of his charm was his ability to weave tales around the bones. "This," he'd say, holding up a skull, "was a woman who was shot in the back of the head by her husband as her lover was climbing out the bedroom window."

His account wasn't even close to the actual facts of the case. But Charney's stories were much more fascinating than the truth. And if he exaggerated or even fabricated a tale, the effect was to impress upon his students that bones represented what had once been flesh and blood--a person who had walked, laughed and dreamed.

The bones themselves told stories, he told students, if you knew how to read them. A careful observer could tell if the person had lived a good life or a poor one, was well-fed and healthy or plagued by disease. The bones bore the scars of falls and wounds. From them, a forensic anthropologist could determine sex and, to a reasonable degree, such vital statistics as the height and the age of the deceased.

The bones could assist with the identification of their owner through matching dental charts or medical records and by providing a structure onto which the anthropologist could add clay to mold an accurate re-creation of that person's face. Even incomplete and lacking flesh, the bones might leave clues as to how their owner died...even point a phalanx at a killer.

But whatever a forensic anthropologist might have to do to bones--disinter them, cut them, boil them--they were to be treated with dignity. "This," Charney would say, holding up a specimen, "was once part of a living person, like you and me. He was loved by a mother and father and loved his children."

Diane's parents were surprised when she announced she was changing her major to anthropology so that she could become a forensic anthropologist. "You'll never make a living," they told her, worried.

But Diane didn't care. She and a fellow student, Mike Gear, were obsessed with bones. They'd study and argue over them for hours. In the early Seventies, they were the students who most often called upon Charney to open the lab at odd hours.

Diane and Mike finished their bachelor degrees together and launched right into graduate studies under Charney. Their friendly competition escalated into making crazy bets over the identity of the smallest pieces of bone. Once they wagered a steak dinner at the best restaurant in Phoenix that neither could really afford over the identification of a pea-sized fragment. Diane won, correctly stating it was a broken pisiform, a tiny bone found in the wrist. Mike paid off.

It wasn't all fun and games, though. As Charney's graduate students, Diane and Mike found themselves working in the university's Human Identification Laboratory. Charney was the lab's director.

The secure laboratory was a place where coroners, police officers and medical examiners could bring remains for identification. They could turn out to be anything from deer bones to the bones of murder victims; Charney was often called upon to testify in court regarding the lab's findings.

It was at the lab that Diane first experienced the "goopiness" of her chosen field.

Early one August afternoon in the late Seventies, Charney walked in with a biohazard bag containing the head of a young woman. She had been found murdered, her body covered with brush, near Estes Park. A hand was missing, presumably carried off by a coyote, and the body was badly decomposed after remaining hidden for what Charney estimated to have been six weeks during the hottest months of the summer.

Charney told Diane and another graduate student, John, to remove what remained of the flesh from the skull so that he could reconstruct the face in an attempt to help police identify the woman. He then walked out of the room, leaving Diane and John looking from each other to the bag. Until then, they'd mostly dealt with dry bones with little or no flesh on them.

This bag smelled.
There were several ways to go about their task. One was to place the head in a dark, dry, warm box filled with dermestid beetles, which would strip it down to the bone. But the beetles don't like remains that are still too goopy. In this case, they might not do the job.

Diane and John settled on using a large pot and hot plate and putting the head in very hot water. The plan was to go in every so often, remove the head and pick off the flesh, strain the water into a special sink and then repeat the process.

Their first shock came when they opened the bag. It was so full of maggots that the larvae were out and crawling up the students' arms before they could grab the head and close the bag again. Repulsed, Diane brushed the maggots off her arms and fought a desire to run out and, perhaps, change her major.

Finally they got the head in the pot. At one point in the rather slow and tedious process, Diane went off to class. When she returned, it was to the scent of something cooking. The air in the hallways of the building where the lab was housed smelled like...pot roast.

As she drew closer to the laboratory, though, the aroma changed to one of decomposition. Although it wouldn't be discovered until several years later, the fans that were supposed to carry fumes from the Human Identification Laboratory weren't properly installed. While the hood fan in the laboratory worked just fine, taking fumes to a point halfway out of the building, the fan designed to finish the job had been installed backward--it was blowing the fumes back and into the hallways.

But even recognizing the smell for what it was didn't prepare Diane for the scene behind the door. She slipped into the laboratory and found John furiously mopping at an inch of dirty water on the floor. A lit cigar hung out of his mouth.

The sink, which was full of plaster from another project, had clogged and overflowed. The floor was covered with foul water, necrotic tissue and dead maggots.The stench was horrible. The cigar was supposed to cover the smell, John said.

Diane thought the cigar only made things worse. She was disgusted, but she grabbed a mop and started to help with the cleanup.

Every so often, they took a break and went into the hallway to catch a breath of fresher air. That's how they learned that the guys from the building maintenance crew were running around, trying to figure out the source of a foul-smelling liquid that was oozing down the walls of an office one floor below. It just happened to be the office of the dean of the College of Social Sciences.

The maintenance crew thought it must have been from a backed-up toilet. Diane and John took a deep breath and headed back inside the lab to finish cleaning up their little secret.

Diane thought it was incongruous--maybe even a little unfair--that what from afar smelled comfortably like home cooking was actually decomposing human tissue in a pot of hot water. And those were the most pleasant of her thoughts as she continued mopping.

She found herself wanting to ask questions of the dead woman. Who are you? Where did you come from? What were your last moments like? Did you suffer?

There were no answers, and probably never would be.

In 1979, Diane went to the University of Colorado in Boulder to pursue her Ph.D. in anthropology--and put her ability to deal with death to another test.

One day her class was dissecting the corpse of an old woman who'd donated her body to education. The students started with the woman on her stomach, so they could do the dissection of her back. Months later, when the rest of the body had been dissected, they rolled her over to work on her face. As they uncovered the head, Diane stepped back. She'd just discovered what so many others who deal with death know: It's the face that poignantly identifies a body as a person. She paused to collect herself only for a moment, then went right back to work.

Diane received her Ph.D. in 1983. By now she was already being recognized for her work and had been invited to join the American Academy of Forensic Anthropology, which consisted of the top people in the field. She returned to CSU as an affiliate assistant professor and soon was offered the unpaid position of director of the Human Identification Laboratory. (Charney had officially retired in 1977, though he continued to teach as a professor emeritus.)

There had been many changes in forensic anthropology since Diane and her classmate had dealt with that first head. For one thing, all biological material was now collected and returned to the coroner, where it was disposed of according to biohazard regulations.

Other changes were much more far-reaching. Technology had made incredible strides. X-rays could be used to compare antemortem and postmortem characteristics in bones; a cross-section of bone could give the age of the deceased. Photographic superimposition was another technological marvel. The technique involved using photographs taken while the victim was alive and, through the magic of video, superimposing the images over a skull to see whether the general outline of the head and eye sockets, nasal passages, earholes and teeth lined up.

Although the layperson might not see much to differentiate one skull from another--other than, say, the size difference between an adult skull and that of a child--to the trained eye they are as different as a birch tree and an oak. To understand how, all you have to do is look at different faces on the street. Still, even under the best circumstances--a good selection of clear photographs, an undamaged skull--there was a 10 percent margin of error. The best use of the technology, Diane believed, was to eliminate someone from consideration. To make a positive identification based solely on superimposition was usually irresponsible.

Forensic science in general and anthropology in particular were gaining more widespread acceptance with law-enforcement agencies. As a result, forensic anthropology was changing the way police excavated bodies of homicide victims. In the past, gravesites had been excavated with backhoes and shovels, often damaging the remains and destroying or altering potentially crucial evidence. Police had argued that they didn't have time to be careful; taking two or three days to get a body out of the ground might allow a suspect to skip town. But anthropologists, including Diane France, had countered that taking time could be the difference between a conviction or acquittal.

And so modified archaeological techniques, like those used to excavate human remains of an ancient civilization, were developed for use at crime scenes. Test holes were drilled in suspected graves to reveal the presence of decomposition through odor or to find other evidence, such as adipocere. Grids, often strings tied to stakes, were set up over the grave so that investigators would know where every speck of dirt or piece of evidence came from. Instead of bulldozers and shovels, whisk brooms and bamboo picks were employed so as not to disturb the remains or nick bones.

These new methods allowed anthropologists to retain contextual and locational information without adding any "artifacts" to the bone, such as scratches, that could be misinterpreted.

Diane France put many of these techniques to work after an explosion shook a natural-gas plant in Glenwood Springs in December 1985. Firefighters who responded to the scene were told to search for twelve victims thought to be in the building, many of whom had been fragmented by the blast or burned beyond recognition.

The coroner asked Diane to help. She arrived just as the Colorado Body Identification Team--a volunteer, multi-disciplinary group including fingerprint experts, odontologists and photographers that is the first-response team for a mass fatality--was leaving. Its members had identified seven of the victims through fingerprints and dental records. But the rest of the bodies didn't have those kinds of identifying markers anymore; a forensic anthropologist was needed to find different kinds of clues. The team wished Diane luck and left.

She found herself alone in the morgue, which was located in the basement of the Glenwood Springs hospital. Even the coroner had excused himself and retreated upstairs to work on his other cases.

Diane looked around. The morgue was very clean, cool, white. The remains were in body bags in a walk-in cooler. It was as still as only death can be.

She felt overwhelmed by the fragility of life--the lives of the victims, the lives of those who had survived. Glenwood Springs is a small town, and the death of a dozen people had affected nearly everyone. It was just a couple of days before Christmas, and these bodies belonged to families looking forward to a joyous holiday. She worried about the firefighters who had to recover the remains of people who were surely acquaintances, maybe friends. And she wondered how she would deal with the tragedy in her own mind.

By now, Diane had learned to deal with the physical aspects of violent death. Maggots no longer bothered her. Even the goopiness of piecing together shattered, decomposing human bodies was manageable. But no one had ever taught her how to deal with the emotions of identifying someone who had been ripped suddenly from life.

Standing alone in the morgue, she knew she had to find a way to steel herself--the families were waiting for their loved ones. She could only think of one way. She visualized dividing her thoughts in two: one for emotions, the second for science. Then she pictured a small cardboard box with a lid. Into that box she poured all the emotions. She closed the lid and tied the box shut with a ribbon. Then she placed it on a shelf she built in her mind. I'll deal with the box later, she told herself, when I have time to sit down and examine what I'm feeling.

The tactic worked. Diane's scientist side was able to get back to the job. One by one, she retrieved the body bags from the cooler. The first thing she had to do was conduct an inventory and see what body parts were there to help her determine sex, age, stature, ancestry. She looked for previously broken bones, whatever might make that person different from someone else. Then she compared what she'd learned to the list of probable victims.

Every half hour, or so it seemed, the coroner called. "I don't want to rush you, but when do you think you'll have answers?" he asked. The families were getting anxious.

But there was no rushing Diane. She was meticulous. These people whose remains she'd been entrusted to identify demanded that she be right--that she speak for them.

Nearly two days later, she finished. When at last she walked out of the building to head home, she was exhausted. She needed some peace.

Diane got down on her hands and knees to sniff at the hole she and archaeologist Steve Ireland had drilled into a slight depression on a wooded slope outside Empire. Then she drew back. It didn't take a bloodhound to recognize the unmistakable odor of decomposition. She thought it smelled human.

It was February 1995. Cher Elder had been missing and presumed dead for two years. Now the presumption was that they'd found her, although that still had to be proven.

The Lakewood detective who'd spent those two years trying to find Cher's body and bring the man he suspected of killing her, Tom Luther, to justice sat on a rock behind them, still as a statue. Scott Richardson's arms were crossed, his head turned up and eyes open to the heavens.

"I can't say for sure, but I think something is decomposing under here," Diane said.

Richardson didn't move. Not so much as a twitch in a facial muscle. She had to look twice just to see that he was breathing.

Diane and Ireland looked at each other, then went back to drilling the hole a little deeper. They struck adipocere. Likely human, Diane said.

Richardson didn't respond at first. Then he quietly asked, "What's next?"
Noting that it was already late afternoon and most of the narrow mountain valley was in shadow, Diane replied: "Well, it's up to you. But we should probably come back tomorrow. We're going to need to set up a grid and start excavating, and you'll need evidence technicians."

Richardson jumped off the rock and walked over to look down at the hole they'd drilled.

Since shortly after Cher had disappeared in March 1993--she'd last been seen in Central City--the detective had believed she was buried somewhere in the area ("Ladies' Man," December 13, 1995). With a large, rugged area to cover, Richardson approached NecroSearch for help locating the grave; Steve Ireland and Diane France had been appointed to lead the group's involvement.

Since then, many people from NecroSearch had scoured the valley, even gone through every last bit of sludge from Empire's sewage treatment plant. And they'd followed rumors around other parts of the state. But they'd hit nothing but dry holes.

Ireland, in particular, had begun to razz Richardson about writing a travel brochure--they'd seen so much of the countryside. But they were all aware of the toll the case had taken on the detective, who'd spent thousands of his own hours chasing leads. They knew how much he wanted to give Cher, whose picture hung on his office wall, back to her family.

Late the night before, Ireland had called Diane to say that Richardson wanted them to try again. "He wants to know if we're game," Ireland chuckled.

"I just can't tomorrow," Diane replied. She was busy trying to catch up on her official business.

"Yeah, I know. It's tough for me, too," Ireland said. "But he says this time it's for real, and we really need to do this."

Diane sighed but said she'd go. After all, this was her case, too. After the Glenwood Springs explosion, she'd been invited to join the Colorado Body Identification Team. There had been other honors: In 1989, she was certified as an expert in forensic anthropology by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, the certifying agency recognized by the academy; in 1991 she was elected to the board of directors for a six-year term.

Among those on the Colorado Body Identification Team was Jack Swanburg, a co-founder of NecroSearch. Soon after NecroSearch was formed--and working under the name "Project PIG" (Pigs in Ground)--Diane had been asked to participate. Swanburg had asked Colorado College anthropology professor Mike Hoffman if he'd be interested in joining the new group; Hoffman, whose department was moving, said he was swamped but suggested Diane France. "She's new and she's good," he said. Swanburg already knew her reputation and agreed, extending the invitation in 1988.

The eclectic group of scientists and cops, both past and present, had banded together after Colorado Bureau of Investigation criminalist Tom Griffin watched bulldozers tear through the scene of a triple homicide in Kit Carson County. He figured there had to be a better way, and met over breakfast with Swanburg and fellow criminalist Dick Hopkins of the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office to brainstorm over what that way might be. Specifically, what sorts of scientific disciplines might prove useful to law enforcement in finding and properly exhuming clandestine graves and human remains?

For their second meeting, they also invited geophysicist G. Clark Davenport. Since 1985, he had been talking to law-enforcement agencies about using remote sensing equipment normally associated with oil and mineral exploration to look for disruptions below the ground that might indicate a grave. The men ticked off other possibilities. Some fields, like entomology, botany and anthropology, had already proved their worth in murder investigations. Others, such as thermal imaging and geophysics, were still in their forensic infancy.

They came up with the idea of burying pigs--their hair-to-skin ratio, fat chemical composition and skin characteristics are similar to those of humans--and invited experts from Colorado colleges and businesses, as well as law-enforcement officials, to participate in a multi-disciplinary study of the graves. As the experiment progressed, they added other specialties such as cadaver dogs, aerial photography and, after two pig carcasses disappeared, a wildlife biologist to study the effects of scavengers.

The PIG group presented its findings in May 1989 at a conference of the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification, which sponsored the Colorado Body Identification Team. PIG's presentation--attended by more than 150 representatives of police agencies around Colorado, as well as half a dozen FBI officials--was humorously titled "Le Cochon Connection." In her segment, Diane France discussed human-identification techniques in the recovery of body and evidence; like the rest of the report, her section was well-received.

Diane found her PIG colleagues a fun group to work with. They took their science and their mission seriously, but little else. Two of the pigs, they informed her, had committed "sooey-cide"; another was "Dr. Keporkian." To replicate how killers might bury their victims in a real homicide, the pigs were buried dressed in clothes or rolled up in carpets and shower curtains--which meant that one just had to be entombed beneath a sign labeled "Pig in a Blanket."

Their humor helped give Diane a new perspective on her work. But what really attracted her to PIG (which later changed its name to NecroSearch) was the members' intention to eventually apply what they'd learned and their "many heads are better than one" approach to real homicide cases.

The group didn't always find bodies--but NecroSearch didn't measure success that way. Sometimes members' assistance was needed to prioritize areas for further investigation. And even when there was no body to show for their efforts, they had at least demonstrated to families of victims that every last stone had been turned in the search. Literally.

Michele Wallace was NecroSearch's first "success" story. The 25-year-old freelance photographer had been living in Gunnison when she disappeared in 1975. Massive searches at the time had failed to locate her body, though police believed that a serial rapist, Roy Melanson, had killed her.

A tenacious Gunnison sheriff's deputy, Kathy Young, had revived the file in 1992 and, after putting a case together, arrested Melanson, who was serving time for yet another rape in Kentucky ("The Searchers," April 5, 1995). By the summer of 1994, prosecutor Wyatt Angelo was prepared to go forward even without the body. But the prosecution of body-less homicides is rare. Not only are there the usual difficulties of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt--a twenty-year-old case, in this instance--but the prosecutors must also somehow convince a jury that the victim has been murdered, even though there's no proof the victim is even dead.

The defense could always argue that the supposed victim might have simply run off. Or, as the defense intimated at hearings in the case of Michele Wallace, who was an avid rock climber and often went camping alone in wilderness areas, the victim could have met with an unwitnessed accident.

Having been asked by Young to help find a body, the NecroSearch team was working slowly through the woods off a dirt road in the Kebler Pass area when naturalist Cecilia Travis spotted what turned out to be Michele's skull. Led by Diane and Steve Ireland, the searchers laid out a grid and excavated the site, finding buttons, a bra clip, pieces of bone, even orange threads from Michele's Levi's.

Melanson, whose usual attitude at hearings had been a knowing smirk, was shocked when prosecutors unveiled Michele's skull. It was no longer a body-less homicide.

At the trial, Diane described how careful excavation had revealed that Michele's body was thrown from the road, coming to rest against a tree. It was not a climbing accident, nor had she run away. Nor, for that matter, had she been mutilated or buried and covered with lime, as Melanson had claimed to other inmates. He was a liar, and NecroSearch could prove it.

After Diane's testimony, the jury was taken to the site where Michele's remains had been found. Then the jury returned to the courtroom and convicted Melanson of her murder. When later questioned by the prosecution, the jurors said the visit to the site and Diane's testimony were among the most powerful pieces of the puzzle that came together for the conviction.

But the boxes with their ribbons continued to pile up for Diane. A series of brutal rapes and murders of twenty-something women was particularly burdensome. Sometimes she learned the outcome of the cases; usually she didn't. The hardest ones to deal with, though, were the cases in which she knew the remains were never identified.

Diane realized that all forensic anthropologists dealt with the same frustrations, but that didn't make it any easier. And the frustrations were beginning to take their toll.

Diane started having the same nightmare over and over. In her sleep, a man stalked her through a house. She never saw him, but she knew without any doubt that he wanted to kill her. She'd flee to the basement, but he'd find her. She'd run up the stairs and he'd follow. Just as he was about to show himself, she'd wake in fear.

At the suspected grave of Cher Elder, Richardson now announced, "I'm staying here tonight." Diane nodded. She knew what it was to be haunted by the ghosts of young women.

The excavation of Cher's body took nearly four days. Richardson was amazed by the strength and determination of the tiny anthropologist.

Long after husky police officers needed a break from the work, Diane would still be at it. And she took such care with her work that the killer's original shovel marks could easily be seen on the sides of the grave.

In Richardson, Diane had found a kindred spirit. By the end of the third day, Cher's remains were at last completely exposed, waiting only for morning so that she could be removed without missing or damaging any evidence. Along with his partner, Stan Connally, Richardson announced he would again spend the night on the ground next to Cher. He said it was to protect the remains from scavengers, but Diane knew, even before she later heard it from him, that he didn't want Cher to spend another night alone in a grave dug by Luther.

Before she left that last night, Diane and the detective covered the remains with a tarp. Stepping back, she looked up at Richardson. His eyes were dark and he looked sad and tired. He smiled wistfully and said, "It's like we're tucking her in for the night."

Diane nodded. "I understand why you took this so personally," she said. Turning toward the grave, she added, "Good night, Cher. We'll be back for you tomorrow."

As she slept that night, a man chased Diane. He wanted to kill her. And nowhere was she safe.

For all her dealings with murder, only once had Diane spoken with a known killer.

In 1995, NecroSearch was asked to join in the search for Lois Kleber. On the eve of his trial for the murder of his wife, James Kleber had confessed to police that on June 30, 1992, he'd strangled Lois. He claimed to have buried her body somewhere on Grouse Mountain, near Hot Sulphur Springs.

After four years of keeping his secret from the police and Lois's family, he did not finally confess because his conscience was bothering him. He was in jail and dying of cancer. His condition for showing police the hiding spot of his wife's body: He wanted to go see his favorite hunting spot one last time.

In November 1995, Kleber led searchers to the general area where he said he'd dumped "it." He was doped up on morphine, and his memory seemed to be clouded as to the exact location.

As a member of the NecroSearch team, Diane had been relaying questions to Kleber through Scott Buckley, the lead investigator for the Arvada Police Department. Questions like, was the area rocky where he'd walked? Uphill or downhill? Through trees?

Once answered, though, those questions would just raise more questions. So Buckley suggested that Diane France talk to Kleber herself.

Kleber was in the back of a patrol car; Diane got in front. He looked like a dying man, pasty white, his eyes cloudy, a huge bandage on his neck. His answers to her questions were short, mostly yes or no. She asked as many questions as she could; there might not be another chance.

What struck her was that he never referred to his wife as "she" or "Lois." He always referred to her as "it." "I loaded 'it' into the back of a pickup. I rolled 'it' in a blanket."

When she got out of the car, one of the other investigators said, "Boy, Diane, you were really polite to him."

"I thought we'd get more information than if I said, 'Listen, you son of a bitch, what'd you do with your wife?'" she replied.

Snowdrifts prohibited much of a search, and Kleber died a few months later. In June 1996, the searchers returned to the area. They didn't find a body, but they recovered tattered pieces of clothing, dentures, a fingernail and a toenail, and a few other items they believed belonged to Lois Kleber near a grave-sized depression in the ground where it appeared James Kleber had hastily buried her. Bears had probably found the body and dragged it away.

Meeting Kleber accelerated Diane's nightmares. He came to epitomize all killers, indifferent to human life. She went to see a grief counselor, who suggested that she take more time off and seek out safe, quiet places where she could find peace. Creating the mental boxes was a short-term solution, the counselor said, but Diane had to get away from death more often.

Quitting was not an option. More firmly than ever before, Diane believed that as a forensic anthropologist, she had to speak for the victims.

She was soon going to need another, much larger box.
August 6, 1997, was a moonless night. It was the night Korean Air flight 801, carrying 254 people, many of them on their honeymoon, slammed into the dense jungle of a hillside on Guam, three miles short of the runway. Fire engulfed part of the plane. Miraculously, 26 people survived.

The next afternoon, Diane was in her car when she got a call. It was Don Heer.

Several years earlier she'd accepted yet another invitation, this time from the federal government. The national Disaster Mortuary Team, or DMORT, had been formed in 1991 and charged with responding to mass fatalities, such as airline crashes, to help recover and identify the remains of the victims and return them to their families. With 600 members nationwide divided into regional teams, DMORT included law-enforcement officers, pathologists, funeral directors, embalmers, odontologists, radiologists, fingerprinting experts, photographers, fire-department officials and anthropologists, of which Diane was one of the first.

Heer, a funeral director from Brush, was the leader of the team for the Rocky Mountain area. They had been asked to fly to Guam to assist with the identification and preparation of the victims. "Can you go?" he asked.

Two days later Diane was heading across the Pacific with Heer and Will Ritchie, the forensic odontologist for their team and a member of the Colorado Body Identification Team. Approaching the Guam airport, they couldn't help but nervously note that they were taking the same approach as the doomed aircraft.

They were luckier. They landed safely, and Diane stepped off the plane into what felt like a warm, wet sponge. Guam is just 13 degrees above the equator, and even the nighttime air was hot and muggy.

The climate made it critical that they work quickly. Until then, Guam's medical examiner had been trying to do the job, one body at a time. After much discussion, the DMORT leaders were finally able to convince him that the teams were there to assist him and not take over. But they had to move fast.

The next order of business was to get to the crash site. Most of the wreckage was down in a gully; a half-mile of jungle had to be cleared in order to reach it. The task of removing bodies, and parts of bodies, from the still-smoldering wreckage had fallen on U.S. servicemen. They were mostly young men, Diane noted, and as she watched them slip and struggle through the wet, red clay with their grisly cargo, she hoped the trauma of what they were witnessing wouldn't catch up with them later.

The DMORT teams were set up in a 45,000-square-foot hangar. Although the remains were brought in from refrigerated trucks, it wasn't long before the smell of decomposition permeated the hangar. Temperatures hovered around 110 degrees.

For two weeks, every morning at 6:45 the DMORT teams would be picked up at their hotel; they wouldn't get back until 7:45 p.m. Each day Diane would have to steel herself before unzipping the next body bag.

Some contained only the mostly dry bones of those who had been burned. Inside others, she could hear maggots eating--the distant sound that comes from pouring milk onto Rice Krispies. When she opened those bags, the maggots poured out onto the table and the floor and crawled up her arms and legs. They'd crawl onto her notebook, and she'd have to brush them aside to write.

To identify some victims, the DMORT teams had fingerprints and dental records, even documentation on previous surgeries. The next of kin for all of the passengers had also been called upon to give identifying characteristics. In one case, a unique mole in a unique spot was almost all they had to identify what was left of a young boy.

After they were identified, the victims went to the DMORT embalmers, who prepared the remains for return to their families--many of whom had flown to Guam in the wake of the tragedy. Every afternoon, the DMORT teams quieted their operations while representatives of the Korean government conducted ceremonies to hand over the remains to family members.

Then tragedy struck close to home for the DMORT teams. Gerry Brockhaus, one of the embalmers, died of a massive heart attack. The news rocked everyone, hitting Diane particularly hard. Gerry had worked at the station next to hers and was always in good humor, helping her get through the long, horrifying hours.

The team leaders decided it was appropriate to send Gerry through the same process as the other victims of the crash. After his body was prepared and placed in a casket, the DMORT team stopped work and held a service in the area used for the Korean ceremonies.

They were surprised, then touched, as Korean officials gathered to pay their respects. Grief, it seemed, knew no international boundaries.

As dictated by DMORT rules, each team's tour lasted two weeks. After Diane returned to Colorado, she realized that somewhere in all that horror, in all that senseless mass destruction, she had lost something.

The nightmares were gone.

Diane had the tiger by the tongue. Nine inches of pink tongue. While the veterinarian for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., helped hold it, Diane coated the tongue with alginate--an elastic dental molding material--until it was covered from tip to stern with the stuff.

This was Diane's other life, the part that helped her deal with the darker side. There were no boxes, no memories of nightmares here. Just the interesting, distracting work of France Casting, which makes anatomical replicas for museums and universities.

The National Zoo was putting together a children's exhibit, "Great Cats," and wanted a hands-on display that included the rasp-like tongue of the big Siberian. Zoo officials had called Diane and asked if she could do it, as well as make molds of a tiger's paw with claws extended and retracted.

After experimenting on her own tongue and that of her veterinarian's house cat, Diane called back to take the job. The zoo scheduled the tiger's tongue-molding appointment after a teeth-cleaning. After the big cat was sedated, the dentist did his work, and then it was Diane's turn. She almost cried when they wheeled him out, he was so beautiful.

France Casting is located in a modest shop north of Fort Collins. The shelves are lined with skulls, some real, some not, some human, some non-human. The plastic skeleton from her father's office hangs near the hugely fanged skull of a gorilla.

It's here that Diane gets to exercise her creative bent. Along with her assistants--Michael and Nate--she pieced together articulated skeletons of a chimpanzee, an orangutan and a gorilla. For the National Zoo, she made casts of the brains of a whale, an elephant, a human, an orangutan and a squirrel. She'd also launched a commercial venture that she hopes will help keep France Casting afloat: a bronze cast of a mountain lion's skull set on a marble stand, just the thing for nature lovers.

The business brought her into contact with a number of interesting, sometimes offbeat, characters. On one occasion, she was asked to help analyze the skull some historians believed to be that of the outlaw Jesse James, reportedly shot in the back of the head by Bob Ford. DNA comparisons with James's closest-known family members had not been conclusive.

Diane's part in the "investigation" was small: She was asked to make a cast of the skull, which some said bore the mark of the killer's bullet. She wasn't so sure they were right. But the fun really began when she received a call at her home one Sunday morning. A man with a deep Texas accent asked, "Are you Diane France who's got Jesse James's skull in her lab?"

"May I ask who's calling?" she replied.
"Well," he drawled, "my grandfather was Jesse James, and that's not who you got. Want to meet and hear the truth about Jesse James?"

"Sure," Diane said. "Where are you?"
Fort Collins, the man said. He and his brother had driven up from Texas when they heard about all the fuss being made over the skull.

Diane met the men at a local coffeeshop. They appeared to be in their sixties and right out of a Western, with beards that flowed down to their chests and faces turned the color and consistency of tanned leather.

The one who'd called her handed her a book. It was stained, the edges dog-eared. He'd written it himself, he said proudly. She later learned that in the opinion of historians, it was probably the worst and most historically inaccurate account of Jesse James's life, but that didn't stop the man from offering it as proof of his claim.

He turned to the photo section. One showed the picture of an old woman, "my grandmother," he told Diane. "And this here," he said, pointing to another, "is Jesse James. And this was their daughter, my mother. See the resemblance?"

The two men sat back and posed. Diane peered at the photos. They'd been wrinkled and cracked before they ever made it into the book. The faces were barely distinguishable.

"Well, I can't say that I do," Diane replied.
That didn't faze the men one bit. The fellow who was doing all the talking pointed to the next "bit a' evidence." The man in the photograph was missing a finger. "Jesse James was missin' a finger," he said, as if that made his claims incontrovertible.

Finally, Diane suggested that there was one sure way to prove the brothers' claim: "Go dig up your grandfather and do all the tests."

The men looked like they'd been struck by lightning. It was a damn fine idea, they said, they'd get right to it. They thanked her for her time and headed back to Texas, hot on the trail of Jesse James.

Other conversations were less humorous. Friends often ask Diane if her work doesn't give her special insight into man's mortality. She's certainly thought about it often. But all she knows is that life is fragile and precious.

Marie and Alexis are missing, the Russian was shouting. Not Alexis and Anastasia.

How had they reached that conclusion? Diane asked.
Photographic superimposition, he said.
Diane and Tony Falsetti said they'd be glad to reconsider if they could see the photographic imposition. Even with an undamaged skull, the margin for error was too great for a positive identification.

"It's in Moscow," the Russian answered. "Surely, you will be allowed to gain access to the study."

"Fine, but we can't sign this document until then," Diane answered. "Or we can make it more generic."

The Russian again hit the roof. "Who are you to question all these other scientists?" he yelled. Eighty, no, a hundred Russian experts had reached the conclusion that the bones in the case belonged to Anastasia. Soon it was two hundred "worldwide" scientists.

It was fortunate that Jim Reed was along. As their host alternately ranted and cajoled for almost four hours, Reed typed on his laptop jokes and words of encouragement for Diane, including pravda, the Russian word for "truth."

Diane appreciated the gesture. After all, she thought, that's what it was all about. From the woman found in Estes Park to Cher Elder to the 228 people who'd died in the Guam jungle to the children of the last Russian monarchy. Pravda, the truth. It mattered.

In the end, the Russians compromised--sort of. A new agreement was drawn up. The search would be for the two missing Romanov children, whoever they might turn out to be.

Six months later, NecroSearch still has not been invited back to Russia.
The Russians went on without Diane France and Jim Reed--and without the two missing Romanov children. Last week the remains of Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and three of their five children, along with Dr. Botkin and four servants, were buried in St. Petersburg, the imperial capital.

For weeks before the scheduled ceremony, which was intended as a day of national reconciliation, plans had been mired in a squabble between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. The government had organized the burial. But the church had refused to recognize the remains as those of the royal family--not because of any scientific evidence, but because the church-in-exile believes the bodies of the Romanovs were burned, except for a few pieces of skin that the church claims to be holy relics of the "martyred" family.

The government experts accused the church of ignoring science. However, the church wasn't alone in that respect, and Diane found the entire debate ironic. She herself believed the DNA tests, and from what she'd seen, the bones bore the scars of bullets and bayonets, and possibly even the acid supposedly poured on the bodies in an attempt to get rid of the evidence. The evidence matched the stories told by the former guards. The only thing that didn't match up were the bones the Russians insisted belonged to Anastasia.

At the last second, after threatening not to show up, President Boris Yeltsin decided to attend the burial ceremony. The event made headlines around the world. Eighty years after the last czar of Russia had been murdered, he and his family were finally laid to rest.

Diane was in England at the time, lecturing to a forensic anthropology class at the University of Bradford, co-sponsored by the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Earlier this year, right before her trip to Russia, she'd been appointed chair of the physical anthropology section of the American Academy of Forensic Science, and Diane was much in demand as a speaker. After her lecture, though, she planned to take a hundred-mile hike through the countryside.

She was going to start taking her counselor's advice. She was going to take a holiday from death.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.