Unknowing highway travelers drove past the body of a dead man along U.S. 89 in southern Utah for years, his body undetected under a lone Cedar tree west of Big Water.
As desert elements tore away at the remains, key evidence faded, leaving investigators with a handful of sun-baked bones, tattered clothes, a set of teeth and three crumpled papers taken from his pants pocket.It's those papers - a ragged list of events for Flagstaff, Ariz., a sheriff's booking sheet and 1986 court record for Coconino County - which investigators believe can yield the man's identity and possible clues to his slaying.
A medical examiner's report indicates he died from blunt force trauma to the head.
"Apparently, this guy was released from jail, folded these things up and put them in his back pocket . . . ," Kane County sheriff's Lt. Jeff Banfill said.
But like the desolate, arid landscape that disguised the crime scene for so long, years of harsh weather have stripped the court and sheriff's papers of any handwriting that would list the man's name or address. Attempts by the FBI lab to discern the writing have been largely unsuccessful.
The events list - describing entertainment at local Flagstaff bars - is printed on newsprint, which is worn and torn away in places, making most of it illegible. What is apparent is the month - April - and the days of the week, but not the year. Naturally, investigators initially believed that it,
like the court document, originated in 1986.
"Now, to throw a kink intothings . . . most of it is obliterated, but you can see that this says the Monsoon's Club on Sante Fe Street in Flagstaff," said Banfill, pointing out the clear portions of the faded list. "You can look closely and see . . . the Rattlers played at 9 p.m. at that date at the Monsoon's Club. That's just an example.
"By gleaning things like that, we've called these clubs and asked them to look at their old bookings to try to determine what years these advertisements might have been placed," he said. "We assumed that it was 1986, but it's looking more and more like maybe this came from a later year, such as 1988 . . . that kind of throws a wrench in it."
Banfill and another Kane County officer went to Flagstaff recently and dug through the old booking sheets and courthouse documents in a search for the originals - copies that would still include the man's name, birth date, possible address or offense.
"Unfortunately, so much time has passed that you can't just walk over to a file cabinet and pull these things up," he said. "They're stored in basements . . . . No one remembers exactly what was going on on a certain date. It makes it very difficult.
"Working with 1986, we went down to the jail there and went through 60 bankers boxes full of documents and pulled all the 1986 bookings (for) males," he said. They narrowed that to a single box and developed a database data base of all the "possibles" - a 25-page list of people whose profile could match that of the dead man.
"It's a long, tedious business of identifying these people, locating dental records or a family member who knows if they are dead or alive, and trying to walk it down," he said. "From the search we've already done, there's a possibility we've captured his identity. But there's a chance it's still down there, and we'll have to go back and do another lengthy search of the records."
Wearing a plaid, flannel shirt; white running shoes; red ball cap and black Levi 501 jeans - size 33-inch waist - the man's body remained hidden until scavengers eventually scattered his remains across the desert.
It was his skull, found this spring on a ridge across U.S. 89 near the Three Rocks turnout, that eventually caught the attention of hikers from Kanab. Judging from animal trails and characteristics of the crime scene, coyotes likely carried the man's skull, pelvic bone and other fragments to the ridge via a culvert under the highway, investigators believe.
The young man, who may have had plans for a night on the town in Flagstaff, remains unidentified, his story unknown and his probable homicide the headache of the Kane County Sheriff's Department.
"The bottom line is, before we can determine who might have killed this person, we have to identify who it is," Banfill said. "What we know for sure from the forensic evidence, the bones and so on, is that we're dealing with a white, male individual, probably in his 30s. He's probably 6 feet tall or taller, and he was killed by some blunt trauma force to his head."
It's unknown if the man was killed in Kane County or his body just dumped there under the tree two miles from Big Water and 55 miles east of Kanab.
"It's tough," Banfill said. "A lot of time has passed and we've got a limited amount to go on, but we're still working on it."