Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alfred Packer: The Maneater of Colorado

Another Look at the Victims

James E. Starrs, a law professor from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. visited Gunnison one day in 1989 and heard some of the stories. Having long been curious about Packer's two trials and his chosen defense, he looked for the spot where the victims had been buried. Townspeople directed him to various places like Dead Man's Gulch, but no one was altogether certain. Starrs decided to ask the owners of the property on which a monument with the victims' names had been erected if he could dig down and find evidence of the remains. They granted permission, he obtained insurance and several grants, and planned for an archaeological dig. He wrote about the experience in his own newsletter, Scientific Sleuthing Review.

Prof. James E. Starrs
Prof. James E. Starrs

The dig commenced on July 17, 1989, a bright sunny day, with a team that included anthropologists, archaeologists, photographers, student diggers, a lawyer, and other forensic personnel. Local media were on hand from around the state to document anything that was found. After checking the soil composition and pH level, Starrs started the dig with a team of experts who had brought in a ground-penetrating radar device. After they ran the machine over the area, they told him they suspected that whatever anomaly was below the surface was not very deep — possibly only a foot. They advised against using a backhoe, lest the shovel crush bones that might be close to the surface.

So the anthropologists and students took over with hand trowels and it wasn't long before they discovered human remains. Digging for the rest of the day, they uncovered all five victims, laid out side-by-side. The bones were not intermingled, which made things easier for the forensic anthropologists, and they were photographed, boxed, labeled, and taken to the anthropology lab at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

There the bones were laid out and carefully examined, while a few pieces were sent on to the anthropological curator of the Smithsonian Institution, Douglas Ubelaker, for dating and age analysis.

Using known data, they managed to figure out the identities of each set of remains, and then did a more detailed examination for bone damage.

It can be difficult to make decisions about cause of death on skeletal remains unless there has been a wound from bullet, knife or blunt force that penetrated or broke a bone. In this case, given the various witness accounts, they did expect to find trauma, so they were careful to document everything.

One of the anthropologists, upon seeing the bones, had shouted that there was a bullet hole in one set of remains, but it turned out to be a hole that animals had gnawed and could not be ascertained as having been made by any weapon. (Nevertheless, the story got into the newspapers erroneously.) Three of the bodies had blunt force blows to the head, as well as cuts to the arms and hands, which Professor Starrs interpreted as defensive wounds. He also believed that nicks on the bones that appeared to have been made by a knife was evidence of defleshing.

While not everyone on the team agreed about how much actual support there was for making a definitive statement, Starrs went on record as saying that Packer was a murdering cannibal and liar.

The remains were reburied in a wooden box in the same spot, with a solemn ceremony.

Packer's gun
Packer's gun

In the meantime, in 1997, a curator for the collection of the Museum of Western Colorado in Gunnison, claimed to have discovered Packer's revolver, an 1862 Colt. It had been collected from the massacre site, he said, when the victims were initially discovered. It was loaded, with three bullets in the chamber. According to some reports, including curator David Bailly's, this discovery corroborates the details of Packer's account — or at least of one of his confessions.

Starrs disputes that Packer owned such a gun and says there are no records that a revolver was recovered when the victims' remains were found.

Regardless of whether Packer owned such a gun, the fact that he'd shot a bullet or two is no indication that he killed in self defense. He might have shot at some game, or he might have outright murdered one or more of his party. Even a bullet hole located on any member of the party would not clarify that issue.

Packer's guilt or innocence may always remain a mystery, but his story continues to fascinate scholars and lay people alike.

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