Experts To Study Cannibalism Site

Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — Scientists will examine the site of a notorious 19th-century cannibalism case this week in hopes of determining whether Alferd Packer was really a mass murderer or killed only in self-defense, as he claimed.

Packer was convicted of murder in the deaths of five traveling companions in the San Juan Mountains in 1874. The group, bound for California, was snowbound and facing starvation. Packer admitted eating the bodies, but he contended that he killed only one of them — in self-defense after the crazed, starving man had hacked the other four to death.

Now, David Bailey, the chief curator at the Museum of Western Colorado, has brought together a team of chemists, soil and gunpowder experts and an archaeologist who will use modern X-ray and fluorescence techniques to try to find lead residue from the grave where the five were buried.

Bailey has spent the past seven years digging into every surviving shred of information. The lead residue would be proof that one of the men in the Packer party was shot, he said.

To his dying day, Packer said Shannon Bell, one of his companions, killed the other four with a hatchet while Packer was out scouting, then attacked Packer when he returned to camp. He said he shot Bell twice.

Bailey has already uncovered paper evidence, such as inconsistencies in witnesses' accounts, court testimony and letters, to support Packer's story.

He also has uncovered key physical evidence, including the rusty, dented 1862 Colt pistol he believes Packer used to shoot Bell. It had been found decades ago in the massacre area. The five-shooter still had three bullets in the chamber.

When the bodies of Packer's companions were exhumed 12 years ago, one of the skeletons had a hole in the hip bone that Bailey and some other experts believe is a bullet hole. Others said the hole was caused by gnawing animals.

Bailey said he thinks if scientists can find lead residue in shreds of clothing and in the soil from under the bones, it will be hard to dispute the bullet-hole theory.

``I'm trying to get proof on every level to show Packer was attacked. I have seven layers of evidence now and I'd like to have eight,'' Bailey said. ``This evidence would put the last nail in the coffin, so to speak.''

Bailey plans to write a book and articles for historical journals after his research is complete. He will also put the story in a display at the Museum of Western Colorado.