Mystery Endures: Remains Found Not Those Of Artist Everett Ruess, a legendary Utah explorer, writer and artist, has been missing for 75 years. Earlier this year, it seemed the cold case had been solved when human remains found in the Utah desert apparently tested positive as his. But doubts lingered, and now the mystery of the missing artist lives again.
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Mystery Endures: Remains Found Not Those Of Artist

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Mystery Endures: Remains Found Not Those Of Artist

Mystery Endures: Remains Found Not Those Of Artist

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We heard a story back in May about a legendary Utah explorer and writer who'd been missing for 75 years. The remains of Everett Ruess were supposedly found and definitively identified with DNA testing, but doubts lingered. And this week, the results of new DNA tests were released and the mystery of Everett Ruess is again a mystery, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Everett Ruess was a 20-year-old idealist and vagabond when he disappeared in the rugged canyon country of Southern Utah, leaving behind poems, letters, paintings and block prints that celebrate the region's beauty and wildness.

Mr. KEN SANDERS (Bookseller): Everyone that runs into his trail, you can't help but become fascinated by this young man and what he did.

BERKES: Ken Sanders is a Utah bookseller who collects the writing and the artwork of Everett Ruess.

Mr. SANDERS: The mystery of what happened to him or who he was overwhelms his life and his legacy. And I think that the main thing is to not forget what this young man represented - his love and unbridled passion for untrammeled wilderness, just hedonistic love of the landscape.

BERKES: This passion for Everett Ruess engendered a cult following steeped in the mystery of his disappearance. Earlier this year, it seemed the mystery was solved. Skeletal remains, DNA testing and a plausible story about murder meant Ruess was lost no more. But new tests indicate he's still missing. Brian Ruess is his nephew.

Mr. BRIAN RUESS: Well, I think we go back to where we were a year and a half ago, where we hoped that some day he will be found. I don't know. So, you continue to live with the assumption that the mystery will never be solved with the hope that it will.

BERKES: Just a few months ago, the family was close to cremation, but state archaeologist Kevin Jones doubted the DNA test. The remains had Native American features, so the family approached the DNA experts at the Defense Department, and they determined with no doubt this was not Everett Ruess. The University of Colorado lab that conducted the original testing now admits it made mistakes.

Dr. Mike Coble directs the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, and he says his staff has been touched by the Ruess saga.

Dr. MIKE COBLE (Director, Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory): The scientist that did most of the lab work, she has pictures of Everett, she has been reading his work and it is amazing how his writings are still very, very powerful.

BERKES: So, now there are two mysteries: where is Everett Ruess and what life once flowed from the recovered bones. The DNA testing indicates this was a young Navajo and the remains will now be turned over to the Navajo tribe. Ruess left these final words, as read by bookseller Ken Sanders:

Mr. SANDERS: (Reading) As to when I shall revisit civilization, it will not be soon. I prefer the saddle to the street car and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult trail leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.

BERKES: So wrote Everett Ruess in his final letter dated November 1934, before he and two burros disappeared into a sea of Utah sandstone.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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