Solved: The Mystery Of The Missing Artist Seventy-five years ago, a young explorer named Everett Ruess rode off alone into the Utah wilderness, never to return. Now, a team of geneticists and forensic anthropologists has finally uncovered his fate.
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Solved: The Mystery Of The Missing Artist

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Solved: The Mystery Of The Missing Artist

Solved: The Mystery Of The Missing Artist

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Seventy-five years ago, a young explorer named Everett Ruess rode off alone into the Utah wilderness and was never heard from again. The mysterious disappearance of the 20-year-old artist and writer baffled thousands and inspired several books and a film. Now a team of geneticists and forensic anthropologists has finally put the mystery to rest.

From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN: For decades, people captivated by a young man's mysterious disappearance in the Utah wilderness were consumed by one question.

Mr. WL RUSHO (Author): Did he purposefully leave this world in some way, either vanish into the Navajo country or commit suicide? We don't know.

BRUNDIN: WL Rusho, author of "Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty," looked for answers in a large cardboard box full of Ruess's papers and letters. In one letter Ruess says he doubted he would ever go back to civilization.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) The beauty of this country is becoming a part of me. I feel more detached from life and somehow gentler. I have good friends here, but no one understands why I'm here and what I do. I've gone too far alone.

BRUNDIN: Ruess did try city life. He was raised in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco during the Depression. He tried to make a living at his art - cutting wood block prints and writing poetry. But even as artists like Ansel Adams and Maynard Dixon reached out to him, Ruess turned his back on city life. He said it drained him and left him uninspired.

Author W.L. Rusho said that contributed to the intrigue of the young artist.

Mr. W.L. RUSHO (Author): I think we have built a mystique about Everett Ruess. It is a story of a person who is not enchanted with the world as he finds it, with the commercial world, and he wants to find his own way. Which is what a lot of young people want to do.

BRUNDIN: Starting at age 16, Ruess, along with two mules, immersed himself in the beauty of the Southwest terrain. For four years he wrote, painted and sketched, enchanted by what he saw.

In November, 1934, Ruess stocked up on supplies in the town of Escalante. He headed into the empty expanse of Davis Gulch, frequented only by sheepherders, cattle rustlers and outlaws. Ruess never came out of the desert.

Filmmaker Diane Orr says clues were few.

Ms. DIANE ORR (Filmmaker): The halter from the burro and they did find Nemo inscribed in a cave.

BRUNDIN: Nemo was an alias Ruess took on later in life. Nemo, as in Latin for nobody, or some wondered was it a reference to Jules Verne's mysterious outcast, Captain Nemo.

Search parties were sent out after the young artist. His mules were recovered, but no other traces were found. Theories on his disappearance flourished, ranging from random violence to noble suicide. Reah Jensen once attended a Mormon Church dance with Everett Ruess.

Ms. REAH JENSEN: I just don't feel that he ever committed suicide. I don't think he had an actual death. I think something tragically happened to him.

BRUNDIN: And she was right. Last year, the story took another turn when Navajo Denny Bellson learned a great family secret from his sister. Their grandfather said he'd witnessed a young Anglo boy with two mules being chased and murdered by three Ute Indians west of Bluff, Utah. Out of respect, their grandfather said, he buried the young man in a high crevasse. With his sister's directions, Bellson searched the site their grandfather had described. He found a saddle on a ledge, and nearby the crevasse with human bones in it.

Mr. DENNY BELLSON: And I saw the top of the skull there, so I looked at it, and I looked around and I knew it was him.

BRUNDIN: Bellson had never heard of Everett Ruess, but David Roberts, a contributing editor with National Geographic Adventure magazine, had, and he helped put the pieces together. It's laid out in detail in the magazine's current issue.

First, reconstructed facial bones perfectly matched photos taken of Ruess. Then, Roberts says, Ruess's nephews and nieces donated saliva samples to compare with the victim's bone DNA.

Mr. DAVID ROBERTS (National Geographic Adventure Magazine): And that proved absolutely critical in cracking the case.

BRUNDIN: For those who have followed the mystery for decades, the news of the find was shocking. Author W.L. Rusho…

Mr. RUSHO: To me, it's almost like the death of an old friend. I've had the image of Everett Ruess disappearing in the wilderness for so long that it's hard for me to adjust my thinking to realize that he's been found.

BRUNDIN: But cracking the case has raised even more questions. Why was Ruess's body found 90 miles from where he was last seen, and how did he get there? Why was he killed? Was it a simple robbery? Meanwhile, the Ruess family plans to cremate Everett's bones and scatter them over the Pacific Ocean, just as his parents were after their deaths.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

SIMON: And you can see how Everett Ruess's remains were verified by coming to our Web site,

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