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Cold case: Who is the mystery man of KC’s Runway 1?

Skull and bones found last summer may get more scrutiny

Skull Mystery Man Under Runway One. A skull and several bones were found at Wheeler Downtown Airport last summer. (Photo courtesy of Jackson County Medical Examiner)
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Skeletal remains found by a construction worker last summer at Wheeler Downtown Airport opened up one of Kansas City’s oldest unsolved mysteries. The Hale Center for Journalism’s Mike McGraw found that the more he investigates, the more unanswered questions emerge. Could authorities do more to unravel the mystery? It appears they may be poised to do just that…

Just under the Broadway Bridge near Kaw Point, Kansas City’s original airport juts into the Mighty Missouri like a downturned thumb, forcing the river into a u-shaped contortion and roiling its muddy waters into treacherous whirlpools.

In the early to mid-1800s, the river swallowed at least 11 steamboats here — fire canoes, the Indians called them — among them the Bennett, the Boonville and the Cumberland Valley.

On the north bank of that watery gravesite, a 400-acre floodplain under the airport runways makes up part of our city’s fertile crescent; land near the city’s original settlement, once deeded to some of its founding fathers. Men with names like Chouteau and McCoy.

This peninsula-like plot — now frequented by corporate jets, hobby flyers, museums and, occasionally, Air Force One — has been the scene of historic events, including the 1927 dedication of the airport by Charles Lindbergh.

It was here last summer, at the edge of Runway 1, that construction worker Jeremy Burke came face to face with a flinty relic of that past.

Construction worker Jeremy Burke found a skull while working on the edge of Runway 1, at the Wheeler Downtown Airport.

Construction worker Jeremy Burke found a skull while working on the edge of Runway 1, at the Wheeler Downtown Airport.

Staring back at him from the wall of a trench he was digging for a runway drainage project was a human skull. Nearby, crime scene investigators later unearthed parts of a leg, foot bones and a dozen teeth.

Burke had just discovered one of Kansas City’s oldest unsolved mysteries; the remains of a man known for now, and perhaps forever, as: “Unknown Human Remains, Case Number 13-01412.”

Was he one of the city’s original settlers? A Chouteau perhaps? Did he wash ashore from the wreck of the Bennett, or was he the victim of a ‘30s-era mob hit during the Pendergast regime, as local media speculated last year?

In the 15 months since they were unearthed, the bones have been photographed and measured, the teeth have been analyzed and X-rayed, DNA samples obtained and details of the case added to a national database created to help find America’s 80,000 missing persons.

Despite those efforts, however, we can still do little more than speculate about the remains. Even with the last decade’s advances in forensic science, the kinds of results we’ve come to expect from crime scene investigation dramas aren’t always so easy to come by in the real world.

“We took some DNA and put it in the system just in case,” said Kansas City homicide Detective Richard Sharp, “but it will be a miracle if we get a match. … Maybe somebody way back drowned, or maybe it was an old cemetery, or the river washed it inland.”

Sharp, who believes the remains had been there for up to 150 years, said there’s no evidence of murder and “the case is pretty well closed.”

But could we know more? Was enough done to unravel the mystery? Are the remains more than 50 years old, as some experts speculate, or are they more recent? And how did he die?

Experts say they found no evidence that a crime was committed.

However, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” said Vicki Wedel, a California anatomy professor and forensic anthropologist who analyzed the teeth. In other words, she said, just because there is no evidence of disease or trauma, does not mean our mystery man did not die from disease or trauma.

And that leaves lots on unanswered questions.

How the death happened is one thing. Pinpointing when the death occurred — natural or otherwise — is yet another matter. It’s not always easy to determine the age of skeletal remains — a time period experts call the “post-mortem interval” — with just a few bones and teeth.

Michael Finnegan is a forensic anthropologist who studied the remains for the Jackson County Medical Examiner. He declined to speculate about the age of the bones.

In the only reference in his report to their age, Finnegan wrote, “these remains are possibly too old to be considered as a forensic case. However, they are probably recent enough to be of significant historical interest.”

A forensic case (a death that occurred up to about 50 years in the past) is one in which science could help us solve a crime, if there was one.

A SHORT WHITE MAN

For now, based on Wedel’s and Finnegan’s findings, here’s what we do know about the Mystery Man Under Runway 1.

He was a male Caucasian, about 5-feet 9-inches tall, somewhere between 35 and 55 years old, but possibly as young as 20, with a bony overgrowth or “button osteoma” that may have been visible above his upper lip.

He died in the spring or summer.

We owe this particular finding to a technique used by Wedel, who is based at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., who studied a substance called dental cementum in the man’s teeth.

In her report to the Jackson County Medical Examiner, Wedel’s description of her process sounds like a technical footnote in a “CSI” television script.

Two of the teeth are delivered to her office by FedEx in a signed, sealed plastic evidence bag stuffed inside a sealed jeweler’s box. She cleans them with “tepid soapy water followed by an alcohol rinse.” They are put under vacuum and embedded in resin. She then cuts 500-micron-thick slices of the teeth using a “Buehler low speed saw” and views them “under polarized transmitted light using an Olympus BX-40 microscope.”

Dental cementum, which holds teeth in their sockets, can help determine the season in which a person died. (Photo courtesy of Jackson County Medical Examiner).

Dental cementum, which holds teeth in their sockets, can help determine the season in which a person died. (Photo courtesy of Jackson County Medical Examiner)

She’s looking for bands of cementum, a substance that holds teeth in their sockets, but which also forms in alternating bands, like rings in a tree, showing winter (dormant) and summer (growth) seasons.

The method, which some consider to be highly accurate, shows that our man died somewhere from April to September, “at a minimum age of 20 years, six months.”

But how can it be that the science applied to the case so far can ascertain the season of his death, but not the year of the season of his death? That may come later. For now, Detective Sharp estimates that “post-mortem interval” to be 100-150 years, but none of the county’s experts back that up.

SPECULATION AND MORE SPECULATION

If that estimate is right, our mystery man died between 1863 and 1913. But since we have no science to support that, we get an even longer timeline on which to speculate.

And how could we not?

Clearly our mystery man could have died long before anyone thought of building the city’s first major airport, once known as Peninsula Field, on the north bank of the Missouri River, just north of downtown.

By matching the location of his remains with property maps from the mid-1800s, on file at the Missouri Valley Room of the Kansas City Public Library, we know that he was found on or near land once owned by two of the city’s founding families.

One was Pierre M. Chouteau, whose family controlled the fur trade along the Missouri River through much of the 1800s. The other, who owned land that appears to be even closer to the remains, was John C. McCoy, another of the city’s founders.

Could he have been a McCoy or a Chouteau?

Or, could he have arrived at his final resting place later, but in time to witness numerous steamboat calamities?

Boilers routinely exploded at the time, especially during the Civil War, when all the top-grade iron was siphoned off to make cannon.

And if it wasn’t the boiler, it was deadly snags just below the surface that sent more than 200 “fire canoes” to the muddy bottom.

If he didn’t arrive until later, he still could have watched the Hannibal Bridge rise just to the west in 1867, the first bridge to cross the Missouri here and an accomplishment that made the city a major economic and rail center.

If so, he also witnessed important events during the dawn of American aviation.

He was likely there on Aug. 17, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on the muddy field to dedicate the new airport, less than three months after his historic flight from New York to Paris.

Our mystery man was probably there on Oct. 17, 1933, when Amelia Earhart landed at the field to give a speech at the Hotel Baltimore called “Flying for Fun.”

His remains were just inches below the field in the mid-1930s before — maybe even shortly before — Boss Tom Pendergast, Kansas City’s answer to Tammany Hall, arranged for his Ready Mixed Concrete Co. to pour the runways there.

So, was he the victim of a Pendergast-related murder? Sharp doesn’t think so, but who knows?

Phil Muncy, deputy director in the city’s aviation department, said the bones were found about 18 inches deep, about six inches below the 1930s-era pavement.

One possibility, Muncy speculated, is that the bones were mixed in with fill dirt brought in to level the airport before it was paved.

Either way, there is little question that he was there on Nov. 14, 1955, when a 37-year-old politically-connected bail bondsman named Nick Ergovich parked his Buick near the main terminal, bought a one-way ticket to St. Louis on TWA flight 138 and was never heard from again.

According to a story from The Kansas City Star last year, Ergovich’s family said at the time that they didn’t believe he ever boarded the plane and they, along with the some reporters, suggested he was the victim of a mob hit.

The bones probably predate Ergovich’s disappearance, but we don’t know that for sure.

CONTRADICTIONS AND CONUNDRUMS

Detective Sharp said he got his 100-150-year estimate verbally “on good authority” but not directly from Finnegan, the Kansas State University forensic anthropologist who studied the remains for the Jackson County Medical Examiner.

Finnegan denies saying that to Sharp or anyone else, and his report contains no such estimate.

“I do not remember that,” Finnegan said in an email. “I do not believe that we know how old the bones are. This conjecture is not science.”

“Another way to look at it,” he said, “is if it is not in the report, it is not known.”

Several experts said it would not be unusual for investigators to want remains to be older, to avoid adding another unsolved homicide to the list.

Dr. Douglas Ubelaker is a forensic anthropologist and curator of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology. He has extensive experience identifying skeletal remains.

When it comes to estimating the post-mortem interval, Ubelaker advises caution. You can’t tell a book by its cover, or the age of bones by their appearance, he said.

Ubelaker said a radio carbon analysis — had one been done — could have helped determine when our mystery man died.

Restorative dental work can be another clue to the post mortem interval, but there have been differing reports on our mystery man.

When Finnegan first examined the remains, he noted that “tooth #2 holds an occlusal restoration.” That’s a filling for a cavity.

But was it a cavity or a stain? The first would arguably indicate our mystery man died more recently.

When the Hale Center for Journalism asked a forensic dental expert to study X-rays and photos of the teeth, he didn’t find it.

Michael McCunniff, a professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Dentistry who is active in “forensic odontology,” said what Finnegan thought was a filling appears to be a stain.

The Hale Center emailed the spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office October 13, notifying her of McCunniff’s findings.

At that point, Dr. Mary Dudley, the Jackson County Medical Examiner, whose office conducts some 1,300 investigations a year for Jackson and other counties, personally reviewed the case file.

Ten days later, after he re-examined the remains, Finnegan corrected his report with an addendum, removing his reference to a filled tooth. It was indeed a stain, he noted.

POLICE RESPOND TO THE SCENE

Kansas City police and others who responded to the scene at what is now Wheeler Downtown Airport last year literally dug through piles of dirt to find every piece of evidence.

At least seven officers, detectives, crime scene analysts and experts from Dudley’s office were dispatched after Burke found the bones about 4 p.m. on August 5th last year.

The skull and several bones were on the ground when they got there. When crime scene investigators sifted through the dirt excavated from the trench, they found more bones and a tooth.

But ultimately, about all the medical examiner had to work with was the skull, parts of a leg, foot bones and a dozen teeth.

That isn’t much, said Wedel.

Aerial photo of Wheeler Downton Airport

The red dot on this aerial photo (click to enlarge) of the Wheeler Downtown Airport shows the location where the bones were found in August of 2013. (Photo courtesy city of Kansas City, Missouri)

Without an entire skeleton, pieces of clothing or other clues, Wedel said, it’s hard to come up with a post-mortem interval telling us how long ago he died.

“We want to think we can do a whole ‘CSI’ thing,” she said, “but we hit a wall because there was no other evidence.”

But apparently there was more evidence, and more potentially could have been found.

The medical examiner’s original report, on Sept. 30 last year, includes this entry: “Adjacent to the bones, old pottery was discovered.”

If that’s true — and the pottery is related to the remains — the find could add decades or more to Sharp’s post-mortem interval estimate of up to 150 years.

“We keep hearing reports that pottery was found,” Sharp said, “but we (the police) never found any.”

Asked repeatedly over several months for an interview about the case, Dudley consistently declined. But she did make several statements through a spokeswoman.

She said her office did not receive any of the pottery found near the bones, but noted that any such artifacts “may or may not be associated with the skeletal remains.”

But if pottery was found, it’s unfortunate from a historical perspective that it wasn’t collected and carefully analyzed by an expert, Wedel said.

She said that if an anthropologist had come to the scene, any pottery finds would have been documented and possibly analyzed.  It could have offered important clues, especially regarding the “antiquity of the burial.”

But was the pottery close enough to the remains to even matter?

One construction worker familiar with the pottery find said the “pottery” was actually a tea pot and a perfume bottle found much deeper than the remains and 150 to 200 yards away.

The worker, who asked not to be named, said he took the items home because no one wanted them.

As for radiocarbon dating, Dudley said it wasn’t performed because “this was not a forensic case.”

And, as to any further attempts to find the rest of the skeletal remains — perhaps still underground, but outside the area where the trench was dug — no such attempts were made.

STAY TUNED

In September this year, the Hale Center requested case records from officials in Clay County, where the airport is located. They agreed the records could be released by the Jackson County Medical Examiner, who had investigated the case for Clay County.

In a Sept. 24 email to Jackson County officials, a spokesman for the Clay County prosecutor said, “Given the fact these bones are historic in nature, and that — due to the age of the remains — there never will be a criminal prosecution arising from their discovery, the release of the records in accordance with your policies is acceptable to us.

“It’s our firm belief that there is not now nor will there ever be criminal charges arising from…case.”

In the end, we may never know any more about the Mystery Man Under Runway 1. And it might not be worth the effort to try; these investigations are expensive and time consuming.

And the cops and the coroner have enough on their hands just keeping up with fresh cases.

We can always hope that there’s a hit sometime on his DNA sample, or that a connection is made in the national missing person’s database, where he will reside perpetually in the digital world’s version of infinity.

In the meantime, however, there is hope that we may soon learn more.

The medical examiner is considering an offer from The Hale Center for Journalism to fund a radiocarbon analysis, which would provide a more accurate date of death.

“We are in the midst of contacting the anthropologist to check on how to proceed with the radiocarbon testing, at your expense,” she said in a December 4 email to The Hale Center.

“We are happy to continue those discussions while in consultation with the anthropologist on the practicalities of doing such testing.”

So, instead of a tidy resolution — or no resolution at all — we are left with a mystery that could deepen even further, or come clearly into focus.

One of the larger bones found with the remains (Photo courtesy of Jackson County Medical Examiner).

The Mystery Man under Runway 1 had nearly a full set of teeth in his upper jaw, but no lower jaw, and no fillings. (Photo courtesy of Jackson County Medical Examiner)

His remains were just inches below a concrete runway first poured in the 1930s (Photo courtesy of Jackson County Medical Examiner).

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