Their DNA testing failed, but researchers who excavated a grave at Oak Hill Cemetery months ago still hope to solve the century-old mystery of who was buried in it.
"I'm a tenacious little guy," said Dennis Van Gerven, a University of Colorado anthropology professor. "I'm not finished yet."
Van Gerven and CU Law Professor Mimi Wesson in May excavated the reputed grave of John Hillmon to see whether they could solve the 127-year-old riddle that fueled a lengthy court battle and led to the creation of an important piece of federal evidence law.
The professors hope to link the remains taken from the grave to either Hillmon or Frederick A. Walters.
In 1879, Hillmon bought a life insurance policy and left Lawrence on a trip to find ranch land. His companion, John Brown, later appeared at a home near Medicine Lodge and reported accidentally shooting Hillmon.
But with insurance fraud rampant, insurance companies suspected a scam. They believed Hillmon and Brown killed a third man, Walters, and buried him to collect on the policy.
The case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme court twice. An appeal led to creation of a new exception to the hearsay rule, permitting as evidence a letter from Walter's fiancee stating his intentions to travel with Hillmon.
The May excavation yielded only bone fragments and teeth, but researchers for months have attempted to use DNA from a small piece of shoulder bone to identify the remains.
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That method so far has proved unfruitful, so the team is now considering another way.
With photographs of Walters, Hillmon, and the corpse, the team may tap CU computer scientists to create 3D images of the men.
They hope that by comparing the images, they may solve the mystery.
"It's a back door if the genetic approach fails," Van Gerven said.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Krauter, CU professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, continues to toil with the genetic evidence.
Researchers initially extracted some DNA from a bit of remains, only to discover that it was not from a human but likely from bacteria.
Krauter continues consulting with colleagues and running tests.
"There's no sure-fire way to recover DNA from a sample like that," Krauter said. "We're trying many, many different procedures."
Wesson, who is writing a book about the case, said she hoped the work would yield an answer, but even if one didn't come, she wouldn't let the compelling story rest.
"I would hope to get an answer, but my interest in the project will by no means come to an end if that doesn't prove to be possible," she said.