Atherton Police Department Sgt. Sherman Hall said he was sure he had a crime scene on his hands when he saw the metal bucket filled with human bones in a backyard in Atherton on Tuesday, June 9. A shovel and a garbage bag were nearby.
Sgt. Hall said a call had come in from a woman who noticed the bucket and its contents when she was picking up items from a home being cleaned out to be turned over to new owners. The caller hadn't told the owner of the Toyon Road home that she was calling the police, he said.
"She was concerned," Sgt. Hall said. "Obviously it got my attention."
The crime lab was on the way to do an excavation, he said, when he noticed that one of the skulls had writing on it. He spoke to the woman who had recently sold the home, "who volunteered that her father had, to the best of her recollection, got them from the Palo Alto Junior Museum." The woman said she thought her father, who is deceased, had been given the bones by someone named Merle.
Sgt. Hall said he shared that information, along with the fact that one of the skulls clearly said "Willougy" on it in black marker, with John Aikin, current director of the museum. Mr. Aikin says the museum found in its records that someone named Willougy or Willougby had donated an "Indian skull" in 1973. Records said those bones had been uncovered in the East Berryessa region of San Jose, he said.
Mr. Aikin also said Merle Carson had worked at the museum until 1990, when he retired. Mr. Carson is also deceased, Sgt. Hall said.
Sgt. Hall said if the bones turn out to be the ones that the museum had once had in its collection, they are 200 to 300 years old.
The bones have now been turned over to the San Mateo County coroner to photograph and examine, Sgt. Hall said.
In the meantime the staff of the museum is continuing its own investigation, Mr. Aikin said. He plans to have museum staff members scour the archives looking for photos and records connected to the bones. "Then we'd know they were actually here once," he said. "We're going to need more evidence," he said.
Mr. Aikin said he has found a connection between the deceased owner of the home and the museum. Someone of the same name, he said, appears to have been "a trusted adviser" to the former museum director. "I'm not surprised that bones ended up there," he said.
If it can be proved the museum previously possessed the bones, they will be returned to the museum, he said. Then the museum will have to follow a complicated set of state, federal and local laws that govern such anthropological finds, he said.
Museum employees will need to comb their records for evidence linking the bones to a tribal group, and then notify that group that they have the remains. If the tribal group wants the remains, they will be turned over, he said. If not, the museum can keep them, he added.
This sort of mystery is one reason that he loves his work, Mr. Aikin said. "We have to try to piece it all together."
"I don't think there's anything wrong here," he said, except for the fact that "these bones were put in a place they shouldn't have been." Now, he said, he wants "to find where these bones belong."