It’s like something out of a Stephen King story. An aging National Park Service superintendent steals the remains of hundreds of ancient medicine men and leaders and sticks them under a workbench in his garage in cardboard boxes. It’s 1990 and NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, is about to go into effect. The superintendent suspects the remains will have to be returned to the Native tribes in the area because of NAGPRA. He’s not worried about that so much, but he fears also having to return the funerary objects that were buried with them thousands of years ago, objects now on display in the park’s museum. He hides the bones in his garage.
Then, after sitting there for years, the bones suddenly come to life and possess the park superintendent, taking control of his body and forcing him to start killing people.
Ok, so, that last part didn’t really happen. But the first part did, according to a timeline prepared by current Effigy Mounds National Monument superintendent Jim Nepstad. The timeline shows how approximately 2,200 human bone fragments where stolen from the park’s museum collection and hidden in former superintendent Thomas Munson’s garage for over 20 years while park employees and several state agencies half-heartedly searched for them.
The timeline reads like testimony from the 1973 Senate Watergate Hearings, with letters, phone conversations and in-person meetings being documented between park administration, the Office of the State Archaeologist, the Midwest Archeological Center and the Midwest Regional Office of the National Park Service. Boiled down to its essential elements, the timeline sounds more like a government version of the Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on first?”
“Who’s got the bones?” “I don’t know. I thought you had ‘em.” “No, we sent them to you.” “Are you sure? Our records say we sent them to you.” “Ok, let me check. Nope. We definitely don’t have them. Seems like I remember sending them to Lincoln, Nebraska.” And so on… for years!
But it doesn’t stop there. The timeline shows how reports and studies were authorized that investigated the missing bones. At one point a “Curatorial Strike Team” was formed to review park records. The strike team looked over documents provided to them by the park and found nothing that explained where the bones were. It was later revealed that key documents were withheld from the team by unnamed park employees.
Then in August 2000, all investigation into the missing bones just seemed to stop. The timeline shows no activity until 2011. In April of that year, Patt Murphy, who at the time was the NAGPRA coordinator of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, requested to see a copy of the park’s “NAGPRA inventory,” the list of Native items in the park’s possession that are required to be entered into the Federal Register.
This apparently triggered a lot of anxiety and whispering among park employees. One of them, Administrative Technician Sharon Greener, approached Nepstad, who had just started working at the park the previous January.
“Mr. Superintendent, I feel I must tell you that a cancer is growing on the park…”
Ok, well, she didn’t actually say that. But like White House counsel John Dean in 1973, Greener supposedly informed her boss of the seriousness of the park’s involvement in the missing bones issue. She presented him with two separate reports from 1998 “both of which contained numerous mentions of missing human remains,” according to the timeline.
Nepstad began making inquiries. He assigned Park Law Enforcement Officer Bob Palmer to investigate. On April 27, 2011, Palmer visited former Park Superintendent Thomas Munson at his home, asking if he had any information on the missing bones. The timeline states Munson provided no further information and said the remains were sent to the Midwest Archeological Center years before.
The timeline doesn’t state whether or not Munson’s pants immediately burst into flames, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they did, considering that the bones were right in Munson’s garage.
Meanwhile, Greener confided to a co-worker that she was nervous about the missing bones. When asked why, she revealed she had boxed up two sets of human bone fragments in 1990 at Munson’s request and helped him carry them out to Munson’s car where they placed them in the trunk.
What did the co-worker, Administrative Assistant Theresa Wilson, do with this vital piece of information? Nothing. She told no one, saying later she thought Greener had confided her secret to many others and she thought they had reported it.
So the investigation continued. Nepstad, ordered an inventory be conducted of the park’s entire collection, which was done and, surprise surprise, turned up no bones.
With the heat turned up, Palmer again visited Munson at his home and impressed on him the gravity of the issue. Munson buckled, giving Palmer one box of the stolen remains that he said he found. He told Palmer there weren’t anymore and his pants immediately caught fire. (Ok, ok, not really.)
A new team was formed to investigate the missing bones, this time led by Special Agent Barland-Liles of the National Park Service Midwest Regional Office.
On May 16, 2012, Barland-Liles leaned on Greener for information. After a lengthy attempt to extract the truth, Greener admitted to helping Munson take the bones out to his car in 1990.
Barland-Liles went to Munson’s residence the next day, explaining what Greener told him and demanding permission to search Munson’s house. Munson’s wife Linda, bless her heart, signed a consent to search and there in Munson’s garage, in a beat-up cardboard box sitting on the ground beneath a workbench, was the remaining set of Native bones.
Munson eventually received one year of home detention and nearly $112,000 in fines and restitution for stealing the bones and for the damage caused by his disrespectful storage of them. Greener was fired by the Park Service in June 2013 and was then reinstated a year later after a successful appeal. No one was ever charged for helping cover up the issue of the missing bones.
The unsung hero in all this is Murphy, whose initial request to view the park’s NAGPRA inventory resulted in a renewed investigation and the eventual discovery of the bones.
The spirits of those ancient medicine men and leaders whose bones were once buried in the Effigy Mounds at the park never did possess anyone and make them start killing people. Instead they blessed the mind of Murphy, causing him to find an answer to the question, “Who’s got the bones?” Without that blessing, they’d probably still be in Munson’s garage.