2003 Bones Search II

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In the spring of 2003, TIGHAR sent Roger Kelley, a former Marine and retired police officer, and Marty Moleski, a Jesuit priest, to Fiji to follow up on various leads developed in the 1999 search for the bones that had been found on Nikumaroro in 1940. Although TIGHAR had also developed fresh ideas for avenues to explore through the Earhart Forum, Kelley and Moleski's search failed to find any trace of the bones, sextant box, shoe parts, and corks that Gallagher had found on Nikumaroro and sent to Fiji.




The WPHC closed the inquiry into the death of an unknown person on Niku in September of 1941. The last entry in the file reads, "Seen. P.A. ["put away"]." There is no mention in the file of what was done with the bones and other materials that Gallagher had collected.

1941-1976 Western Pacific High Commission
1941 Sir Harry Luke, WPCH High Commissioner and Governor of Fiji (died 1969)
1941 Henry Harrison Vaskess (died 1969), Secretary of the WPHC
1941 David Winn Hoodless, MD (died ~1955), Fiji School of Medicine
1941-1976 Patrick "Paddy" MacDonald. errand boy in 1941 but later became Colonial Secretary.
1940-1981 Walter Lindsay Isaac Verrier, MD (died 1981)
1950s Kenneth J. Gilchrist, MD (died 1992)
1968 Gerard Denis Murphy, MD (died 2004?)

Burials, Cremations, Police Evidence Warehouse

Amelia, 30 August 1939.
Amelia was Polynesian.

It is conceivable that someone decided to give the castaway of Nikumaroro a decent burial. Roger Kelley tested that idea by examining all of the burial and cremation records in Suva from 1937 to the present.

Comment from Daniel Postellon
Regarding "naming the bones and burying them". We named the (Saxon) skeletons we found during an archaeological dig in Winchester. The names usually had something to do with their characteristics. One that I fondly remember was "Ethelred Unbod" We only found the skull and a few vertebrae, the rest of the skeleton was destroyed when some Victorians dug a big hole on the site a century earlier. It might be worth looking for a "John Doe Gardner" or some similar creative name.

Roger Kelley's Reports--Fiji, 2003

We visited four cemeteries and found hundreds of graves without monuments. Most of the small stones marking the graves have no legible numbers on them. There are hundreds of unmarked depressions in the grounds as well, probably representing older grave sites. We're not likely to find a headstone that says, "Skeleton, Human, Remains of, Found on Gardner Island."

Search of Hoodless House garage

When Kelley and Moleski were preparing for the trip to Fiji, we reviewed notes from the 1999 bones search, which seemed to suggest that there were boxes in the garage. Our interpretation of the note suggested the picture of boxes containing interesting papers and maybe even some old bones. In retrospect, it seems that they may have seen cardboard boxes flattened on the floor, perhaps to catch oil drips from a car parked there or else some other form of garbage. The garage does not have any hiding places where a box of bones could rest unmolested for sixty years or more.

Roger Kelley's report

At approximately 13:30 hrs, I located the Colonial War Memorial Hospital, Waimanu Road, Suva. Telephone 331-3444. I explored areas open to the public and took photographs of the exterior of the hospital and the hospital grounds.

I discovered sealed tunnels which lead into the hill under the Maternity Ward on Extension Street. The tunnels are sealed with concrete and have foliage and residue over and around the entrance. There is no evidence of the purpose the tunnels served or how deep into the hill the tunnels penetrate. I photographed the tunnel entrances and street scene.

I also located Hoodless House, on Brown Street, directly behind CWMH. Directly across the street from Hoodless House are two garages built into the side of the hill. The two garages are joined by a common center wall and are covered with a concrete pad, complete with old pillars and railings on top. There are chairs on top of the pad. Both garage doors were standing open when I approached, revealing their interiors and contents.

The garage on the right is clean and contains no material of any kind. Bare concrete from wall to wall. The garage on the left is empty with a small amount of trash and dirt on the floor. I checked the debris on the floor for any item which may aid in our investigation and found nothing. I did find one page from a newspaper dated July 16, 2002.

There were no objects or material of any apparent value in either garage.

I photographed the street scene, the front of Hoodless House, and the exterior and interior of the two garages.


Discussion of the possibilities

What if Hoodless kept the bones?

  • Then his family should have inherited them. Hoodless' daughter says that she is not aware of any box of bones left by her father.

What if the bones stayed at the Fiji School of Medicine?

  • Most probably discarded with other unwanted historical material by an acting director in the 1950s who took over when Dr. Frater died unexpectedly. We do not have any substantiation of the name of the acting director nor of an order to 'Get rid of all of that stuff.' But it is not, on the face of it, an implausible story.
  • The bones could have been discarded at any time with medical waste from Colonial War Memorial Hospital. Neither FSM nor CWMH have records that go back to the 1940s and 1950s that would preserve that level of detail.

Were the bones buried or cremated?

  • Kelley's research suggests that no bones found on Gardner were buried or cremated through the system whose files he searched in Suva. That does not mean that there might not have been an unofficial burial or cremation in Suva or elsewhere.

Were the bones returned to the WPHC?

  • There is no record of that in the file. The last note about the bones says that Hoodless will keep them until Sir Harry decides what the next step is.

Why is there no record of disposition of the Niku materials?

Hoodless had custody only of the kanawa box and the bones. He could not have discarded the sextant box, shoe parts, or corks even if he tried.

Premise: Bureaucrats keep records

Moleski: After reading the files in the National Archives of Fiji, I understand what others have said: it seems inconceivable that the British would have let the disposition of the material collected on Niku remain unrecorded. It seems that there has to be a record somewhere of what someone decided to do with the material. Even if someone decided that it was all worthless and should be burned, the standard-issue British bureaucrat would record that judgment for posterity. We just don't know where that record is--if it exists.

"Think like a bureaucrat."

To dispose of any of the material without a note would be dereliction of duty.

Guess: the bones file and the material became separated

What if:

  • The bones file went into the archives because someone thought it was a dead file.
  • But the Gardner artifacts were still in storage somewhere.
  • A cleanup of the storage space requires making a record of disposition. But the bones file is not available to use because it's gone into the archives. So a new file is opened--or the information simply goes into a different file under the title "Getting Rid of Old Junk." No cross-ref will be found in the old file because they don't have access to the old file any more.

There was also a time of confusion when a new numbering system was imposed on the filing system. But it would be highly unlike Vaskess not to find the old file and make a note in it if he was the one who decided to get rid of the Niku material.

Why is the death of the Niku castaway not in someone's Cold Case Files?

  • There was no such terminology in the 1940s.
  • The Fijian evidence warehouse (searched by Kelley) seems to date from Fiji's independence in 1970. Prior to that, the WPHC and/or some other part of the Colonial Service provided police services. If there were "police files" prior to the establishment of the current police force, we have not found them.

Was there ever a coroner's inquest into the death of the castaway?

  • As far as we could tell, no. It seems as though the bones file is a record of an inquest, such as it was.
  • There may not have been any obligation for the WPHC to report its findings to anyone but itself. Sir Harry wore two hats: High Commissioner of the WPHC and Governor of Fiji. Niku fell under the jurisdiction of the WPHC, not that of Fiji. For all practical purposes, Sir Harry or his delegates acted as the coroner for this case. The final note in the bones file says effectively, "Case closed."

Have people lied to us about what they know?

Moleski: I don't think we have to presume any conspiracy to keep the bones story quiet. The people who had the stuff did the best they could with colonial resources. Once Hoodless judged that the remains were from a male and other examiners found no significance in the sextant box, shoe parts, or corks, the case just became mundane. Some poor soul died on Niku--one of many unknowns who died in the Pacific over the years. No one bothered to double back and cross-reference later files with earlier ones. "Do not attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance" (Hanlon's Razor).

Helpful Witness Syndrome

Kelley and Moleski experienced the Helpful Witness Syndrome firsthand. This may not be the best name for it, but it describes the enthusiasm that some people have to help solve cases. They strain their minds and imaginations to make suggestions about how an investigation should proceed. They would not be identified as suffering from HWS if any of their leads panned out.

In our case, a man heard Moleski asking questions at the National Archives. He said he remembered a story about a little coffin being found in the DAV Girls School near the South Pacific Commission. He thought the coffin was associated with Hoodless. Our informant was born in 1951. If the event took place in the 1950s, it must have been between 1955 and 1959. He guessed 1957. There was a schoolboy rumor that the doctors were involved in some kind of devil-worship.

That was just the beginning of an apparently endless stream of advice about people to contact. He came to our hotel one night, planning to persuade us to hop in our car and drive around Suva tracking down people who might help us find Amelia. The fact that we had no car put a dent in his plans, but he stayed and talked for as long as we could stand it.

At a guess, the news coverage of Bones I from 1999 probably seeded his "memories" of the little coffin. No other informant confirmed any of the stories he told. It seems highly unlikely that he had any information that would help solve the case.

Summary: Where the bones are not

Possible places to search

Tom King:

  • The Colonial War Memorial Hospital. Only the dental clinic (Dr. Hoodless' old offices) and its overhead crawl space have been checked. The crawl space was full of old stuff, some of it going back to WWII, but no bones. There's no telling how many other such spaces there are in the Hospital complex, which is huge and Victorian.
  • Tunnels other than those checked. We know that the collections of the Fiji Museum went into the tunnels during the War; we don't know what else may have, and not come out. Virtually all the tunnels are sealed.
  • Levuka Masonic Lodge. This was the old Masonic HQ; the Suva facility (which has been checked, if not really thoroughly) was established later. Unfortunately it was burned by rioters during the 2000 coup, during which allegedly a human skull was stolen.
  • US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Gaithersburg MD. The U.S. 112th Medical Corps moved into Fiji about the time the bones papers come to an end, and took over some medical operations from local authorities, including Hoodless. It is not inconceivable that the 112th wound up with the bones, in which case it's not inconceivable they wound up at AFIP, whose warehouse (where I've spent half a day in awe-struck wonder) gives credence to the last scene in the first Indiana Jones movie. There is, however, no tangible evidence that this happened.
  • Archive in Tarawa, Kiribati: place where the first version of the bones file was found. Other files there may contain a clue.

To do

  • Find Paddy MacDonald's family. He knew the whole bones story. He may have been the man who made the final decision on what to do with the material collected on Niku. If not, he knew the man who made the decision. Paddy was there from 1941 until the WPHC went out of business in 1978.

Leftover suggestions for Bones III