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Death in El Malpais: Mystery Lingers

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          One facet of the mysterious disappearance of James Chatman and Crystal Tuggle has been solved: Human bones found scattered on a lava flow in El Malpais National Monument have been identified as those of the father and daughter, who never came back from an afternoon walk there eight years ago.
        The identification of the two from dental records can give their relatives some comfort, but it has only deepened the mystery of what led the two deep into the lava beds and what happened to them in rugged country south of Grants known as "the badlands."
        Chatman, 46, and Tuggle, 20, both of Albuquerque, left a rental car parked at the monument's "Big Tubes" parking lot on June 20, 2002, a Thursday. They were taking a day trip to celebrate Chatman's birthday and Father's Day.
        The two were seen by an archaeological team about 4:30 that afternoon, setting off toward a two-mile loop, marked by rock cairns, that leads to the lava tubes.
        Tuggle was wearing tennis shoes, Chatman was in leather deck shoes. Neither carried a day pack, and together they had one pint bottle of water. The temperature reached 95 degrees that day.
        Eight years later, on Sept. 21, national park employees researching a bat-killing fungus deep in the Big Tubes area a good five or six miles from where Chatman and Tuggle were last seen stumbled across scattered bones and two human skulls lying on the lava crust.
        Tuggle's shoes and bits of Chatman's credit cards were the only survivors of eight years in the rain and snow and heat of the badlands.
        Now we know where Chatman and Tuggle have been for the past eight years, but there are even more questions about what happened on that hike.
        "We're all perplexed," park spokeswoman Leslie DeLong told me earlier this week. She was among the park employees who searched on foot for days after the two disappeared. More than 250 people searched the park, first in a two-mile radius, then 5, then 10, then 15, then 35. Three teams of dogs combed the area, and spelunkers searched caves.
        Helicopters and airplanes flew repeated grids over the park and concentrated on the area where Chatman and Tuggle were ultimately found.
        I reminded DeLong that shortly after the disappearance in 2002 she had told a reporter, "If they were on the surface of the lava field, they would have been found."
        Obviously, that was not the case, and DeLong said that is part of the puzzle. The air search scoured the area beginning that Saturday, about 36 hours after the two were last seen. If they were alive, wouldn't they have signaled for help? If they were incapacitated or dead, how could the spotters have missed them?
        Another part of the mystery is why they ended up so far off the trail.
        Hiking in the lava fields is not like a walk in the park. The terrain is rough and spiky, and it can take an hour to walk a mile, DeLong said. The skeletons were found a good half-mile from the nearest cave entrance.
        Where they were found, DeLong said, "is not as easy place to get to." That tends to rule out foul play (you wouldn't expect to encounter a bad guy that far afield) and suggests getting lost (not difficult to do in such rocky labyrinthine terrain).
        State Police investigating the case in 2002 said they found nothing in Chatman's or Tuggle's backgrounds that would arose suspicions of an intentional disappearance.
        Chatman's older sister, Sylvia Thull, told me last week that the two had full lives. Chatman worked at Sandia Pueblo's casino and loved to hike. Tuggle worked at LensCrafters in Albuquerque and had just competed massage therapy school.
        "They were happy," Thull said. "They had a church they had attended for years. Crystal taught Sunday school."
        Another puzzle is why the two were found together.
        If either father or daughter became hurt or ill and couldn't walk out, wouldn't the other have tried to go for help? What can kill two people side by side? Murder? Murder-suicide? A cougar attack? A lightning strike? Could they have simply become overtaken by heat and exhaustion, sat down and never gotten up again?
        "There's hundreds of questions that haven't been answered, and they may not be," Thull said.
        It's all speculation and what-if until the state's Office of the Medical Investigator figures out a cause of death.
        Amy Boulé, the OMI's operations director, said consulting archaeologists at the University of North Texas are studying the skeletal remains for clues to how Chatman and Tuggle died.
        But forensic science can tell us only so much when a human body has been reduced by time to only bones. Bones could reveal a broken ankle, a skull fracture or some other evidence that could shed light on why the two never made it back to their car.
        Lacking blood and tissue, scientists can't prove a cause of death from a heart attack, a drug overdose or hyperthermia, as hypotheticals.
        Boulé said that even a stabbing or gunshot, if the blade or bullet pierced only flesh and organs, would not be found in an examination of bones.
        Boulé reminded me that there is a cause-of-death classification that pathologists choose when nothing conclusive can be found.
        It's called "undetermined." It closes a case, but it doesn't help to close a chapter on a mystery.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Leslie Linthicum can be reached at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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