David P. Bailey
Bachelor of Arts, History
Mesa State College, 1987
After graduating from Mesa State College in 1987, David began his career in historical research and writing. He accepted a position as Curator of History at the Museum of Western Colorado in 1992. In that capacity, he served as a documentary film consultant, worked in the fields of historic preservation, public history, exhibit design, and wrote numerous articles about western Colorado history. David was promoted to Chief Curator in 2000, and a year later was appointed by Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to serve as a history and archeology consultant on the BLM Resource Advisory Committee.
In February 2001, he returned to his alma mater to work with Dr. Richard Dujay and a group of Mesa State Scientists to use state of the art forensic technology to solve the 128-year-old Alferd Packer murder mystery. David has spent seven years researching the case and with the help of the scientists exonerated Alferd Packer of the crime of murdering his companions. In recognition of his research, he received the Westword-Best of Denver Award in 2001 for his research on the case.
"I count my years as a history student at Mesa State College as some of the most formative of my life," said Bailey. "The professors developed my sense of inquiry, imagination, and a strong work ethic needed to accomplish my goals in life."
Solving the American West's Greatest Mystery:
Was Alferd Packer Innocent of Murder?
In 1994, one of my main objectives as Curator of History was to photograph, document, and obtain the provenance or associated history of the firearms in the Thrailkill collection. The Thrailkill collection has an amazing assortment of pistols, rifles, carbines, and swords owned by the famous and infamous figures of the Wild West, such as Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, and outlaw members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch.
Many of the firearms had fascinating histories that were well documented and verified by firearms experts. Several had little or no historic information, but a few had tantalizing bits of information that connected them to important events in Colorado history. One of the most intriguing of these was an 1862 Colt Police Model pistol. The pistol was in poor condition, the grips were rotted off, the main spring broken, and the rusted cylinder of the gun still had .38 caliber bullets in three of its five chambers. The yellowed accession card with the gun cryptically stated, " This gun was found at the site where Packer killed and ate five of his traveling companions."
The card referred to one of the most infamous incidents in the American West. In the winter of 1874, Packer and five prospecting companions tried to cross the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado in order to reach the Los Pinos Indian Agency, 75 miles from present day Lake City. The famous Ute leader, Chief Ouray, advised them not to attempt this dangerous passage in winter, but the prospectors, anxious to get to a gold strike in Breckenridge, ignored his warning. In April of that year, only one man ventured out of the mountains, Packer. Suspicions were aroused and Packer was arrested after his companions were found murdered and partially eaten. Fearing that he would be lynched and hanged, Packer escaped from jail and stayed on the run for eight years. He was eventually arrested in Cheyenne, Wyoming, tried, and after several changes of venue, was sentenced to forty years in prison. During the trial, he told the jury that his prospecting companion, Shannon Bell, attacked him with a hatchet after killing the other members in the party. Packer then fired his gun at Bell and killed him. After much hesitation, Packer admitted to "eating the flesh of his fellow man" knowing that he was on the brink of death from starvation. Packer later claimed that it was cannibalism that sent him to jail not murder charges. However, in 1901, Packer was paroled after sixteen years in prison due to the public outcry that he was convicted on flimsy circumstantial evidence. He eventually died in 1907, claiming to his last breath that he was innocent of murdering his traveling companions.
To think that this rusted relic could actually be the pistol that Packer used to shoot Bell intrigued me and I decided to find out whether or not this gun had actually been at the murder site. While researching the pistol's origin, I found out it had been issued by the Colt Firearms Company as a cap and ball revolver in 1862. The gun was later re-released in 1873 and converted to fire .38 caliber rimfire bullets. This conversion pistol was popular with prospectors because it was inexpensive and this is why it accompanied the ill-fated Packer expedition. Even more astoundingly, while working with archaeologist Phil Born in the Museum collections, he noticed the pistol and recalled seeing a photograph of it taken by his cousin, Jim Harris, many years ago.
On April 14, 1994, I contacted his cousin in Texas and found out how the pistol came into the Museum's possession. A young Western State College historian, Ernest Ronzio, had unearthed the pistol in 1950. Mr. Ronzio was a student of C.T. Hurst, the father of Colorado Archeology. After the pistol was found at the Packer massacre on Cannibal Mesa, near Lake City, Colorado, it was brought to Jim Harris, then a member of the Uncompahgre Archaeology Society, to be photographed and studied. The pistol later went on display at the Western State College (WSC) Museum. I verified that the pistol had been in the Museum's collection when I noticed an old accession number on the backstrap of the gun. I called the librarian at WSC and she found the old museum record book indicated that the accession number on the gun matched an entry in the book. This entry described the rusted condition of the pistol and that it came from the Packer site on loan by Ronzio. Eventually the pistol was purchased by Audrey Thrailkill and given to the Museum of Western Colorado.
Having established the proper time frame and location in conjunction with the Packer massacre, I began a search for every document related to the Packer case in hopes of connecting the pistol to the crime. From 1994 to 1999, I combed through archives, research libraries, old diaries, depositions, and hundreds of pages of the Packer trial documents. The evidence that emerged was astounding because many of the documents were proof that Packer was innocent. I found much of the testimony given by the witnesses against Packer directly contradicted later interviews they gave to the press and other private sources. Other 1873 documents indicated that, although the bodies had been exposed to the elements, each of the dead men was identifiable by their clothes and physical features. A Civil War veteran that visited the crime scene stated that Shannon Bell had been shot twice and the other victims were killed with a hatchet. Upon careful study of Bell, he noticed a severe bullet wound to the pelvic area and that Bell's wallet had a bullet hole through it. He also stated that only two shots were fired at the murder scene, both at Bell. This passage caught my attention because the rusted 1862 Colt pistol found many years later at the scene had two chambers empty and three loaded.
The facts from the 1873 investigation of the murder scene seemed to mesh with the physical evidence, the 1862 Colt pistol. Packer stated numerous times during his trial that he shot the real killer Shannon Bell, but his testimony failed to convince the jury. What is even stranger is that visitors to the crime scene failed to report their findings on the witness stand, and in some cases lied about what they discovered.
As with many historical investigations, my chance to prove my case came unexpectedly during a visit to the Lake City Museum in October of 2000. The Museum of Western Colorado and the Hinsdale County Historical Society had just finished a joint exhibit on Packer. I asked Grant Houston, the Hinsdale County Historian, about the exhumation of the Packer party victims by Dr. Starrs and a forensic team in 1989. He explained the team proved the bodies had been cannibalized and had met violent deaths. Each of the skeletons had been marked A through E for scientific identification and then photographed. Skeleton A had a hole in the pelvic region and therefore must be Shannon Bell. Mr. Houston shocked me by mentioning that forensic samples had been taken from under the skeletons and were now in possession of the Historical Society. I then asked if the Museum could borrow the samples from Skeleton A (Shannon Bell) for testing. Hopefully, there would still be gunshot residue in the samples to help prove Packer's story that Shannon Bell had been shot at close range.
After receiving permission from the Historical Society, I took the samples to Mesa State's Electron Microscopy facility in Grand Junction. A team of scientists led by Dr. Richard Dujay, the facility manager, began to examine the bits of wool fabric, old buttons, and soil for the traces of residue with the electron microscope. Dr. Dujay knew the task of finding gunshot residue would be difficult and stated, "It's as if 127 years ago someone hit a baseball in the U.S. and now you're asking to find it."
The Packer research team will take a trip to Lake City soon to gather more soil samples and survey the murder site. Publications on the project will be forth coming with the completion and release of David Bailey's book on Packer, followed by scientific and possibly forensic publications concerning the work performed at Mesa State College.
Alferd Packer T-shirts are available at the Museum of Western Colorado and may be available soon at Mesa State's campus book store. The T-shirts boast the cooperation between the Museum of Western Colorado and Mesa State College with the names of the research team members, including MSC students, listed on the back of the shirts.
David Bailey 2002