In 1999 scientists working on behalf of the church used aerial photographs, metal detectors, core soil sampling, and ground-penetrating radar for a noninvasive study of the location. Forensic geologists and geophysicists searched for anomalies in the soil pattern: chemical concentrations of calcium, for instance, that would indicate where burials had taken place. All the while, church leaders went to great lengths to keep the renovation secret from public and press. Then, on August 3, church officials announced that the digging could go ahead without disturbance. Baker had found that "the archeological evidence was 100 percent negative," as he told a reporter, so the excavation began. On making their grim discovery, the men at the backhoe that August morning were first inclined, one of them admitted later, to dump the shovel's load tight back in the hole and swear one another to secrecy. But discovering that there were specific state laws about handling excavated remains, they eventually decided to call Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, who drove out to the cairn. "It was a very humbling, spiritual experience," Sheriff Smith recalled. "I saw buttons, some pottery, and bones of adults and children. But the children—that was what really hit me hard."

After a flurry of meetings, discussions, and phone conversations, the Utah state archeologist, Kevin Jones, explained that state law required that any unidentified human remains found on private property be forensically examined and that failure to comply would be a criminal felony. Jones issued a permit to allow scientists to determine the age, sex, race, stature, health condition, and cause of death of those whose remains had been found, and to segregate them for individual and proper reburial. Utah's governor, Mike Leavitt, who happened to be a descendant of a participant in the massacre, was in the discussions and asked that the bones be quickly reburied, ordering state officials to find administrative or other means to do so.

Teams of anthropologists, archeologists, and other scientists around Utah began working long hours poring over the remains as fast as possible. They were intrigued by the discovery and well aware of what one newspaper editor called Utah's "unique church-state tango." "This [kind of work] is giving the dead a chance to speak," said Shannon Novak, a University of Utah forensic anthropologist whose analysis of a mass grave in Croatia had helped lead to the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. But neither Novak nor her colleagues were prepared for what they would find among the victims at Mountain Meadows. Reconstructing some 18 different skulls from 2,605 pieces of bone from 28 victims, including women and children, the scientists produced the first physical evidence in a long and disputed history. The investigation "suggests the killing of women and children may have been more complicated than [in previous] accounts," Dr. Novak wrote in her final study, presented last October to the Midwest Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology Association. Among other revelations, the examinations disclosed that some of the victims, including several women and at least one child, had been killed while facing their executioners head-on, by point-blank gunshots between their eyes, rather than by being shot in the back while fleeing, as earlier accounts had claimed.

FURTHER, IT BECAME EVIDENT THAT THE MURDERS HAD been committed by white men rather than by the Paiute Indians commonly blamed for all the attacks on the women and children. And it was especially clear that John D. Lee, the one man ever held accountable for the crime, could not possibly have acted alone in a mass murder of this magnitude. Paiute leaders say the new forensic evidence supports their own oral histories that the tribe has been wrongfully blamed. Novak's examination was still not completed in crucial aspects, including DNA testing, when the bones were reburied, under orders from Governor Leavitt. Marian Jacklin, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist, was one of the many who fought the state's decision to halt the inquiry. "Those bones could tell the story and this was their one opportunity," she said. "I would allow my own mother's bones to be studied in a respectful way if it would benefit medicine or history."

The brief episode of revelation and suppression sparked heated charges and countercharges. Hundreds of victims' relatives around the country petitioned the state of Utah to retrieve the remains of their ancestors; some demanded DNA testing. More than 28,000 hits were recorded on a once obscure Internet Web site about the massacre. The governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, speaking for descendants living in his state, requested federal stewardship of the site, which would remove it from church control. "It's like having Lee Harvey Oswald in charge of JFK's tomb," said Scott Fancher, a descendant of one of the leaders of the wagon train.

The contemporary conflict is only the latest episode in the often stormy 144-year aftermath of the massacre. It all comes down to a still-unfinished search for meaning and responsibility. But. Maj. James H. Carleton summed up the problem in a special report to Congress in 1859: "In pursuing the bloody thread which runs throughout this picture of sad realities, the question how this crime, that for hellish atrocity has no parallel in our history, can be adequately punished often comes up and seeks in vain for an answer." Carleton, commanding a troop of U.S. dragoons from California, had been among the first federal officers to investigate the incident, two years after it happened. According to his Official report, his men found 34 exposed skeletons and buried them in a grave marked with a rough stone cairn. They placed a 24-foot cedar cross on top with the defiant inscription "Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord."

Neither Novak nor her colleagues were prepared for the evidence of brutality they'd find—or for the political tug-of-war that would follow. next page