Recent Research Adds Another Twist to the Alferd Packer Murder Mystery
KREX News Room
LAKE CITY, Colo.- The story of Alferd Packer and the death of his five prospector companions has been widely debated by Western Slope residents for nearly 140 years.
In 1874, the six men climbed through the San Juan Mountains through a brutal winter with their sites on a gold strike in Breckenridge, Colorado.
"It was the worst winter in Colorado history," said David Bailey, Director of the Western Investigators Team. "Even in August, there was snow up in Lake City."
Despite warning from a local Ute tribe, the men made the climb.
By April of the following spring, the bodies of Packer's five companions were found murdered and partially eaten near a creek south of Lake City.
Packer spent eight years on the run before finally being arrested in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
"He was then sentenced to life in prison, or they said they were going to hang him until he was dead, dead, dead," said Dr. Richard Dujay, Director of the CMU Center for Microscopy.
However, during the trial, he told the jury it was his companion, Shannon Bell, that attacked the group with a hatchet, and in self-defense, he shot Bell with his pistol.
To his death bed, Packer continued to plead innocence.
"When he was sentenced to prison, he said someday in the future someone will find out what really happened," said Bailey.
For nearly a century the debate raged on.
Finally, new evidence surfaced in 1989 after a forensic scientist from George Washington University studied the bone remains of the five deceased men.
"Interestingly, there were blanket fibers in their craniums and their skulls showing they had been hit with a sharp object, like an ax or a knife, hard enough that it embedded the blanket fibers into the bone," said Grant Houston, President of the Hinsdale County Historical Society.
In 1992, while conducting inventory at the Museum of Western Colorado, Bailey came across an 1862 Colt Pistol with a note that said it was found at the site of the Packer massacre.
"That piqued my interest that it was an actual gun from the murder site," said Bailey. "After that, it just became a wild chase."
The five-chamber pistol still has three of its original bullets in it, which matches up with Packer's story that he shot Bell twice.
The one remaining question - Did the bullets wounds match the bullets in the gun?
In 2000, Bailey partnered with Colorado Mesa University to find the answer that couldn't be found in the late 1800s.
"CMU has state of the art equipment, so we could do a lot more intense study then what they could in those days," said Bailey.
After months of investigating, the scientists found what they were looking for.
"It was almost pure lead, and that matched up to the bullet that was found in Packer's gun," said Dujay.
So with conclusive evidence that the victims were attacked with a sharp object and that Bell was shot with Packer's gun, was Packer indeed telling the truth?
"The lead residue adds another piece, and that is what has kept us fascinated for 140 years is the pieces to this puzzle," said Houston. "I'm not sure if we will ever really know at this rate."