Stolen skulls returned to crypt

The bodies of husband and wife Susan and Patrick Henry Clayton, a prominent couple in Carson City history, may finally be able to rest for the first time since their graves were robbed on Halloween 1997.

A small ceremony Monday saw the return of their skulls, snatched from the family crypt in the Lone Mountain Cemetery more than two years ago. The return ends a saga riddled with admitted drug-related motives and whispers of alleged witchcraft.

Two state scientists and a Christian minister were on hand to bless the bodies and match the skulls to the correct bodies before putting a temporary weld on the door. The crypt, which also contains the coffin of an infant, is expected to be permanently sealed today.

Detective Steve Johnson said the replacement of the skulls was prescribed when the cases of David Shaughnessy, 39, and Nanette Birdsell, 36, were resolved and both skulls were returned.

Patrick Henry Clayton, who died in 1871, is perhaps best known for his part in the foundation of the Democratic party in Nevada. Susan Clayton outlived her husband by more than a quarter century, dying in 1905 in Genoa.

Archeologist Amy Dansie of the Nevada State Museum said the bodies were in the middle stages of decomposition, a process that was slowed by careful mummification and preservation.

"He (Patrick Henry) had a fine beard and was very well mummified," she said. "The hair on his head was still in place and it even looked like it was still combed. Not too much damage."

The skull of Susan Clayton suffered significantly more damage in an apparent attempt "to boil the skin off," Dansie said. The mandible bone was missing and the withered skin was saturated with detergent.

In anthropological circles, Dansie said, simmering bodily remains in boiling detergent solutions is a common practice for cleaning bones.

"The skull was still wet from being soaked when it was returned," she said.

Although investigators believed the skulls may have been intended for some kind of ritual, no evidence was brought out in court.

The process of matching the skulls to the severed vertebrae was fairly simple in this case, Dansie said. Susan was much smaller than Patrick Henry and two rounded knobs on the bottom of each skull matched "cup-like" counterparts on the vertebrae.

In a plea agreement with prosecutors in October, Shaughnessy, who was arrested while trying to sell the skull, agreed to testify against Birdsell and Janice Marie Hershey, 33, in exchange for a probationary sentence. Birdsell pleaded guilty early this month.

Hershey is scheduled for a status check mid-February. She pleaded not guilty to burglary and grave robbery charges at her October arraignment. A district court clerk said her prosecution will be re-examined.

During Birdsell's preliminary hearing, at which time she maintained her innocence, Shaughnessy said he sold her Susan Clayton's skull for $400 and an equivalent amount of methamphetamine.

Shaughnessy said he and his then-girlfriend Hershey broke open the crypt with a crowbar and snapped the skulls off the bodies with a hammer and chisel.

If Judge Michael Griffin follows the district attorney's recommendations, Birdsell will serve 15 days in Carson City Jail, five years probation and 100 hours of community service. But she could be sentenced to as much as four years in prison.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment