Mystery of the dead mountaineer

Hikers find skeleton with barely any flesh remaining to aid identification Police say body does not solve any outstanding Madrid murder investigations

The body in La Pedriza, before it was removed by the authorities.
The body in La Pedriza, before it was removed by the authorities.ABC

On Friday, November 1, 2013, four hikers were making their way down towards the mountain pass of La Ventana, in Madrid's Sierra de Guadarrama. They had taken the so-called "bees alley" route, a narrow path located on the east face of the Pedriza ridge. As they passed through the steep, rocky walls, they saw it. A dead body.

The corpse was naked and dismembered and hardly had any skin left over its bones. Vultures and foxes had eaten away the flesh, and there were no clothes or backpack nearby to afford clues as to the victim's identity. There had been no recent reports of missing persons in the area. When a source reported that the body belonged to a woman, some newspapers immediately cried homicide and reviewed past cases of people who had disappeared. Chief among these was the case of María Piedad García Revuelta, a resident of Boadilla who went missing in 2010 after having dinner with a former boyfriend who was found hanging by his neck three days later.

The following day, Civil Guard officer Amador was among the first people to come face to face with the corpse of La Pedriza. The hikers had shown the police pictures of the spot to help them locate it, but it wasn't until Saturday noon that Amador, a good hiker, managed to reach the site on foot, along with other members of the Civil Guard's Mountain Rescue Unit and the Police Criminal Investigation Department.

"Another day we went back to look for more clues, but there was nothing," says Amador back at headquarters in Tres Cantos. "If the death occurred in the winter, there might have been remains of a coat; but if it was in the summer, it would have been more like a t-shirt, with nothing left of it by now. The boots are probably inside the nest of a vulture who took them away to eat the feet at its leisure."

The boots are probably inside the nest of a vulture who ate the feet"

The body was taken to the funeral home at Colmenar Viejo, but there were no tissues left to analyze. It was then transferred to the Forensic Anatomical Institute of the Madrid region, where it was placed in the hands of Enrique Dorado, an anthropologist who has participated in well-known cases such as the disappearance of the murdered Córdoba children Ruth and José.

For many long days, Dorado cleaned the corpse, examined the earth and the leaves that the Civil Guard handed him as further evidence, performed morphological analyses using ultraviolet light to ascertain how old the body was, then did entomological testing to know when the victim had died.

But faced with the challenge of extracting information from a skeleton with no hands and no lower body, the author of studies such as The anthropological determination of gender using the sternum decided to focus on three main points: size, age and gender.

"Age can be determined through the sutures and grooves in the skull, by the way hips are joined, through osteoarthritis of the backbone and how worn the teeth are," he explains. His job, basically, is to interview the body about its life. "Old injuries, for example, say something about the person. Prosthetic or dental implants provide clues as to where the person came from."

I really like La Pedriza; the closest road is an hour and a half away"

This kind of testing determined that the body had in fact belonged to a male aged between 30 and 45, standing 1,65m to 1,75m, fair of skin, with thinning blond or light brown hair trimmed very short. He had good teeth and a silver filling in one molar. He had been dead at least a year. So much for María Piedad, at least.

Next, the Civil Guard introduced DNA from the remains into its Phoenix program - a database of genetic material from relatives of missing persons and unidentified remains. There were no matches. Officers checked all reports of missing people in Madrid and nearby provinces. Citizen cooperation was requested.

Back at Tres Cantos, three robust men are still on the case three months later: Officer Amador, Lieutenant Víctor Pérez and Sergeant Zamorano. Of the 45 people reported missing within Madrid bounds, they figure that 90 percent are either voluntary disappearances (foreigners who went back home, for instance) or people who reappeared but whose relatives never bothered to inform authorities about it.

"We have around 15 candidates," explains Lieutenant Pérez. "You need to interview relatives and see if they've already turned over DNA material. You also need to ask them for objects that belonged to the missing person that could contain genetic material, such as toothbrushes or razors. It all takes time."

And while the homicide theory has not been ruled out, it seems unlikely. "I really like La Pedriza, and the closest road to that point, in Cantocochino, is an hour and a half away," notes Amador. "Hauling a body up there would require four people and as many hours, in full daylight."

"There are better ways of getting rid of a body," adds Pérez conspiratorially.

Everything seems to indicate that the body, which was found at the foot of a 20-meter wall, belonged to a hiker who died after a fall. "The problem is if he was a solitary person, like a foreigner without family ties. If you lead a normal life you are easy to locate, because everyone at some point tells other people that they like to go hiking on weekends," says Amador.

The exact date of death is also hard to determine because of the cold, which prevented flies from laying eggs in the body and triggering the normal process of decomposition. "Let's put it this way: it's not as easy to establish all the facts as it is with a body that turns up inside an apartment," explains Zamorano, who goes on to reveal that corpses show up somewhere in that area every two to three years.

"But they are always easy to identify. Some bodies show up after the people went missing 40 years earlier. Others were suicide cases who are not found until the winter is over and hikers go back to the hills. Also, this area is always turning up remains from the Civil War."

But they all agree that it's not normal for a climber to disappear without anyone reporting the disappearance. A recent example of this is the case of two young men from Toledo who got lost in these same mountains earlier this month, and who were quickly rescued - though not fast enough to save the life of one of them.

For now, the identity of the body from La Pedriza remains an unsolved mystery. Without new clues, it will be hard to close the case. Officer Amador remains optimistic, though. "We'll eventually find out who he is."

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