A plumber looking for a place to run pipes under Julia Randall Elementary School recently stumbled upon human skeletal remains.
The out-of-town contractor, working on the Rock Building's cooling system, told two custodians about the bones he spotted through a small hole leading to a crawlspace below the gymnasium. The custodians, Bob Buckner and Bonnie Estrada, retrieved the bones, which included part of a skull and a leg bone.
"The first one was close (to the opening)," Buckner said. "You could reach in and get it. The other one was back there so I got a long pole. It was the top part of a skull with the eye sockets. The bones were scattered all over the place."
To confirm that what they found were human remains, the two custodians compared the bones to a skeleton model in a teacher's classroom.
"At first, we thought they were just animal bones," Estrada said, "so we ran up to Mr. Ammann's room and brought down his little skeleton. We compared them and knew they were human."
When Buckner and Estrada realized they were looking at human remains, they had Principal Ardyth Potter call the Payson Police Department. Det. Matt Vancamp and Sgt. Tom Tieman responded.
"Sgt. Tieman and I went down and looked at the bones," Vancamp said. "They looked pretty well preserved. They were in such good condition, that I said they looked like they were about 10 years old."
But since prehistoric human remains are often found in the area, Vancamp asked local archaeologist Penny Minturn to examine the bones.
"She looked at them and felt they could be ancient bones of white Europeans, possibly explorers prior to settlement, and that they didn't appear to be Indian burial remains," Vancamp said.
Minturn said she was certain they were not Native American bones.
"I've seen a lot of Native American remains," Minturn said, "and this looks very different to me."
‘They want the bones'
A state archaeologist happened to be passing through town, and Minturn showed him the bones. She said he was very interested, prompting her to request assistance from the police in accessing the crawlspace.
"(Minturn) called back and said, ‘They want the bones,'" Vancamp said. "We made arrangements with the fire department to cut a larger hole in the wall."
With the hole enlarged, Minturn shined a flashlight into the crawlspace and spotted still more bones.
"She found a good deal more of the skeleton," Vancamp said. "I think she got two-thirds of the body."
According to Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner, Minturn found more than bones.
"There were two chunks of lead that were unusual," Gartner said. "They could be rounds from a .32 just by looking at it."
Police say it's too early to assume foul play is involved. In fact, Vancamp said he thinks the pieces may just be the lead caps of old-style metal roofing nails.
But just to be sure, the remains have been sent to a forensics lab for analysis.
"The first step is we have to have a feel for how old these bones are," Gartner said. "If they're fairly new, we'll probably try to spend some time on it. But if they're 100 years old, I don't even know how we'd begin to work on it."
The chief said he wants to wait for the results from the forensics lab before he commits resources to the investigation.
Although Minturn said she initially believed the bones were much older, she later told the Roundup she changed her mind.
"The school was built in 1933," she said. "It would have had to have been sometime after that."
Minturn is looking into other scenarios, as well.
"At some point, some of the floor of the gym burned and must have been repaired," she said. "We're just trying to figure out what the time span must be for when anybody looked under the crawlspace. It's very weird and we've gone over and over it in our little heads what the scenario might be and haven't really come up with anything satisfactory."
Buckner and Estrada have a theory based on the fact that there are several vents where the crawlspace can be accessed from outside the building.
"All around the outside used to have holes, and now they've put screens on them," Buckner said. "My theory was maybe years ago coyotes found this thing, dug it up and chewed it up or something, because they weren't buried -- they were on top of the ground."
Estrada had a different theory.
"Last year, this area got flooded and we figure that all the water ran down here and washed them up," she said.
While the area is not considered a crime scene, the police have not yet ruled out foul play.
The Rock Building is the oldest on the JRE campus, and generations of locals have passed stories about paranormal happenings.
"I clean this building, and I've always said that this building is haunted," Estrada said. "I hear funny noises and eerie things have happened in here. Every custodian says the same thing."
Estrada described doors closing, cold spots, and the draft from "someone walking next to you.
"I don't get off work until 9 p.m., but I won't do this building once it gets dark -- I clean it during the day," she said. "I believe in spirits and I believe this building is haunted."
Vancamp grew up in Payson and attended JRE in the 1970s.
"That was a dungeon for the bad kids," he said. "You knew the hole was there and there was a space underneath the gym. When you were playing dodgeball in the gym, it was, ‘Don't make too much noise. You might wake those people up.'"
Potter has only been principal of JRE for two years, but she's heard the stories.
"People who have lived here and teachers who have been here have always said, ‘There's bones buried under there,'" she said. "I've always heard there are bones in the basement. Well, we've found some."