Human skeletons missing from museum discovered in Atherton backyard

ATHERTON, Calif. (KTVU) - Human skeletons discovered at an Atherton home this week, may turn out to be Native American remains, long missing from a local museum.

Authorities now have another mystery on their hands. They're trying to learn how the bones ended up in someone's back yard.

The two human skeletons were found amongst the furniture and boxes at an Atherton home. A neighbor called police, fearing the worst.

"And sure enough there were a couple of human heads, skeletal remains, in a steel bucket to the rear of the house," says Sgt. Sherman Hall of the Atherton Police Department.

The homeowner, surprised to see the officers, said there was a perfectly good explanation.

"She said her dad had gotten it from a museum curator in Palo Alto at the Palo Alto Junior Museum," says Sgt. Hall.

The museum, geared toward children, has long taken in artifacts from the community. And a search of their records found evidence they used to house some Native American remains.

"The records are of the bones coming to us. But I have no records of the bones leaving us. So I can only hazard a guess as to what happened," says John Aikin, Director of the Palo Alto Jr. Museum and Zoo.

But in the records, there was a donor card, indicating a gift to the museum of Native American remains back in 1973.

The remains were likely 200 to 300 years old, unearthed in East San Jose.

The donor's name was Willoughby. The same name was written on the bones in the Atherton yard.

"So that was the connection for us," says Sgt. Hall. "We were happy to be able to recover them and not bring the crime scene team in and go any further. It was a huge relief for us."

The San Mateo County coroner's office will now bring in a forensic anthropologist to investigate.

And ultimately they'll try to return the remains to their descendants for appropriate burial.

"To think these had been in a shed or just lying in somebody's back yard, 200-300 year old remains, they really belong back where they were taken from," says Hall.

As it turns out, the Atherton resident had been an active volunteer with the Palo Alto Museum and Zoo before his death.

The former curator of the museum has also passed away.

So why the remains were given to the man, and why they were never returned, is a mystery the museum officials say they may never solve.

The coroner's office says it may take three weeks to confirm the origins of the bones.