Hunter Finds Human Skull ‘In The Middle Of Nowhere’ In Wyoming’s Red Desert

A hunter found a human skull “in the middle of nowhere” in Wyoming’s Red Desert on Saturday, and a missing persons' advocate hopes the discovery leads to closure for the family of one of a dozen open cold cases of missing people from the area.

CM
Clair McFarland

November 13, 20235 min read

The Red Desert covers a wide swath of southwest Wyoming.
The Red Desert covers a wide swath of southwest Wyoming. (Getty Images)

Wyoming’s Red Desert has a sparse constellation of two-track and private oil well roads where a Rock Springs man shot a bull elk Saturday.  

The elk fled into a sagebrush draw about 200 yards away and keeled over. As Marc Zancanella approached it, something white against a sagebrush snagged his periphery, he wrote in a post to Facebook group Wyoming Elk Hunters.  

“I look over and see a human skull,” he wrote. “I can not believe what I am seeing.”  

Zancanella called 911, and the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office sent investigators.  

The skull bore no obvious signs of trauma, had no remaining human tissue and was sun-bleached, but was above-ground said Jason Mower, Public Affairs director for the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office.  

The lower jaw was detached but nearby, Mower told Cowboy State Daily.  

Whoever the skull belongs to, he or she wasn’t in the area grocery shopping.  

“Anybody that’s been to the Red Desert knows it’s virtually in the middle of nowhere,” Mower added. “A desert filled with sagebrush.”  

Investigators searched the area and found no other human remains.  

Sweetwater County Coroner Dale Majhanovich is working with a state forensic anthropologist to have the skull analyzed. It was not known Monday whether the skull belonged to a male or female, he said.   

The "X" marks the highway hunter David Williams was allegedly traveling on when he vanished 43 years ago. The "O" is the town of Wamsutter.
The "X" marks the highway hunter David Williams was allegedly traveling on when he vanished 43 years ago. The "O" is the town of Wamsutter. (Graphic Courtesy Desirée Tinoco, Missing People of Wyoming)

Hold Up 

Mower did not identify Zancanella by name, but noted that “the reporting party” was accommodating with investigators. Deputies asked him to delay field dressing his elk so that they could document where everything was and canvass the area.  

Deputies logged the locations of his truck, the elk and the skull.  

Zancanella waited in his truck so he wouldn’t disturb the scene. 

No evidence available at this point links the skull directly to a specific missing person or crime, said Mower.  

“We’re kind of at the mercy of science,” he said. “Usually, forensics is pretty good about giving us a direction or a lead to go on. I’m sure we’ll learn something valuable from the forensic analysis that might give us a better idea how to proceed.”  

The coroner said the analysis could take quite a while but wouldn’t opine on a specific timeframe.  

Deputies eventually helped Zancanella move the elk so he could field dress the animal away from the scene, Mower said.  

Zancanella did not immediately return a Cowboy State Daily request for comment Monday. 

Headed Out To Check Oil Wells 

Desirée Tinoco, director of Missing People of Wyoming nonprofit and Facebook page, hopes the skull discovery leads to closure for the family of a known missing person.  

There are six missing persons cases out of Sweetwater County and another six out of neighboring Carbon County, she said.  

One missing man whose case may align with the skull’s discovery is David Richard Williams, who at age 33 went missing Nov. 11, 1980 — 43 years to the day before Zancanella discovered the skull in the red desert.  

Williams, a Wyoming man with a trucking business in Wamsutter, placed a call to his wife at about 5:30 from an old bar and service station in Creston Junction the evening he vanished. He told her he was going to check on an oil rig and would be home late, according to a brief by nonprofit group the Charley Project. 

An unidentified white male drove Williams away in a Chevy Blazer, headed south on Highway 789.  

No one heard from Williams again.  

The Wamsutter connection and the turn onto the highway beg questions about Williams’ proximity to the Red Desert, Tinoco told Cowboy State Daily on Monday.  

“All the other (missing persons) cases in that county were last seen, or their vehicles were found, over an hour away drive-time,” Tinoco said. “I don’t suspect it could be any of those — unless there was foul play and they moved the body up there. That’s always a possibility.”  

The hunting area where Zancanella found the skull, area 118, is “just speckled with oil rigs and wells,” she added.  

Missing In The Big Empty 

The other five missing people reported out of Sweetwater County are: 

  • Terry J Meador, who went missing at age 76 on Oct. 20, 2018.

  • Clifford Russell Haux, who went missing at age 42 on Nov. 27, 2003.

  • Rudolph David Fantin, who went missing at age 38 on Aug. 11, 1991.

  • David Vernon Lovely, missing at age 20 on Aug. 5, 1985.

  • Amber Elizabeth Scholz, who went missing at age 21 on Nov. 8, 1981 (authorities suspect foul play).

The six people reported missing out of Carbon County are: 

  • Kris Mortenson Ziegler, missing July 18, 2021 at age 66.

  • Charles Duane Gustafson, missing Oct. 11, 2006 at about age 72.

  • Rocky Najera, missing Dec. 25, 1985 at age 20.

  • John Michael Boutin, missing Jan. 13, 1983 at age 25.

  • Deborah Rae Meyer, missing Aug. 4, 1974, at age 16, who vanished when she went out in Rawlins to see a movie.

  • Carlene Brown, missing July 4, 1974, at age 19 after going out to see a rodeo in Rawlins.

Tinoco said she hopes the skull is recent enough and relevant to an open missing person case to answer questions for a family still wondering.    

“If we can take a person off the DCI (Division of Criminal Investigation) list, that’s always a great day,” she said.  

The bull elk Marc Zancanella shot, which led him to a mystery human skull in the Red Desert.
The bull elk Marc Zancanella shot, which led him to a mystery human skull in the Red Desert. (Marc Zancanella via Facebook)

Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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CM

Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter