Clinton man finds skull in storage unit

A South Whidbey picker’s score of a lifetime came with an unexpected and rather grisly discovery — what appears to be a human skull.

Clinton resident John Norris recently bought a publicly auctioned storage unit at Waterman Self Storage. He paid $1,200, outbidding his mortal picker “enemy” (think the reality TV show Storage Wars) and opened the door to reveal a treasure room of rare and assorted goods: guns, jewelry, tools, sporting equipment, valuable collectibles and antiques — the list goes on and on. It was enough to fill his entire garage and then some. All in all, he estimated the haul at about $30,000.

“It was the home run of home runs,” Norris said.

But it did come with a few unfortunate surprises. In the very back of the unit, wrapped in tissue paper and in a white paper bag was a skull, one that appears to be human. Norris also found a few other suspicious items, including two birth certificates, 15 titles to various vehicles, and at least one property deed in a locked box.

He turned all the items over to the Island County Sheriff’s Office, South Precinct.

Patrol Sgt. Darren Crownover confirmed a case has been opened, but that it’s way too soon to make any conclusions or even be suspicious that a crime has occurred. Police don’t even know for sure whether the skull is human, he said. If it is, it could be Native American, an early settler, or a skull that’s not from Whidbey Island.

“I don’t have enough to say whether it’s strange or not,” Crownover said.

The skull is small, possibly belonging to a child, and is missing its lower jaw and most of its teeth. The bottom portion is also caked in dirt, which might suggest it was once buried. It did not appear to have a serial number which are usually found on skulls used for teaching purposes.

“It’s old, but I’m no skull expert, you know what I’m saying,” Norris said. “For all I know it could be a chimpanzee skull.”

For cultural and sensitivity reasons, the South Whidbey Record has decided not to publish photos of the bones.

Crownover said the Island County Coroner’s Office will take custody of the remains this week. The office will examine them and, if necessary, turn them over to state specialists who can determine whether they are Native American.

Detective Sgt. Laura Price, who has been investigating cold case files for the sheriff’s office, said it’s been a “long, long” time since Whidbey had a missing juvenile case. She only knows of two — both teenage boys — but expressed doubt that this skull belonged to either.

“I can’t even think of a case that would fit this,” she said.

Price said finding Native American remains isn’t common but not unheard of either; some were found just a couple years ago at a building site in Mutiny Bay. She added that it’s much rarer to find human remains believed to be connected to a homicide or missing person, such as the partial skull found on Maxwelton Beach in late 2010.

It remains an open case, she said.

As for the skull found in the storage shed, Norris claimed the former owner was recently arrested on heroin charges. As of Tuesday, police had not positively confirmed his identity, but Price said the man is known by local law enforcement. She said he was a “collector” of things and wasn’t surprised to hear about a storage unit filled with various items, even a skull.

“He collects stuff,” she said. “It could have come from any one of a hundred things.”

She said the man is not currently in the Island County Jail, but believes he is in police custody elsewhere; he had a warrant out for his arrest by an off-island agency and one in Island County as an unregistered sex offender.

According to Norris, police later informed him that the recovered documents were taken in burglaries on Whidbey Island. Norris said he’s agreed to cooperate with police fully, and is willing to have deputies look through the rest of the items and return any items positively identified as stolen to their rightful owners.

Justin Burnett/The Record                                 Clinton resident and picker John Norris sorts through items he found in a purchased storage unit.

Justin Burnett/The Record Clinton resident and picker John Norris sorts through items he found in a purchased storage unit.