DEATH IN THE DESERT

IN HER SEARCH FOR ANSWERS, KIMBERLY NILSON DABBLED IN MYSTICISM AND POSSIBLY PEYOTE. NOW, EIGHT MONTHS AFTER HER DISAPPEARANCE TRIGGERED NATIONAL HEADLINES, EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THE ASU STUDENT'S QUEST INTO LIFE'S MYSTERIES MAY HAVE LED TO HER OWN DEATH.

After eight months of anguish on the part of Kimberly Nilson's family and friends, and diligent work on the part of the Tempe Police Department, her remains were found on April 12 in a clearing beneath the paloverde that was probably her last resting place.

She had been missing since last August 22, when her car turned up in a tony neighborhood in north Scottsdale. A national manhunt failed to produce any sign of her, and she was found only by accident.

A ranch hand looking for breaks in a barbed-wire fence stumbled upon the bones, a grim contrast to the wildly blooming cholla cactuses and creosote bushes in that clearing. There was no sign of her clothing or jewelry--as often happens to the desert's victims, it had likely been shredded by animals, blown away by the winds and the rains, carried off by pack rats and dissolved by sunlight. But 90 percent of the skeleton was recovered; the only missing parts were the hands, the feet, the lower right leg and the tiny hyoid bone--which, if found broken, might have indicated that the ASU co-ed had been strangled.

According to initial autopsy reports, there was no sign of physical trauma--no gunshot wounds, no knife nicks, no bones broken at the time of death, nothing to prove that Nilson had been murdered, or had not been. Dr. Laura Fulginiti, the forensic anthropologist who examined the bones on behalf of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office, said, "My suggestion was that they go on to look at toxicology and see if they can come up with other things."

There was, of course, no way to tell if Nilson had been stabbed or beaten in the midsection, no way to determine if she had died of exposure. Medical examiners did, in fact, extract bone marrow from the leg bones to try to run blood tests on; they did, in fact, find samples of hair and a couple of two-inch-wide chunks of dried brain tissue. But all of those samples were so desiccated from the heat and dryness of the desert that neither police nor medical examiners expected to find much from them. Maricopa County toxicologists planned to send the samples out for analysis, afraid that they themselves were not qualified to test for the substance that the police asked them to find.

Peyote.
Nilson's behavior the night she disappeared suggested that she was in some kind of altered state. She had spent the afternoon vomiting and the evening making frantic and incoherent phone calls to friends; she made frustrated trips in her car trying to find the home of a friend she had visited many times before.

Her personal journal described stress and emotions that her family and friends didn't seem to notice. She had asked friends and former boyfriends about peyote, and she may have found some.

Peyote comes from a small, hard-to-find Southwestern cactus, parts of which are chewed to induce hallucinations. It is a natural source of the drug mescaline, and is used legally only in the religious ceremonies of some Native American tribes.

The drug affects different people in different ways. Most vomit violently after taking it. As for its psychoactive effects, some trippers recall everything they did on the drug, others become completely incapacitated and still others report drifting in and out of consciousness. Police investigators say that it can exaggerate one's emotional state; research texts say it can cause psychosis, even death. But people who have experimented with the drug agree that it instills in its users a deep feeling of spirituality that can last for days. And it makes the city seem to hum and whir ominously, causing a compulsion to get as far from civilization as possible.

Like to the spot where Kimberly Nilson was found, a scant clearing reached only by hiking up rugged, double-track trails and cow paths and climbing through barbed-wire fences.

Her 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit was found parked neatly in the driveway of a north Scottsdale home, in one of those neighborhoods whose streets and cul-de-sacs are as winding as a rat warren.

Kimberly's sister Sondra Nilson describes the car's parking as an "in-your-face gesture" by Kimberly's abductors. "I feel very strongly that Kimberly was murdered," she says.

The police are not so sure.
As detective Larry Baggs of the Tempe Police Department told New Times several weeks before Kimberly Nilson was found, "I'm not a bad guy, but I'm not going to park a car of someone I've either just raped or kidnaped or murdered in the driveway of a residence."

Not at 9 in the morning, especially when there are countless miles of dirt roads in the immediate vicinity, places where a struggle might go unnoticed and a car's presence might remain unquestioned for days.

Nor is it likely that anyone could carry a five-foot-five, 115-pound woman two miles uphill through the desert over rocky trails and through barbed-wire fences and then, after going to that trouble, not bury the body.

It's almost as unlikely that anyone could have chased her there and overpowered her without evidence of a struggle--Kimberly Nilson was an accomplished triathlete, and as strong as a man.

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