Youths from Westhampton program discover human remains on Rawson Island in Greenfield

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 08-25-2023 4:40 PM

GREENFIELD — Authorities are working to identify human remains found this week on Rawson Island by children enrolled in an environmental philosophy program based in Westhampton.

Laurie Loisel, spokesperson with the Northwestern district attorney’s office, said the Greenfield Police recovered some of the bones after they were discovered Wednesday and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was on the scene the following day to further assist.

“So this is very much an open investigation,” she said Friday morning.

Kurt Heidinger, who founded Biocitizen Inc. in 2009 to teach children about their environment and serves as its executive director, said a 7-year-old boy initially spotted the bones, which Heidinger first thought had belonged to a buck. Heidinger explained he and about two dozen others — including students and staff members — started at Poet’s Seat Tower and descended through the park to get to Rawson Island, in the middle of the Connecticut River. He said he and the others were excited to investigate how low the water level had fallen.

“We were just doing what we always do, which is taking kids out during the summer just to explore the cultural and natural history … of our valley,” Heidinger said Friday morning, adding that his students enjoy going to Rawson Island’s beautiful and accessible southern end to see ospreys, bald eagles and endangered species of mussels. He said the group got to the island around 11 a.m. and the 7-year-old soon noticed the bones and alerted Heidinger, who told the students they could revisit the bones after further exploration and having lunch.

Heidinger explained that after the meal some youngsters went with a teacher to see the bones again. He said he heard shouting about 10 minutes later and a different young boy ran to him to say they moved some sand and found a skull, which Heidinger was still convinced belonged to an animal until he saw it for himself.

“I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, that is a human skull,’” he recalled, adding that the entire class gathered around the bones with excitement until the solemness of the occasion quickly set in. “This isn’t ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ — this a human being that somehow ended up here.”

Heidinger said he called 911 and was connected with Detective Christopher Greene, who he texted with photos of the remains. The executive director said the students and teachers left the area while he stayed on the island for two hours waiting for authorities to arrive. He said he spoke with state troopers, who told him he handled the situation perfectly.

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“It was a disorienting experience,” Heidinger said.

He said he and his students have since built a small shrine near the Westfield River in Chesterfield to honor the person whose remains were found. He said he hopes the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner can identify the remains and bring some closure to his or her loved ones.

Heidinger also mentioned that because this event had the potential to traumatize young people he spoke with local psychologists, who have assured him the situation was handled well.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.]]>