Southeast of the park were the city's museums and Capitol Hill, but some of the neighborhoods were home to the city's most impoverished residents. Not far from where Palmer spotted the object, the cityscape began to change, the street scene growing edgier with each passing block. The transformation started east of Eighteenth Street, a thoroughfare lined with Cuban, Salvadoran, and Ethiopian restaurants and popular nightclubs in a section of the city known as Adams Morgan. Farther east were the largely Latino and African-American neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Shaw, the city's nearly all-black public schools, and the dilapidated housing projects of northeast and southeast Washington, where guns and drugs claimed hundreds of lives each year, many of them young black men.
Dupont Circle, where Palmer lived, was a southern gateway to the park. The three-story, turreted brownstone built in 1892 that he shared with his wife, a Washington defense lawyer, stood out among the rows of more traditional homes. Deer antlers and a large peace symbol adorned the façade. To earn a living, Palmer built and restored furniture in his workshop. He didn't watch television and he refused to take photographs. He wanted to live in the moment, and photographs, he thought, tarnished memories because they could only capture what things looked like, not the smells or sounds or sensations that made them whole. He had a simple philosophy—"We're like animals, we come and go"—and he was childlike in his wonder and fascination with the outdoors. "You never know what you're going to find," he liked to say. May 22 was one of those mornings that would prove him right. At about 9 A.M., Palmer parked his truck at the top of a hill near the horse corral of Rock Creek Park. He decided to walk near the Western Ridge Trail, which he hadn't been on for nearly five years. He noticed with disgust several beer bottles amid the thorny vines, patches of poison ivy, and mountain laurel that covered the forest floor. As he and Paco trudged farther into the woods, off the trail and down the ravine, he spotted a piece of red clothing. He kept walking and a few moments later came to a shallow depression in the ground. The remote spot was less than one hundred yards down the steep hillside from the top of the trail. He could hear the cars along Broad Branch Road another hundred yards below him.
At first Palmer thought that the bleached-out object he spotted was a turtle shell beneath the leaves. He bent down and swept the leaves aside. Then he abruptly stood up and backed away. He marked the spot with Paco's blue leash, and his dog bounded after him as he scrambled down the hillside toward Broad Branch Road. At the bottom, Palmer hung his sweatshirt over another branch so he could find his way back up. He crossed the creek bed, clambered up the other side, and went to the first house he saw. He knocked on the door. No answer. He went next door to a house that was being renovated and asked a construction worker if he could borrow his phone to call 911. As Palmer waited for the police, his mind raced, the tranquility of the morning shattered by what he had seen: molars, missing front teeth, dental fillings, a human skull.