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Davis, California

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Remains of missing UC Davis professor discovered

Ending nearly two years of searching, the skeletal remains of former UC Davis professor emeritus John Finely Scott were discovered in a shallow grave near his home west of Davis last week, the Yolo County Sheriff Department announced Monday.

After receiving information regarding the possible location of the professor’s body, investigators went to the site in question and dug up the skeletal remains Apr. 12, said Michelle Wallace, public affairs officer of the sheriff department.

At that point, forensic anthropologists from California State University, Chico working with the investigators took the remains to a lab at the university. DNA analysis performed by the deputy coroner of Yolo County confirmed that the remains were Scott’s, Wallace said.

An autopsy is pending to determine the cause of death, she said.

Despite what was considered a thorough search performed by the sheriff department and aided by cadaver dogs, district attorney Jeff Reisig said the area surrounding Scott’s home looks like a “jungle,” which likely explained the lack of discovery until now.

Reisig said Scott’s family members have been notified.

In October 2007, Charles Kevin Cunningham, 48, was convicted of the first degree murder of the 72-year-old former professor of sociology. Cunningham, a previously convicted felon, had been hired by Scott to trim trees on his property.

At the time, prosecutors said Cunningham had been forging Scott’s personal checks and feared returning to prison. Prosecutors argued that after being confronted, Cunningham brutally murdered the professor, which explained the blood-splattered scene found at Scott’s home in June 2006.

Although an extensive search failed to turn up a body, the case went forward against Cunningham, ultimately paying off in a verdict described as “tremendous” by the prosecution.

The case marked the second no-body homicide case in Yolo County in 20 years, said deputy public defender Richard Van Zandt, who represented Cunningham in the trial.

While Cunningham’s palm prints were discovered in Scott’s home, the defense had pursued a strategy that stressed reasonable doubt, given the lack of a murder weapon and body.

Now, with the case appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, Van Zandt said he is awaiting results of the autopsy.

“I would expect the autopsy to be completed soon and the results be made public,” he said. “I expect [investigators] to make a thorough DNA analysis to compare anything found on the body to Mr. Cunningham.”

Christine Vento, court-appointed attorney in the Third District and Cunningham’s current counsel, said the appeal case is in its very early stages and could take up to two years to decide.

Vento said any compelling evidence in favor of Cunningham could technically still have an impact on the case.

“If there was anything favorable to the defendant, it could very well make a difference,” she said, noting this additional evidence would be introduced through a writ of habeas corpus.

However, Reisig disagreed, noting preliminary evidence recovered from the body is consistent with the verdict.

“[The discovery of the remains] absolutely validates the verdict in every respect,” he said. “The only new information the body brings us is that there were most likely additional charges that we could have brought against Cunningham regarding the manner of death.”

Reisig said Scott’s family could now finally have a proper funeral for the professor, after pleas to Cunningham to reveal the location of the body were unsuccessful.

“The family had been in a lot of pain without having a proper funeral and burial, so they are quite relieved,” he said.

Scott is best known for his invention of a prototype mountain bike in 1953.

CHINTAN DESAI can be reached at city@californiaaggie.com. XXX

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