For years, William Rice amassed tools, barrels and other knickknacks and hand-me-downs from his grandfather and his great- grandfather. Relatives say he stockpiled many of his belongings, including clothes and paint cans, inside two rickety sheds outside his rural Harford County home.
That's where a worker found, amid the stuff, a canvas duffel bag - with human bones and part of a skull.
Yesterday, authorities said the bones were likely educational props, and they have all but ruled out foul play. Relatives of Rice, who say he died in April at age 92, gave some possible explanations for the discovery.
Rice taught carpentry and mechanics for years in the Harford County public schools, said Bob Walton, Rice's cousin. Rice was an inquisitive man who read lots of books and collected lots of items. Walton said his cousin could have gotten the bones from his work as a groundskeeper at a nearby church cemetery or from his work in education.
"There's many ways that could've happened," Walton said. "I don't think there's any foul play. He took care of a cemetery for years. Who knows? He instructed kids a lot. He might've had it for samples."
After an initial assessment by the medical examiner's office, the remains found inside the bag were identified as an arm bone, leg bone, partial pelvic bone and partial skull, and were believed to be educational props, according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
One of the bones contained markings of what appeared to be a stamp or writing, said Sgt. Dave Betz, spokesman for the agency. Such stamps generally indicate that the bones were used as a teaching prop, he said. The remains will be sent to a bone specialist for further examination.
Bones used in medical education usually have a simple number scheme, but the numbering may only be on the larger bones and not every single one, said Gary Stephenson, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Sheriff's deputies were alerted after a worker hired to clean out the crumbling sheds - one of which was an old chicken coop - discovered the duffel bag Wednesday.
The investigators began combing the chicken coop, in the 1400 block of Rock Ridge Road in Jarrettsville, as a crime scene.
"The bag appeared to have been there for a long time because of the deteriorating state of the bag," Betz said. "We have not ruled out this as a crime, but we believe that these bones were used as an educational prop in teaching."
Betz said the department is waiting for a final report from the medical examiner's office after a consultation with the bone specialist.
After Rice's death this year, his belongings and his 27,500-square-foot parcel of land were being sorted in order to be put up for auction next month.
He lived in a simple, one-story house with white siding and black shutters, next door to his mother's foster daughter. After his mother died, Rice sold her house to her foster daughter, Irene Jackson, in 2005 and left his belongings inside two sheds that were now on Jackson's property.
It was a frustrating arrangement for more than three years, said Jackson's husband, George Jackson.
"I told Uncle Rice I wanted to get someone to tear down the sheds," George Jackson said. "He said leave them. It's crazy. I paid for the house, and I couldn't remove them. ... The whole thing was crazy."
Jackson said he didn't challenge Rice over the two sheds because he couldn't afford the attorney's fees.
Almost every day, Jackson said, Rice would walk onto the property and check inside the sheds to make sure nothing was missing.
The worker hired to clean the sheds left his truck parked in the yard with the contents from the chicken coop piled into the back. Old tires, a ladder, barrels, clothing, wooden planks, copper pipes, boxes full of nails and lawn tools caked with rust sat in a mound in the truck bed.
The second shed has not yet been cleared. "Why would you take something like that?" asked Jackson, as he pointed to giant light bulbs, shredded canvas and rusty metal planks, "just to bury it in a shed for years?"