07/31/2014 12:56 EDT | Updated 09/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta Family Finds Old Human Skull In Hinton Garage

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HINTON, Alta. - Police in an Alberta community on the boundary of Jasper National Park are asking for help in identifying an old human skull found tucked away in a family's garage.

According to Andrew Groeneveldt, the skull was apparently won by his father, Leo Groeneveldt, in Hinton decades ago during a heated hand of cards.

Groeneveldt said family lore has it that the skull was placed in the pot by no less than the chief of Hinton's municipal police at the time.

"It's a little creepy. I can remember having a nightmare or two about it as a kid," said Groeneveldt Thursday, who remembers seeing the skull as a young boy.

Groeneveldt said his older sister was the first person to tell him about the skull, mostly to scare him. He didn't believe her, so she dragged him out to the garage to show him.

It was in a cardboard box, in a wicker basket under the tool shelf. He said the family never talked about it much, but he said it was a very cool way to impress his friends.

"It was always the trump card when kids were telling their fish stories and the fish got bigger and bigger, to the point where I could say, 'Yeah but I've got a human skull in my garage, do you want to come see it?'" Groeneveldt recalled.

After he and his sister grew up and moved away from home, the skull was moved. Leo Groeneveldt died in 1997 and the family assumed he must have gotten rid of it.

But in February 2013, Groeneveldt said his mother was moving into a seniors residence in Calgary and the family home in Hinton was being cleared out.

"My wife and I were cleaning out the garage. I came across this old, one-gallon ice-cream pail. Pretty well, as soon as I picked it up, I kind of knew what I was going to find in it when I opened the lid," Groeneveldt said.

It was missing the lower jaw and had some loose bits in the back. Groeneveldt admitted his first thought was to chuck it in the trash with everything else that was being thrown away. His mother was already stressed from leaving her home of 50 years, and a police interview would only add to her anxiety.

But it was a human skull. He knew that wouldn't be right. So he called the RCMP.

It hasn't been an easy investigation, since the man who won the skull and the person who may have wagered it are both long dead.

Const. Melanie Riopel said DNA testing was done on the skull, but that it hasn't helped police match it to any cases.

So far, she said police don't consider it to be a criminal investigation.

"They've had a forensic anthropologist look at the skull. The forensic anthropologist stated that it was historic in nature, and that's what they've determined it to be," Riopel said.

Groeneveldt said when officers interviewed his mother, a few more interesting memories about the skull's history were revealed.

The previous owner, she said, had been a police officer in Lloydminster, Alta., before moving to Hinton. He got possession of it there when it was dug up during a basement excavation.

He said RCMP have interviewed the former police officer's widow, but aren't any closer to solving whose skull it was.

"Everything at this point is second-hand or worse," Groeneveldt said.

Mounties want anyone who may have been at the card game party in the late 1960s or early 1970s, or who may know something about the skull's origins, to contact them.

— By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

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