By Ryan Slattery
Special to The Washington Post
LAS VEGAS -- It happened by chance: An alert park ranger saw a pair of men loading things into their car in Death Valley National Park. The ranger questioned the men. One of them said he had "Indian rocks" in his car for his personal collection. And from there, the plot began to unravel.
What the ranger had stumbled upon was a ring of thieves who looted Native American artifacts, and authorities are calling it one of the largest operations of its kind.
During the course of a two-year investigation, authorities recovered more than 11,100 relics, including a human skull, lifted from public lands in California and Nevada, many from areas never charted by archaeologists. The five members of the ring were convicted of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and recently sentenced in U.S. District Court here. The ringleader, Bobbie Wilkie, 45, began serving a three-year sentence in federal prison last month. It was the longest jail term ever imposed for a first-time offender of the resources protection law.
The case began on a December day in 2001 when ranger Todd Garrett spotted two men in an area of Death Valley known to contain sensitive resources.
Garrett watched as the men loaded a car and drove away. When Garrett pulled them over he discovered the men, Frank Embrey, 54, and David Peeler, 53, had three old Indian grinding stones in their vehicle. The ranger searched the car in what was the beginning of a widespread investigation that involved nearly a dozen federal agencies.
"What we found was the most egregious example of looting, ever," said archaeologist Tim Canaday, who worked on the investigation and said he remains shocked by the scope of the looting. "They collected things that, as an archaeologist for 25 years, I had never seen. The only times I got to see some of those artifacts were in a museum."
The stolen artifacts included projectile points and arrowheads, yucca fiber sandals, pottery shards, clay figurines, basket fragments, hand-held grinding tools and pendants. Most of the items were collected at 14 sites within a day's drive of Las Vegas. The thefts, authorities say, occurred between late 1997 and December 2001. And this was hardly a crew of amateurs.
According to investigators, the group not only invested in sifting screens, flipping sticks, probes, trowels and shovels to excavate the sites, but also narrowed search areas using books, catalogues and maps to find places historically inhabited by Nevada tribes.
"These guys were sophisticated. They could look out at the lay of the land, as an archaeologist would, and say, 'I think there's something over there,' " Canaday said. But they did not use the care of professional archaeologists, sometimes damaging their search areas. "There were holes deep enough to hide a truck."
Canaday said it is likely a similar looting ring is working somewhere in the country right now. "Are there bigger ones going on out there? Unequivocally, yes. It's rampant nationwide. I'm always finding evidence that someone has gotten to a site before me."
Operation Indian Rocks, as the investigation came to be called, resulted in some of the stiffest penalties ever issued for archaeological crimes. Embrey was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Kevin Peterson, 43, received five months; and Wilkie's ex-wife Deanne Wilkie, 44, and Peeler each received five years of probation and six months of home detention. The group was also ordered to pay about $344,000 in fines.
Looting and poaching on federal lands is a widespread problem, said Andrea Keller, a National Parks Conservation Association spokeswoman.
Ginseng root theft and bear poaching is prominent in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. Barrel cacti, snakes and reptiles are disappearing from the Mojave National Preserve. Elk are hunted from Yellowstone. And a few years back, a man was caught with a metal detector hidden in his pants scouring Gettysburg National Military Park for Civil War relics.
But some of the biggest battles are in the desert Southwest, where federal agencies such as the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service manage large swaths of land.
Rudy Mauldin, a veteran BLM law enforcement agent specializing in archaeological crime in Salt Lake City, said Utah's problem with vandalism and theft is among the worst in the country.
"We probably lead the nation in where damage occurs," Mauldin said of a state with 21 law officers patrolling 22.9 million acres of BLM land. But Utah also tops the list when it comes to prosecuting archaeological crimes, with at least 38 convictions under the resources protection law over the past decade. "It's not something we take lightly."
In one case, investigators matched DNA on a discarded cigarette discovered at an illegal dig site to a suspect in a looting case. The man was indicted and convicted, and served five years in prison.
In most states, catching thieves or poachers is hit-or-miss. Often arrests come by a stroke of luck, a law enforcement officer with good timing. What is more frustrating to archaeologists and historians is that there is no law to prevent digging on private lands, a practice that is increasing.
Larry Baldwin, a private investigator who works for a landowner whose property is adjacent to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, tries to keep the looters off the private land. He said he routinely bumps into thieves pocketing petrified wood or digging Anasazi graves searching for valuable pottery. Sometimes the looters are armed. Ancient funeral pots can fetch as much as $60,000 on the black market.
John Madsen, a resource coordinator for the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, said archaeological crime has gone corporate. Volunteer groups such as the Arizona Site Stewards succeeded in protecting state lands with intensive patrols, but Madsen said the looters have moved onto private property, where they pay the owners a fee to search the land.
"A lot of the old stewards of the land were ranching families," Madsen said. "But the economy forced them to sell. The big ranches folded, and now the commercial looting companies are getting contracts and excavating the sites with bulldozers and backhoes. A lot of these guys are doing this for a living."
Madsen said that entire pueblos, such as the 600-room Bailey Ruin, have been removed in recent months. "They know exactly where to go and what to look for," Madsen said. "We are losing so many important sites in northeastern Arizona. And after a good year of rain, grasses come up and you'd never know anything was ever there."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company