Stealing History 

Looters ransack archaeological sites throughout the West, but Montana officials notice a surprising lack of in-state incidents. A Missoula specialist says they're just not digging deep enough.

At 2 a.m. on Dec. 22, 1977, Martin McAllister received a phone call from law enforcement officers with the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. Several armed men were suspected of raiding a pre-historic pueblo site in a remote portion of Yavapai County and McAllister's expertise in archaeological fieldwork was needed to collect evidence and assess the damage. McAllister gathered his crew of U.S. Forest Service archaeologists and prepared to meet with officials for an investigation at dawn.

That morning McAllister watched from a ridge as local sheriff's deputies and Forest Service officers apprehended Thayde Jones and Robert Gevara (a third man, Kyle Jones, fled on foot but was caught later in the day walking along a nearby dirt road). McAllister and his crew waited for the all clear, then set to work assessing the site and cataloging an impressive collection of disturbed artifacts, including 16 ornate pots and a complete human skull. The job took all afternoon. When McAllister was finished, the evidence completely filled the flatbed of a quarter-ton pickup.

click to enlarge Martin McAllister founded Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment in the mid-1980s, a Missoula company that specializes in cultural resource crime. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Martin McAllister founded Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment in the mid-1980s, a Missoula company that specializes in cultural resource crime.

An appraiser later placed the value of the looters' haul at $1,217, but McAllister insists the figure would have been much higher had the items made it to the commercial antiquities market. And the story doesn't stop with Jones, Jones and Gevara. While McAllister assessed the site, law enforcement stumbled on Don Lowden, a looter unaffiliated with the other three, digging at a pueblo site no more than a mile away. Lowden became the third looting operation busted in the immediate area in two days.

For McAllister, the incident stands out as the most grotesque display of disrespect for the nation's archaeological resources he's ever witnessed. And, in the kind of ironic twist expected of odd entrepreneurial endeavors, it represents the catalyst for McAllister leaving his traditional fieldwork and founding a new, specialized type of archaeology.

He now runs Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment (ADIA), a Missoula-based private contracting firm that's operated in some form since the mid-1980s. McAllister makes a living putting dollar values on vandalism at cultural sites, working with undercover investigations to bust looting rings, and training law enforcement officials and archaeologists across the country in how to better protect vulnerable cultural locations through the federal Archaeological Resources and Protection Act (ARPA). Colleagues point to him as the foremost expert in a field he essentially pioneered.

"He found a great niche for himself and for us in terms of being an advocate for ARPA and law enforcement, for the kind of case work that needs to go into ARPA to make it effectively work," says Carl Davis, the U.S. Forest Service's regional archaeologist in Helena. "Truthfully, there is a lot of reluctance by a lot of archaeologists to get into law enforcement, particularly when it involves bad guys that do meth and have felony arms violations and poach deer."

McAllister knew exactly what he was getting into when he started ADIA. In his experience, looting often ties directly to more sensational crimes, like illegal arms sales and trafficking of methamphetamine and marijuana. For exactly that reason, McAllister believes looting should be a higher priority for U.S. law enforcement.

"It's not to say it's the most serious crime going on in the United States today, but we ought to be trying to stop it," McAllister says. "These items are like threatened and endangered species. Eventually someone's going to kill the last grizzly bear and there aren't going to be any more grizzly bears in the Lower 48. The same thing happens with artifacts. Archaeological sites are being made all the time, but [looters] tend to target a certain kind of archaeological site. Until we invent a time machine, the sites, they're not coming back. Once they're gone, they're gone forever."

But McAllister fights a larger problem than just looting: widespread ignorance and a general lack of urgency among officials who should be on the lookout for criminals ransacking sacred sites. Sitting in his home office in the upper Rattlesnake Canyon, he explains that most of his work takes place in the Southwest, where high-profile cases such as Jones, Jones and Gevara have forced federal law enforcement officials to put more emphasis on patrolling for ARPA violations. Though based in Missoula for more than a decade, his company has conducted little business in Montana. It's not that there isn't a need, McAllister says, but rather that the state—like much of the country—simply isn't familiar with the problem.

"I hope this doesn't hurt anybody's feelings, but I think the reason that we're not getting more ARPA cases in Montana is that people just aren't looking," McAllister says. "I think the violations are occurring, we just don't have enough eyes out there watching the sites."

The Bitterroot National Forest is no stranger to looting. In 1992, a historic location in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness known as the Magruder Massacre site was picked clean by a casual artifact collector from Lewiston, Idaho. The massacre had occurred in 1864, when a band of outlaws murdered three residents of a local mining town, including a merchant named Lloyd Magruder. The men responsible for the massacre were eventually apprehended, and their trial and subsequent hangings were the first on record in the Territory of Idaho.

click to enlarge Historic artifacts like these were recovered in the Bitterroot National Forest, where the site of the Magruder Massacre was picked clean in 1992 by a casual looter from Idaho. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Historic artifacts like these were recovered in the Bitterroot National Forest, where the site of the Magruder Massacre was picked clean in 1992 by a casual looter from Idaho.

"A book had just come out on the Magruder Massacre, and this individual had read it," says Milo McLeod, a retired Forest Service archaeologist who worked on the Bitterroot at the time of the looting. "He wanted to go find the site and see if he could find some artifacts that related to the massacre."

The items were later recovered by local Forest Service personnel—bullet casings, a watch fragment, nothing overtly spectacular—and had little market value, but McLeod doesn't measure the loss in dollars. Had those artifacts been properly excavated, they may have yielded rare information on exactly how the Magruder Massacre unfolded. Once disturbed, the items can no longer tell their story.

"Looting had been a problem on both pre-historic sites and our historic sites for decades," McLeod says. "The first people didn't think very much of it. It was good recreation to go out and look for arrowheads or collect bottles. But what they didn't realize was archaeological sites hold keys to the past. By excavating...we can learn a lot about what happened in the past, and when those artifacts are taken away, it's almost like tearing pages from a book."

McLeod breaks Montana's archaeological resources down into two types: pre-historic and historic. The former applies to nomadic American Indian tribes, whose burial plots are specifically targeted by looters who use jury-rigged tools made from car antennas to hunt artifacts and even human remains. The latter encompasses battlefields, mining structures and logging camps—anything related to the settlement of the West.

"It's not the same as the Southwest, where they have the exquisite pottery," says McLeod. "But a lot of Montana's battlefield sites—Little Bighorn, the Big Hole, the Bear Paw—these sites have been collected. And there is trafficking of artifacts, and if you can prove that a cartridge case or arrowhead came from Little Bighorn, it has high monetary value."

Casual looting has been the primary concern among Montana's archaeologists for generations. Bitterroot National Forest archaeologist Mary Williams says many Montanans grew up with the belief that artifact hunting was a recreational hobby, not a crime. She still struggles with people getting in her face and telling her it's their right to collect arrowheads or old fragments of pottery, even if the land is federally owned. Her rebuttal is simple: No, it isn't.

"The laws spell out very clearly what is and isn't allowed," Williams says, referring to both ARPA and the state's own Antiquities Act.

While the acceptance of casual collecting as Montana tradition doesn't necessarily include commercial gain, Williams says it's far too easy for the two to overlap. The Official Overstreet Indian Arrowheads Identification and Price Guide—what McAllister calls the Bible of looting—lists the market value of a single pre-historic lance point found in Beaverhead County at $8,000 to $14,000. Selling a projectile point like that is perfectly legal if it's recovered from private property with permission from the landowner. But with thousands of dollars in potential profits, recreational collection can be an effective cover for commercial looting on public lands.

"It's something that, on federal properties, is quite prevalent unfortunately," says Dean Wyckoff, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Billings. "It kind of ranges across the whole spectrum, from somebody out casually collecting to somebody actually that's very organized and methodical at hitting sites that are rich with those resources. Excavating to screening, what have you. There's a market for that stuff."

Wyckoff says he's currently working several ARPA investigations, though he could not offer details on the nature of the crimes. He understands that while most may see the consequences as minimal, they are very real.

"A lot of times it seems the looters and even the public...they don't see the victims," Wyckoff says. "It seems like it may be a victimless crime, but it really isn't because those activities really affect our ability to gather historical importance related to the sites. If you have somebody in there that's looting, they haphazardly collect a lot of the time and a lot of the very important information regarding the artifacts is lost when it's not done by a trained archaeologist."

McAllister's introduction to looting came nearly a decade before his work on the Jones, Jones and Gevara case. As a young archaeologist in 1969, McAllister traveled to Guatemala to help excavate Mayan sites threatened by urban encroachment in the capital of Guatemala City. The teams worked throughout the day to unearth artifacts and gain a better understanding of the nature of the site. At night, however, local looters would plunder McAllister's grids for any relics that might net a profit on the black market.

"We had to post guards on our excavations at night," McAllister says. "If we didn't, people would actually be in digging in our excavations while we slept."

click to enlarge McAllister says rock art sites like this group of petroglyphs on Bureau of Land Management property near Santa Fe, N.M., aren’t even safe from vandalism and theft. Looters will chip away at cliff faces to remove such images and sell them on the antiquities market. - PHOTO COURTESY MARTIN MCALLISTER
  • Photo courtesy Martin McAllister
  • McAllister says rock art sites like this group of petroglyphs on Bureau of Land Management property near Santa Fe, N.M., aren’t even safe from vandalism and theft. Looters will chip away at cliff faces to remove such images and sell them on the antiquities market.

In the late '70s and early '80s, McAllister took an increasing interest in aiding Forest Service law enforcement crackdowns. The passage of ARPA in 1979—a reaction by the U.S. Congress to mounting publicity of high-profile cases like Jones, Jones and Gevara—strengthened the federal government's ability to prosecute looters on federal land and established first-time penalties of $20,000 in fines and one year in prison. Soon McAllister was dealing almost exclusively with ARPA investigations, his typical duties as an archaeologist falling by the wayside. By the time he left the Forest Service and founded Archaeological Resource Investigations, now ADIA, he had begun training law enforcement officers and fellow archaeologists in the art of assessing damage and successfully building cases against looters.

"Eventually the training and consulting on archaeological crime just outstripped everything else," McAllister says. "People always want to ask me questions about the archaeology of Montana, because I'm an archaeologist in Montana. But that's not what I do."

What McAllister does do is essentially work backwards at a scene. Field archaeologists normally excavate a site systematically, making sure not to dislodge artifacts before their precise locations are mapped and documented. The data determines the pre-historic or historic significance of the object. McAllister's job is to put looted items back in the ground—figuratively—and assess their value and the extent of the damage. At the same time, he has to place suspected looters at the scene of a particular crime. Forensic techniques like soil matching are the backbone of his science.

"You catch a guy with an artifact in his truck driving down the road or he's trying to sell it at a dealer, the burden of proof is on the government to prove that that item was illegally obtained in violation of ARPA or one of the other laws that protect these sites," McAllister says. "That's not always easy."

McAllister's passion for cultural resource law enforcement is to some degree contagious. Liv Fetterman, a former employee of McAllister's who continues to help instruct ADIA courses, started in the field as an undergraduate in archaeology at Boston University. She worked throughout the East and Southwest for years in cultural resource management before her growing distaste for looting drove her to law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Sitting across from McAllister in his Missoula office, Fetterman explains that her first lofty goals were to change how the justice system views looting. Most attorneys have never heard of that type of crime, she says. Without solid evidence against looters, even those well versed in archaeological crime find it too complex to tackle.

"There isn't enough case law that makes ARPA a really easy hit," Fetterman says. "Add that to the fact that a lot of law enforcers aren't providing a lot of evidence and the U.S. attorneys aren't always aware, it becomes a pretty tenuous connection."

When Fetterman met McAllister she still knew little about investigating archaeological crime. Federal agencies have it on their radar, she says. But just as McAllister seeks to educate more state and local law enforcers on the problems of looting, Fetterman hopes to build awareness among attorneys across the country. McAllister's business has offered her a chance to bring her seemingly disparate academic pursuits together. She's the closest thing McAllister has to a disciple.

"It's just something that irks the hell out of me to know that people feel they can desecrate archaeological sites, and it is to me also a very limited resource," Fetterman says. "We've got tons of environmentalists working to save the environment, but we just don't have enough people working to stop the desecration of cultural resources."

Fetterman has had numerous casual encounters with looters, or people who know people who loot. Before moving to Missoula, she had several prospective renters inspect her New Mexico apartment. When asked what she did for a living, Fetterman replied she was an archaeological lawyer. A man responded by telling her "Oh, my buddy digs up graves."

click to enlarge Attorney Liv Fetterman helps McAllister instruct courses on archaeological crime for federal, state and tribal employees. “There isn’t enough case law that makes ARPA a really easy hit,” says Fetterman of the challenge in prosecuting looters. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Attorney Liv Fetterman helps McAllister instruct courses on archaeological crime for federal, state and tribal employees. “There isn’t enough case law that makes ARPA a really easy hit,” says Fetterman of the challenge in prosecuting looters.

"Because I had the pleasure of working both in academia as an archaeologist and in cultural resource management, I could see this disparity of education for the public," Fetterman says. "When you're in [cultural resource management], you end up working with construction workers a lot. When I was in Nevada, I was monitoring these construction workers and they were like, 'There's this great Indian mound. You should go check it out. We've got tons of pots from there.' I'm like, 'Seriously? You're going to talk to me about taking pots from a mound? That's illegal.'"

McAllister believes that same lack of awareness is exactly why Montana has so few ARPA cases on the books. It's not that looting simply isn't a problem here, he says, but rather that the activity slips under law enforcement's radar.

click to enlarge news_feature1-5.jpg

"There's no way to tell [how much slips through the cracks]," McAllister says. "Somebody could be doing a search warrant here in Missoula tonight and they could come into a house and see all these Clovis points. If they thought they were just rocks, they might not be identified as potential contraband."

On March 1, 52-year-old antiquities dealer Ted Gardiner shot himself in a house in Holladay, Utah. Gardiner had worked for two and a half years as an undercover informant for the FBI in one of the largest ARPA investigations in history, playing a pivotal role in the government's attempt to bust a network of antiquities looters, dealers and collectors extending from the West Coast to Europe. Gardiner wasn't the first death linked to the case. Two defendants also committed suicide since prosecutors handed down 24 indictments last year.

A federal judge in Denver responded to Gardiner's death by delaying the first trial, originally set for later this month. Gardiner was the prosecution's star witness, and the legality of using his videotaped testimony is now under question.

McAllister refers to the case—code-named "Cerberus Action" by federal agents—often when talking about the country's looting epidemic. The number of defendants and the 115 felony charges involved in the Cerberus investigation go a long way in supporting his point that archaeological crime is a very serious threat. And, as previously mentioned, he has no doubts about why Montana appears blessed with a drought of such activity.

"State and local officers and a lot of tribal law enforcement officers...this may be a whole new deal to them," McAllister says. "If you went up to a cop here in Missoula, a Missoula city police officer or even a Missoula County sheriff, and you started to say, 'There are people out there that steal artifacts and sell them and they get money and it's tied into meth,' they'd say, 'What? First of all, what's an artifact?'"

The problem with such widespread ignorance, says McAllister, is that looting has clear connections to crime local law enforcement officials already make a priority. Meth traffickers, for instance, have been known to use high-end artifacts to help fund their operations. In Oregon, a joint effort among federal, state and tribal agencies known as "Operation Bring 'em Back" turned up six looters suspected of drug trafficking in 2006. In the course of the investigation, one of the largest of its kind, agents discovered four meth labs linked to the case, seized 57 illegal firearms and recovered more than 100,000 stolen artifacts. The problem's so prevalent in the Southwest that officials refer to the connection between drugs and antiquities theft as "twigging," a nickname based on the looters' habit of tweaking while digging up artifacts.

Mark Long, Montana Narcotics Bureau chief, says he has yet to witness this phenomenon in the state, but concedes that drug task force officials aren't really looking for it.

"To my knowledge, that's nonexistent," Long says. "I'm not aware of any of it, narcotics related... But we could have encountered this and not even known it."

For the narcotics bureau at least, the issue is partly a matter of priority. Law enforcement at the state level has a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of outside concerns in drug investigations that for now outweigh the illegal theft and trade of items protected by the state's Antiquities Act.

"We prioritize by our estimation of its impact on public safety and public health," Long says. "When meth labs were predominant all over the state, that was our number one priority and it took virtually 100 percent of our resources. Not only is there the meth addict, there's the meth labs, the toxic waste and the violence that went with it."

McAllister doesn't fault any law enforcement agency for not recognizing the problem. He understands that the average peace officer wouldn't necessarily think to keep an eye open for artifacts during an investigation, as their training doesn't typically include the type of specialization he offers federal agents in his classes.

But the fact remains that Montana is ringed by states where looting is a recognized problem. Assistant Special Agent Beth Hall with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) hasn't had a single recorded case of looting in her three years with the agency in Billings. But in her prior work with the National Parks Service at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, she and her coworkers regularly dealt with plundered American Indian burial sites. In those cases, it fell on personnel like Hall to contact the appropriate tribe to conduct re-interment ceremonies. Hall only dealt with one such incident personally, but says she became all too familiar with the crime.

"I view it as a big problem nationwide, because I did come from a resource-based agency and that was one of the high priorities of the job when I was working there," Hall says. "We were more in sync with those types of crimes, and you'd see it all the time in the papers...I personally feel that they're prevalent, and most likely growing."

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted McAllister via e-mail to investigate a case of vandalism at Red Elk Rock Shelter, a roughly 2,500-year-old Nez Perce pictograph site near Lewiston, Idaho. He's already busy prepping for three cultural resource law enforcement courses later this year, but can't pass up a chance to work close to home.

Fetterman says her own first brushes with looting came while working in cultural resource management in Idaho. She was helping conduct damage assessment at the sites and simply couldn't believe how many holes had been dug illegally. She and McAllister agree if the problem exists just over the border, surely it exists here.

click to enlarge Mary Williams, an archaeologist with the Bitterroot National Forest, says some people are under the mistaken impression that it’s their right to collect artifacts, even if they do so on federal land. “The laws spell out very clearly what is and isn’t allowed,” she says. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Mary Williams, an archaeologist with the Bitterroot National Forest, says some people are under the mistaken impression that it’s their right to collect artifacts, even if they do so on federal land. “The laws spell out very clearly what is and isn’t allowed,” she says.

"It's occurring in Montana," McAllister says, "and for whatever reason the people aren't being caught."

McAllister's come to realize, however, that his toughest converts might be his peers. Fetterman is one of the exceptions, an archaeologist bothered by the same nagging frustration. Archaeologists are as important as federal agents and state officers in maintaining the integrity of the nation's cultural heritage. But for whatever reason, McAllister says, cultural resource law enforcement holds little appeal.

That's why he remains one of the few specialists for hire.

"There aren't a lot of archaeologists that are really that interested in this area, which is depressing," McAllister says. "I feel like it should be the number one priority for all archaeologist, no matter if you're a Martin McAllister or a CRM [cultural resource management] archaeologist or a research archaeologist, the number one priority should be protecting the sites."

With no work to be had in his home state, McAllister continues to monitor activity in the Southwest. The looting violations in the Cerberus case, for example, spanned sites in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. It's a haunting reminder for McAllister of his past dealings with federal agents in the Four Corners. Clearly Jones, Jones and Gevara was just the beginning for law enforcement—and for McAllister.

"We've had a number of situations in which we've taught the classes and cases have resulted directly from the classes because of the consciousness raising we've been able to do," McAllister says. "We're not in a position to say that because we've done this training there have been 900 more ARPA convictions than there would have otherwise. We don't have statistics like that. But the more people we can make aware of this problem, whether it's law enforcement people or the general public, the more eyes and ears we have."

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