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.

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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."

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