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Vandalism of archeological site nets felony convictions

BOONEVILLE – Looting or vandalizing a Native American burial ground can lead to a felony conviction in Arkansas, as two men found out recently. Seth Terry, 25, and Lane Oliver, 22, both were found guilty earlier this year in Logan County Circuit Court of vandalizing an archeological site, which is a Class D felony. They were both sentenced to 36 months of jail time and were each ordered to pay restitution of $2,000.

In March 2017, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife officer Jason Collier, who has suspected increased vandalism of the site over the past few years, came upon the men at a site along the bank of Sugar Creek, which flows into the Petit Jean River a little upstream from Blue Mountain Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owned lake. The AGFC manages the wildlife management area there, Blue Mountain WMA. The archeological site is known as “Wild Violet” and contains documented Native American burial sites along with artifacts from day-to-day life of the people who lived there, Collier said. It’s estimated that Native Americans were there as recent as 300 years ago and probably lived there as far back as 2,500 years ago, Collier said. There have been at least nine authorized excavations of the site, he added, and the site has been documented by the Arkansas Archeological Survey in coordination with federal, state and tribal approval.

Terry and Oliver decided to do their own excavating, telling Collier later that they were aware it is illegal to remove any objects from an archeological site, but claiming they were only looking for arrowheads.

Collier, in arresting the suspects, found several pieces of flint, flakes and a partial arrowhead along with pieces of pottery in Terry’s coat pocket. Oliver had no artifacts on his person.

Later, when questioned by Duane Crims, a USDA Forest Service law enforcement officer, the pair admitted to previously digging at the site and finding artifacts, including collecting items Terry said he made into necklaces and ankle bracelets for gifts. Terry said he’d used a shovel at the site, while Oliver said he had used a knife for digging.

When Collier searched the suspects’ vehicle, he found they had a fictitious tag, he reported later. That led to a further search of the vehicle where Collier found several more rocks from the site along with flint flakes and more artifacts. Crims, who Collier said is trained in investigating archeological crimes scenes, also found an intact arrowhead and more evidence. Terry would claim that the newer items weren’t collected at the “Wild Violet” site, but rather from his residence. However, he also could not show Crims the location at his residence where they were found.

Collier says that Jeremy Wells and Terry Gentry from the Army Corps of Engineers also helped at the site along with Larry Porter of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Meanwhile, Crims found a Forest Service archeologist to assess the site damage, which totaled $4,594.74. The Corps of Engineers conducted a stabilization assessment of the “Wild Violet” site with a cost of about $20,000.

Initially, the officers involved hoped for federal charges against the men, but the assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Arkansas, while believing they had a good case, suggested trying the case in state court for a felony conviction, Collier said.

So it ended up in Logan County Circuit Court, where the men pleaded guilty in February.

Collier says the “Wild Violet” site has “continuously been a problem with looting of artifacts and remains for the past several years.” The fact that such a crime can result in a felony conviction may be lost on many people who come across these sites, but Collier hopes that this knowledge will slow if not stop the vandalism of such historic grounds.