LAS VEGAS - An exhaustive investigation that started more than two years ago has ended with the sentencing of five people who looted thousands of ancient artifacts from federal lands in Nevada and California.
In exposing perhaps the largest looting ring in U.S. history, authorities said the hard work of investigators and a dedicated task force helped bring down a group of thieves who damaged 13 archeological sites during a four year looting spree during which they collected more than 11,000 American Indian artifacts, including a human skull.
The investigation began in December 2001 when a ranger came across two men collecting artifacts in Death Valley National Park. When questioned the men cooperated and admitted to the crime touching off a lengthy investigation and the creation of a special task force made up of archeologists and law enforcement personnel to look into their claims.
The task force spent 10,000 hours making their case and discovered that three other individuals were involved in the theft ring. The defendants then led authorities to storage facilities and into their homes where many of the artifacts were recovered. Most of the stolen relics were part of the thieves' private collections or being used in home decoration, others, however, were sold to third parties and have not been located.
The stolen artifacts include corncobs, projectile points and arrowheads, fiber sandals, pottery shards, clay figurines, basket fragments, handheld grinding tools and pendants.
At a December press conference held in Las Vegas on the second anniversary of the start of the investigation, Daniel Bogden, U.S. Attorney for the Nevada district, announced that the group's ringleader, Bobbie Wilkie, had been sentenced a day earlier and received the longest prison term ever imposed for a first-time offender under the Archeological Resources Protection Act.
Wilkie, 45, a former Las Vegas resident now living in Oklahoma, pleaded guilty to unlawful removal of archeological resources and will serve 37 months in a federal prison. He was also ordered to pay $102,364 in restitution.
Wilkie admitted to authorities that he knew the artifacts he collected were "at least 100 years old" and that he had no permit to excavate or remove them but did so anyway, according to court papers. He also told investigators where the resources came from naming areas such as the White Cliff Petroglyph Site and Kane Springs Wash. 100 miles north of Las Vegas, as dig sites.
Others involved in the scheme include Wilkie's ex-wife Deanne Wilkie, 44, and Hawaii resident David Peeler, 53. Both received five years of probation and six months home detention. Wilkie was also ordered to pay roughly $19,000 in fines and Peeler, who cooperated with authorities and apologized to American Indians during his sentencing Jan. 14, was told to pay more than $56,600.
Also involved were Frank Embrey, 54, of Henderson, Nev., who pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to steal archeological resources from public lands, and 43-year-old Kevin Peterson, of Overton, Nev. who admitted to similar charges.
Embrey received a prison term of 18 months and was fined $86,000 and Peterson was sentenced to serve five months in prison with an additional five months of home detention. Peterson, who turned over a skull and mandible believed to be of American Indian descent, was fined $80,000.
Authorities say the thefts occurred between late 1997 and December 2001 when Embrey and Peeler were discovered excavating a site in Death Valley. According to the federal indictment, the Wilkies and Embrey narrowed their search areas using books, catalogs, maps and other research materials to locate sites historically inhabited by Nevada tribes.
To locate the artifacts the group brought tools such as sifting screens, flipping sticks, probes, trowels, buckets and shovels to excavate the sites and aid in their search.
The complexity of the case and the subsequent investigation shows just how hard it is to not only catch but indict and convict looters.
"These kinds of offenses are often difficult to detect," said Natalie Collins, a public relations representative with the U.S. attorney's office. "They occur on public lands that are vast in acreage and looting typically takes place in areas where [the thieves] can't be seen. That's what makes this so satisfying."