BART FITZGERALD, A SPECIAL AGENT for the federal Bureau of Land Management, scuffs at a clump of dirt with the toe of his boot and glares at a 4-by-4-foot scar in the earth. A poacher has rooted through the Native American ruins here in Whiskers Canyon, Utah, for 800-year-old pots that bring as much as $50,000 apiece on the black market from private collectors. “Somebody new has been digging,” says Fitzgerald, 40. “It’s incredibly selfish that people assume they can come in here and disturb these sacred sites.” In fact, it’s more than selfish. It’s criminal.
Fitzgerald is one of only four agents assigned to the 22 million acres of federal land in Utah to investigate such crimes as illegal mining, unauthorized dumping of hazardous waste and—especially when warm weather draws thousands of tourists to the desert wilderness—desecration of historic Native American sites. Until recent years, people caught stealing artifacts or defacing historic sites were often released with a warning or, on occasion, slapped on the wrist with suspended sentences.
No more. Not since Earl K. Shumway. Considered by authorities to be the state’s most destructive looter ever, Shumway, 38, from Moab, once bragged that he used a bulldozer to decimate an Indian ruin and gave odds on his prosecution at “about one in a million.” But signaling the government’s new get-tough approach and hoping to discourage future thefts, a U.S. district court judge hammered Shumway in December with a sentence of 6½ years without parole for stealing artifacts from Anasazi burial sites in 1991 and 1994.
Energized by the crackdown, Fitzgerald and his colleagues are pursuing vandals and grave robbers with more confidence that their work will not be in vain. Though the summer rush has yet to begin, Fitzgerald has already nabbed a tourist from Texas who carved drawings of stick figures and a sun into a wall decorated hundreds of years ago with Anasazi petroglyphs. “He took a ‘So what?’ attitude,” Fitzgerald says with disgust. “He told me, ‘If the Indians can leave their mark on the wall, why can’t I leave mine? It’s all a part of history.’ ” Another recent case involves Boy Scouts, who with troop leaders watching, gouged their names into a stone wall covered with primitive tribal drawings. Prosecutors are currently considering whether to charge the Texan and troop leaders with federal violations that could lead to fines or prison terms.
That alone is noteworthy and might not have happened before the landmark Shumway case, which Fitzgerald and fellow agent Rudy Mauldin broke after finding five gaping holes Shumway had dug in 1994 at Whiskers Canyon. Shumway might have got away with it had not the pair of agents found the smoking gun: a lick of spit on a cigarette butt Shumway left behind. The butt was buried 15 inches under a pile of dirt (proving Shumway had been digging there), and DNA tests proved the trace of saliva was Shumway’s.
“About 75 percent of archaeological crimes are never solved,” concedes Fitzgerald, who complains that his department is chronically short-staffed. “It’s usually months before we even learn somebody has been digging a site, and by then the trail is cold.” It doesn’t help that for decades people saw no harm in grave-robbing. “The first grave I ever dug was when I was 3 years old,” Shumway told Science ’86. “Around here, it’s not a crime, it’s a way of life.” In fact, Shumway, a third-generation looter, was taught to dig for Indian artifacts by his father, DeLoy, 71, of Moab. “Yeah, I’m an outlaw,” Shumway once told the magazine. “But we’d do it whether we made a dime or not. Once you find something, it’s in your blood.” He was first arrested in 1984 and pleaded guilty to stealing 34 prehistoric baskets. But his probationary sentence did little to stem his appetite for artifacts that the Anasazi buried with their dead, believing they would need baskets, pottery, clothing and jewelry in the next life. In 1991, Shumway looted two more sites—one in Canyonlands National Park and the other in the Manti-LaSal National Forest. In Canyonlands’ DopKi Cave, according to court testimony, he peeled a woven blanket from an infant’s remains and tossed the bones aside like rubbish.
“What Earl Shumway did is really no different than if I were to go out and start digging up ancient pioneer graves, taking the human remains and selling them,” says Wil Numkena, 52, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Hopi tribe, which some believe is descended from the Anasazi. (The Anasazi, who flourished in Utah 2,000 years ago and once numbered about 50,000 there, deserted their homes in the 1200s and moved south for reasons that remain a mystery.)
Even casual thefts damage the ability of archaeologists to study Anasazi history. And sadly, says Dale Davidson, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, most amateur thieves don’t appreciate the significance of their trophies. “Somebody will come in here and take something from a site, then they’ll get home and wonder why they bothered,” he says. Some are returned, though many are displayed in corners of private homes.
Shumway, though, was no amateur digger, and neither was his father before him. “Our dad never had a regular job,” says Shumway’s sister Kathleen Stubbs, 47. “This was his way to pay the bills and keep bread on the table. My dad was the best digger anywhere, and my brother learned from him.” Sales were so brisk at one time, she adds, that brother Earl “had money coming out the kazoo.” But, insists his other sister, Rhonda Redington, 35, “those sites are sacred to Earl. He would never toss an Indian baby around like that.”
That’s a line Fitzgerald won’t buy. Born in Salt Lake City, son of a milkman and a maternity nurse, he earned his master’s in public administration at the University of Utah and took a job pushing papers for the Utah Public Safety Department. Eager for more action, he moved to the Phoenix office of the U.S. Customs Service in 1987. There, he tracked smugglers and, in his biggest case, helped snare two Continental Airlines pilots who were flying marijuana into Arizona from Mexico.
In 1990 he signed up with the Bureau of Land Management and returned to Salt Lake City, where he now lives with his wife and three small children, whose names he does not reveal out of concern for reprisals from people he has helped put behind bars. He quickly earned his colleagues’ respect. “He is dogged—one of the most outstanding qualities an investigator can possess,” says Mauldin.
Even more than he enjoys working in the great outdoors, Fitzgerald finds satisfaction helping prevent the further destruction of archaeological sites whose historic importance is not always apparent to intruders. “Some people would see this place and say, ‘Where’s the value?’ ” he says, surveying a group of aged Anasazi homes set in a natural alcove at the foot of a towering sandstone cliff in Whiskers Canyon. ” ‘The walls of the dwelling caved in long ago—the place has already been plundered. What difference do a few holes make?’ But there is a scientific value here that the average person can’t see.” And for those who have no respect for the history of past cultures and ravage sacred sites for pleasure or profit, they should know, warns Fitzgerald, “If you’re caught, you will pay.”
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