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Two men are accused of robbing burial site

Posted by Mikola 18 to NDN AIM

November 21, 2002

Of the Post-Dispatch

"Robbing the graves of American Indians is lucrative, illegal and almost impossible to stop, since the crime generally occurs in remote areas far from police patrols.

But federal and local officers responding to a telephone tip did catch two men in the act near Wappapello Lake in southeastern Missouri three months ago, setting up a rare prosecution that could bring the pair 10 years in prison.

Cynthia Jackson, assistant operations manager for the Army Corps of Engineers at the lake, about 100 miles south of St. Louis, said other parks and Corps regions across the country have problems protecting archaeological treasures.

"Every district in the nation has burial sites that are getting dug up," Jackson said in a recent interview. "We're the only ones who caught someone. That's unusual."

The anonymous call came Aug. 15 to the Corps, which manages the lake as part of a 44,000-acre park in Wayne and Butler counties. Corps rangers, joined by a Missouri conservation agent and Wayne County sheriff's deputies, drove to a remote area near the lake and hiked a half mile through hilly terrain.

There they discovered the two men digging up an archaeological site, said Alan Dooley, spokesman for the Corps. The officers arrested Steven S. Tripp and William T. Cooksey as the two prepared to leave.

The men had about 15 arrowheads and artifacts in their possession, and Tripp had several items in his shoes, said LeeAnn Summer, an attorney for the Corps. The men had discovered human remains as they dug, but "they didn't want those for some reason, so they put them in a pile out of their way," she said.

Both were indicted Oct. 24 on charges of destroying archaeological resources on federal land and damaging federal property. The former charge carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $20,000 fine; conviction of the latter carries a possible 10-year term and $250,000 fine.

Cooksey, 53, of Union, appeared in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau, posted a $10,000 bond and pleaded not guilty. He could not be reached for comment for this story. His attorney, Terry Flanagan, declined comment.

Tripp, for whom no age and address were available, remained at large, a prosecutor on the case said.

The charges relate to the artifacts only, and would apply regardless of the presence of the bones, officials said.

Corps officials placed a value of $14,000 on the damage they blamed on the suspects.

Summer said it was not determined from which culture the artifacts originated. About 10 American Indian tribes, including the Cherokee, are known to have lived near the lake, she said. The destruction of archaeological sites nationwide occurs constantly, said Patty Wright, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The black market for artifacts is booming here, and they're popular in Germany and Japan also, she noted.

A host of state and federal laws, including the U.S. Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, make it illegal to destroy graves or move artifacts. It is legal to collect arrowheads and some other artifacts on private property, Wright said. But it is illegal to disturb graves - whether on private or public property - without first obtaining permission from proper authorities.

The laws have had little effect, she said.

"The problem from an archaeological standpoint is that you take them out of their contexts, so you can no longer interpret anything about them or the people who made them. You just wind up with the artifact itself," she said.

Since the illicit dig at Wappapello Lake was discovered, the Corps has filled in the holes. But it has not put up signs warning people not to dig there, out of fear of attracting attention to the site, Jackson said.

"We're checking it daily," she said.

"We take this seriously."

[Reporter Peter Shinkle:
E-mail: [email protected]
Phone: 314-621-5804]

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