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"Most archaeologists love to go to the field, but they don't want to deal with curation," says Teresita Majewski, an Arizona archaeologist and Trimble's ex-wife. "His work really opened a lot of people's eyes. And he wasn't tremendously popular for it."
"Nobody would believe me, but I really wasn't trying to make my own little kingdom," Trimble insists with a smile. "I just saw this huge national job, and it intrigued me."
Trimble's persistence eventually won over the Corps, and he became head of the agency's curatorial "Center of Expertise" in St. Louis. His staff organized the artifacts belonging to numerous government agencies. They also created archives for the African Burial Ground, a Lower Manhattan cemetery of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Africans, and Kennewick Man, a controversial 9,200-year-old skeleton discovered in Washington State.
Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, remembers the media-saturated day in 1998 when Trimble delivered the Kennewick Man's bones to their new home at the Burke. "There's a newspaper picture of Sonny and Chris [Pulliam] carrying a Rubbermaid container with Kennewick Man in it toward the building," she says with a chuckle. "Sonny has this little smirk on his face, which I'll never forget. It was like, 'Isn't this fun?'"
Says Majewski: "He wants to be in the middle of things, wherever that is."
Friends say Trimble has always been adventuresome, likely owing to a childhood divided between suburban Virginia and Ethiopia. The son of a U.S. Public Health Service worker, Trimble saw more of the world by age ten than most people do in a lifetime. He still has the 1962 diary his mother made him keep during a family voyage by freighter ship throughout Asia.
Trimble is best known, though, as a scholar of military history. He collects model airplanes and can describe M-16 and AK-47 bullet trajectories with startling detail. His bedtime reading includes International Affairsmagazine. An array of armed forces patches decorates his bulletin board. Above all, Trimble swears by the British Special Air Services motto: "Who dares wins."
When he learned of the Iraq Mass Graves endeavor in the spring of 2004, Trimble didn't think twice about going after the job. His Corps superiors in Washington, D.C., were not pleased. As deputy federal preservation officer Paul Rubenstein puts it: "My first thought was: 'What the hell is Trimble thinking now?'"
"There are not many times in archaeology," notes Trimble, "where there are risks or stakes involved. You go to North Dakota and dig, and it's like, OK, this is great. You go to a conference and somebody will call you an idiot or a jerk. But that's about it. How many opportunities will you have to do a job in archaeology that has national policy importance?"
Trimble won over the Corps again.
Now the world is about to see the grisly evidence compiled and analyzed by Trimble's team as Saddam Hussein goes on trial for his life, a second time. The Iraqi High Tribunal on October 16 is expected to issue a verdict in the first case, which unfolded during a year-long trial marked by histrionic outbursts from Hussein. Facing death by hanging if convicted, he defended himself against charges of crimes against humanity for the 1982 executions of 148 Shiite men and boys in Dujail.
The two-year, American-led investigative effort included a handful of St. Louisans: Jim Kister, a Chesterfield radiographer; Matt Vennemeyer, a former death investigator with the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office; and Corps of Engineers employees Jim Barnes, Kelly Bertoglio and Natalie Drew.
St. Louis FBI agents Tom Noble and Todd Mayberry worked in tandem with the RCLO both of them roaming Iraq to interview witnesses, interrogate former Ba'ath Party leaders and sift through millions of former regime documents in the hunt for evidence.
"It was astounding," says Noble, describing the disorganized documentation. "One minute you might be looking at an execution order for 142 people, and the document below it might be an order for 1,000 rolls of toilet paper."
Adds Mayberry: "There are countless crimes you could try Saddam and his henchmen for if you wanted to. Unfortunately, we had to look at the paperwork and decide, 'Well, this guy only killed 150 people.' That doesn't rise to our level. It's a hard call to make, but when you compare 150 to the Anfal campaign that's a scale of killing that our generation hasn't seen."
Anfal, a government-sponsored slaughter that unfolded over eight months in 1988, is the focus of the latest trial. Hussein faces charges of genocide for the murder of at least 50,000 Kurdish men, women and children. Prosecutors say some were killed with chemical weapons or burned alive during wholesale destruction of Kurdish villages. Others were rounded up in buses, driven hundreds of miles from their homes in the northernmost reaches of Iraq. They were warehoused in detention centers for months before being marched into the desert and executed.
According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Iraqi High Tribunal must show Saddam wanted to kill every last Kurd because of their ethnicity not just the separatists who disagreed with him politically.