Tweakers 'N Diggers: Looters are pillaging Native American burial grounds to finance their meth habits

Tweakers 'N Diggers: Looters are pillaging Native American burial grounds to finance their meth habits
illustration by Tom Huck

As Geoff Donaldson sprinted across a barren southern Illinois crop field at dusk on January 26, 2007, he breathed aloud a prayer: "Lord, please make me invisible."

The 35-year-old uniformed officer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to wriggle into his Ghillie suit, full-body camouflage that makes a turkey hunter resemble a mossy tree stump. He wasn't hunting turkey that evening, though. He was stalking a thief. And, after a year of cat-and-mouse, Donaldson wanted his man.

In March 2006 Donaldson received a tip: A car was often seen parked on private land near a remote corner of Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, about 25 miles east of Cape Girardeau. He found the vehicle, peeked inside and found some hand-digging tools. People sometimes gather ginseng in these parts, he knew. But something didn't feel right.

Tom Huck
Disguised in deep-cover camouflage known as a Ghillie suit, Geoff Donaldson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern Illinois caught a major looter on video.
Disguised in deep-cover camouflage known as a Ghillie suit, Geoff Donaldson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern Illinois caught a major looter on video.

The next day Donaldson was hiking along a creek bottom when he spied a man up on a ridge spur below a bluff acting "skittish." His name was Leslie Jones, 46, of Johnson County, Illinois. Jones had facial hair, Donaldson recalls, and a trim, muscular physique, "the picture of an axman."

Among tall oaks and maple trees, Jones kept hunkering over something, then glancing up. Donaldson dropped out of sight and tried to sneak in for a closer look. When he arrived a few minutes later, Jones was gone, though his handiwork remained: Hundreds of square yards of federal soil were torn up.

"It looked like hogs had gotten into it," Donaldson recalls. He noted several piles of broken spear points and stone chips. It appeared that Jones, for months, had been systematically unearthing Native American artifacts.

Picking up an arrowhead or digging a small hole on federal property might lead to a citation, but looting that causes damage in excess of $500 is a felony. Donaldson contacted the U.S. attorney's office, which listed the evidence they'd need for a felony conviction: a video of Jones excavating the material, then pocketing it and returning home. "You've got to be kidding me," Donaldson thought.

For the next ten months, he and his colleagues spent more than 300 man-hours spread out in the woods, waiting for Jones. Digital cameras at the ready, they sat on watch through sweltering summer humidity and cold winter rains. Sometimes, officers from the U.S. Forest Service or Illinois' Department of Natural Resources joined the party.

"We kept just missing him," Donaldson groans.

Around 4 a.m. on that late January day in 2007, the team took up positions in the shadows of the forest. Hours crawled by and still no sign of the thief. Late that afternoon Donaldson radioed to the others: Pack it up. On their drive back to the staging area in Marion, Illinois, word came that Jones' car was parked near the refuge.

Donaldson, a devout Christian and father of two, remembers racing back to Cypress Creek under a darkening sky, praying to keep calm. "The idea is to become one with nature," he says. He reached the top of the bluff and scanned below for Jones. Nothing.

Then he inched down the slope toward Jones' "honey hole" — the site of the most intense digging. A tedious half-hour later, he was standing smack in the middle of it. All was quiet for several moments. Then he heard the thrashing of leaves.

Donaldson peered over his left shoulder and froze. A mere twenty feet away, Leslie Jones had stopped in his tracks. He was gripping a hand shovel and staring at Donaldson's neck. The officer assumed his cover was blown and prepared to show his badge. But Jones only blinked, looked past him and trudged off to dig someplace else. The camouflage had worked. "It was a heart-pounding experience," Donaldson recalls.

He shot enough incriminating video of Jones to secure a search warrant. When federal and state agents raided Jones' residence the next day, they discovered thousands of artifacts stored in old ammunition boxes, coolers and paint buckets.

Archaeologists later determined that 900 artifacts came from the refuge. A third of these were stone tools left by Native Americans that no human hands had likely touched since about 1,000 B.C., or earlier, the scientists reported.

But authorities also seized an additional 12,000 Indian artifacts of uncertain origin. Among these were needles and hooks made from animal bone, clay figurines, pottery shards and something more unsettling: fragments of human skulls, femurs, jaws and teeth.

"It was particularly disturbing that there was no hesitation picking up human remains," says Tim Santel, a Fish and Wildlife special agent.

Jones confessed to making money off the stolen artifacts by selling them to collectors. "He may have gotten spear points worth hundreds of dollars," suggests Mark Wagner, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale archaeologist who evaluated the seized items. "We don't know. They've all disappeared into this dealer network."

Leslie Jones was a familiar face to local law enforcement, having been arrested twice in Johnson County for growing marijuana on someone else's land. "I assume he was selling it," says Sheriff Elry Faulkner. That he was mixed up in the illicit trade for both artifacts and drugs was no isolated incident.

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