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Melton complains that the judge won't discipline the looters, even though it's always the same crowd. Nunnally claims these individuals have also been picked up by the sheriff on drug-related charges. He's convinced they sell artifacts to buy dope.
The situation makes Morrow furious. "Maybe the judge or prosecuting attorneys consider this a petty crime," she says, exasperated. "But it's a felony."
A deputy did recently come out and collect evidence, she notes. But that only happened because the sheriff's office was pressured by Carrie Wilson, a member of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, which claims the area as ancestral territory.
"I can be very persistent," Wilson says later in a phone interview. "But Julie needs to be careful. I need to be careful. There would be people very glad to see us go away. You have to understand, there is a contingent that's dangerous. And sometimes, you're not dealing with somebody with a full deck."
After the scientists leave, Melton and Nunnally stroll through the field, searching for arrowheads. They regularly plow through the mound sites to plant crops. For Melton, that's not the same as digging into a grave. Farming activities are exempt under the burial protection law, he points out.
Back in his pickup, climbing out of the bottoms toward the nearest town, Melton admits, "I love history, and I'd love to dig. But I won't, out of the simple reason that there's dead people down there. It's about respect. Even if they're 4,000 years old, it's still a person."
Farmers in Missouri's Franklin and Jefferson counties have been bristling lately, says Joe Harl of the Archaeological Research Center in St. Louis. Here, where the Ozark Mountains begin to roll west and south, he hears more and more landowners complaining of unwelcome surface collectors — and sometimes diggers — on their property.
"Many have said they're going to get guns," Harl reports. "It's worse than the [illegal] deer hunters."
The problem is not confined to private land. Mark Twain National Forest covers approximately 1.5 million acres of Missouri, most of it in the state's southeastern quarter. Heritage program manager Keri Hicks says Mark Twain has the most caves in the national forest system, and a majority "have been looted into oblivion" since about the 1950s.
These days, an e-mail will trickle in every couple months from a forest employee who's discovered a hole, shovel or screen, says Hicks. When someone checks on it, they might find that the disturbance is a couple years old or more.
"We don't have enough law enforcement to be effective with trying to protect or monitor it," Hicks says.
Archaeologist James Halpern says he and another employee have been assigned to 515,000 acres in the southwestern portion of the forest. "It's pretty hard to check everything," says Halpern. "There are tons of sites and places on the forest I've never even heard of, let alone been to."
On the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, where 135 miles of the Jacks Fork and Current rivers are designated federal property, authorities write about five citations per year for pilfering arrowheads, says park archaeologist James Price. Each carries a $225 fine.
There was one major case there in the last decade, says Jodi Towery, a federal law enforcer on the Riverways. Looters wearing headlamps came cruising in at night on ATVs. They tore two feet down into a 20-by-30-foot plot. Towery caught them on camera but couldn't positively ID them. When a mushroom hunter stole one of her cameras, word spread that the site was under surveillance — and the digging ceased.
This particular case taught her one thing: "Some of the people who collect artifacts are also known to do drugs. It's kind of the same crowd."
Sergeant Kevin Glaser of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force has also noticed that connection. The number of meth-lab incidents has tripled from 2008 to 2009 in the ten counties under his supervision, he says. And he's noticed something odd: "We've gone into meth houses, and we'll literally find tubs of arrowheads."
Larry Keen, supervisor of the Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force, also reports that he often finds artifacts during meth busts. Posits Keen: "I think whenever they get high, they've got to do something, so they wander around and get arrowheads and rocks."
There's probably more to it than that, says Richard Rawson, a professor at UCLA's School of Medicine. For 35 years he has studied addiction, with an emphasis on methamphetamines. He says meth users can stay up for days, focusing intensely on a redundant task until they collapse from fatigue.
Rawson says he has not heard of any link between meth users and arrowhead hunting, but, he reasons, "Somewhere in the background of their thinking, there's some motive for getting these things. They're not out there collecting leaves."
Special agent Robert Still recalls catching a woman stealing artifacts from the Buffalo National River in northwest Arkansas. She grew so agitated that she pulled out a revolver and a large knife. "I had to disarm her," says Still. Then there was the looter who came lunging at him with a jagged-edged garden tool. "We've had officers shot over this type of stuff."