Agent Still remembers how one man guilty of looting informed him in 2007 that only a prison term could stop him from digging. Sure enough, during the sentencing process, he was caught stealing in the exact area of his original offense.

"It's an addiction," Still says.

The artifact collector show held annually in Collinsville, Illinois, is one of the largest in the country. Before this year's event, on March 20 and 21, organizer Floyd Ritter said he'd be welcoming 3,000 visitors from across the nation. But anybody trying to hawk items unearthed from burial grounds, he says, was banned.

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.

Asked how he could tell if an artifact was robbed, Ritter responds, "There's no way to tell."

Many archaeologists distinguish between good and bad collectors. The good ones, they say, display a good-natured curiosity about an arrowhead. The bad ones disregard the law and the artifact's history and care only about finding the highest bidder. They amass their inventories from low-level looters.

The finest specimens find their way to major dealers, who in turn sell them overseas, mostly to the Japanese, says Larry Zimmerman, an anthropology professor at Indiana and Purdue universities. "On the high-end stuff," he says, "Americans have been pretty much the middleman."

Zimmerman says collectors' shows, such as the one at Collinsville, are often "an archaeologist's nightmare." But eBay also worries him. Five years ago, as chair of the Society for American Archaeology's ethics committee, he lobbied the auction site to at least concede that the online antiquities trade is keeping looters in business.

"They basically said, 'Thank you very much for your concern,'" remembers Zimmerman. "They weren't very helpful." But he does point out that eBay will shut down any auction of human remains or artifacts known to be stolen.

"The problem is that eBay is so big, it's unmanageable," Zimmerman says. "Even if they had ten eBay cops, they couldn't control the antiquities trade."

Leslie Jones was sentenced January 25 in the Southern District of Illinois for his crimes at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Archaeologists calculated that he had churned up enough soil to fill a semitrailer. The judge ordered him to serve 30 days in prison, perform 100 hours of community service and pay $150,000 in restitution.

"That's going to haunt him for the rest of his life," says Geoff Donaldson.

Dr. Julie Holt of SIUE was not as impressed. "The judge gave that guy a slap on the wrist," she complains. "Do you think if he dug up your grandma, he'd get 30 days? No. He'd be in prison for a long time with psychological testing. But somehow, it's OK if it's a Native American burial."

Donaldson says the origin of the skeletal material seized from Jones' residence is still under investigation. The offender declined to comment for this story.

Unlike Jones, most people sentenced for ARPA violations don't end up in prison. In Bob Palmer's analysis of federal prosecutions from 1996 to 2005, he determined that 83 looters were found guilty. Of these, less than a fourth of them did any time, and the ones who did served no more than a year.

Last June federal agents swooped into southern Utah and arrested two dozen people suspected of playing a role in a network of illicit Indian artifact trading. (Curiously, two suspects and one informant have since committed suicide.) Announcing the raid, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hailed a "new chapter" for protecting such items. The time of the U.S. government "simply looking the other way," he said, "is over."

Meanwhile, Native Americans like Carrie Wilson look with anxiety toward the future. "Somebody's looting a site every day, whether a rock shelter or some other place," says Wilson, who consults for various Native American tribes and claims Quapaw, Peoria and Eastern Shawnee heritage.

"If they're not looting, agriculture is destroying our sites in such numbers that in a few years, there won't be sites left."

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