The Case of the Purloined Pots

In the deserts of the Southwest, pothunters are stealing a priceless heritage of ancient Native American art

Along a remote stretch of the Mimbres River in southwestern New Mexico, USDA Forest Service officers Cathy Van Camp and Mike Skinner crawl to within yards of where three men are digging in the ruins of a pre-Columbian pueblo. After determining that the men aren't armed, the officers make their move and arrest them. "They were completely taken by surprise," Van Camp said later. "I don't think that they had the slightest concern they'd be caught."

Ten years ago, the bravado of these men would have made more sense. In those days, very few federal prosecutors pursued cases of archaeological theft, and most judges did little more than administer hand slaps, if they didn't throw the case out altogether. But today, things are changing, and the men—James Quarrell, Mike Quarrell, Aaron Sera—went to trial. The Quarrell case was important not just for federal, state and local authorities, but also for Native American agencies attempting to control their own lands. A conviction would signal that sentiment had changed toward the crime of stealing ancient artifacts.

Illegal trade in antiquities ranks as the world's fourth most lucrative illicit business after drugs, guns and money laundering. Federal and state authorities have strengthened laws and intensified prosecutions to discourage looting in this country. But the incentives are high: a single piece of prehistoric pottery sold recently for $100,000.

The line at the edge of circumstantial evidence is always a fuzzy, gray one. When pothunters are caught in the act of digging, it's tricky to make a case against them. "You could stop a truck on Forest Service land, and there might be tools in the back and pots on the front seat and, a few hundred yards away, a couple of freshly dug holes," says Forest Service special agent Robin Poague. "But you have to prove that this guy actually dug those pots out of the ground."

During the trial, the momentum seemed to swing from one side to the other, and then back. Finally, the judge read the verdict: guilty. "This is really encouraging," says Poague. "It's making me think that the tide's turning."

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