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Men who stole petroglyphs escape punishment

Two non-Indian men who stole 1,000-year-old petroglyphs saw their theft convictions thrown out by a federal appeals court on Tuesday after the government failed to prove the artifacts were of any value.

Using a winch on a truck, John Ligon and Carroll Mizell intentionally tore three petroglyphs from rock on federal land near Reno in August 2003. The men were arrested after a secret witness tip led police to discover the artifacts on display in Ligon's front lawn and in Mitchell's vehicle.

In spite of their actions, a federal jury acquitted the men of stealing archaeological resources. Instead, Mizell and Ligon were convicted of theft of government property.

But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday threw out the theft convictions. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel said government prosecutors failed to introduce evidence -- including a report that estimated the worth of the petroglyphs -- that showed the artifacts were of "monetary" value.

"It is clear that Ligon and Mizell stole the petroglyphs. It is equally clear that the petroglyphs had a market value," Judge William A. Fletcher wrote for the majority. "But the government did not introduce that report into evidence, or indeed anything else that might have served as evidence of 'value' within the meaning of [federal law], although it obviously could have done so."

The report, prepared by a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist, indicated the petroglyphs had a "retail" or "market" value of at $800 or $900, a figure based on photographs provided to an Indian arts dealer in Tucson, Arizona. Since Ligon and Mizell damaged the petroglyphs by tearing them out of the rock, their value significantly declined, according to the dealer.

But rather than base the case on the report, prosecutors relied on the "archaeological" value of the petroglyphs. This approach conflicted with the statute the men had been charged under -- U.S. Code Title 18, Section 641 defines value as the retail or market value of the items.

"The government's choice not to introduce any evidence of 'value' within the meaning of Section 641 unfortunately leaves us little choice," the court wrote in dismissing the charges.

During the trial, an archaeologist from the U.S. Forest Service testified that the petroglyphs had an archaeological value in the $8,000 range. A U.S. Forest Service special agent said she couldn't determine the "commercial" value of the items. The information, however, couldn't be used due to the government's approach.

The case highlights the difficulty the government has faced in obtaining convictions for theft of artifacts. Under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, prosecutors must prove a person knowingly stole archaeological items

"For a felony conviction, the prosecution should have to prove that a person charged under ARPA knew, or at least had reason to know, that the object taken is an 'archeological resource," the 9th Circuit wrote in a September 2001 case in which a man who called himself an "Indiana Jones type" removed an Alaska Native skull from a Tlingit village gravesite.

The man was eventually sentenced to three months in prison and was ordered to pay $7,356 in restitution for a misdemeanor violation of ARPA. But the 9th Circuit had previously set aside his conviction because prosecutors failed to make the case for archaeological theft.

The petroglyphs feature images of a man and images of a hunter and a bighorn sheep. When they were reported stolen, the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California and the Reno Sparks Indian Colony to a $4,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.

"These messages are the essential elements and evidence of our existence and we view their theft as a reflection of the ultimate contempt for creation, this land and its sacred heritage," Washoe Chairman Brian Wallace said at the time, according to The Reno Gazette-Journal. "It is an unutterable crime against the eternal and unseen."

Government Theft Case:
US v. Ligon (March 20, 2006)

Related Case:
US v Lynch, No 99-30325 (December 7, 2000)

Relevant Links:
Washoe Tribe - http://www.washoetribe.us
Friends of Sierra Rock Art - http://www.sierrarockart.org