Don’t mess with Texas: Looters on BLM-managed land learn the hard way

Story by Cynthia Herhahn, BLM Federal Preservation Officer; Katie Hill, Archaeologist, Socorro Field Office; Michael Merritt, Archaeologist, Socorro Field Office; and Crystal Cowan, BLM Public Affairs Specialist, Oklahoma Field Office. Photos by Katie Hill.

Looters on Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed land in Texas learned the hard way that federal law enforcement takes the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) seriously.

A muddy looking river surrounded by green vegetation
The Canadian River near Amarillo, Texas, as viewed from a looted site once inhabited by the Antelope Creek People.

In March 2019, an individual reported on a suspicious social media post, which appeared that Native American artifacts were being looted from a large pit. The background of the post was recognized as the Cross Bar Management Area administered by the BLM and located just north of Amarillo, Texas. This illegal excavation was of a 700-year-old Native American archaeological site. One commenter to the post warned the perpetrator that the Cross Bar is federal land. The author of the post brashly responded by declaring, “I’m not scared of the feds.”

A pile of artifacts
This photo was posted on social media. The artifacts seen here are only a small part of the collection forfeited by one of the perpetrators.
A warning sign that says: "Notice: $250,000 fine for digging/removal of artifacts. Violators will be prosecuted. Below that sign is another sign of a person on a horse crossed out. Next to the signs is a stream.
One of the perpetrators posted the above photo of a warning sign on federal property with the remarks, at least we weren’t riding horses, and “Govt shutdown. Time to dig.”

Armed with this information, BLM law enforcement eventually secured a search warrant that took agents and rangers into a tangled web of illegal excavations of Native American cultural sites on federal, state, and private lands. BLM law enforcement and archaeologists coordinated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Homeland Security Investigations, and Texas Parks and Wildlife to help ensure that those responsible for the damage were held accountable. Thanks to their hard work and that of a determined U.S. Attorney, two perpetrators pled guilty to violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. One was sentenced to two years in prison. The other was sentenced to 18 months. Upon their release, they will be obligated to pay restitution fines totaling $565,091.70. As part of the plea agreement, all artifacts, fossils, and other materials were forfeited. These sentences send a strong message to would-be looters that ARPA violations are serious crimes with serious penalties.

Two dishes with artifacts in them next to a BLM "evidence label" form
An evidence bag and some points from the search warrant. FBI evidence teams helped with two simultaneous search warrants and treated everything with care and respect.
Two see-through cases filled with artifacts.
Cases full of artifacts were confiscated in the search warrant, of which these are only a few. Multiple trips and vehicles were needed to return all of the objects.

As for the stolen items, truckloads of artifacts, fossils, and petrified wood were returned to their rightful locations. Those artifacts for which their provenance could not be determined were donated to Texas Parks and Wildlife, who will use them for educational purposes.

The success of this case is due to coordination across agencies and cooperation from volunteers, environmental specialists, rangers, agents, archaeologists, game wardens, concerned citizens and many more. The case earned its participants the U.S. Attorney’s Award of Excellence from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Texas.