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Tue, Nov. 12

Deputies focus of artifacts probe

FLAGSTAFF – Two Yavapai County Sheriff's deputies are at the center of a federal investigation into the illegal removal of prehistoric Indian artifacts from a remote site in the Coconino National Forest.

Sheriff Buck Buchanan confirmed Wednesday that Sgt. Tony Mascher, a 13-year YCSO veteran, and Deputy John Price, who has nine years of service with the department, are on paid suspension pending the results of an internal investigation into the mid-May incident at the Kinnikinick Ruin near Mormon Lake.

"We don't know if there's any substance to it or if it's all speculation," Buchanan said. "They have not been charged and we don't know if they ever will be."

The U.S. Forest Service is conducting a criminal investigation to see if Mascher and Price violated the federal Archaeological Resources and Protection Act of 1979, a statute aimed at preventing the excavation and removal of artifacts from historical sites. The statute calls for criminal penalties of as much as two years in prison and a $20,000 fine for a first offense and also has provisions for civil penalties.

On May 16, according to the affidavit of U.S. Forest Service investigator Phil Berendsen, an Arizona State University graduate student, Wesley Bernardini, walked into the ruin – a 20-acre site that experts believe was a regional trade center for the ancient Anasazi people – as part of his agreement with the Forest Service to map prehistoric sites in the national forest. Bernardini came across tracks from all-terrain vehicles, then the vehicles themselves, which he told Berendsen appeared to have been covered with camouflage.

Moments later, Bernardini heard the sounds of two men working and talking at the base of a cliff in an area that is rich in artifacts and where the Forest Service had issued no permits for archaeological digs.

Bernardini summoned Berend-sen to the scene and, a short time later, the two men went to a camp where they encountered Mascher and Price, who identified themselves as YCSO deputies but declined to consent to a search of their vehicles and campsite until it became clear that Berendsen would release them but not their property pending his securing a warrant. They at last consented to the search, and Berendsen alleged that, while he found no evidence in Mascher's vehicle, he did discover an archaeological sifting screen and digging tools in Price's vehicle, as well as a small pot shard.

Price, Berendsen wrote, said he found the sifting screen and the digging tool near the ruin, and added that he had no knowledge of where the pot shard came from.

After allowing Price and Mascher to leave the site, Berendsen wrote, another officer told him that while he was on his cell phone trying to obtain the search warrant, the two deputies made numerous trips to the brush outside their camp, saying they needed to go to the bathroom.

Allen Funkhouser, a USFS supervisory special agent, spent the night at the campsite, and he and Berend-sen searched the area the next morning.

Foot tracks led the pair to a location about 100 feet from the camp, where they located a large quantity of discarded artifacts including freshly broken prehistoric pottery, prehistoric beads, shell pendants, bone bracelets and projectile points. The investigators also found packing material, a zip-lock bag containing artifacts and a film container that also contained artifacts.

Some of the items, Berendsen wrote, were "physically on top of both vehicle tracks and all terrain vehicle tracks that had been made while John Price and Tony Mascher had been camped there, indicating that the artifacts were discarded on top of the tracks before they left."

Later that morning, Berendsen brought Forest Service archaeologists to the scene, and their observations confirmed that the artifacts near the campsite were from the Kinnikinick site, where investigators later found a number of fresh digs, some of which held bone fragments that may be human.

On May 18, Berendsen obtained a warrant to search the homes of Mascher, in Seligman, and Price, in Chino Valley. Investigators found archaeological tools at both men's homes, as well as historic pots in various stages of reconstruction and more than two dozen fully restored pots at Mascher's house, artifacts they valued at more than $22,000.

But Cathy Colbert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, was quick to point out that possession of the artifacts is not in itself a crime, that collectors can obtain pots and other historical items through legal means.

"It's not like cocaine," Colbert said, "where just the possession of it is a crime. If you have permission to go on private land and dig these things up, you're more than welcome to it."

The raiding of ancient tribal sites is of ongoing concern to Forest Service investigators such as Funkhouser, who said a thriving black market in artifacts accounts for inestimable – and irreplaceable – monetary and cultural losses each year.

"There's a tremendous amount of profit to be made," Funkhouser said. "It's not just penny-ante and it's a major problem for law enforcement throughout the Southwest."

Colbert and Funkhouser agreed that, because it's possible to obtain artifacts legally, prosecution is difficult.

"It's just like anything else," Funkhouser said. "You have to prove the elements of the crime. But when it happens on National Forest land, we react to that with an aggressive investigation."

No timetable exists for completion of either the federal investigation or YCSO's internal query, and Buchanan said the two may not necessarily take the same course.

"We'll gather information and when we feel that our investigation is complete, we'll make our decision," he said. "Our role is to ensure the integrity of our office and the people that work in it."

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