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North Florida arrowhead sting: What's the point?

Jacky Fuller was sound asleep beside his wife of 33 years when pounding at the door jolted him awake. The 54-year-old father of two and faithful Jehovah's Witness stumbled out of bed in his underwear. It was not yet dawn, but the doorbell was ringing, and the pounding sounded like someone about to knock the door off the hinges. Heart hammering, he pulled open the door and stared into gun barrels.

Whoever had come for him wore helmets and bulletproof vests and carried tactical rifles, and as they pulled him outside at his home in Fortson, Ga., they said he was under arrest.

The agents were with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Division of Law Enforcement. That same morning, Feb. 27, other agents pounded on Terry Tinsley's door outside Tallahassee. He's 52 and hard of hearing, and his house had been broken into twice before, so he had been sleeping with a handgun within reach. He grabbed his weapon, ready to fire on the first intruder, when he heard someone shout: "Law enforcement!"

At 25-year-old Nate Curtis' home, not far away in Havana, agents handcuffed his wife, he claimed, and seized his computers and cellphone. William Walters, 48, said agents surrounded his truck in Dade City as he headed to work. Shawn Novak wasn't home, but agents harassed his wife at work until she gave them permission to search their house, said Novak, 47. "They tortured my wife all day long," he said. "They threatened her, saying they were going to break the door down."

In all, FWC agents raided six homes, arrested 14 people from Big Pine Key to south Georgia, and charged them with more than 400 felonies. The raids capped a two-year undercover investigation that cost the state more than $130,000, not including the cost of the tactical raids or subsequent prosecution. The sting, called Operation Timucua, netted people with clean criminal records, including a brick mason, a 24-year military veteran and a 74-year-old retired University of South Florida professor. It drove suspects into debt and wrecked their reputations. One man got divorced. One committed suicide.

The mission: to stop the buying and selling of artifacts.

 

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On May 28, 2012, an artifact collector named Allen Hyde spent the morning watching television in his trailer in rural Hamilton County, about 25 miles northwest of Live Oak, when his buddy showed up at the door.

Hyde, 49, welcomed him. Hyde was unemployed and spent his time taking care of his elderly parents and looking for artifacts to sell at shows and on eBay.

Mike Sheppard stepped inside with a cold beer. He always brought beer.

"This is a pretty cool show," Sheppard said.

"I've been watching Storage Wars and Pawn Stars all morning," said Hyde.

The two had met at an American Indian artifact show at Saint Leo University the year before. They quickly became pals. Sheppard would visit Hyde's trailer to drink Bud Light and watch football, and he even stayed the night sometimes, Hyde said. Hyde had introduced Sheppard to his fellow collectors.

Most knew Sheppard by his nickname, Cowboy. They'd seen him poking around at trade shows, which are advertised on the Internet and held at Elks Lodges and places like the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City.

Cowboy, who wore boots and drove a full-size Ford truck and spoke with a drawl, let on that he was new to collecting and was in the market for arrowheads that came out of Florida rivers. Some collectors were suspicious. It's a small, insular bunch. They thought it peculiar that Cowboy wanted to know specifically where and when an artifact had been found.

But not Hyde. He considered Cowboy a friend.

That rainy day in May, Sheppard and Hyde drank beer and talked arrowheads. Hyde told Sheppard it's hard for him to even leave his house without wanting to buy rocks.

"God, if I had a mansion with tons of rooms to put s--- in, I'd be buying the hell out of stuff," he said. "I'd have one room just for gems and minerals on shelves, and lighting, you know — the lighting makes it — I mean just shining down on it. There's just so much crap out there that you've just never seen in your life, you know, from around the world, man, that it's just crazy, beautiful s---."

Sheppard asked Hyde if he'd found any artifacts lately. Hyde produced a box full of fossils he had pulled out of the Suwannee River.

Horse teeth. A boar tusk. Stingray plates. Bits of turtle shells. With a fossil permit, which Hyde says he had, removing those from river bottoms is legal. But taking an artifact, something man-made more than 50 years old, has been illegal since 2005, and that's what Sheppard was interested in.

"What do you want for that?" he asked about an arrowhead.

"I don't know," Hyde said.

"Twenty?"

"More than that."

"Forty?"

"Dude . . . give me a break. That's a good piece, man. It's fluted on both sides, man."

"Seventy? Seventy-five?"

"Dude, it's got a flute there and a flute there."

"Eighty? Eighty-five? I'm fixin' to run out of money, dude."

Hyde had been collecting arrowheads for 40 years, since he was a boy. He knew how to assign value to an artifact.

"A hundred bucks, I guess," said Hyde.

Sheppard had a secret. His real name was Michael Pridgen, and his paychecks were from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He had a hidden audio recorder rolling. And he wasn't Allen Hyde's friend.

The undercover agent compiled hours of covert audio and grainy video, much of it of the hobbyists talking about their collections and admiring each other's arrowheads. He took photos of their stone tools and mammoth teeth, and was quick to offer a beer. In video and audio filed in the cases, he's rarely not drinking.

On Feb. 27, the FWC's take-down teams struck. Hyde was living in a small apartment in the North Florida town of Macclenny. The pounding at the door launched him out of bed.

When he opened the door, he said, he saw a line of officers with weapons drawn.

 

The wildlife commission officials held the news conference at the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee the same day as the arrests.

Maj. Curtis Brown, the head of Operation Timucua, stepped in front of the cameras.

"This was a criminal conspiracy, a criminal network of dealers," said Brown, who wears his hair short and bears the disposition of a young politician. "This was not a family or a hiker out that finds an arrowhead. We didn't target those people. We were targeting the main dealers and looters that are driving this market."

He estimated that agents seized more than $2 million in Indian artifacts during the raids, but that's a questionable number. Those busted say it's way too high, and that the agent was buying artifacts for as little as $15.

At the crux of the investigation was the idea that those who sell artifacts create a market for "looters," those who dig for artifacts on state property, which is illegal.

Said Robert Bendus, historic preservation officer for the Department of State: "This isn't just stealing artifacts, this is stealing the history of this state. Because when you remove an artifact out of the ground you're taking it out of context. When you take it out of context you lose all ability to learn the story of the artifact."

Artifacts that the undercover agent had bought were displayed on tables. Many look like plain old rocks to the untrained eye. The FWC showed photographs of pock-marked forests and riverbeds. What they didn't say was that the photographs of "Negative Impacts of Illegal Excavation on State Lands" were not linked to any of the defendants, and that no one from the state had seen any of them digging on state land.

Collectors like Hyde and Fuller draw a sharp distinction between picking up something off a river bottom that has already been dislodged from its historical context and digging a hole through a significant undisturbed site. In its news conference, the FWC drew no such distinction.

Stopping looters may have been the point, but catching someone digging is extremely difficult. The agency hoped that rounding up these collectors would stunt the market.

People have been collecting artifacts in Florida for more than 100 years. The state outlawed that in the '60s and '70s, but many kept collecting. Penalties were rare, and collectors were often the ones pointing archaeologists to important sites. Even the chief of the agency that became the FWC, Thomas M. Goodwin, dove for artifacts while it was illegal, his son Tommy told the Tampa Bay Times.

In 1996, the state launched the Isolated Finds Program to bridge the gap. That gave collectors permission to take river artifacts that had been dislodged from their original location. An arrowhead between a tire and an old Budweiser can on the bottom of the Suwannee, for example, wouldn't reveal much about native culture because it had been bouncing downstream for a thousand years.

"Isolated Finds was created as a way to focus on archaeological significance," said Jim Miller, who was state archaeologist at the time. "When artifacts are displaced from their context they lose some of their archaeological value."

The majority of the Operation Timucua suspects participated in the Isolated Finds program. Alas, some collectors didn't, and the program became protective cover for illegal looting. When it was discontinued in 2005, it didn't stop the collectors.

The February stings have revived the debate that has divided archaeologists and collectors for years: Who owns the past, and who should be able to go looking for it?

"When I think of archaeology, I think it's something the whole world participates in on some level," said Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida. "I have mixed feelings about what some of the amateurs do, but there are a lot of things I can't see any harm in."

"These artifacts are lost when they are in the rivers," said Bob Knight, former president of the Sunshine State Archaeological Society. "Then they go in and terrorize these people, busting into homes with no warning, treating them like drug dealers. This is terrible."

In the nine years the program was in place, 150 people reported finding 10,720 artifacts in 51 rivers and lakes. The state, which has more than 500,000 artifacts, didn't want the pieces the divers found.

"They don't have the resources to curate what they have already," said Robert Austin, former president of the Florida Archaeological Council. "Collecting is going to occur . . . and we should have a method where the archaeological community and the public should get some information out of that."

Archaeologists would prefer artifacts be left alone. Duval County Court Judge Gary Flower, a collector himself, has called that approach, "Leave it where it's at for future generations to never find and pave over."

 

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Jacky Fuller was either truly confused or playing dumb.

"I don't understand," he kept telling the agents there to arrest him, according to audio recordings that are part of his case. "I mean I just don't get it."

He told them he had a good rapport with archaeologists in Florida, and that nobody ever told him that what he was doing was wrong. He explained that he frequently bought and sold artifact collections, but rarely dove in Florida rivers anymore. He showed them his collection and the agents seized his business notebooks. Sprinkled among pages of artifact logs were notes from Bible studies and lessons on how to be a better leader in his church.

"This seems so underhanded," he told the agents. "It seems like I've somehow been betrayed or something because nobody's ever told me that what I was doing was wrong. I mean nobody. I've bought collections from people down in Florida who own their collections. A lot of them are very old collections. That's what I sell on the Internet. It's not what I find. It's stuff that other people have found. . . . The state doesn't want this material. If you go to Gainesville and try to contribute a collection, your general reaction is: 'We've got plenty. We don't have a place to store it even.' It's the same thing in the state of Georgia."

Fuller was booked into Muscogee County jail in Georgia on Feb. 27 on 216 felony counts of violation of historical resources and dealing in stolen property. The bulk of his charges come from a box of about 90 assorted artifacts he allegedly sold the agent for $100. Each piece brought two charges: violation of historic resources, punishable by up to five years in prison, and dealing in stolen property, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

"A number of inmates said I didn't look like I belong in there," he told the Times. "When I explained the charges, they simply couldn't believe it."

He spent seven days in county lockup before a prison transport van showed up to bring him to Florida, where he faced charges in three counties. He was shackled at the wrists and ankles and rode for 30 hours on a metal bench between a man arrested for murder and a man arrested for assault, zigzagging from prison to prison in Georgia, Alabama and North Florida. Recounting the trip, he began to whimper. "It was the absolute worst experience of my life," he said.

In Marion County, jailers recorded a call in which Fuller told his wife he wanted to die. He was placed on suicide watch.

After 15 days in custody, his bail was set at $95,000 and a friend paid his bond. His wife informed him that agents had paid another visit while he was in custody and took his records, computers, cellphone, camera and iPad. He tallied his debt, between bail and legal fees and seized items, at $63,000. His wife, who has health issues, went back to work. He resigned his position as elder at church.

"I didn't want the reputation of my congregation or my God to be sullied in any way," he said.

One commonality between the targets of Operation Timucua, besides their general lack of criminal records, is that their fascination with arrowheads and Indian artifacts started early. Most remember walking fields for hours with their grandfathers or fathers or uncles, searching tilled earth for stone signs of ancient man. Finding an arrowhead and thinking about the last person to touch it, thousands of years before, is a powerful experience. They talk about it like it's an addiction. They read books about prehistoric man, keep ledgers of their finds and display the points in shiny glass cases.

"It's in human nature to want to discover, to find, to try to understand the past," Fuller said. "It's in our DNA. They're asking a big part of our population to ignore that. To leave it alone."

 

//

 

As word spread on television and in the newspapers, collectors who weren't arrested started to wonder if they were next.

"You don't need an AR-15 to take arrowheads from a citizen," said Joe McClung, who was a target of the investigation but was not arrested.

"My kids were freaked out," said Don McAlister, 45, of Jasper, who described agents wearing full tactical gear and armed with automatic weapons. "They did not have to bring that kind of manpower to do a search warrant." They took his artifacts, his $17,000 boat and trailer.

Allen Hyde called his mother. "I'm being arrested for arrowheads," he told her. She cobbled together his bond money.

Hyde's jailhouse booking picture ran in the convenience store mugshot rag. People he hadn't heard from in years were calling him. One man who saw his photo in the newspaper said he never knew Hyde was a child molester.

"It works on your psyche every day. There's a black cloud over me," Hyde said. "I can't sleep. I just lay there tossing and turning."

"It was a complete surprise," said Johnny Tomberlin of Bainbridge, Ga., who was charged with three felonies for selling the agent an arrowhead that had belonged to a doctor in Tampa. "We didn't know that this was going on and we sure didn't know that this was a felony."

Tomberlin, 54, blamed his divorce on the sting. "There's been a lot of anxiety," he said. "People handle stress differently, and I didn't handle it too well."

The men primarily object to being called "looters" and being accused of digging on state land. They say they'd never do that.

"They're trying to make the public think it's digging," said Shawn Novak, a defendant from Dade City. "To this day, they're still scared to come out and say, 'We busted these people for picking up something on the bottom of a dark river.' "

When Terry Tinsley bailed out of jail, he called a friend to warn him. Tinsley said agents had shown him William Barton's photograph during the interrogation. The FWC disputes this. The agency gave the Tampa Bay Times a copy of the photographs it said Tinsley was shown, and there's no photo of Barton.

Tinsley swore he saw his friend, and he called him that day. Friends say Barton, who had a collection, grew paranoid.

Barton went missing the following Tuesday. His wife told Leon County sheriff's deputies he was "panicked" because he thought he was in trouble with a high-profile case.

Deputies found his body in cold, shallow water near the bank of Lake Elizabeth, behind his house. They found his blue Crocs and wallet on a rock. He had written a note on the back of an auto parts receipt.

"Please let all this stop with me. All fault and blame lies with me. I'm sorry for all the pain I've caused."

 

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Maj. Curtis Brown walked through the woods on state management land in early December, in an area he asked the Times not to disclose because it's under constant FWC surveillance for looters. He was careful where he stepped.

"A lot of these guys are woods savvy," he said. "They'd look for broken vegetation. Any sign that someone has been in here."

The FWC hasn't been able to catch anybody digging here, which could be a testament to the FWC's limited capacity to stop looting on state land or to the discipline of the looters.

"We've been working this site for years," Brown said. "These guys are just so lucky. We've missed them by a day several times."

He finally made it to a small rise covered in freshly dug holes, the spot he wanted us to see. The mound is pocked by about a hundred holes of different shapes and sizes. A few Gatorade bottles and a pair of men's underwear suggest humans did this, not wild boar. Near one of the holes, someone has carved a gash in a pine tree.

"They checked the tree," Brown said. "That means they found something good."

Florida has no igneous rock, hence no stones as we think of them, so Florida Indians mined chert, which is hard and sharp, and made good arrow points. But the chert first had to be fired, then formed into weapons. Early man moved often and couldn't carry all his stone weaponry with him, so Indians would bury their weapons and mark the spot.

These caches, said the FWC's Joe Davis, 47, are what looters look for. This decimated rise might have been a quarry site, a tool factory. Chips of chert cover the ground.

"What's sad is they've kind of blown through all of that, in search of anything of value," Davis said.

Before the looting, an archaeologist could have determined where someone was sitting thousands of years before, for instance, or where they made the fires. The story of the place.

"This is horrible from a scientific and ethical sense," Davis said. "It takes a lot of effort to do this kind of damage."

The state has identified 191,000 archaeological and historic sites in Florida. Davis has documented some 250 of those himself, in the Big Bend region, south of Tallahassee. Ninety percent of them have been looted.

Brown stands opposite the looters, but they have a shared history. He learned to love archaeology as a boy, too, on arrowhead hunts with his family. At 15, he worked for a summer on an excavation, but found the work boring. "About like digging ditches," he said. "I wanted something more exciting."

He started chasing looters in the mid '90s, when he was an FWC field agent. He remembers how poachers turned to artifact hunting when the market value started to rise and Internet trade grew. He remembers the beer-can trip lines in the woods, and candle wax drippings in the bottom of fresh holes, from midnight digs. One band of looters called the "Coonbottom Artifact Militia" used to leave calling cards on trees. One looter ripped down a sign that said artifact digging was prohibited and left his shovel leaning against the tree, like a challenge.

"I have a unique respect for these guys," Brown said. "They're good at what they do."

Not long ago, Brown noticed a truck parked on state land. He hiked through three creeks before he found the looter in a hole. The man ran. Brown tracked him down at home and the man pretended he was asleep. He finally came clean and showed Brown where he'd hidden his dirty clothes.

"He told us, 'I quit. I knew it was wrong. Then I got bored, so I went again,' " Brown said. "He was glad we caught him, glad to have it over with.

"They're obsessed and once they get going, they can't stop."

After Brown climbed the ranks and became a major, he pushed hard for Operation Timucua. One reason why is down on the Wacissa River.

"I want to show you the pristine sites," he said. "Hopefully when we get there they won't be totally looted."

 

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The boat glided through gin-clear water as wood ducks took flight and turtles slid off logs. The Wacissa River through the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area is one of the most beautiful, unaltered spots in Florida. Outside of a few fish camps, there was little sign of human life.

South of the headwaters, Brown pulled the boat to shore and plodded through the woods to what looked like a hill, but is actually an Indian mound. Kick the leaves away and you turn up flint chips and alligator fossils.

"This is the biggest one down here that we know of," he said. "These are our pyramids."

Not far from here is a site that has the potential to change what we know about humans during the last ice age.

The Page-Ladson site is in a deep hole in the bed of the Aucilla River that has deposits of animal bones and human artifacts. Collectors and river divers found the site in the late 1950s.

Jim Dunbar, an archaeologist, studied the site from 1983 to 1997 and pulled up artifacts that suggest early man lived with mastodons 14,000 years ago, before even the Clovis culture, long regarded as the first humans to inhabit North America. The discovery was controversial, but a group from Texas A&M has resumed excavation to try to validate the results.

"It's just recently been recognized as a pre-Clovis site and one of the oldest in the world," Dunbar said. "We're looking at the tip of the iceberg."

In this mound in the woods, archaeologists see a rich reservoir of history, preserved by North Florida's unusual environment and protected from development. Advances in archaeology could someday unearth major discoveries here, but only if looters don't take it first.

"Those people take whatever they can find and sell it for as much as they can get for it," Dunbar said. "This is the best shot over the bow I've ever seen. It was out of control."

 

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Ten months after the arrests, a judge has dismissed charges in two cases. The statewide prosecutor for the Attorney General's Office has not formally charged four of the 14 arrested. The others are headed toward trial.

The defendants will argue that the state got the wrong guys, that they're just enjoying a hobby passed down from their fathers. They'll argue that the state went overboard in trying to make an example out of them.

FWC says the tactical raids were done for everyone's safety. The agency denies handcuffing Nate Curtis' wife.

Asked about the grief the sting has caused the defendants, Brown said his feelings are complicated. The law is the law, and it's the FWC's duty to enforce it. But he also has respect for a group of men who value artifacts like the defendants do.

Told that Allen Hyde felt like he'd been betrayed by his friend, Brown said, "It sucks. I like Allen."

He said he had to pull the undercover agent out of service occasionally to have "long philosophical discussions" about why they were targeting the collectors and to remind him: "These aren't your friends."

"The route we took to get there, though unusual, it had an impact," Brown said.

On a narrow stretch of the Wacissa, we saw a flat-bottomed boat near the bank. A man wearing a wetsuit stood in the clear water with something in his hands. It was the first boat we'd seen all day. He looked surprised, scared.

"How y'all doing?" Brown asked.

The man in the water raised his hands. He had several old bottles.

"Picking up trash," the man said.

"Okay," Brown said. "Good luck, guys. Catch you later."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Staff writers Jon Silman and Alex Orlando and researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

North Florida arrowhead sting: What's the point? 01/02/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 3, 2014 3:04pm]

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