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Ruth: Ridiculous 'raiders of the lost artifacts'

There are more than 8 million stories in the naked swamps and forests of Florida. This is one of the absurdly ridiculous.

It hardly comes as a revelation that if you schlepped around the state's waterways and woodlands, you would invariably stumble on the remnants of our original native American forebears and find no shortage of arrowheads.

Since homeland security was somewhat problematic, not to mention all manner of beasts who viewed Florida's settlers as snacks, our ancestors were cranking out arrowheads faster than aluminum can pop-tops. Think of this as Florida's first iteration of Stand Your Ground.

Yet two years ago the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched a $130,000 undercover sting to round up 14 desperados who have been charged with more than 400 felonies linked to looting the state's ancient artifacts.

That sounds nefarious, doesn't it?

Except in this Confederacy of Pilferers plot, the booty collected by the suspects was of marginal value. Indeed, as the Tampa Bay Times' Ben Montgomery reported, the state of Florida, which already has some 500,000 artifacts in its historic archives, has declined to accept another 10,700 pieces of antiquities found by 150 divers in the state's rivers.

In one case, a defendant allegedly sold a box of about 90 assorted artifacts to an undercover agent for a grand total of $100 — not quite Pablo Escobar territory.

That didn't stop FWC gendarmes decked out in body armor and wielding tactical weapons from descending on the 14 suspects, many of whom had clean criminal records, as Operation Timucua unfolded. Might this dragnet have been better dubbed Operation Overblown?

No one would argue that it is important to protect Florida's fragile ecosystem and its history from those would who would rape the landscape for greedy motives. But the Timucua 14 were hardly the Medellin Cartel of flint rock. It's not as if these folks were conducting Florida panther hunts or feasting on bald eagle foie gras.

The case against the alleged looters was made murkier by Florida's vague language about what constitutes a legally obtained artifact as opposed to contraband.

In 1996, the state created the Isolated Finds Program. It allowed collectors to legally remove items from rivers based on the theory that something embedded in a waterway had quite likely been dislodged from its original location and its archeological significance had been compromised.

Many of those charged by FWC had participated in the Isolated Funds Program until it was discontinued in 2005. The defendants continue to claim whatever artifacts they possessed were obtained from rivers or acquired at artifact shows.

The FWC, even after its two-year long undercover operation, was not able to produce evidence the defendants ever dug into a state archeological site to obtain any ill-gotten artifacts. Yet several defendants are looking at substantial prison time — mostly for starring in a low-rent version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Looney Tunes.

To whatever extent these 14 men broke state law many of them didn't even realize they were violating, fining the defendants, imposing community service and warning them to knock it off would have satisfied the interests of justice.

After all, this isn't exactly a bunch of Bernie Madoffs of relics here. Consider this scenario: one of the Timucua 14 winds up in the slammer and finds himself sharing a cell block with serial killers, rapists, child molesters, drug dealers and bank robbers when one of them asks: "So, what are you in for?"

Hot arrowheads and felonious possession of a fossil. Really?

To round up the wild antiquities bunch, the FWC spent $130,000 over two years involving undercover operatives, secret recordings, SWAT team-style raids, heavy weaponry, dangling handcuffs and hundreds of criminal counts.

The criminal charges have led to seized property, mounting legal fees, a divorce and in the case of artifacts collector William Barton of Leon County, who wasn't even charged in the investigation but feared he would be: a suicide.

Protecting nature and preserving history, especially in Florida, is a delicate balancing act between competing interests. The same might be said of justice. Breaking a law is not necessarily the same thing as criminality. It's a concept embodied by Themis, the Greek goddess holding the scales of justice — an image of compassion and fairness as old as antiquity.

Ruth: Ridiculous 'raiders of the lost artifacts' 01/09/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 9, 2014 4:52pm]
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