DENVER – The senior group’s activity schedule for a Wednesday in May 2011 promised a moderate hike into McLean Canyon and viewing of round towers at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
The hike also included something else, federal prosecutors say: digging up a grave.
An undercover officer from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said he witnessed the incident, and now two Montezuma County men are facing prosecution for tampering with archaeological resources on federal land in Southwest Colorado.
Howard Drake and Harry Hance are negotiating plea bargains with prosecutors and are due in federal court in Durango on July 3, according to court documents. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail, but most other recent prosecutions for similar crimes have not brought jail sentences.
Drake’s lawyer did not return a call to the Herald, and Hance’s lawyer, Brian Schowalter, said he could not comment about the ongoing case.
The BLM got a tip about a human grave being excavated in June 2010, according to BLM agent Randall Carpenter, who wrote an affidavit in support of a search warrant on Drake’s trailer in Pleasant View. Agents recovered several pieces of pottery when they searched Drake’s home in May 2011.
The two men were not charged in court until April 2012.
An undercover officer joined the May 2011 hike to Pedro Point, McLean Canyon and the “Dead Man” site, all within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
During the hike, Drake said a previous hiker had reported him to the sheriff, and he thought law enforcement might be waiting to catch him digging up pots, according to Carpenter’s affidavit. The undercover agent told Drake he would really like to see the skull.
Drake laid on the ground and, using his hands and a stick, dug up the skull of an ancestral Puebloan and showed it to the group of four people, according to the affidavit. He told the group that he had found the skull four or five years earlier,
The hike was promoted on the website of Seniors Outdoors!, as well as in a Durango Herald brief. Seniors Outdoors! offers an active calendar of hikes, climbs and multiday expeditions in the Four Corners. It sponsored the Pedro Point hike, led by Hance and Drake, for the first time in 2007, according to the group’s website.
Seniors Outdoors! did not promote a visit to a gravesite as part of the activity. Several attempts to reach the group’s leaders for comment were unsuccessful.
Hance had served as a volunteer site steward for Canyons of the Ancients, patrolling ancestral Puebloan sites to make sure artifacts are not stolen.
Hance was an inactive volunteer and had not served as a site steward for “some time,” and he was not serving as a steward on the May 2011 trip, said Marietta Eaton, manager of Canyons of the Ancients.
Monument volunteers and employees get mandatory training about the treatment of artifacts and ancient sites every year, Eaton said.
Hance, of Mancos, was featured in December in a Cortez Journal story about his work in sending mice into orbit during the early days of the U.S. space program.
Pothunting has been a common hobby of many people in the region. Local residents, and even a U.S. senator from Utah, complained about heavy-handed law enforcement when federal agents arrested about two dozen people in 2009.
People often have a hard time understanding other cultures and appreciating their people as individuals with common human traits and emotions, said Richard Wilshusen, Colorado state archaeologist.
“Would an individual be willing to display the bones of their grandparents or someone else they knew personally?” Wilshusen said. “I think it’s about whether an individual sees those remains as belonging to someone who had an identity as a person.”
Wilshusen was part of a team that developed Colorado’s procedures for contacting Native American tribes when human remains are discovered. Many people consider the treatment of ancient Native American remains a human-rights issue, he said.
Anyone who finds human remains should contact a ranger if the remains are on federal land, or the local sheriff if they are on state or private land, Wilshusen said.