Two Southwest Colorado residents received short jail sentences Thursday for disturbing a burial site while hiking with a seniors’ group last year in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
The incident occurred May 7, 2011, in an area called Pedro Point, on Bureau of Land Management land north of Cortez.
Howard H. Drake, 76, of Silverton, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for picking up a human skull and showing it to a group of hikers.
Harry Hance, 81, of Montezuma County, was sentenced to three days in jail for helping organize the hikes.
They were facing a maximum of one year in jail for the misdemeanor charge.
Both men were handcuffed and led out of the courtroom to immediately begin serving their sentences. Magistrate David L. West oversaw the hearing.
Both were taking part in a hike with Seniors Outdoors!, a social club for active adults age 50 and older.
On at least three occasions, Drake and Hance led seniors on a four- or five-hour hike to view archaeological sites that culminated with a visit to a shallow grave where a skull was exposed.
An undercover officer with the BLM attended the hike in May 2011 and asked to see the skull.
Drake laid on the ground and dug up the skull using his hands and a stick and showed it to the group of four people, according to an arrest affidavit.
Drake said he would pick up the skull and show it to the group while discussing the ancient culture. He didn’t realize that by touching it and picking it up, it was considered excavating and removing under federal law, said his lawyer, Anthony Edwards of Silverton.
He never damaged or stole anything from the site, Edwards said.
Drake apologized for anyone he offended.
“I’m of Native American ancestry, and I’m very sorry about this,” he said through tears.
West asked Drake how many times he handled the skull and how he would feel if someone unburied and handled his mother’s skull.
“I assume I would be very, very upset,” he said. “I never thought about it.”
Drake has a master’s degree, a keen interest in science and was a lifelong teacher.
But he created his own set of rules to guide scientific discovery on public lands and “violated common decency,” West said.
Hance served as a volunteer site steward for Canyons of the Ancients, monitoring ancestral Puebloan sites to make sure artifacts were not damaged or stolen.
While he never touched the skull or other remains, prosecutors charged him with the same crime as Drake for organizing and leading hikes to the burial site.
Hance had a long career as a scientist and was a curious person by nature, said his Durango defense lawyer, Brian Schowalter.
He never meant to hurt or offend anybody by leading them to the site, Schowalter said. The hike was about more than going to an ancient grave, he said; it was mostly about the archaeological sites that were seen along the way.
“He believes in public land. He believes in public service,” Schowalter said.
Schowalter said it seems unfair and unjust to give Hance any jail time considering his level of involvement compared with other sentences for similar crimes.
Specifically, he recalled a large artifacts-trafficking case in southeast Utah that involved multiple defendants, including Carl “Vern” Crites of Durango, who pleaded guilty last year to three felony counts of trafficking, theft and depredation of government property.
Crites admitted to helping dig up human remains, pottery shards and trying to buy a pair of basket-maker sandals from an undercover agent knowing they had been illegally taken from federal lands.
Crites received three years probation from a district judge in U.S. District Court in Utah.
“Those guys were stealing stuff and selling it,” Schowalter said.
But West said he can’t answer for what happens in other courtrooms. West recalled sentencing defendants to 90 days in jail for trafficking in archaeological resources.
Hance said he is a lifelong scientist who overlooked spiritual beliefs of Native Americans.
“I have a new respect, certainly for the ancient people,” he said. “I’m sorry if I offended any people for anything I have done. I never touched the skull or had anything directly dealing with it other than getting the people to it.”
West asked Hance how he would feel if someone handled his mother’s skull.
“I would be very shocked or opposed,” he said.
West said neither man set out to commit a crime, but their scientific intrigue ran amok in defiance of common sense.
“I just think you missed it, you just plain missed it,” West said.
Both men will be on supervised release for one year, during which time they are prohibited from being on BLM land except to travel across using roads.
Steven Hall, spokesman for the BLM in Colorado, declined to comment on the sentences other than to say the cases demonstrate that the agency takes its job seriously to protect natural resources, which include cultural artifacts.
“It’s a reminder that disturbing, damaging or defacing artifacts on public lands is a crime,” he said.