Johnny Lee Brown accused of excavating Native American artifacts

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A peninsula on Harry S. Truman Lake in Henry County, Missouri is home to a treasure trove of Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years. The site is protected by federal law and unauthorized excavation is prohibited.

Johnny Lee Brown dug up treasure anyway, according to federal prosecutors.

In an 11-count indictment released Tuesday, prosecutors allege the 71-year-old Clinton, Missouri resident caused more than $300,000 in damage during searches spanning five years. Brown’s charges include counts of conspiracy, causing damage to and degrading archaeological resources and government property.

“According to the Osage Nation, the excavation damage to this archaeological site caused by this conspiracy has a significant impact on the cultural history of the Osage Nation and other affiliated tribes,” the indictment states.

Brown’s attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment. late Wednesday.

The dig location is known locally as the “Site of Tightwad” because it is near Tightwad, Mo., approximately 90 miles southeast of Kansas City, Mo. The site dates to the Late Archaic period , 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, prosecutors said. Experts say the location’s dense collection of artefacts means the area was once “occupied as a camping site, stone processing site, or both”, according to court documents.

Places like the Tightwad site are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which preserves public and Native American lands that “form an irreplaceable part of the nation’s heritage”, according to court documents. The law makes it illegal to excavate or remove objects without a permit. It also establishes damaging, altering, or defacing the site as criminal crimes.

Brown began excavating the site as early as June 2016, prosecutors said. Along with at least two unnamed co-conspirators, Brown allegedly gained access to the area by driving on unauthorized access trails or walking to the site. Their visits lasted between about 30 minutes and more than three hours, according to court documents.

“Brown and his co-conspirators used tools ranging from small hand-held trowels to large shovels, rakes and hoes to dig, excavate or otherwise damage large areas of undisturbed soil to reveal resources. hidden archaeological finds,” the indictment reads.

The group reportedly carried firearms and brought buckets, backpacks and containers to transport items off the site. Prosecutors did not specify what artifacts they believe Brown took from the site or say where the items are now located.

It is not immediately clear how many times Brown visited the site. Court documents list 10 examples of alleged searches in 2016, 2017 and 2020. Financial damages from those visits ranged from $1,440 to $12,960, according to prosecutors. The indictment says investigators were able to follow the visits on surveillance cameras.

Brown was arrested on Tuesday. His trial is due to begin on August 22.

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