National Park Services Grave Robber: Man Pleads Guilty to Stealing Remains

AP Photo/Telegraph Herald, Joseph A Wallis, File - In this June 9, 2001 file photo, Brett Besler and his grandmother, both of Dubuque, Iowa, stand at the base of Little Bear Effigy Mound at the Effigy Mound National Monument in Marquette, Iowa. Former mounds superintendent Thomas Munson was charged Thursday, December 10, 2015 with stealing ancient human remains from a federal museum collection housed at the sacred Native American burial and ceremonial site.

National Park Services Grave Robber: Man Pleads Guilty to Stealing Remains

Thomas Munson, 76, of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin will plead guilty to embezzlement and theft charges in connection with an accusation that he stole several ancient Native American remains from the Effigy Mound Monument federal museum in Iowa. Munson, former National Parks Service superintendent of the Effigy Mounds National Monument, was charged in federal court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with one count of misdemeanor embezzlement and theft on December 16, 2015. He was released without bond and is expected to enter into a plea agreement with federal authorities during a hearing set for January 4, 2016 in Cedar Rapids.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Iowa, Munson is charged with knowingly, between July 16, 1990 and May 17, 2012, concealing human remains in the possession of the United States.

Munson told authorities that he took the remains from the museum, including fragments of teeth, skeletons, jaws and leg bones and kept them in the garage of his home in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin for over 20 years according to a report by the Associated Press on December 10, 2015. The remains are thought to be between 500 to 2,000 years old and were discovered at the Monument in the 1950s.

Twenty tribes are culturally associated with the Monument, which encompasses more than 200 mounds along the Mississippi River near Harper’s Ferry, Iowa. Tribal leaders expressed anger and outrage over Munson’s actions as well as what some see as leniency by federal prosecutors.

NPS Photo - Blue Gill Pond at Effigy Point with Fire Point in the background.

“We are disappointed. Mr. Munson has been allowed to attempt a plea bargain regarding his theft of Native American skeletal remains while he was an NPS employee. As an official of the NPS and representative of the federal government, he violated the trust and oaths he gave to safeguard our ancestral remains and site. As a federal official, he was held to a higher standard, he broke a federal law, NAGPRA, and the penalty should be commensurate with that higher standard. A full sentence would serve justice appropriately, and would send a message to others who would desecrate Native American (or other) skeletal remains,” said Lance Foster, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska.

Although Munson’s motivation for taking the remains is unclear, some tribal leaders speculate that he was trying to circumvent the 1990 Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, that requires federal museums to return remains to tribes.

Munson’s case is the latest in a long string of scandals involving the Monument that the watchdog group PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, described as “the largest official mass desecration of Indian pre-historic burial sites in the annals of the NPS.”

PEER and the Friends of the Effigy Mounds received documents in May 2014 after filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the NPS detailing extensive building projects beginning in 1999 including walkways mounted on cement based supports directly into and over mounds. The documents, part of an internal NPS investigation, showed that Monument officials failed to follow proper procedure such as first consulting with affiliated tribes before embarking on such projects.

NPS Photo - The Yellow River Bridge Trail at Effigy Mounds National Monument. The NPS website says it “is accessible to those with physical disabilities,” and “allows visitors to explore the wetland environment.”

A December 1, 2009 memorandum to the regional director of the NPS that was part of the 373 pages of recovered documents describes a tour in which tribal representatives saw the walkways and other building projects for the first time. “Tribal representatives were angry. They questioned why ancient cemeteries should be treated as places to walk your dog. They also wanted to know why NPS authorities never bothered to consult them before building began.”

The finished and partially completed walkways are still intact at the Monument. Current Monument superintendent Jim Nepstad has publicly committed to engaging with members of the affiliated tribes in dismantling the structures. He told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids in November 2015 that he plans to begin a process leading to the removal of the boardwalks and other illegally constructed projects.

Meanwhile, tribal leaders express frustration with perceived leniency by the U.S. Attorney’s office towards Munson’s prosecution.

Court documents reveal that the remains were valued at $1,000. Thefts involving items valued at $1,000 and below are considered misdemeanors under federal law, while theft of anything valued over $1,000 is considered a felony according to officials at the U.S. State’s Attorney office in Cedar Rapids.

“From an ethical or moral position, the remains could be said to be priceless,” opined Iowa State Archaeologist John Doershuk, Pd.D.

Doershuk said he is keen to learn details of Munson’s plea agreement and hopes Munson is required to make a public statement and/or apology about his actions.

Foster agreed, “There is something strange and disturbing on a spiritual level that also seems to have been involved in tampering with the dead in such a manner.”

Marisa Miakonda Cummings, Chief of Tribal Operations with the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska added, “The Umonhon people hold our ancestors in great reverence and veneration. My hope is that the U.S. Attorney seeks a conviction and that Mr. Munson serves a full sentence by the maximum penalty of the law. The U.S. Attorney’s office needs to send a message to all grave robbers that this action will not be tolerated. It is only right that our ancestors are left to rest in peace.”

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