Two people pleaded guilty in federal court last week to unlawfully excavating and damaging archaeological resources in the Buffalo National River, a national park under the control of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The announcement came from Western District of Arkansas First Assistant U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes.In U.S. District Court hearings held via video teleconference, 64-year-old Michael L. Walters of Heber Springs and 55-year-old Yvonne Jenay Walters formerly of Heber Springs each pleaded guilty to a criminal information charging violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Previously, a federal grand jury indicted both defendants for violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, damage to U.S. property and theft of U.S. property. United States Magistrate Judge Mark E. Ford presided over the hearings and accepted the guilty pleas.
According to the plea agreement filed in this case, on Aug. 29, 2015, U.S. park rangers patrolling the Grinders Ferry area of the Buffalo National River observed Yvonne Walters taking rocks and minerals from a gravel bar. Rangers then found Michael Walters digging nearby, in what park records list as a prehistoric archaeological site. The couple admitted they had come to the park to search for rocks and artifacts, including Native American arrowheads. Further investigation revealed the couple had been to the same area previously to dig for rocks and artifacts. Both were involved in searching for, locating, excavating, trading and selling artifacts and actively engaged in social media group communities with the same interests.
Michael and Yvonne Walters’ sentences will be determined by the court at a later date, following the U.S. Probation Office’s completion of a presentence investigation. Based on their guilty pleas, the maximum penalties for each defendant include imprisonment for up to one year and a fine of up to $100,000. The defendants also agreed to forfeit artifacts, tools and equipment and to pay $4,111 restitution to the National Park Service.
The case was investigated by special agents of the National Park Service, Investigative Services Branch, and U.S. Park Rangers at Buffalo National River. Assistant United States Attorney Steven Mohlhenrich is prosecuting the case for the United States.
The National Park Service issued a reminder that public lands are protected by federal laws and regulations. In 1979, Congress enacted the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to protect an irreplaceable part of the nation’s heritage. The act prohibits excavating, removing, damaging, or otherwise altering or defacing any archaeological resource located on public or Indian lands, or attempting to do so.