Park vandals returned, officials say|[05/23/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The people believed to be responsible for digging more than 100 holes around the Texas Memorial earlier this month were persistent, returning to the Vicksburg National Military Park even after media reports of their criminal acts, a park official said Tuesday.

&#8220Even after all this hit the papers and television stations, they came back,” said Rick Martin, the park’s chief of operations.

The illegal relic hunting on the battlefield was reported on May 11. Stories appeared in Vicksburg, on Jackson TV and elsewhere via The Associated Press. But the culprits were not dissuaded. &#8220I saw them about 3 a.m. (May 13), but I lost them in the woods,” Martin said.

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A park ranger discovered the initial damage west and east of the Texas Memorial, causing &#8220tens of thousands of dollars” in damage.

Archaeologists and historians with the National Park Service investigated at the scene, which extended west of the memorial near a Confederate marker to the Railroad Redoubt.

Patrols have been intense since, but digging up artifacts is a high-risk, high-reward pursuit. The Internet has made sales of illegally obtained Civil War items more popular and easier.

It’s also high-tech. &#8220They use night-vision goggles and also have communications,” Martin said. &#8220They are doing it for a couple of things: to do the digging and for the excitement.”

Patty Montague, the park’s supervising ranger, has said relic hunting is becoming a &#8220main line of business,” although some keep the artifacts for their collections.

When Martin, using night-vision equipment, spotted the vandals near the Railroad Redoubt, they had been in the federal park for hours.

&#8220There were two individuals out there, but I couldn’t see them with night vision once they disappeared into the woods,” he said. &#8220We are working some leads on that. People are calling us and telling us they heard this or heard that.”

Martin said the Warren County Sheriff’s Department is helping.

Separately, while officials were investigating the vandalism site, they found human remains in a wooded area near railroad tracks. Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey said the remains, believed to be those of a man, have been sent to the Mississippi State Crime Lab in Jackson. Identification is pending.

Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, it is against the law to excavate, remove, damage, alter, or deface archaeological resources on federal or Indian land. It’s also illegal to traffic materials or items found on such land.

Penalties for ARPA violators include being fined $20,000 and imprisoned two years. Subsequent convictions could result in $100,000 fines and five years in prison.

Under Mississippi law, vandalism that causes more than $1,000 in damage carries maximum penalties of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Texas Memorial is on the south loop of Confederate Avenue at the Railroad Redoubt. It cost $100,000 to build, and was dedicated on Nov. 4, 1961.

The park was created by Congress in 1899 to preserve the siege lines from the Civil War fighting here in 1863. Because thousands of soldiers were entrenched along the lines, the finding ammunition, weapons, belt buckles and buttons is not unusual at many places in the city. The park and its roads are closed at night.