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Man illegally excavated Native American site, took artifacts, officials say

Truman Lake reservoir in Missouri. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District)
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A peninsula on the Harry S. Truman Lake in Henry County, Mo., houses a trove of Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years. The site is protected by federal law, and unauthorized excavation is forbidden.

Johnny Lee Brown dug for treasure anyway, federal prosecutors say.

In an 11-count indictment made public on Tuesday, prosecutors allege the 71-year-old Clinton, Mo., resident caused more than $300,000 in damage during excavation trips spanning over five years. Brown’s charges include felony counts for conspiracy, causing damage and defacing archaeological resources and government property.

“According to the Osage Nation, the excavation damage to this archaeological site caused by this conspiracy greatly impacts the cultural history of the Osage Nation, and other affiliated tribes,” the indictment says.

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

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

Locations like the Tightwad Site are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which preserves public and Native American lands that “are an irreplaceable part of the Nation’s heritage,” court documents say. The act makes it illegal to excavate or remove items without a permit. It also establishes damaging, altering or defacing the site as felony crimes.

Brown began excavating the site as early as June 2016, prosecutors said. Along with at least two unnamed co-conspirators, Brown allegedly accessed the area by driving on unauthorized access trails or walking to the site. Their visits would last anywhere from about 30 minutes to over three hours, court documents say.

“Brown and co-conspirators used tools ranging from small handheld trowels to full-size shovels, rakes, and hoes to dig, excavate, or otherwise damage, large areas of intact soil to reveal hidden archaeological resources,” the indictment says.

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

It is not immediately clear how many times Brown went to the site. Court documents list 10 examples of the alleged excavations in 2016, 2017 and 2020. The financial damage from those visits ranged from $1,440 to $12,960, prosecutors say. The indictment says that investigators were able to track the visits on surveillance cameras.

Brown was arrested Tuesday. His trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 22.