Ancient finds, modern laws: U.S. investigates doctor over 30,000 artifacts

In one photograph, Dr. Jonathan Bourne crouches over an ancient wooden bow sticking out of a melting glacier in the High Sierra. In another picture, he is digging the bow out of the ice with a rock.

The photos of Bourne, an anesthesiologist at Mammoth Hospital, appeared on a hiking-club website — and soon, he had visitors.

Federal agents searched Bourne's mansion in December, recovering roughly 30,000 ancient items they believe were unlawfully taken from hundreds of public land sites across the West: stone mortars, glass beads, projectile points and pendants. They also seized logbooks containing details of his archaeological finds.

Bourne, 59, has not been charged. Federal authorities are only now close to finishing their investigation, said Michael Grate, a U.S. Forest Service special agent. Wooden splinters recovered at the High Sierra glacier by federal archaeologists matched the bow in Bourne's possession, officials said.

Bourne declined to comment other than to say: "The blog has gotten me in trouble with the authorities. The bow in question has gotten me in trouble as well. It might have legal consequences."

The investigation comes three years after Bourne's brother, Dr. Andrew Bourne, who served as chief of staff at Mammoth Hospital, committed suicide after his arrest on charges of illegal communications with a minor to facilitate sexual activity.

Mark Coleman, a Fresno attorney representing Jonathan Bourne, said his client is cooperating with investigators. "A large number of the artifacts he turned over to them were collected legally," Coleman said.

Bourne never intended to keep the bow, Coleman said. Instead, Bourne planned to "have a well known and respected archaeologist examine it, in hopes of determining what organization should receive the item," Coleman said.

The website that carried the photos of Bourne's discovery included a post by Bob Burd, 58, a Fresno man who organized the hike into the Sierra National Forest. 

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According to the post, Burd was hiking down a mountain in the area Aug. 19, 2014, when Bourne shouted that "he had discovered a Native American bow sticking out from the ice and rock in what remained of a glacier."

"He immediately procured some stone tools to start chopping out the ice around the bow to extract it," Burd's post said.

Later that day, the post says, "Jonathan would only say that he had been mistaken about his find and that it turned out only to be a stick, though he couldn't say this without a grin on his face."

Bourne's attorney and Burd disagree on what happened that day.

Michael Karch, an orthopedist in Mammoth Lakes and one of Bourne's close friends, described him as a humanitarian, environmentalist and member of the nonprofit Mammoth Medical Missions, which provides disaster relief overseas. Karch said Bourne "planned to donate his collection to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History when he died."

"This investigation is a waste of taxpayers' money," Karch said. "These are arrowheads, and they've been laying in the dirt for thousands of years."

That kind of talk rankles Craig Lee, an archaeologist with the University of Colorado and an expert in the study of ancient materials that are emerging from ice patches around the world as temperatures warm from global climate change.

"Permanent patches of ice and snow in the lower 48 states are only found on public lands," Lee said. "That means these naturally climate-controlled repositories of cultural artifacts are protected by federal law."

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The federal investigation is not the first time Bourne has run into trouble for his actions on public lands.

In 2011, Bourne and wife Penny paid $1-million restitution to the federal government for causing a fire in 2006 that burned about 7,435 acres of the Inyo National Forest. The fire was sparked by embers from a pit in which the couple had been burning brush.

Separately, in February, an Inyo County man was indicted on federal charges of excavating artifacts along the Eastern Sierra for decades despite objections by Native American leaders. 

In 2013, thieves cut five petroglyph panels from an eastern Sierra site on Bureau of Land Management land north of Bishop. The panels were later recovered, but no arrests have been made.

Federal archaeologists and curators at Inyo County's Eastern California Museum are sorting through several thousand artifacts unlawfully collected by an Inyo National Forest district ranger who died in 1973.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Twitter: @LouisSahagun

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