Science

Inyo County man accused of removing Native American relics from public land

Norman Starks has collected Native American artifacts for decades despite objections by tribal leaders

An Inyo County man has been indicted on federal charges he hunted for and took ancient Native American relics from public lands along the Eastern Sierra.

Norman Starks, 76, of Lone Pine has collected artifacts for decades despite objections by Native American leaders and state and federal authorities.

Starks faces six counts of excavating and removing Native American beads, ceramic pots and stone tablets from areas including a prehistoric burial site in relic-rich Keeler Dunes, which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. If convicted on all counts, Starks faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine, U.S. Atty. Benjamin B. Wagner said.

In an interview Monday, Starks denied wrongdoing. "They haven't heard from me how I acquired that stuff they are saying I stole," he said. "They don't know where the hell it actually came from."

Gregory J. Haverstock, a BLM archaeologist, declined to comment except to say, "The federal government takes the protection of archaeological resources very seriously."

Dozens of federal agents led by the FBI raided Starks' century-old home eight months ago, seizing evidence including golf clubs that they believe he used to dig up artifacts he later stacked on tables, benches and on his front porch.

Starks said after the raid that hunting for artifacts was his birthright, noting that Eastern Sierra residents had collected relics in the region for more than a century. He shrugged off the idea that they were sacred.

"The Indians that made this stuff didn't think it was anything special," he said. "They used it and tossed it aside."

But Paiute-Shoshone tribal leaders say he destroyed priceless items placed by loved ones at graves for use in the afterlife. Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, said, "When this case goes to trial, we'll be there in the courtroom to make sure everyone knows this is not a victimless crime."

An earlier federal case against Starks was dismissed in 2004 after the statute of limitations ran out. State charges against him ended with a hung jury in 2011.

Starks, however, agreed to a court order barring him from a 700-acre patch of Keeler Dunes for the rest of his life. He continued gathering relics on private property immediately north and south of the restricted area. Artifacts can be taken legally from private land.

Starks has said he was the victim of a conspiracy connected to a lawsuit he filed in 2010 accusing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the city of Los Angeles of taking control of century-old water rights that belong to his property.

The lawsuit was settled in December in favor of the utility. However, Matthew Emrick, an attorney representing Starks in that case, said Monday that the settlement included "an undisclosed amount of money paid to Starks by LADWP."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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