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Of Relics and Rancor : Lost Village of Encino’s Artifacts in Legal Limbo

Times Staff Writer

It was an exciting day for archeologists in 1984 when the Lost Village of Encino was found.

But the more than 1 million artifacts unearthed from the historical Indian village--including stone tools and bowls, mortars and pestles, arrowheads and shell beads, and the remains of an unknown number of Indians--have been sitting for years in bags and boxes in a Huntington Beach warehouse.

The artifacts are being held hostage in a battle between the archeologist who excavated them and the developer on whose property they were found, as both sides battle over the archeologist’s $2.6-million bill.

The developer, First Financial Group, has promised to donate the artifacts to the state for display in a museum. But the archeologist, Nancy A. Whitney-Desautels, refuses to release them until her fees--including $7,000 a month just for storage--are paid.

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$1 Million Sought

Whitney-Desautels last year filed a Van Nuys Superior Court lawsuit seeking $1 million--in addition to the $1.6 million the developers have already paid--that she claims the developers owe her for digging up, cataloguing and storing the artifacts.

The artifacts are not the only hostages in the dispute. Mixed in with the bags and boxes of relics are the cremated remains of Indians whose descendants are anxious to see them reburied so that their spirits may rest.

Archeologists are upset that the dispute has stalled the archeological report on what is by far the largest intact Indian village ever excavated in Southern California, and one of the largest in the state, said John Foster, senior archeologist with the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

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Archeologists think that the community was inhabited for 3,000 years, from prehistoric times through the 18th Century, probably by the Gabrielino Indians, and that it holds fascinating clues about the early inhabitants.

“This really was a major discovery, and it contains priceless information about the past life of this area,” said Mark Raab, director of the Center for Archeological Studies at Cal State Northridge. “It’s really essential that it be analyzed and used to produce a report.”

A settlement may be on the horizon, Whitney-Desautels said, the first step toward freeing the collection for public viewing, the remains for burying and the relics for study. Both sides are talking, and may arrive at an out-of-court settlement as early as Monday, she said.

Settlement Under Discussion

Superior Court Judge Robert M. Letteau, who is trying to work out a settlement, thinks both sides have good intentions.

The developer “has tried to do the right thing at considerable cost,” spending far more than the law required, and the archeologist is “motivated not so much by greed as by concern for the treatment of the artifacts,” Letteau said.

The controversy started in June, 1984, when the developers hired Whitney-Desautels to conduct an archeological survey of the planned site for their Encino Plaza office complex building at the southeast corner of Balboa and Ventura boulevards. The cost of the survey was projected at $10,000 to $20,000.

Two months later, after artifacts were found, Whitney-Desautels estimated that a more complete survey would cost $132,000 for field work and a similar amount for lab work, the developers said in court papers.

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Then, workers discovered the archeological remnants of “The Lost Village of Encino,” an Indian village described two centuries ago by the first white men to reach the San Fernando Valley in an exploration led by Spaniard Gaspar de Portola.

Along with the relics and the cremated remains, archeologists unearthed the remains of at least six bodies, some dogs and a bird, all of which were reburied at nearby Los Encinos State Historical Park. The building was then completed.

As for the cremated remains, Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission, said he has written twice to Whitney-Desautels expressing concern about the ashes and also about some grave site artifacts. He said he has received no response.

The developers, who did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment, said in court documents that they disputed Whitney-Desautels’ bills from almost the beginning, claiming they were excessive, and fired her in March, 1985.

But Whitney-Desautels continued working, saying she had a “moral obligation” to sort, catalogue and preserve the artifacts. Spending centuries underground had permeated the relics with water, she said, and they would have crumbled had she not dried them by a special heating process and stored them in hermetically sealed, climate-controlled conditions in a warehouse owned by her firm, Scientific Resource Surveys, in Huntington Beach.

In court documents filed last July, Whitney-Desautels contended that the developers owe her $371,362 for labor and expenses, $215,581 for storage, $245,607 in interest and attorneys’ fees and $200,000 for profits she claims she would have earned if the developers hadn’t breached their agreement with her.

The developers said they have already paid far more than the law requires, earning praise from the Native American Heritage Commission, an advisory panel on Indian affairs. They accuse Whitney-Desautels of trying to “extract unlimited sums” from them.

Whitney-Desautels, who filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in June, 1987, in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, denied that her fees were exorbitant. The large fee was due to the sheer size of the site and the number of artifacts and bodies found there, she said. The developers had agreed to pay additional sums for the study and care of the artifacts, she said.

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The dispute pinpoints a loophole in state law, which requires that real estate developers hire archeologists to survey areas where significant artifacts are likely to be found. If artifacts are discovered, developers have to pay excavation costs up to one-half of 1% of construction costs.

No Provision in Law

But once the artifacts are out of the ground, the law makes no provision for what happens to them. The developer legally owns the artifacts and could even destroy them, although tax incentives for donating the artifacts to the state or nonprofit agencies make destruction unlikely.

However, Whitney-Desautels said, she secured a lien on the artifacts to keep the developer from confiscating them before the lawsuit is settled.

“This is just a kind of a far-out example of how something has gone terribly wrong with the law that requires that public archeology be done,” said Foster, who added that the system usually works fine.

“It is by far the largest sum ever paid by a private developer to an archeologist for a single archeological site,” Foster said. “It’s sad because it gives the appearance of an archeologist trying to make a fortune off the excavation of this one single site.”

Developers are frequently willing to pay far more than the law requires rather than risk costly project delays due to controversy that can delay the issuance of building permits, Raab said.

Subject to Scrutiny

Such delays would have been likely in this case, Raab said, because the existence of the Lost Village had been postulated by archeologists since before World War II. That made the site likely to draw intense scrutiny from archeologists, and nearby homeowners opposed to the office project, he said.

Even if the dispute were to be settled, it might be some time before the artifacts go on public display. The state Senate approved a bill authored by Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) in June, 1986, to appropriate $195,000 to the state Department of Parks and Recreation to restore the Garnier House, a historical Encino ranch house in Los Encinos State Historical Park, and showcase some of the relics there.

The state would also accept other artifacts from the village for display elsewhere in the state and for storage in state warehouses, said Teri Burns, a legislative analyst for Robbins.

The money is being used to stabilize the Garnier House. The department has asked for an additional $225,000 in the 1990-91 fiscal budget for further improvements before the relics can be displayed there, said Kirk Wallace, the department’s regional director.

$11 Million Sought

Robbins had earlier sought $11 million from the Legislature to buy land and build a museum for the artifacts. But a feasibility study by state archeologists and consultants concluded that most of the artifacts weren’t unique enough to warrant a special museum.

Even if the artifacts aren’t unusual, the conclusions that can be drawn from them about the evolution of the native people who occupied the area are important, Raab said.

The Lost Village relics take on even greater importance, Raab said, because most of the archeological sites in the San Fernando Valley were destroyed before state laws requiring their protection were passed in 1970.

“We know pitifully little about that group and their ancestors because their culture went into rapid decline and was destroyed by the Spanish explorers,” he said.


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