The Wreck and the Reckoning : U.S. Park Service Wins Its Case Against Undersea Treasure Hunters in the Country’s Largest-Ever Archeological Protection Venture
On a Wednesday afternoon in September, 1987, the United States Park Service called the California Wreck Divers Club and told a small lie.
Now, after 38 months, 63 civil and criminal charges and a small fortune in legal fees, federal authorities say the largest archeological protection case in U.S. history is finally over.
A boat owner, a captain and 18 divers have been punished for their roles in scavenging from four protected shipwreck sites at the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary Area.
Mark Senning and Yvonne Menard, the husband-and-wife ranger team who posed as amateur divers, gathered evidence undercover and underwater for three days--and then were barred from discussing the experience with each other for more than two years--are again on unrestricted speaking terms.
And the wreck of the Winfield Scott, principal scene of the crimes, lies slowly disintegrating into the Pacific, presumably free from scavengers’ hammers and drills.
But this was an unusual case from the beginning, and for some it’s not over yet.
The prize artifact of the case--a lone 1853 gold coin locked away in a Park Service evidence closet--is probably not the same one rangers saw during their sting operation.
Wreck diver Cliff Craft is clinging to his last legal possibilities, vowing that “I’m not going to be abused by the system when I never did anything wrong.”
And Jack Ferguson, outlaw divemaster and target of an extraordinary $100,000 fine from a federal judge, has dropped out of sight.
As a working 225-foot steamship bound from San Francisco to Panama in late 1853, the Winfield Scott must have left a substantial wake. As a federal case 137 years later, the Winfield Scott affair has stirred a new set of ripples.
For the Park Service, the case is part of a more aggressive enforcement strategy that often puts rangers into risky roles to police public property.
For many wreck divers--who say the long-salvaged Winfield Scott still has artifacts left that are worth protecting--the main lesson here is that the government wants to roll back maritime tradition and rob them of their freedom to bring home what civilization has left to rot on the sea floor.
“We’re going to be made to look like bad guys,” Cliff Craft says, “and it’s bull.”
Three years ago, on Sept. 30, Channel Islands National Park Ranger Jack Fitzgerald came across a flyer advertising a three-day scuba diving trip.
Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara owned the boat, and the California Wreck Divers Club, based in Los Angeles, had chartered it. From his days as ranger in charge of Anacapa Island, Fitzgerald knew some of the wreck divers, and he suspected that the weekend would include more than innocent exploration. Fitzgerald took the flyer to Tim Setnicka, then the park’s chief ranger.
“Within 30 minutes of him coming in,” says Setnicka, “the plan was concocted. We didn’t think about who was going to find funding and all that . . . it was an opportunity.”
If they pursued the opportunity, the rangers knew, they would be knocking up against popular seafaring sentiments. Most adventure literature, many generations of admiralty law, and hundreds of recreational divers embrace souvenir-seeking as fair game. There are plenty of commercial success stories, as well: the discovery of the Titanic in 1985, for instance, and treasure-hunter Mel Fisher’s 1986 salvaging of a gold and silver trove in the 17th-Century wreckage of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha off Florida.
“We love to dive on shipwrecks,” says Jim Dunn, president of the California Wreck Divers Club and a commercial diver from San Pedro. “There’s a fascination to it, and it’s not the loot . . . . You’re going through the water and there’s this huge thing. What is it? It’s a wreck. And there’s holes and fish . . . . And if you don’t know the ship, you ask, ‘What wreck was it? Why did it sink? What was the story?’ ”
The California Wreck Divers Club, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles, counts about 200 dues-paying members and associates and sponsors monthly dives up and down the coast. The club’s motto is “to perpetuate nautical history through organized research, recovery, restoration and display,” and members are quick to note their contributions to school programs and maritime museums from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Many of those divers are “an untapped resource,” says San Jose State University anthropology Prof. Thomas Layton. Layton is studying an 1850 wreck near Ft. Bragg, and says interested divers have donated 1,200 artifacts gathered from the wreck over the years.
“I found a commitment to doing something with the past,” Layton says, “a desire to be part of something respectable.”
Wreck divers point out the Park Service does little to reclaim undersea artifacts, leaving them to corrode and disintegrate. And many wreck divers find National Park rangers very possessive.
“If I find a $20 gold piece on the floor in the national park, and Ricky Ranger isn’t looking, I’m gonna take it,” Dunn adds. “Is the next guy going to leave it for the next generation?”
But for the last 30 years, this nation’s public agencies have been battening legal hatches against wreck divers. Government agencies have barred removal of items from public sites on land and underwater, widened the legal definition of protected property and stepped up enforcement efforts.
Channel Islands wrecks have been protected under federal law since before World War II, and those restrictions were tightened in 1980, when the islands gained status as both a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary.
The sanctuary territory, which bars disturbances of the seabed, reaches six nautical miles from each island. The popular Park Service slogan is “Take only photographs, leave only bubbles.”
But through years of lax enforcement, many divers have been taking more. For the Channel Islands rangers, the October, 1987, voyage of the California Wreck Divers stood out as an opportunity to build a high-profile archeological protection case. The rangers resolved to plant two of their own on the boat.
“We had first talked about two males,” recalls Setnicka, “and then, I think I said, ‘Hey, what about using Mark and Yvonne?’ ”
Mark Senning and Yvonne Menard were two of the park’s newest rangers, having arrived five months before from other National Park Service assignments in Hawaii. Neither had ever gone undercover, but Setnicka had worked with them in Hawaii, and hired them in Ventura.
“Two guys together, it’s easy to think ‘cop,’ ” explains Setnicka. Senning and Menard, he continues, “looked like classic yuppies. A guy and his wife, money to burn, interested in diving.”
Fitzgerald and Setnicka phoned the dive trip organizers, gave Mark Senning’s name and made a pair of reservations. Then they called Senning and Menard to tell them how they would be spending the weekend.
At 10:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Senning and Menard arrived at the Santa Barbara Marina, found their way to the Vision and stepped aboard. There they introduced themselves to Jack Ferguson, divemaster for the California Wreck Divers Club, and handed over a $550 check to cover their participation in the dive.
“I found him to be a real friendly guy,” says Senning. “He was very into his club--he was definitely a club officer type . . . . And he definitely believed in what he was doing.”
Mark Senning, then 35, had started diving at 13, and began working for the Park Service in 1981. From 1984 to 1987 he worked on a research project in the wreckage of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. For the purpose of this trip, he would pretend to be a paramedic.
Yvonne Menard, 31 at the time, had begun her Park Service career as a 20-year-old volunteer at the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. Since then, she had dived extensively in the Arizona wreckage and worked as a ranger in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. For the weekend, she would be a teacher.
“We were going along as people who were new to California and California diving,” says Senning. “And if shipwrecks were part of the history here--wow, what a neat way to go scuba diving!”
“They seemed like a nice, personable couple,” recalls wreck diver Steve Lawson, later the target of $925 in state and federal fines. “The woman seemed more talkative than the guy . . . . I never suspected anything.”
Since the early 1970s, U.S. park rangers have regularly assumed false identities in pursuit of lawbreakers.
The Park Service employs about 3,200 rangers, an estimated 1,200 of whom hold regular law enforcement duties. Dozens of generalist rangers take part in undercover operations every year over drugs, poaching or archeological protection. Those operations are on the increase, rangers say. This was the first one in California waters.
In a report that formed the bedrock of the government’s prosecution, Senning and Menard gave their account of what came next:
At about 4 a.m. Friday, the boat puttered out of the marina, bound for a day of diving at a shipwreck outside the sanctuary area. There were more than 30 passengers, and many knew each other from previous trips.
One was Ferguson, a jack-of-many-trades who lived in Bellflower, but these days has no listed phone number. Frank Farmer, a 55-year-old Van Nuys actor, writer and past president of the wreck divers’ club, was along with his daughter. Cliff Craft, a 42-year-old building inspector from Whittier, was there as well.
“They were clowns,” Craft says of the rangers now, his voice rising.
“I’m covered with tattoos from the waist up--all over my body,” he continues. “They identified me as ‘tattooed on right arm and balding.’ I’m not balding, mister. I am baldheaded.”
As the rangers planned, Menard carried a pastel-colored notebook, bought at a Ventura supermarket with the idea that she would pretend to be writing letters. But, she recalls, “I tried that the first day and felt uncomfortable doing it.”
Instead, she and Senning settled into a routine of note-scribbling in the cabin late at night. Senning kept a two-way radio in his bag.
On Saturday morning, the Vision arrived at the site of the Golden Horn, which lies inside the marine sanctuary area. Before long, the rangers’ report says, four divers were underwater in tanks, masks and wetsuits, hammering at wreckage. Four others were soon back aboard, displaying souvenirs from below.
“The law enforcement officers said nothing during the entire trip, thus encouraging the divers to pursue their activities,” complained Skin Diver magazine later in an editorial written by Paul J. Tzimoulis. “They even photographed the divers proudly displaying their worthless souvenirs. Is this entrapment or what?”
Before the day was over, at least a few divers had grown suspicious of the undercover rangers. At one point, Ferguson confronted Menard and Senning.
“He asked me if I was a state commissioner,” Menard says. “And that was an easy question to answer. I said I wasn’t a state commissioner.”
Several times after that, Ferguson announced that removing objects from the ocean floor was illegal--announcements, a judge later concluded, that “were made in mocking derision . . . . It is clear that many divers, including Ferguson, had no respect for the sanctuary and its regulations.”
On Saturday afternoon, the boat moved on to the Crown of England wreck, just off Santa Rosa Island, and the Jane L. Stanford wreck not far away. At each site, several divers made their way onto the island, which is closed to the public, and several more small items were raised from the water. Reports noted a brass bolt, small nails and some bones.
Senning and Menard admired their fellow divers’ finds, and at one point Senning fanned and sifted through debris while another diver excavated nearby. But neither ranger, the two are quick to say, removed anything from the sea floor.
Early Sunday morning, Senning slipped into the bathroom with his two-way radio and quietly dictated a message to his Park Service colleagues on land.
“I think I said, ‘For dinner, we’ll bring in seven or eight abalone,’ ” he recalls. That, under their pre-arranged code, meant Senning expected to have seven or eight violations to report upon landing.
But later that day, when the boat arrived at the spare wreckage of the Winfield Scott inside the marine sanctuary area, the violations began to multiply.
Ferguson warned divers he would sound an underwater alarm if park rangers drew near the boat, court papers say. Then came another dive, with more hammering and sifting, and the removal of a brass dowel along with various nails and copper fragments. Afterward, Dan Purdie, a 36-year-old commercial welder and longtime sport diver from Buena Park, displayed an old $2.50 coin “which he admitted taking from the wreckage,” Menard wrote.
The case now would have several new violations--more than federal officials can recall in any other such case, leading them to label this the largest archeological protection case in U.S. history. And the coin would be the case’s prize artifact.
“It was like gold fever,” recalls Senning. “When the thing came up, and Mr. Purdie showed it, and people were taking pictures of it, the excitement was so tangible in the air--it was like you could grab it.”
“You hold something like that up,” says Farmer, “and people’s judgment tends to go out the window.”
In a declaration for the court, Menard described the coin as a $2.50 gold piece from 1843.
As part of his sentence, Purdie was ordered to turn the coin over, and Park Service officials say they have held it since then. But the coin in their evidence closet is an 1853 $2.50 gold piece--not the same coin Menard described. Still, the court and the Park Service accepted it at the time.
The authorities “seem to be satisfied,” says Purdie, declining to say more.
“It’s not the coin that was found,” says Craft, declining to offer details.
Dick Adams, proprietor of Ventura Coins, estimates that the coin the Park Service has would probably sell for about $250, and that an 1843 $2.50 piece might bring $50 more.
In any event, rangers say, they can never be sure where their coin came from, and it’s probably too late to do anything about it.
“They snookered us,” confesses Setnicka, now the Channel Islands National Park’s chief of operations. But the coin is “meaningless,” since its worth is relatively modest and none of the prosecutions depended upon it, Setnicka says. Still, he adds, “it’s embarrassing.”
It was 4:45 on Sunday afternoon when the Vision returned to Santa Barbara. On the marina stood a team of six law enforcement officials--two each from the National Park Service, the National Marine Fisheries and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.
Menard had taken 26 pages of notes. She stepped up to the law enforcement team, she remembers, and handed over a passenger list.
“The boat’s being boarded at this time,” Senning remembers saying, “I’m a park ranger, and we’re asking everyone to stay where they are.”
The reaction, he recalls, was “pretty derogatory and caustic.”
“There were some angry people. It was real uncomfortable for me, personally,” says Menard. “Moments before, one of the individuals on the boat was opening their home to me.”
Informed of the gold coin, Jack Fitzgerald and the two Santa Barbara sheriff’s deputies took Daniel Purdie below deck and strip-searched him, but came up with nothing.
“They were very sloppy,” Frank Farmer says. “Some stuff was allowed to go right off, and other stuff was searched.”
Once the investigation went to the courts, a judge noted that Senning and Menard were each witnesses in criminal and civil cases, and forbade them from discussing the undercover assignment with each other. That restriction was lifted Oct. 17.
“We still haven’t really sat down and compared notes,” Menard says.
“There are plenty of other things to talk about,” Senning says. “We’ve had a kid since then.”
Authorities knew the legal case would be complicated. No one, however, bargained for what it became. One complication was geography, since the case took place in two counties and a federally protected area. Another was the deep-seated animosity between rangers and wreck divers.
The divers’ lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the case, the rangers’ ability to identify people in bulky diving gear, the expertise of the Park Service’s experts and the historical value of the Winfield Scott. Cliff Craft, determined to prevail over penalties that amounted to less than $2,000, spent $30,000.
“I haven’t had anything like it before or since,” says Eric Hanson, senior deputy district attorney for Santa Barbara County. “I’ve done murder cases, and this was just as intellectually challenging as that.”
All told, the Park Service went after 20 people, pursuing 32 misdemeanor criminal charges in Ventura County and Santa Barbara County courts, and 31 civil charges before a federal administrative law judge through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Fifty-six of the 63 charges stuck.
In the criminal cases, most of the divers accepted $750 fines, along with three years’ probation and a requirement that they notify Channel Islands rangers before entering the national park. In the first batch of civil cases, 10 divers, the ship captain and the ship owner accepted fines up to $21,500.
“It was huge overkill,” Farmer says. He was never charged. “I know what the club has done over the years, and I hate like hell to see it damaged this way.”
“Yes, if you want to go by the strict letter of the law, they broke the law,” Craft acknowledges. “But there were people charged with doing things who did not do them . . . . I am not the person that they claimed was me.”
Craft, who wasn’t charged in Santa Barbara, took his case to trial in Ventura County and a mistrial was declared in June, 1990. In the federal case, he drew a $1,000 fine for disturbing a protected seabed.
Dan Purdie, fined $10,000 for removing artifacts from three wreck sites and illegally altering the seabed, gave up the legal fight and paid.
“I’m not going to say that we were totally right and they were totally wrong,” Purdie says. But, he continues, former automobile executive John “DeLorean got off, and he was videotaped with cocaine . . . . Now I’m a taxpayer, and I go to church-- not as often as I should, but I go . . . . And I feel we took it in the shorts on this.”
If all the government fines are paid--which remains in doubt, given Ferguson’s uncertain status--park service officials say the government will recoup just over $200,000 from the case. It cost more than that to prosecute it, federal officials acknowledge. But the outcome, they say, made it a bargain.
“It was never a question of sending anybody to jail,” says Hanson in the Santa Barbara district attorney’s office. “It was to make a point: You can’t go out and steal from these protected wreck sites.”
The last cases were resolved on Oct. 17, when federal Administrative Law Judge Hugh J. Dolan ended a two-year silence and assessed fines against seven divers. Most of the fines were from $1,000 to $6,000.
Craft, fined $1,000, has appealed, and says he will fight “if they fine me 5 cents. It’s wrong.”
The seventh case was Jack Ferguson. The judge looked at the prosecutors’ request for a $6,000 fine, then bumped it to $100,000. Back at the Channel Islands National Park ranger headquarters in Ventura, Jack Fitzgerald read a fax transmission of the judge’s decision and marveled.
“Mr. Ferguson is a special case,” Dolan wrote. “He mocked the law and by actions and words encouraged all of the violations committed.”
Ferguson, said to be working and living in the Los Angeles area, could not be reached. He didn’t seek an appeal within the usual 30 days of the judge’s ruling, and one former diving companion noted at the time that “a lot of people are looking for Jack. . . .They’ll be lucky to find him.”
But on Dec. 19, an attorney representing Ferguson and two other divers asked for a chance to appeal, saying his clients weren’t properly notified of the ruling. A decision could take weeks, and the next step after that could take longer. Ferguson’s next move is unclear.
“If I were him,” says California Wreck Divers President Jim Dunn, “I’d be in Brazil.”