A Mono County doctor has been indicted on 21 felony counts related to the alleged looting of Native American artifacts from tribal and public lands including Death Valley National Park.
The case against Jonathan Bourne, 59, an anesthesiologist at Mammoth Hospital, stems from a yearlong investigation launched after photos of him digging a wooden bow out of a melting glacier in the High Sierra appeared on a hiking club’s website.
“Collecting artifacts on public lands is not harmless fun — it’s a serious crime,” said Greg Haverstock, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management archaeologist involved in case. “It damages archaeological records and the shared heritage of our nation. It also impacts tribal members who regard the removal of such items as sacrilegious.”
A federal grand jury in Fresno charged Bourne with eight counts of unlawful transportation of archaeological resources removed from public lands; six counts of unauthorized excavation, removal, damage or defacement of archaeological resources removed from public lands; six counts of injury or depredation to government property; and one count of possession of stolen government property.
If convicted of all counts, Bourne faces up to 98 years in prison, according to the indictment. He would also face forfeiture of all vehicles and equipment used in connection with the violations, the indictment said.
Bourne, who lives in a mansion overlooking the High Sierra ski resort community of Mammoth Lakes, is scheduled to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Monday. Federal prosecutors are expected to recommend a sentence of less than 20 years in prison, authorities said.
U.S. Forest Service special agents searched Bourne’s mansion in December, recovering an estimated 30,000 ancient items representing a historical record spanning more than 11,000 years, authorities said. The agents also seized logbooks containing details of Bourne’s archaeological finds.
The indictment lists 32 confiscated items including dart points, obsidian cutting tools and three etched stone tablets allegedly unlawfully removed from Death Valley National Park; glass beads believed to have been removed from a cremation and burial site in the Humboldt–Toiyabe National Forest; and the taking of the juniper bow excavated from the melting glacier in the Sierra National Forest.
Wooden splinters recovered at the glacier by federal archaeologists matched the bow in Bourne’s possession, officials 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.
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.”
Bourne then used stone tools to chop 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 declined to comment. Mark Coleman, a Fresno attorney representing Bourne, disagrees on what happened that day.
Coleman said his client “spotted a piece of wood, which appeared to be recently exposed from an ice patch as a result of global warming. Recognizing that if the item had any historical significance it would quickly decay from exposure, Dr. Bourne recovered the item.”
Coleman said Bourne planned to “have a well known and respected archaeologist” examine the bow “in hopes of determining what organization should receive the item.”
Native American leaders have long complained that unlawful removal of artifacts on tribal and public lands destroys priceless cultural connections, along with scientific data that allows archaeologists to better understand the earliest inhabitants of North America.
“This case sends a strong message: It is illegal to collect artifacts on public lands,” said Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation.
The federal grand jury indictment comes three years after Bourne’s brother, Dr. Andrew Bourne, who served as chief of staff at Mammoth Hospital, committed suicide 20 days after his arrest on suspicion of illegal communications with a minor to facilitate sexual activity.
Word of the indictment drew mixed emotions from Bourne’s close friends. Among them was John Dittli, a photographer and former federal park ranger, who said, “I’ve spent a lot of time hiking the backcountry with Jonathan. He’s a good man. But I also feel strongly that collecting antiquities on federal land is not legal and is, in a certain sense, immoral.”