A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A grave robbery leads federal authorities to one of the Southwest's most prolific looters
New Mexico's Fort Craig was a key prize in the westernmost campaign of the Civil War, and hundreds died in the Battle of Valverde, fought near Black Mesa. (Samir S. Patel)
The problems began, as they often do, with a couple of beers.
In the early 1970s, a group of metal detectorists were camping in the ruins of Fort Craig, 35 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. The fort played a role in the western-most campaign of the Civil War and housed regiments of Buffalo Soldiers, the army's first black regulars. It was the collectors' favorite haunt--they had been there every weekend for seven years, legally, because the fort was then on private land and they slipped the ranch foreman an occasional bottle of whiskey.
They sat around a fire with beers and peanuts. "There's something about Fort Craig, especially at night," says Lew Batsell, the last surviving member of that group, now a rugged old hand with a white ponytail. "After two or three beers, you listen real close and you can hear a bugle blow."
While the army supposedly emptied the cemetery after the fort was decommissioned, it was later discovered- first by looters, then by archaeologists- that many, including the Buffalo Soldier pictured here, had been forgotten. (Courtesy New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator)
Batsell remembers being the first to raise an idea that crossed the line from legal to illegal. He mentioned the fort's cemetery, a couple hundred yards away, on the edge of an arroyo leading down to the Rio Grande. The army removed the bodies in the 1880s; Batsell figured buttons or coins might have been left behind in the coffins. But unlike the fort, it was on federal land, making it a crime to collect there.
"Oh, Batsell, you're dreaming," someone said. "Well," he recalls, "two or three beers later, this becomes a real possibility. The loot was increasing by the drink."
The next morning another member of the group, Dee Brecheisen, a Vietnam veteran, TWA pilot, and lieutenant colonel in the New Mexico Air National Guard, drove a metal rod into the ground near the cemetery's edge. "Rodding" is a technique well known to hunters of Native American grave goods--if the rod breaks through to a cavity, grab the shovels. A thorough researcher, Brecheisen, whose handle in Vietnam was "Gravedigger," had to know digging there was illegal. If so, he didn't care.
"Bam, right off the bat he hits one," says Batsell. "Sure enough, we get down to a pine box right outta Tombstone." A pass with a metal detector turned up seven coins. So they kept going, weekend after weekend, coffin after coffin, amassing small prizes until a day Batsell will never forget, when he pried open the lid of a coffin that wasn't like the others. It was occupied. "I come out of that hole like I was shot with a gun," he says. "It scared the shit out of me." What he saw was a complete set of remains, still in uniform, with clumps of dark, curly hair. A Buffalo Soldier.
Puzzled--the cemetery should have been empty--they reburied the body. But those remains, and others, wouldn't stay in the ground. Nearly 30 years later, they would spark a criminal investigation, lead federal agents and archaeologists into the secretive world of collectors, and help identify one of the Southwest's most destructive looters.
Samir S. Patel is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.