Accusations flying in stolen petroglyph caper
RENO – Standing on a mountain rock slide high above Reno, John Pickett can picture the Washoe tribesmen lying in wait for bighorn sheep 800 years ago.
About a dozen hunting blinds are visible in the 100-yard stretch of broken rock on Peavine Peak – some of the depressions 5 feet deep and a dozen feet across – where the hunters hid from unsuspecting game headed down the slope t oward the meadows of the Truckee River.
The hunters’ success was chronicled on small boulders in one of the pits in rock art known as petroglyphs – drawings of lizards, a dragonfly, a bighorn sheep and a hunter with a bow and arrow.
The link to the region’s native culture was jeopardized last summer when the historic American Indian site was sacked by looters who made off with three of the most significant rocks.
Two men have been charged under a federal law making it a crime to remove such artifacts from federal land. Their trial is scheduled to begin this May in Reno.
Their lawyers insist the theft is not what it seems. They say the jury will be left with many questions about what happened that August night a half-mile from backyards of the fast-growing city.
Was it greed or altruism? Genius or ignorance? And how much was the whole affair fueled by a bitter love triangle that ties one of the accused to one of the accusers?
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“These places are sacred,” said Pickett, 38, a Georgia native who recently abandoned an accounting career to study forestry at the University of Nevada and take a seasonal job with the Forest Service.
“It is a link back to the past,” he said. “There are probably 1,000 of these places within sight of this mountain, but not very many people know about them.”
One of the rocks remains at the high-desert site on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, but the others are locked away as trial evidence.
“Right there, that’s where they took it from,” Pickett said, pointing to the remaining rock with a drawing of a lizard.
“They didn’t take this other one because it was too big. It must weigh 500 pounds.”
The two suspects – John Ligon, 40, of Reno, and Carroll Mizell, 43, of Van Nuys, Calif. – claim they were trying to protect the artifacts from encroaching development. They say they didn’t know it was federal land or illegal to remove the rocks from the unmarked site.
Pickett doesn’t buy it and told federal investigators the duo knew exactly what they were doing. He says he knows because he’s the one who showed Mizell the petroglyphs.
“It looks like I led the lion to the meat,” he said.
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Pickett said he took Mizell to the site last spring, described the cultural and historical significance and explained the laws regulating such artifacts on federal land.
“I couldn’t believe it when I read in the newspaper that they said they didn’t know it was illegal,” said Pickett, who met Mizell when he hired him to do home repairs. “The thieves’ attorneys are trying to make this seem like a big mistake. And that’s a lie.”
The Forest Service, Washoe Tribe and Reno Sparks Indian Colony offered a $4,000 reward in August after discovering that the petroglyphs had been cut out of the rock at the base of the mountain.
Such drawings were created by pecking a stone surface to create images, said Terry Birk, a Forest Service archaeologist. Prosecutors valued the rocks at more than $1,000 in filing criminal charges, but tribal leaders said the art is priceless.
“These messages are the essential elements and evidence of our existence,” said Brian Wallace, Washoe Tribe chairman. “We view their theft as a reflection of the ultimate contempt for creation, this land and its sacred heritage.”
On Sept. 16, after a tip to a police hot line, authorities recovered the rocks in Ligon’s front yard. On Oct. 18 a federal grand jury indicted Ligon and Mizell – his former brother-in-law – on two counts of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
Ligon told U.S. agents he had no idea it was illegal. He “removed the rocks for their protection unaware of any other appropriate way to do it,” his lawyer Scott Freeman said.
If he’d intended to profit from the theft, he would have tried to sell them to a collector, Freeman argued.
“He displayed them openly on his property. They were in his front yard!” he said.
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Mizell’s lawyer, David Houston, said Pickett has ulterior motives in telling his story to investigators: Pickett’s ex-wife is romantically involved with Mizell.
“Hell hath no fury like the aggrieved spouse,” Houston said.
“His efforts to aid in the prosecution … are not in the public interest but in the interest of his petty revenge,” said Houston. “Mr. Pickett’s wife left him. He felt offended, he felt so wounded, his dignity or whatever wounded that he embarked on a campaign to destroy his ex-wife and Mr. Mizell as well.”
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It was a stormy day in March when Pickett first took Mizell to the petroglyphs. He had hired Mizell to repair his patio deck in February.
“He was an excellent carpenter,” Pickett recalled. “I got to know him pretty well. By that time he’d been working every day at my house for six weeks.”
The weather provided an excuse to suspend the work and drive to the mountain nearby.
“I was of the mind-set, before this happened anyway, that hiding what you know about them isn’t the right thing to do – that you should let people know where they are,” Pickett said.
“I thought to have more people aware and actually out visiting them, that that type of thing would actually help protect the petroglyphs,” he said.
Pickett began his summer job at the Lassen National Forest in June. In August, he read that the petroglyphs were stolen and he wondered if Mizell was involved.
A few weeks later, a Forest Service law officer knocked on Pickett’s door and asked if he knew Mizell.
“Yeah,” Pickett answered. “That son of a gun stole those petroglyphs, didn’t he?”
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Mizell admits Pickett showed him the site but insists Pickett never mentioned federal regulations. Likewise, Ligon said Mizell never told him about the rules.
“Mr. Ligon doesn’t know the law. And it just isn’t true that Mr. Pickett told Mizell about the federal regulations,” Freeman said.
“This is someone he despises. It sounds like a setup to me,” he said. “What a great way to get rid of your rival.”
Pickett said the lawyers are using the relationship with his ex-wife “as a weapon to try to damage my credibility.”
“It is true he is sleeping with my ex-wife and I don’t like the guy. The idea he might spend some time in jail is fine with me, but not because he slept with my wife. It’s because he trashed a beautiful archaeological site,” Pickett said.
“Nothing I told the investigators changes because he happened to get lucky with my ex-wife.”
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If convicted, the two men face up to two years imprisonment for the unlawful excavation of archaeological resources, and up to 10 years imprisonment for the theft of government property. They also could be fined up to $250,000 on each count.
The Justice Department and Forest Service refuse to discuss the case. Deputy U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow would not confirm that investigators have talked to Pickett.
Pickett said he’s unhappy that his personal life has been dragged into the case. He said he cooperated with prosecutors because he hopes it will set an example and perhaps lead the Forest Service to rethink policies keeping historical and cultural sites unmarked.
“It’s been nothing but bad so far,” Pickett said. “But if we get those petroglyphs back and put a sign up, I’ll still be a happy camper.”