Saturday, 24 March 2012

Metal Detectorist Engaged in "Heartbreaking Destruction" of Civil War Site

An unemployed Virginia metal detectorist was convicted on Wednesday of taking more than 9,000 artifacts from the (Civil War period) Petersburg National Battlefield. They included bullets, buckles, cannonballs, breastplates and buttons. John Jeffrey Santo, 52, pleaded guilty in December to two counts of damaging archaeological resources and one count of pillaging Petersburg National Battlefield. He was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer to 366 days in prison followed by three years of supervised probation. Santo was also ordered to pay $100 for each of his three charges: two counts of damaging archaeological resources, each of which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, and one count of depredation of government property, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. It seems he must also pay $7,346 restitution to the for damage caused by his excavations. Although the newspapers do not say so, it goes without question that the man also lost his extensive collection of Civil War period artefacts from the Petersburg site. In the raid on July 10, 2011 on the man's girlfriend's home, apart from the artefacts, investigators
found a handwritten journal the man kept of his illegal excavation trips, which happened regularly between 2006 and 2010. "The defendant's journal is a tell-all of his misconduct, identifying with a high degree of specification where he engaged in metal detecting/relic hunting and when and what he recovered," Assistant U.S. Attorney N. George Metcalf wrote in federal court papers. "He even kept a running tally of the items he found from day to day on a yearly basis." Blankenship said in one instance Santo wrote about discovering five buttons in one place, which suggests that a previously undiscovered body of a soldier had been buried there.
The journal itemized more than 18,000 bullets, 31 cannonballs and explosive shells, 13 belt buckles, seven breastplates, and 91 buttons. Yet when authorities arrested him last summer, they found only half that number of bullets when they searched his home.

On several occasions, park rangers spotted Santo and gave chase, but he managed to elude them, leaving freshly dug holes. His journal entry for November 10, 2010 states, “Ran into Park Ranger. Ran away.” In October 2007, Santos was charged with illegal relic hunting on property owned by the city of Petersburg, but it transpires that the experience didn't deter his plundering. Santo's journal shows that on the day he was charged in Petersburg, and again on the day he was convicted, he went to the battlefield park with his metal detector to hunt for relics. Experts say the destruction of American history done by this metal detectorist was "heartbreaking":

Relic hunting is like ripping a page from a book, Randy Jones, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told Part of an an artifact's true value comes from the context it is discovered in, he explained. "It happens more than we know about," James Blankenship, a historian at the Petersburg National Battlefield, told "The biggest loss is the loss of historic information." [...] "It's just heartbreaking," Julia Steele, an archaeologist and the battlefield's cultural resource manager told Steele said Santo systematically pillaged several sites to the point that the scene made her physically ill. With TV shows such as the recently launched "American Digger," Steele said pop culture tends to glorify relic hunting. Many people see it as a "treasure hunt," she said [...] Blankenship said relic hunters are secretive and their transactions rarely leave a paper trail. "This guy was in it for profit," he said. Hidden cameras captured Santo in the act, and Blankenship hopes more will be installed throughout the park. He said law enforcement officers sometimes organize stakeouts, but relic hunters tend to hide in the harder to monitor wooden areas. Blankenship says Santo's acts were "thievery and robbery" and hopes his sentence sends a strong message to other relic hunters.
Santo's attorney argues that due to certain personality disorders - he says his client was a "recovering alcoholic who has an extreme anxiety disorder that prevents him from working or socializing with people" - "his walks and metal detecting in the National Battlefield with his dog w[ere] his only outlet".
"His attorney wrote that Santo always backfilled the holes he dug and never sold anything he recovered. But federal prosecutors said the evidence strongly suggested otherwise. Santo has no means of support other than his girlfriend's Social Security check, and "the circumstances strongly suggest that (Santo) supported himself by selling these artifacts," prosecutors said.
Sources:, 'Battlefield relic hunter sentenced to federal prison',, March 21, 2012

Mark Bowes, 'For battlefield thefts, man gets 366-day term', Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 23, 2012

Becky Bratu,'Civil War relic thief engaged in heartbreaking destruction', MSNBC, March 24, 2012

Gregg Clemmer, 'Pillaging Petersburg National Battlefield Park gets Virginia man prison time',, March 25, 2012

see also: 'Metal Detecting Battlefields: Some "Stout Defence" Required?', PACHI blog, Saturday, 21 January 2012.

Photo: John Santo ( ); canisters full of minnie shot from Santo's home, all removed from the site without detailed recording, turned into buckets of scrap lead - but probably saleable to no-questions-asked collectors (MSBNC Petersburg National Battlefield); Union Army soldier's belt buckle. Did this come from the disturbance of a soldier's grave? (MSBNC Petersburg National Battlefield).

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