Pair Plead Innocent To Petroglyph Thefts

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Two men accused of stealing rocks with American Indian petroglyphs from a national forest in Nevada didn't know the removal of the important artifacts was illegal, one of their lawyers said Monday.

John Ligon, 40, Reno, and Carroll Mizell, 44, Van Nuys, Calif., pleaded innocent in U.S. District Court on Monday to two federal felony counts under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. The crimes carry potential maximum sentences of more than 10 years in prison and $250,000 fines.

A federal grand jury in Reno indicted the two men last month on charges of unlawful excavation of archaeological resources and theft of government property.

They are accused of removing three rocks containing the ancient art work - some of it 800 years old - from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest on the northern edge of Reno in August.

Based on a tip to a police hot line, authorities said they recovered the petroglyphs from front yard landscaping at Ligon's Reno residence on Sept. 16.

Scott Freeman, Ligon's lawyer, said it's an "unusual case" that he believes is the first of it's kind in northern Nevada.

"Mr. Ligon himself did not possess any items for personal profit under any set of circumstances," Freeman said outside court.

"He is a self-employed businessman who was interested in the artwork. He had no criminal intent," Ligon told The Associated Press.

"He did not know such an acquisition was against the law. He wouldn't have put the rocks in his front yard if he knew it was against the law," Freeman said.

The petroglyphs, chipped onto boulders weighing up to 300 pounds, apparently were removed by several people using hand tools, said Dave Loomis, acting chief of the U.S. Forest Service's Carson Ranger District.

One of the 800-year-old drawings depicted a human figure and sheep. Another showed an archer, sheep, wheel and lizard, and the third was of an archer and sheep.

Authorities said the artifacts are culturally significant and said no price could be placed on them.

U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden for Nevada announced the indictment Oct. 8, saying the damage and theft of archaeological resources is "a very serious crime which my office intends to vigorously prosecute at each opportunity.

"Not only are persons who commit such crimes destroying the cultural heritage of Native Americans, but they spoil the opportunity for everyone to enjoy these resources in their natural environment," he said.

Natalie Collins, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Vegas, said there have been previous prosecutions under the federal archaeological law in southern Nevada but she was unaware of any in northern Nevada.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Mizell's lawyer, David Houston, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

U.S. Magistrate Robert McQuaid released the men on their own recognizance after setting trial for Jan. 5, 2004.