2 Arkansas men plead guilty to damaging historic mines near Buffalo National River

Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 8:11 PM CDT
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HARRISON, Ark. (Edited News Release/KY3) - Two men pleaded guilty to felony violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, in connection with their illegal excavations of archaeological sites in the Historic Rush Mining District of Buffalo National River, and the sale of stolen geological and mineral specimens at a store in Alpena.

U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III presided over the July 27 change-of-plea hearings, in which Nathan Bradford LeMay, 35, of Hot Springs Village, and Justin Charles Baird, 32, of Hot Springs, each pleaded guilty to the first count of the three-count indictment in which both were named.

According to court documents, on multiple occasions in 2015 and 2016, LeMay and Baird traveled to the Historic Rush Mining District, in Marion County, Arkansas, to dig for mineral and geological specimens to sell at LeMay’s business, Alpena Crystals. The pair’s plans went awry on Feb. 14, 2016, when a U.S. Park Ranger observed them camped in Buffalo National River, which is a United States National Park.

Noticing evidence of their excavations, the Ranger obtained consent to search their campsite and vehicles, recovering digging tools and containers of geological specimens. Two days later, officers were sent to several mines in the area to assess whether or not they had been entered. The Monte Cristo Mine, a gated, locked and controlled mine along Clabber Creek, was observed to have been broken into. Trash, water bottles and other items were located both just inside and outside this mine. On the Rush Creek side of the same mountain, drag marks in high grass, from the Morning Star/Ben Carney Mine, down to Rush Creek and the parking lot, indicated large heavy objects had been dragged down the mountain to the parking area.

A subsequent investigation by the National Park Service, assisted by local law enforcement and the Carroll County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, established the full extent of the pair’s illegal excavations. LeMay and Baird had excavated and damaged 22 areas within those mines, removing mineral and geological materials, and damaging the historic sites—which add to the knowledge of the mining community in the Ozarks as the industry transitioned from crude mining techniques to modern methods.  Dr. Caven Clark, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, now retired, conducted a resource damage assessment, determining that the cost of restoration and repair to the site was approximately $22,241.

Both men were indicted by a federal grand jury in March 2020. In addition to violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which prohibits excavating, damaging, altering and defacing archaeological sites and resources, both men were also charged with theft of U.S. property and damage to government property. On February 10, 2021, LeMay was arrested at his residence, in Hot Springs Village, and was later released on a cash bond pending trial. Baird self-surrendered to authorities and was arraigned on April 16, 2021. Before they announced their intentions to plead guilty, the case had been scheduled to be tried beginning on July 26.

As a result of their guilty pleas both LeMay and Baird face up to two years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Additionally, both men have agreed to pay $22,241 in restitution as a shared obligation. The court will determine their sentences at a later date, after reviewing pre-sentence investigation reports prepared by the U.S. Probation Office, and considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Acting U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes of the Western District of Arkansas made the announcement.

The case was investigated by special agents of National Park Service, Investigative Services Branch, and U.S. Park Rangers at Buffalo National River, with the assistance of the Boone County, Ark. Sheriff’s Office, Eureka Springs Police Department, and the Carroll County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Mohlhenrich prosecuted the case for the United States.

The Historic Rush Mining District

Located within the Buffalo National River is a designated historical district known as the Historic Rush Mining District, a 1316-acre former zinc mining district located on the lower Buffalo River and two of its tributaries, Rush Creek and Clabber Creek. It is a remnant industrial landscape with the remains of both open-pit and underground zinc mines, processing facilities, and worker housing. Waste rock piles form a dominant feature of the landscape. Within this district, are dozens of historic and archaeological sites and mines, including the Monte Cristo, Ben Carney, and Morning Star mines. The Rush Historic District buildings and structures, through isolation, have retained their historic design features and use and convey the sense of a turn-of-the century mining operation and Ozarks community. The ruins and archaeological sites fill in the community layout and add to the knowledge of historic mining techniques and mining community construction; they retain and contribute to the feeling of the widespread activity of this once bustling Ozarks mining community. The Rush Historic District portrays the story of the zinc mining industry in the Ozarks as the industry moved from crude mining techniques to modern methods.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act

The National Park Service wishes to remind the public that all public lands are protected by federal law and regulation. In 1979, the Congress found that archaeological resources on public and Indian lands are an irreplaceable part of the Nation’s heritage. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 makes it a violation of federal law to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resource located on public (federal) or Indian (Native American) lands, or attempt to do so. If convicted of a felony, penalties include up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Subsequent violations are punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

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