CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — A retired National Park Service superintendent appeared in court Wednesday to face allegations that he stole ancient Native American remains that he was supposed to protect and concealed them for decades.
Former Effigy Mounds National Monument superintendent Thomas A. Munson, 76, was released pending further proceedings after a brief arraignment hearing. He declined to comment as he left the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids.
U.S. Attorney Kevin Techau said his office has reached a plea agreement that calls for the resident of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to plead guilty to one count of embezzlement of government property. The plea hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4. Prosecutors charged the case as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, which means the monetary value of items taken is considered less than $1,000.
Techau said the case was an important one for his office, and that enforcing laws meant to protect the sanctity of Native American cultures and artifacts is a top priority of the Justice Department.
Prosecutors allege that Munson stole human remains from a museum collection at the 2,500-acre park along the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa, which is considered a sacred burial site for a dozen affiliated tribes who trace their ancestors to it. The site features 200 burial and ceremonial mounds, some in the shape of animals.
The charging document says the embezzlement lasted from 1990 — when Munson allegedly directed a subordinate to pack up cardboard boxes of prehistoric bones — until they were recovered in 2012 following a National Park Service investigation. Munson retired in 1994 after 23 years as superintendent.
The state archaeologist said last week that bone fragments are those of more than a dozen people and that they are believed to be 500 to 2,000 years old. The bones took up several boxes and had been excavated from the monument site decades ago. Prosecutors said Wednesday that they believe that all the remains have been recovered and are secured by the National Park Service.
Munson's motivation isn't clear, and the bones were allegedly kept in his garage. Some tribes have said they believe Munson was trying to circumvent a law that took effect later in 1990 that required museums to return many ancient remains to tribes.
The details of the plea agreement will be released later, including any recommended sentence. The charge carries a maximum of one year in jail and a fine of $100,000.
Techau praised the cooperation of the National Park Service, noting the agency brought forward the case and led the lengthy investigation.