Grave robbers desecrate and loot Fort Craig, N.M., cemetery

Last year, federal archaeologists exhumed 67 bodies from Fort Craig, a Civil War-era fort in New Mexico, after a looting investigation led them to a house where remains of a uniformed “Buffalo Soldier,” the nickname American Indians gave to black troops in the U.S. Army, had once been displayed.

Established in 1854, Fort Craig was a frontier outpost in present-day Socorro County near the Rio Grande. During the Civil War, Union troops stationed there fought in the February 1862 Battle of Valverde, a Confederate victory that presaged the more famous clash at Glorieta Pass that March.

After the war, Buffalo Soldiers staffed the fort, helping to protect settlers against Indian raids. By 1885, the fort was abandoned.

In 2004 archaeologists with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—which manages the fort’s cemetery—got a tip that Vietnam veteran and former Air National Guard pilot Dee Brecheisen had repeatedly stolen human remains. Don Alberts, a retired Air Force historian, told authorities he had seen a mummified Buffalo Soldier in Brecheisen’s house decades earlier.

By the time the investigation was launched, however, Brecheisen had died, leaving behind what reclamation archaeologist Mark Hungerford calls a “looters’ paradise,” with Civil War- era artifacts lining Brecheisen’s driveway and gardens. Still, investigators quickly discerned that Brecheisen had divested some of his most valuable acquisitions before his death.

Only the skull remained of the purported Buffalo Soldier skeleton—its curly black hair eerily intact—and the body has yet to be recovered. Unfortunately, the macabre criminal case was dropped after Brecheisen’s death.

Before formal digging, the agency commissioned a ground-penetrating radar study to find other bodies and found 251 coffins with human remains.

The agency began more invasive excavations between August and October 2007, exhuming 67 intact or near-intact bodies—39 men (some with uniforms still visible), two women and 26 infants or small children. Archaeologists also found widespread evidence of looting and desecration, including plastic bags and soda cans tossed inside the coffins. Most bodies from Valverde were gone—thought to be disinterred by the U.S. Army in the late 19th century or simply stolen.

“The looter’s technique would best be described as sloppy,” says Jeffery Hanson, a reclamation archaeologist. “It was basically metal detecting, taking a shovel, digging in the ground, getting what he wanted, throwing what he didn’t want back into the coffin, and then he was off to the next one.”

Scientists are now studying the remains, which will be reburied at appropriate family plots—if next of kin can be established—or at national cemeteries. Archaeologists will continue to educate the public about the impact of looting on historic sites. “We are getting looted to death,” Hanson says. “Looting is big business. We have to have people willing to say that they’ll enforce antiquities laws and put people in jail for this kind of crime.”

September/October 2008

7 Responses

  1. A.PANKEY

    #1 There were absolutely no civil war artifacts in Dee’s driveway or yard, I would know as I was there several times. #2 Yes, Dee hated the BLM, with good reason as they (at least in in NM) have shown total disregard for our cultural civil war history at Ft. Craig by paving within the actual Ft. site among other transgressions. But the corker is that the Bureau of Rec. actually DESTROYED AT LEAST 25% of the original Ft. Site without any excavations what so ever. #3 Dee was a brave Vietnam vet that saw combat action, and his love of history will live way beyond your ignorant, uninformed attack of him.

    Reply
  2. Neil F. Mayes

    A. Pankey, you make a lot of unsubstantiated assertions with no facts to back them up. A “Buffalo Soldier” skull was recovered by Dee Brecheisen at Ft. Craig and apparently found in his estate after his death.

    His nickname in Viet Nam was “Gravedigger”.

    Re: http://www.archaeology.org/0903/abstracts/buffalo_soldier.html.

    Further,

    Re: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-04-08-soldiers-exhumed_N.htm

    “The investigation began with a tip about an amateur historian who had displayed the mummified remains of a black soldier, draped in a Civil War-era uniform, in his house.

    Investigators say the historian, Dee Brecheisen, may have been a prolific looter who spotted historical sites from his plane. Brecheisen died in 2004 and although it was not clear whether the looting continued after his death, authorities exhumed the unprotected site to prevent future thefts.

    So why are you defending Dee?

    You have blasted some one else for not have the facts, but I think that you are the one guilty of not having your facts straight.

    Reply
  3. McMax

    “Unfortunately, the macabre criminal case was dropped after Brecheisen’s death.”

    And how do you prosecute a dead man for a crime.

    Reply
  4. Neil F Mayes

    True, you can’t prosecute a person after his/her death.

    Part of the real crime here is that A. Pankey knew of these grave desecrations, didn’t report it to authorities, defended the desecrator and should probably be brought to justice for aiding and abetting a criminal, although the criminal has already died.

    But, I doubt that this will ever happen.

    But, it’s got to be tough sleeping at night knowing that you were defending and abetting a grave desecrator.

    Reply
  5. Jeffery Hanson

    Facts are facts. First, there were dozens if not hundreds of Civil War era artifacts in Dee’s back yard. I would know because I saw them there during the warranted search of his house. In addition, during the investigation federal law enforcement retrieved a catalogue of photos of artifacts Dee had taken from the Fort craig cemetery, including buttons he had taken from \empty\ graves. Three, whatever feelings Dee had for BLM is irrelevant because the cemetery was not on BLM land but on Bureau of Reclamation land. Reclamation had done no paving out there anywhere, and there is none by the Fort. Fourth, yes blading was done that MAY have destroyed a portion of the overall site at some point. That shouldn’t have happened, but it did. But that is no justification for a combat veteran to desecrate and destroy the final resting place of his fellow comrades in arms, period. So,I am having a little trouble figuring out what part of our work was \ignorant and uninformed.\ I will not allow A. Pankey to seize the moral high ground with reference to Dee’s military experience. The guy was a looter, he looted graves of fellow soldiers, we had eyewitnesses that said so, we had evidence that said so.

    Reply
  6. Ms Taylor

    My great grandfather was one of those buffalo soldiers. At fort craig
    I want to find out more about him

    Reply
  7. Neil F Mayes

    I a man I met and I were talking about desecration of graves, in relation to gravesites I have found south of Tucson, AZ. The Ft. Craig subject came up and he informed me that he had bought (and since sold) Dee Brecheisen’s house/home. While walking around the property, he discovered two buried and covered fifty gallon drums. One was filled with a lye for stripping flesh from bones and the other a neutralizing agent. He notified the authorities and was informed that they had been looking for this sort of evidence when Brecheisen was alive.

    And that is the extend of my knowledge of that phase of Dee Brecheisen’s grave robbing career.

    Reply

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