J.P. Fulton. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

A made for TV-style crime probe into the looting of ancestral remains

‘If people started looting our pioneer cemeteries, folks would have something to say’
Indian Country Today

Officer J.P. Fulton paused suddenly during his presentation to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. His voice seemed to catch in his throat as he described finding a criminal’s great stash of Indigenous remains during the four-year investigation leading up to the State of Ohio’s first Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act prosecution.

He ran his hand over his face and looked away, embarrassed over his show of emotion. Although he often speaks to citizen groups about his police work, he was unprepared for the spiritual and emotional epiphany of describing his role in this case before a group of Native people.

“It was as though my heart was speaking to their hearts,” Fulton said.

Here, at last, were people who understood the nameless force that drove him, kept him up at night and wouldn’t quit him until the ancient ancestral remains were repatriated.

Although his investigation began in 2013 and was prosecuted in 2016, the remains, considered ancestors by the Miami tribe, were not placed in the tribe’s hands until the summer of 2019.

Fulton, special agent for the Norfolk Southern Railway Police based in Jackson, Ohio, initiated and conducted the investigation, pushed for prosecution and waded through another two years of bureaucratic red tape in order to ensure the ancestors bones were repatriated to proper tribal authorities. Ohio and Indiana are the traditional homelands of the Miami tribe who were relocated to Oklahoma in 1846 during the Indian Removal Act; they are among the closest federally-recognized tribes to the region.

Fulton conducted the entirety of this work as a volunteer.

The case gained national recognition in 2016 when media reported Ohio’s first time prosecution under the repatriation act. In a 2017 press release, the U.S. Department of Justice lauded federal investigators for their role in the case. Although he played a primary part in the investigation, Fulton’s name was not mentioned.

His mysterious crusade seemed lost to obscurity.

From left: Miami Council person Scott Williard, Chief Douglas Lankford, JP Fulton, Second Chief Dustin Olds and Secretary Treasurer Donya Williams pose with Fulton after presenting him with a blanket and medal for his work in returning remains to the tribe. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Over the years, Fulton has remained generous regarding the lack of recognition, mostly grateful that he has been able to “do something for the people, [Native people],” in his words.

Earlier this month, however, Miami leaders invited him and his wife, Kristyl to tribal headquarters to share the story of the investigation.

After the presentation, Chief Douglas Lankford presented Fulton with a medal and a Pendleton blanket. The medal, according to Lankford, is a high honor only presented to those who’ve done special things for the Miami Nation; Fulton is the 13th person who has received the medal.

“You have served the Miami Nation and the entire Native American community. We show our respect to you,” Lankford said.

“You are always welcome here,” Lankford said as he embraced Fulton.

“Had it not been for Officer Fulton, this case never would have gone to court; the remains wouldn’t have been repatriated,” said Julie Olds, Miami Cultural Resources Officer.

“He was put in a place and given the heart and drive to do this thing; it’s an incredible story,” she said.

“Now, it’s our responsibility to promote and further this story, ensuring people recognize that sacred places continue to be desecrated; they need our protection,” Olds said.

JP Fulton tours on the Miami Nation cemeteries. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

I first learned about this case and the unknown role played by Fulton in 2016; I wrote about it in 2017 for the short-lived print magazine published by the Oneida Nation of New York owned Indian Country Today Media Network, the previous iteration of Indian Country Today. Only available to a handful of print subscribers, the magazine story seemed to languish. In looking back, I wonder if there were larger forces at work, waiting for the ancestors to finish their journey.

Here, at last, is the quixotic story in its entirety.

If the tiny town of Jackson, Ohio, is known for anything today, it is for its high unemployment rate and high levels of drug-related crime. The hills and hollers of this scenic and remote edge of Appalachia in southeastern Ohio share the unfortunate economic and social fate of much of rural America, but barely hidden under its crumbling downtown and surrounding area is the virtual entirety of human history in North America, from the end of the Ice Age until today. Evidence of human habitation began here about 14,000 years ago, when Indigenous peoples were drawn to this lush land. The rich archaeological record of the waves of human change, adaption and decline over that great expanse of time is all here, deposited under the soil along the river banks and forests of this prosaic place.

Unfortunately, the precious pieces of the great spiritual and physical drama that played out here are largely unprotected by law or local culture. The remains and artifacts of the ancestors who lived here are viewed in terms of cash value. Generations of European settlers have made a hobby and business of digging and pillaging the past, regarding Indigenous remains as merely part of local fauna, to be consumed at will.

This story begins with a tough-minded cop driven, sometimes by a force he can’t explain, to solve a crime hardly considered a crime in this corner of Appalachia. The other players in this drama include a few deliciously shady characters — some feared by their neighbors, others hapless and almost comical. Officer J.P. Fulton calls it the most remarkable case of his law enforcement career, an investigation that was circuitous and riddled with coincidences that seemed directed by an unseen hand.

An Unseen Hand
Although six years have passed since Fulton discovered Mark Beatty’s awful cache of human remains, the seasoned cop must pause briefly to compose himself when he speaks of what he saw one day in 2013. It started with an ominous warning from Beatty: “You aren’t going to like this at all.”

There was no way those words could prepare Fulton for what was inside the coffee container Beatty was holding: a perfectly formed tiny skull rested atop a small pile of bones. This macabre tomb had been stashed outside Beatty’s home; nearby were scores of black, plastic garbage bags, some full of aluminum cans and others containing eight sets of human remains.

“It’s a baby,” Beatty said of the contents of that red, plastic container. A little girl. It was one of several sets of ancient Indigenous female remains he’d purchased from three men who had dug them out of a rock shelter on private property that includes the Salt Creek Valley part of the Jackson community.

Were it not for the greed of Beatty and a couple of small-time thieves, we might still be oblivious to the defenseless treasures that lay under our feet, crying out for our protection. The sacrilege committed by them was so horrific that it sparked outrage among local and federal authorities and focused much-needed attention on this ghoulish practice, one that has been ignored for far too long, a practice that will destroy a treasure of global importance if left unchecked.

Tied to Something Deeper
News stories about the case first emerged in August 2016. Terse and factual, the reports only hinted at the complex story that had played out.

The facts are these: in 2015 and 2016, Beatty and three other men were prosecuted under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act for selling Native American remains. This was the first time the law had been enforced in the state of Ohio. Reports explained that although protection and repatriation act doesn’t cover looting on private land, it does forbid the sale and trafficking of remains and artifacts collected during such actions.

David Skeens, his brother Brian, and Toby Lee Thacker from Jackson County, Ohio, were charged with unearthing remains and artifacts and selling them to Beatty. All four pled guilty of trafficking in Native remains and artifacts. Beatty was sentenced to three years of probation, including three months of home confinement, fined $3,500 and ordered to pay $1,000 to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma for reburial of the remains. He was also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service in a program protecting and promoting Native Americans, and must also pay to publish an advertisement warning others against committing similar crimes. David Skeens was sentenced to 30 days in jail, one year of supervised release and ordered to pay $1,000 in restitution.

The FBI issued a press release lauding the work of their agents, as well as that of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, a ranger at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and researchers and archaeologists who helped conduct scientific testing.

The news reports and congratulatory press releases, however, omitted the most fascinating element of this story, which is that without the dogged work of a volunteer backwoods lawman, it would never have been investigated or prosecuted. Fulton is a former investigator for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, and sometimes volunteers with the short-staffed sheriff’s office, helping out where and when he can.

JP Fulton stands in rock shelter in Jackson, Ohio, were remains were dug up. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

His “kin,” as they say here, have lived in the region for generations. He and his family have always identified as “Appalachian Indian,” a regional term understood to include heritage in several tribes, including Cherokee and Saponi. Fulton makes no formal claims of tribal membership, and he and his family simply call themselves “Indian. “

An avid outdoorsman, he has wandered over and hunted this land all of his life, and, regardless of what his DNA may or may not show. Fulton is clearly tied by something deeper than mere residence to the rolling hills and hollows of this place. His blood is in the land and he is driven to care for it, and to protect it.

He knows that the ancestors buried in this ground are his kin, regardless of who they were or when they passed. When asked what drove him to spend countless unpaid hours investigating this crime he said, “You know, to some people, there is no difference between ancient Indigenous remains and that rock there,” he says, pointing to a stone. “But for me ...” His words trail off as he gazes into the distance.

Putting Down Some Tobacco
In the fall of 2016, Fulton walks me back through the investigation and guided me to the ancient remote rock shelter where the remains were looted. The steep and treacherous climb down to the shallow cave is guarded by wild, thorny, rose bushes that threaten to rip off my clothing, and manage to untie the laces of my hiking boots several times. In order to save my old-lady knees, I finally have to sit and clumsily slide down the steep descent to the shelter where the remains had rested for at least 4,000 years. Nestled into the side of a huge rock outcropping, the site seems a perfect sanctuary. The flat terrace, with its rock overhang, offers protection from rain and provides a broad view over a valley through which a small creek flows.

“This is where they dug up my kin,” Fulton says. It is clear that huge, ragged holes had recently been dug into the earth, holes described by the Columbus Dispatch as “Volkswagon-sized.” When Fulton discovered this crime scene, it was littered with shovels, picks, sifters and trash left behind by those who had desecrated the area.

I put down some tobacco, as I have been taught as an Ojibwe woman, and offer up a silent prayer.

“Thank you,” Fulton says quietly. “That should have been done here a long time ago.”

Together we look out over the creek silently, contemplating the violation we were witnessing. After some moments of quiet reflection, he tells me how he came to know about the looting here, property once owned by his childhood music teacher. Back in 2012, the teacher contacted him, complaining about men digging down by the creek on her property. “I knew they were likely digging for artifacts,” he says. “I encouraged her to file a report with the sheriff, who wrote it up as a simple trespassing report.”

Rock shelter in Jackson, Ohio, where remains were dug up. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Digging for and collecting ancient Indigenous remains and artifacts is a long-standing pastime in this artifact-rich region, and Ohio has no law protecting graves or abandoned cemeteries on private land. The enactment of the federal Repatriation law and similar laws in nearby states such as Kentucky, however, has driven serious looters and collectors underground, to trade and sell on the black market. “Old-timers around here have told me that they used to dig up Indian skulls by the bushel basket,” Fulton says. “They don’t understand why there’s a fuss over it now.”

Fulton knew that the trespassing complaint would drop down a bottomless well. “The sheriff’s office is busy and I knew the report would likely go to the bottom of the pile,” he says, “so I asked if they minded me looking into it.” Thus began four years of what he describes as a chess game that alternately nagged at him and fascinated him.

‘It’s Going to Flip Your Damn Head’
Fulton, late 30’s and wiry, is old-style police; he runs quiet and close to the ground. He has a canny knowledge of local culture and people and an investigator’s instinct that seldom fails him, so he kept his eyes and ears open for any leads to the looting on the teacher’s property.

The first lead came one afternoon in February 2013, while he was doing some routine volunteer duty, providing security for a sheriff’s office crime scene investigation. Brian Skeens, who lived in a nearby trailer with his brother and some other men, ambled over to Fulton’s car to chat and smoke a cigarette. Fulton recognized Skeens and recalled that he and his brother had a checkered history of contacts with law enforcement.

Fulton casually brought up the subject of ancient human remains buried in the area, and said he’d heard a rumor that a human skull had been found nearby. “Skeens expression changed ever so slightly. I could tell he was nervous,” Fulton says now. He asked Skeens if he’d heard of anyone who liked to dig up or collect artifacts.

“Now that you mention it, maybe I do know of a few folks,” Skeens said. Fulton explained that he was Appalachian Indian and was very interested in finding and returning any skulls that may have been excavated. (Fulton believes his frequent use of what he calls his “Indian card” may have frightened some of the criminals in this case into greater cooperation: “Some of these guys are a little bit afraid of some sort of bad medicine or spiritual payback for what they do.”)

Skeens told Fulton he’d heard talk at a local convenience store about a man named Kenny who might be involved, but could only partially remember his last name. Skeens’s description of this Kenny sounded familiar to Fulton, who knew his possible suspect lived nearby.

Shortly after speaking with Skeens, Fulton stopped by to talk to Kenny, who was clearly agitated to have a lawman knocking on his door. When he learned that Brian Skeens had implicated him, he blanched and begged Fulton not to tell Skeens that they had talked. “I’m scared to death of [the Skeen brothers],” Kenny explained. “I’m gonna tell you some shit that’s gonna flip your damn head right now!”

He told Fulton the Skeens dug up remains and sold them to a man named Mark, who drove a white Chevy truck. Kenny had heard one of the Skeens brothers drunkenly bragging about their finds and subsequent sale at a nearby bar.

JP Fulton enjoys a round of the moccasin game with Chief Lankford on his team at Miami tribal headquarters in Oklahoma. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Fulton began to work his leads. He contacted the Ohio Historical Society Archaeology Survey about any permits or licensing they might have issued for digging. The survey reported that there was no existing database for such information. Next, he went looking for the white truck. “I thought there couldn’t be that many white Chevrolet trucks in the area registered to men named Mark,” he says. He was wrong. There were over 600 such registrations.

Undeterred, Fulton worked other leads for the next few months, talking with people known to collect arrowheads and artifacts, but nothing led him to the mysterious Mark with the white truck. At last, he decided to go undercover. Wearing street clothes and a bone hair pipe necklace, he went into a local bar that had been mentioned by several of the people he’d interviewed during his investigation. He sat at the bar and ordered a beer. He then took out a large arrowhead he’d brought along and began spinning it on the bar. Almost immediately, one of the bartenders approached and asked about the arrowhead. Fulton chatted with the bartender, asking if he knew how someone might purchase an ancient skull in the area. The bartender said digging up remains was illegal, but if he was truly interested, he should talk to a man named Cat.

Fulton had only that name to go on, but by asking several of his contacts, he learned Cat’s address. Plus, Cat’s blue-green van had been spotted near the digging site.

Another cold call from the lawman. Another set of evasions, guilty denials and a new lead from Cat coughed up to avoid trouble. A man named Mark—Mark Beatty.

‘I’m Not A Bad Guy’
Later, Mark Beatty seemed shocked to see a police officer on his front porch. Fulton had located his address and had been elated to see a white Chevrolet truck parked in his driveway. Fulton brought up collecting human remains, Beatty said he was innocent. However, he did hunt and collect arrowheads all of his life. He insisted he had nothing to do with the remains.

Could Fulton take a look around his house? Beatty said no, the place was a mess. Fulton reassured him he’d seen ‘most everything.’ Beatty invited him inside.

Beatty hadn’t been lying about one thing: his house was a mess of clutter, and the floors were littered with dog feces. Beatty was obviously a man who lived alone. According to public court sentencing transcripts, Beatty has struggled with addiction issues for several years. Fulton looked around for a few minutes, and then Beatty led him to a room where he kept a large collection of artifacts. Fulton put Beatty at ease by feigning an interest in collecting artifacts. Beatty started to relax and proudly showed him some of his prized items, such as arrowheads and pottery shards.

“Finally I told him that his name had come up several times during my investigation about remains,” Fulton says.

At this, Beatty’s lower lip began to tremble. “I’m not a bad guy, you know,” he told Fulton.

“I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I could see that,” Fulton recalls.

Close Encounters of the Bizarre
For Fulton, the rest of the visit took a turn for the bizarre. Inside the cramped, messy abode a story began to take shape under Fulton’s determined probing, cajoling and appeals to his Native heritage. At one point, Beatty provided a digital camera with photos of him, the Skeen brothers and Thacker digging at the dig.

Beatty admitted that he had some remains, but was reluctant to show them to Fulton. “You do have to understand one thing about this,” he said. “I want you to believe me, in no way am I desecrating these things.”

Fulton asked if Beatty would let him see the remains. Beatty insisted that they weren’t at his home. “I have them hid somewheres else,” he said.

During several visits with Beatty over the next few days, Fulton slowly drew the truth out of him. Beatty told him that although he had no formal training, his avid interest in archaeology led him to read several books about the subject and collect artifacts for years. He had always longed to try out his knowledge on some actual remains, but had little money to indulge his lifelong passion. But then, a few months prior, he twice won the Ohio Cash Explosion state lottery. Beatty said he’d purchased many arrowheads from the Skeens brothers in the past, and when the Skeens heard he’d won some money, they offered to sell him several sets of remains and take him to the digging site. Proudly toting his amateur “archeology kit” he examined the rock shelter and remains. Beatty told Fulton that his main goal had been to study the remains rather than profit by them.

“I think Beatty maybe has a high school education and here he was trying to do cranial metrics on these remains,” Fulton recalls.

Several of the bones in Beatty’s collection were later determined to be those of cows according to Fulton.

“The Skeens knew he had money to spend on bones so they convinced him to buy a number of bones presented as ancient human remains,” Fulton said.

Beatty purchased the remains of eight people; all females — two adults and six children — as well as the remains of a dog. He paid the Skeens between $4,000 and $5,000. According to Beatty, the Skeens uncovered at least 14 skulls and sets of skeletons at the shelter.

On April 25, 2013, Fulton informed the county prosecutor of his investigation and made one of his last visits to Beatty’s home. That’s when Beatty led him to the side of his house, where he’d stashed the remains in garbage bags. And that’s when he revealed the shocking contents of that coffee can. “That’s it, buddy; it’s all I have,” he told Fulton.

Beatty also drew a map leading to the exact location of the rock shelter. He insisted that the Skeens brothers had reburied the unpurchased remains there, but Fulton doubts this. The remaining skeletons and skulls have not been found.

Although Beatty gave Fulton the remains in April 2013, he was not charged with a crime until June 2015.

A Loss of Something Sacred
For the next two years, Fulton pushed his case forward, learning as he went along, jumping through jurisdictional hoops and requirements in order to get the crime prosecuted. Before taking on this case, he knew little about laws governing the looting and selling of ancient human remains. He soon found that local and state authorities also had limited information or expertise in the subject and seemed unwilling to take on a case that demanded extensive background work and would likely only result in misdemeanor charges. Fulton soon realized he was on his own, but fueled by his outrage over the desecration of his kin’s graves and the apparent lack of laws governing such actions, he moved forward, determined to call attention to the disrespectful nature of what many folks in the region consider a hobby.

His research led him to Chief Ranger Rick Perkins of the nearby National Park Service’s Hopewell Cultural Historic Park. Although Fulton’s case wasn’t in his jurisdiction because it didn’t involve federal land, Perkins quickly jumped on board to help Fulton. “I am passionate about preserving our past in the way that it should be,” he says. “Honestly, it’s just plain wrong to be digging people up and selling them. If these remains had been of European or African American descent, there would have been an unbelievable public outcry.”

Since the repatriation law is a federal statute, Perkins explained to Fulton that the crime would have to be prosecuted by the U.S. States Attorney. They took their information to the office of the U.S. District Court for the Southern of Ohio Eastern Division. Officials decided to pursue the case and assigned Michael Marous, Assistant U.S. Attorney who guided the case through the many requirements of the repatriation law.

Under the repatriation law, damage costs to the rock shelter had to be determined by an expert. Ann Cramer, archeologist at Wayne National Forest, was brought on to assess the archaeological damage. She went to the site, and estimated that the havoc wrought by reckless digging amounted to about $180,000.

Beatty and his attorney, however, had some surprising challenges to charges lodged under repatriation law.

“One morning I was at home drinking coffee and looking out the window when I saw Mark Beatty put something in my mailbox and drive away,” Fulton said.

Troubled that Beatty knew where he lived, Fulton cautiously approached the mailbox.

“I got a shovel handle from the barn and opened the lid to the mailbox,” he said.

Beatty had delivered a magazine article cautioning that not all ancient American remains could be considered those of Indigenous peoples.

Beatty later called Fulton. “He said, them bones ain’t Indian at all!”

The protection and repatriation act requires proof that remains are tied to contemporary Native tribes. Team Fulton soon learned that Beatty and his attorney were challenging this connection.

Prosecutors needed a DNA connection between the remains and contemporary tribes. For that, they enlisted Nancy Tatarek, associate professor of Anthropology at Ohio University and researchers from Washington University, who contributed much of their expertise pro bono. Their work tied the remains through cranial metrics, cultural practices and DNA to a number of contemporary tribal lineages.

The DNA samples from two of the ancestors looted from Jackson, Ohio, were examined by molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp, then associate professor at Washington State University and now an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. Kemp compared the two samples with the approximately 5,000 DNA examples from various Indigenous North American people that are available to researchers today.

He found that the ancestors shared genetic material matching individuals from the Quapaw, Creek and Iowa tribes, an individual from the Brazilian Amazon region as well as one prehistoric sample from a site in Illinois.

Ohio is rich in archeological sites and was once home not only to contemporary tribes such as the Miami and Shawnee but also several mound-builder civilizations, including the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient cultures. Before these, the Archaic peoples, whose cultures date all the way back to the end of Ice Age, also settled the area, most likely drawn by the area’s rich deposits of flint used to create tools and weapons. The remains unearthed at the rock shelter were likely from the late Archaic era, a period that spanned a period 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

The late Archaic era was a time of pronounced population growth which likely accounts for the relatively large number of remains and artifacts unearthed from this period. These people were also among the first to begin burying their dead in small cemeteries, often choosing locations with high broad views of the landscape like that of the Sour Run Road spot.

Folks of the late Archaic era were likely among the first people to begin cultivating crops. They began to create more elaborate burial practices and often placed important items next to the dead, such as stone scrapers, bone awls and needles for women and stone spear points and elaborately carved bird stones which may have functioned as counterweights to the atlatl for men. The atlatl, one of humankind’s first mechanical devices, is a spear-throwing device that predated the bow and arrow. Other bodies, perhaps medicine people, were buried with shell gorgets, which are large pendants, or the jawbone of bears drilled for use as masks.

These burial related artifacts are highly prized among collectors, who are known to pay high prices and ask few questions about the origin of such objects.

As Fulton learned about the impunity under which collectors and looters operate, his outrage grew; he dug in his heels and focused on bringing the criminals to justice. His dogged determination grew infectious. Soon state and federal prosecutors got on board. He also got support from other experts in archaeology and anthropology in academia and in the public and private sectors. These experts were eager to draw attention to the damage grave looters and artifact hunters do to important archaeological sites in Ohio as well as the dearth of laws in the state protecting these areas.

Today, there are no federally-recognized tribes in Ohio. This may explain the lack of awareness about the disrespectful aspect of looting, according to Tatarek and other experts who helped Fulton make his case.

Jarrod Burks, director of archaeological geophysics for the consulting firm Ohio Valley Archaeology, told Cantonrep.com, “I bet, if people started looting our pioneer cemeteries, folks would have something to say about it.”

Native artifacts from Ohio are popular in trade shows across the Midwest, and selling them can be quite lucrative.

“It is a major problem. If you’re on your own land or have permission, you can dig stuff up. You can put it on the mantel,” Bradley Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection told Cantonrep.com. “The only problem is when you sell them.”

The team of scientists, police, prosecutors and others involved in Fulton’s case resolved to charge the men under the protection and repatriation law in order to send a message about the need for better state and federal laws protecting ancient burial sites and artifacts. “They could have easily been charged with trespassing and theft, and likely would have received harsher sentences, maybe even jail time,” says Perkins. “[But] as a team, we agreed that charging them under the repatriation law would really open up a window for people to see how important it is to revise this law that only allows authorities to charge criminals who are looting graves and stealing artifacts with a misdemeanor offense.”

Several media sources, including USA Today, featured stories about the case after the defendants were sentenced. Fulton says Beatty (who declined to be interviewed for this story) complained to him, “You made me the poster child for grave looting!”

A charging document against Toby Lee Thacker, one of four individuals prosecuted in Ohio for violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Not Quite Finished
In the judgement of the case, the remains were supposed to be given to the Miami tribe for repatriation. Held up by bureaucratic red tape for two years, however, they languished in a Jackson County Sheriff’s storage room until July 2019.

According to Fulton, the sheriff’s department personnel joked that the office’s electronics weren’t working properly since the remains were stored there.

“It got to be more than a joke with them; the sheriff had a heart attack. My back went out really bad during that time too,” Fulton said. “It was like those ancestors wanted me to finish my business.”

Although the remains were evidence in a criminal prosecution, they were considered to be the private property of the land-owners at the time from where they were originally stolen.

Fulton’s music teacher had since sold the land but she was considered the owner of the remains.

Fulton approached her several times about turning the remains over to the Miami tribe but she demurred.

“Her adult son thought they might be worth money; she thought her grandson might want to use them in a boy scout project,” Fulton said.

During his last visit, the teacher noted that Fulton had a truck. “She said, ‘You know I have some costumes and stuff stored over in Athens that I need brought here for our school performance;’ I drove over to Athens, about 20 miles away, and delivered her costumes,” Fulton said.

“Finally she said, ‘Okay, just give me the paper; I’ll sign it.’”

Several other legal documents and signatures later, Fulton contacted the Miami tribe in July 2019. Doug Peconge, community program manager for the tribe, picked up the remains.

According to Olds, the Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma will assist in a private reburial ceremony in the near future.

Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe, said, “While we would have liked to have seen a stiffer sentence, we appreciate how this effort brought attention to the crime of robbing human graves. These people think they aren’t causing any harm [by digging]. Ohio needs stronger laws to prove otherwise.”

According to public court documents, Federal Judge Edmund Sargus, Jr., who sentenced Beatty, expressed surprise that the crime was a misdemeanor.

“Whether it was someone who was buried last week or if it was someone buried 1,000 or 5,000 years ago, human remains are sacred,” Judge Sargus said during Beatty’s August 2016 sentencing. “We all sense that they are not to be disturbed. And this is true for everyone who has walked on this country, and that’s the way it should be.”

During his presentation in Oklahoma, Fulton joked about asking himself during the many successful turns in the investigation, “Am I really this good?”

Perhaps it was more than his skill as an investigator that guided him.

He looks back in wonder over the sense of purpose that drove him during those years. “Maybe those ancestors just really wanted to be brought back home,” he said.

Fulton’s dream is that the remains could be returned to their original resting place, but he knows that’s impossible. Without protection, they would likely be looted again.

The Jackson County land where the rock shelter is located was recently sold. The fate of the ancient site is unknown, so Fulton remains watchful, because his kin are buried there.

Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Ida B. Wells Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, The Atlantic and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.

Note: This story originally appeared on Indian Country Today on October 20, 2019.

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