Guilty plea in artifact trafficking
One of two Big Island men described by federal authorities as grave robbers pleaded guilty yesterday and gave his first public account of how he and the other man took artifacts from a South Kohala burial cave to sell at a profit.
U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo hailed the federal prosecution and said he hopes it makes a statement that the burial sites are sacred.
"Anyone who dares to enter such a sacred burial site and dares to take anything — anything — is nothing more than a grave robber, and he will be treated as such under federal law," Kubo said.
The maximum sentence for the Big Island shop operator in Kona who pleaded guilty yesterday to a misdemeanor is a year in jail.
Kubo said the misdemeanor charge is the only one that could be brought under the federal Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which protects the artifacts and burial sites.
Daniel W. Taylor, 39, the first to be convicted here under the 1990 federal law, pleaded guilty to conspiring with co-defendant John Carta to take the artifacts from the Kanupa Cave in June 2004.
As part of the agreement, a second misdemeanor charge against Taylor will be dropped.
"I took Hawaiian artifacts from a cave on the Big Island of Hawai'i when I knew I should not have done that," Taylor told U.S. Magistrate Barry Kurren.
In his written plea agreement, Taylor said that in 2000, Carta talked to an individual identified only as M.F. who told him about a Big Island cave containing native Hawaiian artifacts.
According to the document, Taylor and Carta agreed on June 16, 2004, to look for the cave with the understanding that they would sell any artifacts for a profit.
They got directions from M.F. the next day and found Kanupa Cave, the document said. They pushed aside a rock at the cave's entrance and discovered items wrapped in woven lauhala and black cloth, according to the document.
They unwrapped the items, which they determined to be artifacts that included wooden bowls, a gourd, a holua sled runner, a spear, kapa and cordage, Taylor said. Some artifacts had labels indicating they belonged to the J.S. Emerson Collection, he admitted.
The artifacts known as the Emerson Collection were taken from the cave in the late 1800s and sold to museums, including the Bishop Museum. They were reburied in the cave in 2003.
Taylor admitted that on the day after the break-in, he tried to sell a palaoa, or whale-tooth pendant, for $40,000. He said they sold a piece of kapa to a tourist for $150 later that month. The following month, they sold a fisherman's bowl and its cover to a collector for $2,083, he said.
Federal authorities said 157 items were recovered. The only one missing is the piece of kapa — bark cloth, also known as tapa.
Kurren permitted Taylor to remain free on a signature bond promising to pay $10,000 if he doesn't show up for sentencing.
Taylor declined to comment as he left the federal courthouse. But Alexander Silvert, first assistant federal public defender, said his client wished to apologize to the Hawaiian community. Silvert said Taylor assisted the government in the return of almost all of the items.
"He has done everything he can to rectify the wrong that he did," Silvert said.
Silvert said that Carta apparently was a drifter who made replicas of Hawaiian artifacts for Taylor's shop, but that Carta also was a "cave hunter" who knew about the cave's location and "misled" Taylor as to what they were doing.
Carta, 45, was charged last week with a misdemeanor count of taking the artifacts in violation of the federal law. He was charged with a second misdemeanor count yesterday.
Carta's arraignment is scheduled for April 6. His lawyer, Rustam Barbee, could not be reached for comment.
Kubo said the investigation is continuing, but after the criminal case is completed, the artifacts will be returned and it will be up to the native Hawaiian community to determine what should be done with them. One of the four groups with claims to the items is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, which had reburied the artifacts before the break-in.
The group is embroiled in another federal court case involving the return of 83 cultural objects reburied by Hui Malama in another Big Island cave. That case is still pending.
Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hui Malama executive director, said his organization is pleased by the recent developments.
But Ayau said Hui Malama members do not understand why it has taken so long for charges to be brought against the two defendants. He said that Hui Malama's own investigators identified Carta and Taylor more than 18 months ago.
Kubo said the investigation had to be thorough, and he indicated time was needed to track down the artifacts that were taken.
Ayau also renewed Hui Malama's call that aside from the U.S. attorney's office, state attorneys should bring charges against those responsible for the Kanupa thefts.
Disturbing a burial site, criminal trespassing and looting are state offenses that federal prosecutors can do nothing about, Ayau said.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett yesterday referred to the cave break-in and the taking of artifacts as "disgraceful acts." He said his office will later consider whether state criminal charges "are either legally permissible and, if they are, appropriate."
La'akea Suganuma, head of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, said he hopes the prosecutions are just the first in a series.
"Hawaiian artifacts are big on the market, and anything that's not secured is apt to be stolen," Suganuma said. "These things have been going on for years and years."
Suganuma's group is one of the two that brought suit against the Bishop Estate and Hui Malama, seeking the return to the museum of the cultural items that Hui Malama buried in the Kawaihae Caves.
Suganuma and others feel they have not yet had a say on the final disposition of the items, while Hui Malama maintains that the items have been repatriated and that the matter is closed.