CEDAR RAPIDS — A retired parks service official pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court to removing Native American remains from a museum he managed at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeastern Iowa.
Former superintendent Thomas Munson, 76, of Prairie du Chien, Wis., was charged last week with misdemeanor embezzlement of government property. That followed a lengthy investigation by the National Park Service and federal authorities. Munson is accused of knowingly concealing human remains from July 16, 1990, to May 17, 2012.
If convicted on the misdemeanor charge, Munson faces up to a year in prison and a fine of up to a $100,000.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pete Deegan said during the hearing there is a signed plea agreement with Munson. Deegan told the court he wasn’t asking for Munson’s detention, because there isn’t risk of obstruction of justice or risk of flight, and because the ancient stolen remains were returned by Munson to a museum on the grounds of the 2,500-acre park near Harpers Ferry.
U.S. Attorney Kevin Techau said during a news conference the plea hearing would be set at the earliest possible date. He and Deegan declined to elaborate the plea agreement or Munson’s alleged motive.
Leon Spies, Munson’s Iowa City lawyer, declined to comment on the case Wednesday.
The remains are 500 to 2,500 years old and were discovered in the 1950s. It was noticed in 1990 that they were missing, said John Doershuk, director and state archaeologist of University of Iowa’s Office of State Archaeologist. The case had been investigated off and on through the years. Then a new superintendent, Jim Nepstad, took over in 2011 and made it a priority to restart the investigation.
Doershuk said officials had talked to Munson, who retired in 1994, but he always denied knowing anything about the artifacts until the investigation restarted in 2011. At that time, he returned a box of prehistoric bones to grounds officials. The box contained portions of skeletons and various bones. Investigators discovered Munson had two boxes of bones, which he had stored in his garage in Prairie du Chien. These remains are thought to be from a dozen or so people in northeastern Iowa, according to a 1980s inventory.
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Doershuk said the bones were mixed together and were in “rough shape” when they were examined.
“They were broken in ways they hadn’t been before ... in worse condition,” Doershuk said.
The remains obviously had not been appropriately packed in boxes, and in a garage were vulnerable to “rodents, other pests and climate, like humidity,” which degraded the bones, Doershuk said.
Doershuk didn’t suggest a motive for Munson taking the remains. “That’s the big mystery,” he said.
Spies told the Associated Press last week that Munson’s motivation would be revealed in court.
There has been speculation that Munson thought somehow he was protecting the remains after a change in federal law in 1990, Doershuk said. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires agencies or museums to consult with tribes in some cases as whether the remains or burial objects would be returned to them or stay at a museum. Some archaeologists didn’t agree with the law, arguing it might impede or harm the research, but Munson isn’t a “trained archaeologist” or museum professional, Doershuk said.