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Ancient tools, modern crime

Five men charged with trespassing on a site near Thonotosassa are suspected of "poaching."

By S.I. Rosenbaum
Published January 5, 2007

Randall Betts kneels handcuffed Thursday while officials look at some of the Indian artifacts he had been digging up. Behind Betts is his shovel and the disturbed ground poachers have dug up looking for arrow heads, flint and other artifacts.
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Indian artifacts were recovered by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers near Thonotosassa.

Someone stood here, long ago, chipping slivers from a piece of flint to make a knife, a drill or an arrowhead.

Thousands of years later, the ground is pocked and scarred from looters illegally digging and sifting, hoping to unearth those ancient tools.

On Thursday, law enforcement officers arrested five men suspected of "poaching" prehistoric artifacts from this federally protected site just north of Interstate 75 in Thonotosassa, a rural community east of Tampa.

Hillsborough County sheriff's Cpl. Don Balaban was the first to notice something wrong.

Balaban had been driving by a piece of land at the site that he used to own.

He said he looked over and saw three heads pop up from behind the hill.

Instantly, he was suspicious.

When he owned the property years ago, he said, he had to constantly chase away artifact poachers.

"It was the biggest nightmare of my life," he said. "Every poacher, even from other countries, was coming out here. ... I knew they were destroying this place."

Balaban pulled over and called for backup from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which handles artifact poaching.

By the time officers Steve Delacure and Alton Still arrived, Balaban had detained Joe Clifton, 54, Ellis Wayne Jenkins, 42, and Mark Andrew Rose, 51, all of Lakeland.

Delacure and Still searched the area and found two more men digging in the ground, Phillip Swain, 19, and Randall Betts, 49, both of Thonotosassa. The men from the two groups said they did not know each other.

All five were charged with trespassing, and Swain was arrested on outstanding warrants. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers said the warrants involved two driving offenses, a domestic battery charge and check fraud.

Still said he expects state and federal poaching charges against the five to follow.

Betts, sitting on the ground in handcuffs, said he had heard about the site from residents of the nearby Wigwam RV Park.

Betts said he wasn't selling the arrowheads and flint flakes.

"I just collect," he said. "I like 'em. They're pretty. They're something from ancient times, kind of thing. They got a little aura about them ... All I do is sit around and look at 'em in the evening."

His friend, Swain, laughed. "Some of them are worth thousands of dollars," he said.

For some poachers, Balaban said, finding artifacts has an irresistible allure.

"Once you get into artifacts, it becomes an addiction," he said. "They stay with it their whole lives. I don't know of any of them who quit doing it - even after they get arrested."

The Thonotosassa artifacts predate the Seminoles, he said, going back to prehistoric times. As such, they're highly sought after by collectors. Still said the arrowheads and tools found at sites like this turn up at flea markets, on eBay, and at tourist gift shops. Some people will work on unfinished tools they find to turn them into half-faked arrowheads, he said.

"It's big business," Still said.

As night fell, Delacure shook his head as he looked over the moonscape of sandy pits and mounds - like giant anthills - left from years of poaching.

"It's a rape of the land," he said.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or

First native Floridians left behind souvenirs

Scientists estimate the first human beings, paleo-Indians, began occupying Florida around 12000 B.C. The state's land mass then is estimated to have been about twice its current size as a result of the Ice Age. The Tampa Bay area would have been about 50 miles from a shore now lost under gulf waters. The first native Floridians roamed over large areas, hunting and gathering, using weapons and tools of stone, ivory and bone.

From Florida's Indians from Ancient Times to the Present, by Jerald T. Milanich, published by University Press of Florida in 1998.

[Last modified January 5, 2007, 13:05:46]

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