For Battlefield Thefts, Man Gets 366-Day Term, Mark Bowes, Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 23, 2012
On 1,014 days over four years, John J. Santo scoured Petersburg National Battlefield Park and other properties with a metal detector and his dog, looking for Civil War-era artifacts that he could collect and turn into cash. It became his full-time job. When authorities caught up with him last year, they recovered more than 9,000 rusty relics, including bullets, buckles, cannonballs, breastplates and buttons during a search of his home. But perhaps the most astonishing find was a journal he kept of every one of his illegal expeditions.
By his own account, Santo wrote that he recovered more than 18,000 bullets, 68 fuses, 31 cannonballs and shells, 13 buckles, seven breastplates, five saber tips and 91 buttons over 1,014 days. "The defendant's journal is a tell-all of his misconduct, identifying with a high degree of specification where he engaged in metal detecting/relic hunting and when and what he recovered," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney N. George Metcalf in federal court papers. "He even kept a running tally of the items he found from day to day on a yearly basis."
Santo's handwritten journal, recovered during a July 10, 2011, search of his Petersburg home, proved to be his undoing. On Wednesday, the 52-year-old unemployed Pennsylvania native was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Richmond to one year and one day in a federal prison. He pleaded guilty in December to two counts of damaging archaeological resources and one count of pillaging Petersburg National Battlefield Park. Santo is regarded as the park's most prolific relic thief. "At least in this park, he's like No. 1 as far as the amount of stuff he's taken and how long this has been going," Park Superintendent Lewis Rogers said Thursday. "This is the biggest catch that the park has had."
Park officials couldn't place a monetary value on the 9,000 recovered items, which are now being sorted and reviewed by park historian Jimmy Blankenship and will be eventually added to the park's collection. "I don't know any case where anyone had more artifacts than this guy did," Blankenship said. "We don't even have 2,000 bullets in our entire museum collection, and we are inheriting over 8,000 bullets from the stuff that (Santo) still had at his house."
Blankenship said one of the issues that concerned the court was the amount of relics Santo apparently sold. "We know he found over 18,000 bullets," Blankenship said. "We only confiscated something like 8,500. So what happened to the other 10,000 bullets?" Blankenship said the truly distressing aspect of Santo's misdeeds is that historians will never know the true historical value of the items he plucked from the ground. "We don't know where he found them at, we don't know the context in which they were laying in the ground," Blankenship said. "So all that information that we could have got from these items if it had been a scientific archeological dig is gone forever. And that's the real sad part of this case."
Blankenship noted that not all the recovered artifacts came from the battlefield park. "He was relic hunting all over the place." Based on his own writings, Santo searched park property regularly from 2006 to 2010, frequently accompanied by his dog. Park employees spotted Santo on several occasions, but when spotted he would run away, usually leaving behind dozens of freshly dug holes, according to court papers. During an encounter on March 27, 2009, Santo dropped a pair of metal shears he was using to dig artifacts from the ground, authorities said in court papers.
After fleeing a park ranger on Nov. 18, 2010, Santo wrote in his journal for that date, "Ran into Park Ranger Ran Away." A park archaeologist assessed the cost to repair the park grounds, along with the archaeological loss of relics, to be at least $37,945, according to court documents. The defendant's attorney described Santo in court papers as a recovering alcoholic who has an extreme anxiety disorder that prevents him from working or socializing with people. As a result, he rarely left his home and his only outlet was walking in the battlefield park with his metal detector and dog, his attorney wrote. Santo lived with a girlfriend in Petersburg's Walnut Hill neighborhood, about 2 miles from the battlefield park. His attorney wrote that Santo always backfilled the holes he dug and never sold anything he recovered.
But federal prosecutors said the evidence strongly suggested otherwise. Santo has no means of support other than his girlfriend's Social Security check, and "the circumstances strongly suggest that (Santo) supported himself by selling these artifacts," prosecutors said. Prosecutors noted that Santo was convicted of relic hunting on Petersburg city property in October 2007 and that the experience didn't deter his plundering. They said Santo's journal shows that on the day he was charged in Petersburg, and again on the day he was convicted, he went to the battlefield park with his metal detector to hunt for relics.
Text and Images Source: Richmond Times Dispatch