ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A round white bone protruded from the moss beneath a limestone crag. Ian Lynch dropped to his knees and dug in the dirt with his fingers. He lifted a skull and gazed into the eye sockets of a human child.
Lynch thought he would be a hero for his discovery while deer-hunting with friends in the summer of 1997. Instead he became the first Alaskan ever charged with a felony crime for archaeological theft.
''I was kind of looking in the cracks and crevasses because I am always looking for stuff like that. It's like Indiana Jones,'' he later told investigators. ''It has been like a dream of mine my whole ... life to find something like that.''
If prosecutors hoped to make a swift example of Lynch to an Alaska public largely unabashed about picking up prehistoric souvenirs, they were in for a surprise. The case of the Heceta Island skull dragged on for four years, during which Lynch won a key appeal that leading national archaeologists said ''seriously weakened'' the government's ability to prosecute looters anywhere in America.
''I grew up as a kid thinking that collecting arrowheads was an American pastime,'' Lynch said last month, as he finally prepared to head to a halfway house in Anchorage to serve a three-month sentence. In the end, he was convicted only of a misdemeanor.
''I really don't feel I did anything criminal,'' he said.
Several things helped single out Lynch for the first major federal prosecution in Alaska. One was that his case involved human remains, bringing strong pressure from Native groups. Another was that Lynch couldn't stop talking about his discovery.
Four days after he got home from Heceta Island, investigators for the state troopers and the U.S. Forest Service found their way to his door.
He told them how he liked to hunt for relics on the wild islands around Craig, many of them in the Tongass National Forest. Lynch worked at a local grocery store, and when he made deliveries to the local senior center, he said, several of the ''grandmas'' would tell him about the location of old villages, places to go find things. He showed off his collection, which included gold nuggets, copper ore and a Champion spark plug dating from 1901.
The investigators took away the Heceta Island skull for further study. It turned out to be the remains of a child 6 to 10 years old who lived 1,400 years ago.
Local Native groups said they were appalled. The Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska believe part of the spirit resides forever with human remains, said Tlingit anthropologist Rosita Worl, head of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation.
Federal prosecutors charged Lynch under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Congress passed the law to protect prehistoric sites on federal land from commercial looters who were stripping Indian artifacts from burial sites mostly in the Southwest.
Systematic commercial destruction of prehistoric sites is not a big problem in Alaska, archaeologists say. Damage here accrues more slowly, through souvenir hunting and searches for old ivory. Because sites are so remote, little information is usually available on who did the digging, said Dave McMahan, the senior archaeologist with the state's historic preservation office.
State and private lands, including Native corporation lands, have even less legal protection than federal lands. A state law making it a misdemeanor to take prehistoric relics from state land has never been prosecuted, though looted artifacts have been seized several times, McMahan said.
To assistant U.S. attorney Steve Skrocki, Lynch was no innocent deer hunter stumbling on an archaeological site. He used his knowledge of Indian burials to probe for likely sites and then he kept digging when he found the skull.
''He knew what he was doing,'' Skrocki said.
But federal public defender Mary Geddes portrayed him as naive. She stressed his cooperation with authorities and described her client as ''oblivious'' both to the federal law and to the offensiveness of his crime to tribal members.
''His actions arose from serendipity and from his inability to resist the romantic idea of a great discovery,'' she told the court. ''Such a notion is not uncommon; it is daily fed by media coverage of fabulous archaeological finds such as Kenniwick Man, the Ice Man of the Alps and the Inca Ice Maiden.''
Geddes argued that the only real damage to the skull had come from archaeologists who won tribal approval to chip off a piece of bone and send it away for radio carbon-dating.
''It seemed what they wanted to do was make this guy an example,'' Geddes said.
Lynch never went to trial. He pleaded guilty to the felony but reserved his right to appeal.
In December 2000, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Lynch's favor. The court said Lynch was the kind of ''unwitting violator'' Congress meant to shield from full-force prosecution.
The law requires that felony violators know they are doing something illegal, the court said.
''The argument that picking up a partly exposed skull on a rock surface in a national forest without the knowledge that it is an archaeological resource' is inherently felonious conduct like arson, assault or breaking into a federal interest computer is a stretch this court will not make in order to affirm a dubious felony conviction,'' the appeals court said.
Terry Fifield, a Forest Service archaeologist in Craig who worked on the case, said the appeals court ruling set precedent.
''Other cases had to be dropped because of it,'' he said.
Lynch, who works as a meat-cutter for a butcher in Craig, began serving a three-month sentence Jan. 2.
Later this spring, the skull will be repatriated for reburial by the Takwanedi wolf clan of the Klawock Heenya Tlingits, descendants of the Heceta Island people.
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