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The Wreck and the Reckoning : U.S. Park Service Wins Its Case Against Undersea Treasure Hunters in the Country's Largest-Ever Archeological Protection Venture

December 27, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a Wednesday afternoon in September, 1987, the United States Park Service called the California Wreck Divers Club and told a small lie.

Now, after 38 months, 63 civil and criminal charges and a small fortune in legal fees, federal authorities say the largest archeological protection case in U.S. history is finally over.

A boat owner, a captain and 18 divers have been punished for their roles in scavenging from four protected shipwreck sites at the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary Area.

Mark Senning and Yvonne Menard, the husband-and-wife ranger team who posed as amateur divers, gathered evidence undercover and underwater for three days--and then were barred from discussing the experience with each other for more than two years--are again on unrestricted speaking terms.

And the wreck of the Winfield Scott, principal scene of the crimes, lies slowly disintegrating into the Pacific, presumably free from scavengers' hammers and drills.

But this was an unusual case from the beginning, and for some it's not over yet.

The prize artifact of the case--a lone 1853 gold coin locked away in a Park Service evidence closet--is probably not the same one rangers saw during their sting operation.

Wreck diver Cliff Craft is clinging to his last legal possibilities, vowing that "I'm not going to be abused by the system when I never did anything wrong."

And Jack Ferguson, outlaw divemaster and target of an extraordinary $100,000 fine from a federal judge, has dropped out of sight.

As a working 225-foot steamship bound from San Francisco to Panama in late 1853, the Winfield Scott must have left a substantial wake. As a federal case 137 years later, the Winfield Scott affair has stirred a new set of ripples.

For the Park Service, the case is part of a more aggressive enforcement strategy that often puts rangers into risky roles to police public property.

For many wreck divers--who say the long-salvaged Winfield Scott still has artifacts left that are worth protecting--the main lesson here is that the government wants to roll back maritime tradition and rob them of their freedom to bring home what civilization has left to rot on the sea floor.

"We're going to be made to look like bad guys," Cliff Craft says, "and it's bull."

The Set-Up

Three years ago, on Sept. 30, Channel Islands National Park Ranger Jack Fitzgerald came across a flyer advertising a three-day scuba diving trip.

Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara owned the boat, and the California Wreck Divers Club, based in Los Angeles, had chartered it. From his days as ranger in charge of Anacapa Island, Fitzgerald knew some of the wreck divers, and he suspected that the weekend would include more than innocent exploration. Fitzgerald took the flyer to Tim Setnicka, then the park's chief ranger.

"Within 30 minutes of him coming in," says Setnicka, "the plan was concocted. We didn't think about who was going to find funding and all that . . . it was an opportunity."

If they pursued the opportunity, the rangers knew, they would be knocking up against popular seafaring sentiments. Most adventure literature, many generations of admiralty law, and hundreds of recreational divers embrace souvenir-seeking as fair game. There are plenty of commercial success stories, as well: the discovery of the Titanic in 1985, for instance, and treasure-hunter Mel Fisher's 1986 salvaging of a gold and silver trove in the 17th-Century wreckage of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha off Florida.

"We love to dive on shipwrecks," says Jim Dunn, president of the California Wreck Divers Club and a commercial diver from San Pedro. "There's a fascination to it, and it's not the loot . . . . You're going through the water and there's this huge thing. What is it? It's a wreck. And there's holes and fish . . . . And if you don't know the ship, you ask, 'What wreck was it? Why did it sink? What was the story?' "

The California Wreck Divers Club, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles, counts about 200 dues-paying members and associates and sponsors monthly dives up and down the coast. The club's motto is "to perpetuate nautical history through organized research, recovery, restoration and display," and members are quick to note their contributions to school programs and maritime museums from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Many of those divers are "an untapped resource," says San Jose State University anthropology Prof. Thomas Layton. Layton is studying an 1850 wreck near Ft. Bragg, and says interested divers have donated 1,200 artifacts gathered from the wreck over the years.

"I found a commitment to doing something with the past," Layton says, "a desire to be part of something respectable."

Wreck divers point out the Park Service does little to reclaim undersea artifacts, leaving them to corrode and disintegrate. And many wreck divers find National Park rangers very possessive.

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