Civil War Relic Thief Engaged in ‘Heartbreaking’ Destruction
A Virginia man convicted of taking more than 9,000 artifacts from a Civil War battlefield was engaged in “heartbreaking” destruction of American history, experts say.
John Jeffrey Santo, 52, has been sentenced to 366 days in prison and must also pay $7,346 restitution to the Petersburg National Battlefield for damage caused by his excavations, according to the decision handed down Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer.
Santo, who is unemployed and a native of Pennsylvania, used a metal detector and sometimes his dog to look for Civil War-era artifacts that he could collect and sell.
Relic hunting is like ripping a page from a book, Randy Jones, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told msnbc.com. Part of an an artifact’s true value comes from the context it is discovered in, he explained.
“It happens more than we know about,” James Blankenship, a historian at the Petersburg National Battlefield, told msnbc.com. “The biggest loss is the loss of historic information.”
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, investigators recovered more than 9,000 relics, including bullets, buckles, cannonballs, breastplates and buttons when they caught up with Santo last year. Authorities also found a handwritten journal the man kept of his illegal excavation trips, which happened regularly between 2006 and 2010.
“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,” Assistant U.S. Attorney N. George Metcalf wrote in federal court papers.
“He even kept a running tally of the items he found from day to day on a yearly basis.”
Blankenship said in one instance Santo wrote about discovering five buttons in one place, which suggests that a previously undiscovered body of a soldier had been buried there.
Santo pleaded guilty in December to two counts of damaging archaeological resources and one count of pillaging Petersburg National Battlefield. He is regarded as the park’s most prolific relic thief.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Julia Steele, an archaeologist and the battlefield’s cultural resource manager told msnbc.com. Steele said Santo systematically pillaged several sites to the point that the scene made her physically ill.