Gravedigger

The perpetrator who stole Private Thomas Smith’s remains was Dee Brecheisen, a New Mexico resident. Prior to becoming a commercial airline pilot, Brecheisen, served in the New Mexico Air National Guard and flew combat missions in Vietnam. Flying had long been in his blood – at fifteen Brecheisen flew a crop duster in rural Kansas. His associates believe Brecheisen flew over potential archaeological and historical sites when searching for places to dig.

To be fair, Brecheisen’s obsession with archaeological sites probably began with a more benign interest in the region’s history. He wrote articles for and presented papers to amateur archaeological conferences, and was sometimes sought out for his knowledge of Southwestern history. But by the mid-1970s, Brecheisen’s capacity for artifact “collecting” was in high gear. By the time investigators learned of his activities, they would be astounded by its scope. Authorities soon began to refer to Brecheisen as “Gravedigger” for his prolific and sophisticated looting.

Brecheisen’s obsession led to the destruction of sites and the irreversible loss of historical context. A pottery shard or a military button, for example, has little significance if its origin is unknown. Unfortunately, Brecheisen would never reveal where he found artifacts or where he had dug. He worked in secret much of the time, and when investigators finally began looking into his case, they learned he had recently died from natural causes.

A Head in a Paper Bag

At one point in the investigation, an anonymous source close to Brecheisen agreed to leave a macabre piece of the looter’s collection on the latter’s property.

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Moving the dead

While the rest of Private Smith’s remains were still missing, it occurred to Reclamation archaeologists that there more bodies could still be in the Fort Craig cemetery.

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Landscaping with Anasazi Relics

The investigation would not end with the retrieval of Private Smith’s head. The government owed it to the soldier and to others buried with him to search for more of the missing remains. The first logical place to look was in the late Brecheisen’s home. What they found inside revealed the scope of the pilot’s looting operation.

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