Thursday, February 09, 2006

 

Threat of jail time, fines forced scuba diving grave robbers to turn over stolen loot

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CDNN
By Lisa Hennings
February 05, 2006


BOSTON, Massachusetts -- A defiant dive exploration, led by a former Coast Guardsman, created one of the most heated custody battles in recent maritime history. A sunken U.S. Lighthouse Service ship called the Lightship Nantucket (LV-117) lay hidden in 200 feet of water 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, Mass., for 64 years until an exploration team plundered the ship and ultimately desecrated a gravesite.

Prior to the days of radar, long range navigation, or global positioning systems, ships relied on sight to steer their courses and avoid collisions. May 15, 1934, sight would not be enough. During a heavy bout of fog, the anchored 630-ton LV-117 was tragically sideswiped by the 45,324 ton Olympic, a British ocean liner and Titanic's sister ship. The lightship sank in minutes, taking four crewmembers down with her. Three other crewmembers died later from injuries and exposure.

Ironically, the lightship was sideswiped by the ocean liner Washington four months before the fatal incident. The lifeboat, antennas and boat davits were sheared. No lives were lost.

Eric Takakjian, a native of Fairhaven, Mass., is a former Coast Guardsman and avid wreck diver who took a notable interest in the shipwreck and spent years researching prior to launching a physical pursuit of the lightship. Takakjian and a team of experienced seamen aboard the Lady Francis set out Jan. 11, 1998 to search for the ship's location. Using side-scan sonar, the graph findings revealed the Lightship Nantucket's rail.

Waiting for more diver-friendly conditions, Takakjian returned to the wreckage site in his 43-foot ship Quest with an exploration team July 18, 1998. Takakjian dove on the wreck more than a dozen times and removed the ship's binnacle, 1,200-pound signal bell, the helm, portholes, telegraph, and signal light.

News of the discovery spread quickly as Takakjian presented lectures, pictures and artifacts at diving symposiums and scuba diving conventions held in New England. Members of the United States Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Association, an association dedicated to the service members aboard lightships and preservation of U.S. Coast Guard Lightship history, took notice of the Takakjian's discovery and notified the Coast Guard Historian's Office in Washington, D.C., Sept. 16, 2004.

"A grave ship should be treated the same as any other grave, six feet deep or 200 feet deep, it makes no difference. We were all appalled by the divers' actions. I think only a true sailor can appreciate this," said Larry R. Ryan, president of the USCGLSA.

It was soon revealed by the Historian's office that Takakjian was irrevocably denied permission to explore and dive on the Nantucket by the Coast Guard. Takakjian wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Counsel for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C., March 5, 1999 requesting permission to dive on the shipwreck. The chief of the asset management division at Coast Guard Headquarters responded with an official memorandum June 18, 1999 and denied his request because the artifacts were considered federal property. Conclusion: Takakjian had not requested permission to dive on the Nantucket until after the fact.

The historian contacted Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) Northeast Region in September 2004. Takakjian's find and notoriety were soon subjected to a CGIS investigation.

Special Agent Michael R. Burnett, CGIS Northeast Region, was assigned as the case agent for the investigation Oct. 15, 2004. Burnett contacted the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in November 2004. Burnett reviewed the facts of the case, collected evidence, conducted interviews, and located the stolen artifacts. The divers admitted to the allegations and soon found themselves amidst a custody battle for the Lightship's artifacts.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), CGIS, and Coast Guard First District Legal staff discussed methods of prosecution and legal action against the individuals to regain possession of the artifacts. The consensus was to first seek a civil remedy versus criminal prosecution. The suit was filed shortly thereafter and the case went to court in March 2005.

However, the divers' lawyer challenged the prosecution claiming the divers had the right to retain the property. DOJ then required not only the unconditional return of all property and a civil remedy, but also threatened criminal prosecution.

The mood quickly changed. "The litigation was settled by all members of the diving party," said Burnett. "They relinquished their rights to claim any of the recovered property, promised to never dive again on the Nantucket or to release the location of the lightship wreck to the public."
CGIS took possession of the property, secured it and arranged to have all property transferred to Training Center Cape May, N.J., and to the Coast Guard Historian's office for safekeeping and public display.

"I think it was important for the history of the Coast Guard to preserve the ship's legacy and to protect the final resting place of people who died in service of their country," said Burnett.

"People should not exploit wrecks for personal gain, profit and notoriety. They should expect to face penalties under the federal system, whether it be civil or criminal."

SOURCE - U.S. Coast Guard


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