By all accounts, the amateur museum that Donald C. Miller escaped from his home in the cornfields of central Indiana was no secret. Newspaper reporters, Scout troops and residents of the rural community of Waldron were all invited to stop and look in their basement, where windows covered most of the walls.
Tens of thousands of rare cultural artefacts were on display, including pre-Columbian pottery, Ming dynasty jade, an Egyptian sarcophagus and a canoe that had traveled the Amazon River. And the eccentric nonagenarian collector was part of the attraction.
However, when the FBI's art crime detectives came forward and began browsing Miller's extensive collection in April 2014, suspecting that many of the relics carefully placed in the closets had been illegally obtained in violation of the laws on antiquities, they came across something that horrifies them: about 2,000 human bones, almost all of which would have been removed from ancient Native burial grounds.
"To the best of our knowledge, these 2,000 bones represent about 500 human beings," said Tim Carpenter, who heads the FBI's art theft unit, at CBS News during an interview. aired Tuesday. "It's very stunning."
Miller, a Christian missionary and an amateur radio operator who claimed to have worked on the Manhattan Project, died at age 91 in 2015, nearly a year after the FBI broke into his home and seized approximately 42,000 objects whose cultural value was immeasurable. Until this week, officials had provided little information on the case and had refused to give details of what crime investigators had discovered.
Speaking on Tuesday at "CBS This Morning," Carpenter said that prior to his death, Miller admitted to having discovered many objects illegally and carried out unauthorized archaeological digs in the country and around the world. It is also agreed that artifacts should be returned to their own homes. But since he did not live long enough to see the investigation take its course, many aspects of his life – and the treasure he left behind – are a mystery.
For example, Anna Werner of CBS asked why someone would have so many human bones.
"I do not know," Carpenter replied, shaking his head. "I really do not know."
"Too often here, we've been treated as curiosities rather than as a people," said CBS Pete Coffey, a North Dakota Mandan tribal official, Hidatsa and Arikara. "It could very well work from my great-great-great-great-grandfather or my grand-mother … I characterize it as being torn from the ground."
Coffey is one of the tribal leaders currently working with the FBI to bring back diverted remnants to their original resting places, CBS announced. Experts say they believe that most of the bones found in Miller's home were removed from North Dakota's burial grounds and that many belonged to the Arikara tribe. It is unclear whether Miller showed the remains to people who visited him, or he himself dug them up or bought them at someone else's.
Until Tuesday, the FBI was wary of the 2014 raid, which did not allow Miller's arrest or any charges against him. At that time, officials said they had received information about his treasure hunt and that they were investigating whether some of these items were illegal for individuals. In addition to hearty Amerindian artifacts, Miller would have collected priceless relics from countries such as China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, and Australia, and would have stored them in dependencies scattered around his remote Waldron complex and in his spacious basement.
The FBI Special Agent in charge of the case, Robert A. Jones, told reporters at the time that Miller's methods of procuring some of these objects had violated many laws and treaties, but had also undermined this claim by acknowledging that the laws in question may not have been in place for the time being. Miller had started his collection eight decades ago, when he had discovered arrowheads on his family's farm while he was a kid.
Advocates of criminal justice reform and libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute quickly criticized what they saw as an overly aggressive approach by the FBI, claiming that the government had not provided any evidence that Miller had acted illegal. "The FBI's plan is apparently to capture the contents of an old man's life's hobby, and then force him to prove that he's got every item in his collection legally," Radley Balko wrote. in the Washington Post.
Nearly five years later, the investigation is underway and experts predict that it may take decades to sort through the thousands of items seized by the FBI because determining their legality means no more. First determine where and when each was purchased. Some objects have already been repatriated. The City Paper of Bogota announced last October that the US State Department had returned 40 pieces of pre-Columbian pottery, some dating back to 1500 BC. BC, after the FBI determined that Miller had smuggled them out of the country. Other artifacts have been sent back to countries like Canada, Ecuador, New Zealand and Spain, the FBI Indianapolis office said Tuesday in a tweet. An additional 361 items from the Miller collection will be returned to China this week.
Before news media coverage in the national media would qualify him for Indiana Jones, Miller was known to Waldron and Rush County as a larger-than-life figure who had a penchant for storytelling. unverifiable stories and for the play of a Wurlitzer organ of 1927 guests. Addressing Star in 1998, he stated that he had been stationed in New Mexico during World War II and assigned to the ultra-secret Manhattan project, where he would have witnessed the detonation of the first bomb atomic. At the end of the war, he worked for 30 years as an electrical engineer for the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis, while making trips to build churches in Haiti and Colombia. After retiring at age 60, he said that he and his wife, Sue, a former high school teacher, regularly traveled to poor countries to do missionary work.
All the while, he filled their homes with historical curiosities, including a Nazi helmet from the time of the Second World War and a shrunken head whose origin he had not explained.
In 2014, a former colleague told Star that Miller had used his many vacations at Naval Avionics to conduct amateur archaeological expeditions in far-flung parts of the world and that he often came back with crazy stories about his misadventures. in a Mexican prison after being interrogated by Libyan soldiers who thought he had been sent by the CIA. While these stories proved impossible to confirm, his church friend, Mohr, recalled that Miller had tried to leave Haiti with a few cannonballs and was arrested at the airport at the end of his mission.
In the months leading up to his death, Miller had retired from public life, residents told The Star. When a CBS news crew showed up at the huge two-story house before Tuesday's show, his wife said she was unable to comment on the FBI's findings. A Chinese terracotta warrior statue was still standing in front of the door.