Treasure hunter

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 7, 2005



The Selma Times-Journal

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While the jury foreman read down the list of four different charges Steve Phillips could have been found guilty of, the Dallas County Circuit Courtroom was silent Wednesday.

For the felony charge of theft of a cultural resource: not guilty.

For the lesser, included misdemeanor charge for theft of a cultural resource: not guilty.

For the charge of second-degree theft of property: not guilty.

For the lesser, included charge of third-degree theft of property: guilty.

While 12 Dallas County men and women felt Phillips committed a crime when he excavated a Civil War era musket from the bottom of the Alabama River, he said he was still in the right.

Phillips received a sentence of six months in jail, suspended, and six months of unsupervised probation. He is also required to pay $500 in restitution.

Phillips was arrested in October 2003 when he and Perry Massey, of California, were arrested after pulling the rifle out of the mud of the Alabama River.

Phillips, who said during testimony that he’d dived into the Alabama more than 2,000 times, was seen putting his boat out at the Selma City Marina by a Selma City employee.

The employee warned him that diving for artifacts was illegal.

But Phillips did it anyway.

Phillips and Massey were arrested when they returned to the marina, after a conservation officer, officials from Old Cahawba Park and others watched them dive just below the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The pontoon boat they used was searched, turning up the rifle.

They were both charged with theft of a cultural resource under the 1999 Underwater Cultural Resource Act. The act made it illegal to disturb archeological artifacts in Alabama waterways without a permit. Phillips didn’t have a permit.

Massey later took a plea agreement, accepting a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespassing.

Phillips swore to fight the charge.

Erskin Mathis, Phillips’ attorney, argued that the Underwater Cultural Resource Act was vague and almost impossible to enforce.

While his client was convicted of theft of property yesterday, he felt like he won that point.

Mathis said he might appeal the decision.

The district attorney’s office said they were pleased with the verdict.

District attorney Michael Jackson said he believed the first test of the Act was a good one.

Phillips arrest was the first time anyone in Alabama was charged under the law since its enactment.

Jackson hoped the verdict would be a warning to would be treasure hunters.