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In rural Indiana, FBI agents are working to remove thousands of cultural artifacts from one man's private collection. The items range from arrowheads to shrunken heads to a fully preserved skeleton. But investigators say the 91-year-old collector may have violated international treaties and federal laws when he bought or transported some of these artifacts. Sarah Whitmeyer of member station WFIU has the story.
SARAH WHITMEYER, BYLINE: Donald Miller is fascinated by historical artifacts. It started when he was about 12, digging up arrowheads in the field surrounding his house. Nearly eight decades later, his collection includes a mummy, a Nazi helmet, a skull with an arrowhead lodged in it. Elizabeth Dykes lived in Rushville and, as a rooky reporter for the local newspaper, she examined Miller's collection for a profile story.
ELIZABETH DYKES: If somebody could hoard archaeological and historical items, that would be Don.
WHITMEYER: Miller opened his doors to anyone who wanted to see his vast collection. Dykes calls him the most fascinating person she's ever met. She says his job as a Navy engineer took him around the world.
DYKES: It seemed like every vacation that he took was straight out of, you know, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" because it always ended up with a dig. And he definitely would always come back with a story and treasure from those trips with his wife.
WHITMEYER: From where I'm standing, you can see Miller's home a couple hundred yards away. Police have a blockade set up at the end of his road, so this is the closest I can get. You can see dozens of vehicles surrounding Miller's home, moving trucks, FBI SUVs, vans and tractor trailers. There are also a number of tents. Inside, they're cataloging the artifacts.
ROBERT JONES: The immense cultural value of Mr. Miller's collection warrants the size and scope of our presence at his property at this time.
WHITMEYER: At a news conference this week, FBI Special Agent Robert Jones wouldn't say why agents are here or if someone tipped them off to illegal activity. As of now, Miller has not been charged with any crime, so at this point there really are more questions about this raid than there are answers. Numerous treaties and statutes prohibit the collection of some artifacts, but FBI agent Jones says it's not clear whether Miller knowingly or unknowingly bought illegal items.
JONES: There are a number of statutes and laws that have been imposed in the last several decades that may not have been in effect when Mr. Miller collected some of the items.
WHITMEYER: Jones says the ultimate goal of this raid is to return items to Native Americans and other groups that have asserted their rights of ownership. Museum studies professor Larry Zimmerman is one of the experts the FBI is relying on to help catalog these items. Zimmerman calls the process overwhelming.
LARRY ZIMMERMAN: I have never seen a collection like this in my entire life except at some of the largest museums.
WHITMEYER: Donald Miller doesn't have any children. Reporter Elizabeth Dykes says she once asked him what would happen to his collection after he died.
DYKES: And he said he didn't want it to go to the Smithsonian. He wanted to leave it, you know, in his little town.
WHITMEYER: Members of the County Historical Museum here say years ago, Miller gave them access to his collection and offered to turn it over to them. But the museum declined, saying it's focused on preserving the history of rural Rush County, not exotic souvenirs collected by the county's most well-traveled and now most talked-about resident. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Whitmeyer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.