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‘Rock war’ ends as Ohio lets Kentucky take river marker

By Roger Alford
Frankfort, Kentucky (AP) May 2010

A two-state legal battle over who owns a chunk of rock is ending with a win for Kentucky over Ohio.

A federal judge has ordered a lawsuit stayed after the states reached a deal returning the 8-ton boulder to Kentucky from Ohio.

For generations, Indian Head Rock jutted out of the water on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. It served as a navigation marker for boaters and a surface for carvings of initials, names and a crude face.

An expedition of Ohioans moved the rock to Portsmouth, Ohio, three years ago. Kentucky has been fighting for its return since then.

U.S. District Judge Henry R. Wilhoit Jr. during April ordered the legal proceedings stayed while the sides work out the logistics of moving the rock.

Portsmouth, Ohio, Mayor Jane Murray, who took office in January, said she already has found a contractor to haul the rock to Kentucky from her city where it has been in storage since being taken from the river.

“The rock can now go back to Kentucky where it belongs,” she said.

Both sides in the lawsuit declined to comment beyond what was disclosed in Wilhoit’s order.

“Until the paper is signed, and the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted, I’ve been advised not to comment,” said Steve Shaffer, the Ironton, Ohio, man who led the expedition. “This thing could fall apart. It has dragged on so long, and there’s so many personalities involved.”

Prosecutors in Kentucky initially opened a criminal case, charging Shaffer with removing a protected archaeological object. That charge was dropped last year because authorities weren’t sure the rock plucked from the river was actually Indian Head Rock. Court documents suggested another rock upstream from the one taken “has a likeness of an Indian with a headdress of feathers” and perhaps is the real Indian Head Rock.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway wasn’t swayed by the confusion. Conway filed suit in federal court last year to have the rock returned.

“We are pleased that the parties have agreed in principle on a resolution to return Indian Head Rock to Kentucky,” said Conway spokeswoman Shelley Johnson. “However, until the settlement is finalized, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”

The boulder will be a tourist attraction when it gets back to Greenup County in northeastern Kentucky, said Tourism Director Bobby Allen.

“We are very excited,” Allen said. “We will certainly make sure it’s somewhere very visible to the public.”

Greenup County’s top elected official, Judge-Executive Bobby Carpenter, said arrangements are being made to store the rock in a government garage until a permanent display site is chosen. Options include a park in the tiny Ohio River town of South Shore, not far from the spot where the rock was taken.

Kentucky Rep. Reginald Meeks, a member of the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission, said the case sends an important message that the state intends to protect its historic properties.

“Kentucky is replete with archaeological treasures, with historic treasures, and people who hunt for these treasures know that Kentucky has been an open pit for looting,” said Meeks, a Louisville Democrat. “We as a commonwealth are saying to these individuals ‘we are no longer going to open our treasures for you to come and loot at your leisure.”’