|Ricky Nelson (photo courtesy of Derek Miltimore)
Last August 30, Ricky Nelson, an Afghanistan veteran who had tried to find comfort from PTSD and war injuries through his dream of becoming an archaeologist, passed away in Aurora, Colorado. He was 29 years old. Out of respect for his family, I will not discuss the cause of death, other than to say that it was almost certainly avoidable. By all accounts, Ricky was not an easy person--his war experiences saw to that--but everyone I have talked to about Ricky is still in mourning for a man whose positive qualities made a mark everywhere he went. Some of them, including students and faculty who knew him, agreed to talk to me on the record; others have preferred to stay anonymous, for fear of retaliation from the researcher some blame for driving him out of archaeology.
I never met Ricky in person. But last March 5, out of the blue, Ricky wrote me an email in which he explained why he had left archaeology. I have reproduced below. In that email he blamed Danielle Kurin, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for his decision to leave the field. As he explained in that message, a friend had shown him my reporting about Kurin, which included documented allegations that she had retaliated against students who reported her partner (and later husband) for sexual harassment in 2016, and also allegations that she had tried to cover up a sexual assault by her husband during her field school in Peru in 2018.
Last June, Kurin sued me for defamation as a result of my reporting, asking for $10 million in direct damages. She is now up for tenure at UCSB. Whether she gets it is very much up in the air right now.
When things were still going well for Ricky, he was the subject of an inspiring article in the Mesa, Arizona publication EastValley.com, entitled "Mesa veteran found hope and a new life through archeology." Just a few months later, however, things begin to go badly downhill. This is Ricky's story.
To get Ricky's earlier history, I spoke at length to one of his best friends, Derek Miltimore. Miltimore, who is now a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, went to high school with Ricky in Chandler, Arizona. Miltimore says that Ricky graduated when he was 17, and soon afterwards joined the U.S. Army. "He admitted that he was sucked in by a recruitment video," Miltimore says. "It promised action, and he said, 'I want to do that.'" Ricky soon deployed to Afghanistan, doing "door to door stuff. He was right in the thick of things." Ricky was badly injured, but his exact injuries are not entirely clear. He spoke to some friends and colleagues about a brain injury, although Miltimore says that back injuries were the most obvious effects of Ricky's war experiences. But all agree that he suffered from PTSD.
|Derek and Ricky (courtesy of Derek Miltimore)
Ricky and Miltimore reconnected after Ricky got out of the Army. Miltimore had begun his archaeology and anthropology studies at Arizona State University (ASU) in 2013. They saw each other again after Ricky began taking courses at nearby Mesa Community College (MCC.) "We had lost contact" while Ricky was in the Army, Miltimore says. "But one day I showed up at a friend's house, and there was Ricky in the backyard." That coincidence rekindled their friendship, especially when it turned out that they were both studying archaeology.
By all accounts, Ricky's time at MCC was the high point of his love affair with archaeology.
"He took two classes with me," says Annalisa Alvrus, chair of the Cultural Science department at MCC, which includes anthropology. "He was a joy to have in class. He did great. He interacted with the other students" and infected others with his enthusiasm, Alvrus says.
Kirk Costion, an archaeologist at MCC, agrees. Costion says that he first met Ricky when he took his Old World Archaeology class. "He was really into it," Costion recalls. "He was very talkative in class and kept conversations going." Costion adds that Ricky was "really naive" about archaeology at first. But since few students who take archaeology and anthropology classes at MCC, a two-year college, are planning to major in the field, he encouraged Ricky in his interests. Ricky also attended Costion's local field schools in Arizona, where he was joined by Miltimore one year.
"Ricky had a voracious appetite" for learning about archaeology, Costion says. He would constantly ask Costion to send him articles about various archaeological topics. While participating in the field school, Ricky "would get into these big archaeological debates with the grad students" when they would all go out to socialize. "No matter what the topic was, he always had an opinion about it. I never had a student that gung ho."
|Ricky in the trench (Photo courtesy of Derek Militimore)
A major step for Ricky came in 2016, when Costion asked students if they wanted to travel to Peru for a field school run by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. It was a Wari culture site located near the southern city of Moquegua, where Costion served as the ceramics analyst. Ricky jumped at the chance, and ended up being the only student from MCC who went. "He was enthralled," Costion says. "He said he was in love with archaeology, that this is what he wanted to do."
Costion and Alvrus say that Ricky showed a very early interest in the archaeological specialty called bioarchaeology, which focuses on human and animal bones and all the things that can be learned from them about past societies. For an honors class at MCC, Ricky excavated a couple of pigs that a former student hard buried on the campus, and took tissue samples for biochemical analysis. Ricky also loved Peru. So the following year, 2017, through the Los Angeles-based Institute for Field Research (IFR), he signed on for a field school at the archaeological site of Sondor, near Andahuaylas. The site was run by bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB.)
"We searched together to find him a site," Costion says, "because it's rare to find bioarchaeology field schools and he wanted to stay in Peru. We found it on the IFR Web site."
What Ricky and his mentors at MCC did not know at the time was that the previous year, 2016, Kurin's field school in Peru had been cancelled at the last minute after the IFR found out that she and her partner had been subject to a Title IX investigation at UCSB. Kurin's partner, Peruvian archaeologist Enmanuel Gomez Choque, was found to have sexually harassed female students at her 2015 field school, while Kurin herself was found to have retaliated against students who filed Title IX complaints against Gomez.
Although IFR allowed Kurin to run the 2017 field school, it was without college credit; no explanation for that decision was ever made public. Ricky apparently had a reasonably good experience at Kurin's field school that year, although it got off to a rocky start. Everyone who knew Ricky attests that he had a very strong ethical compass, a passionate sense of right and wrong. Costion says that after two weeks at Sondor, Ricky wrote to say that the team was "looting graves" at the site. Costion explains that at Las Penas, the team excavated very slowly, whereas at some sites in Peru the excavators--many made up of Peruvian workers hired by the archaeologists--dug much faster, even if that sometimes destroyed archaeological context. "That made it look like looting" even when it really wasn't, Costion said. "I tried to calm him down. I told him to tell Kurin of his concerns." After that, Costion recalls, Kurin agreed to let Ricky excavate a grave more slowly.
(IFR uses Ricky Nelson in promotional recruiting video)
"Ricky definitely was not someone to let things slide," Costion says. "We had to explain to him that as an outsider, he can't tell the Peruvians what to do." And once Kurin gave Ricky his own area to dig, Costion says, "he really seemed to like that."
Miltimore agrees that Ricky had little tolerance for anything he thought was not right. "I knew Ricky and I knew his temper when something he saw was wrong. He went into that soldier mold. I'm sure he could be belligerent but his heart was in the right place."
But when Ricky returned to work at Kurin's site in 2018, things ended up going very differently. Let's let Ricky tell it in his own words, in the email he wrote me on March 5 of this year after seeing my reporting on the events at the 2018 field school--which included a sexual assault on a student by Kurin's then-husband, Enmanuel Gomez Choque.
A note on this email: As part of the lawsuit Kurin has filed against me, my attorneys and I produced this email to the plaintiff and her attorney, at their initiative; as part of a request for documents from us, Kurin asked for all documents in my possession relating to Ricky Nelson. That request was apparently prompted by an October 19, 2020 Twitter post on my feed, which said simply, "RIP Ricky Nelson." I had only found out about Ricky's death the previous month, from two of his friends.
Note also that Ricky apparently got my email address wrong in his first try, which is why it is in this forwarded form; I have also redacted the names of a couple of archaeologists who helped Ricky, to protect their privacy.)
From: Darth Dubzin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 6:44 PM
Subject: Article about Danielle Kurin
To: <mbalter[REDACTED BY MB]>
Dear Mr. Balter,
A few notes on Ricky's email to me:
1. "Ron" refers to Ran Boytner, then executive director of IFR, to whom the field school students and their teaching assistants initially reported the alleged sexual assault on a female student by Gomez.
2. Ricky refers to Kurin giving "alcohol to underage students." It is not entirely clear what he is referring to here. But the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in Peru and many other countries where archaeologists work is 18, in contrast to the United States where it is 21. Since IFR field schools require all students attending to be 18 or over, it seems unlikely that Peruvian drinking laws were broken. Nevertheless, multiple witnesses have told me that Gomez constantly pushed alcohol on young students, telling them that it was disrespectful of Peruvian culture if they refused.
3. Ricky's statement that Kurin "has done drugs with students" is also unclear, because he does not specify which drugs. However, evidence that Kurin procured marijuana for the students, both during the 2017 and 2018 field schools, is provided by multiple other witnesses, as I reported in an update to one of my earlier blog posts. Students at the field schools also attested that Kurin herself smoked marijuana at times, and expressed concern to me that this could have gotten all of them in serious trouble with the local police.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that the overall situation concerning Ricky was a bit more complicated than suggested in his email. At one point, for example, Ricky gave the other students a presentation on his research, and for reasons that are not clear made some rude comments. This was apparently at least one trigger for Kurin kicking Ricky out of the field house in Andahuaylas where the students were living. "Danielle spread the rumor...that Ricky expressed that he wanted to kill himself," says one student on the project, "and that he was not stable." But this student says they did not believe it because Kurin was also spreading rumors about others as well.
Another student witnessed the night that Kurin tried to round people up to help find the thieves who had stolen her purse, including the contention that Kurin had wielded a machete and tried to get some of the students, including Ricky, to go help get her belongings back. On another occasion, this student says, Ricky was locked out of the field house early in the morning--apparently after drinking with some others--and yelled at the students to let him back in. This, too, formed part of Kurin's stated reasons for kicking him out of the house, the student says, even though he had nowhere to go. "I think the situation could have been handled differently," this student says.
As discussed above, Ricky was a complicated person, and his experiences in Afghanistan had left him with a short fuse. Not everyone liked him personally, and he was known to be arrogant at times and sometimes expressed sexist attitudes towards women. But no one I have talked to felt there was justification for Kurin to have kicked Ricky out of the field house. Several students and faculty chalked this up to Kurin's by then well-known reputation for retaliating against colleagues she felt had crossed her, as she did in 2015 and 2016.
Ricky later tried to tell his side of the story to friends and more senior archaeologists. Ricky told them that he returned from drinking with some local people about 2:30 am, but did not enter the house because the door was locked with a dead bolt and he did not want to wake anyone up (he had the key but it would not open the door with the deadbolt in place, he wrote.) Ricky insisted that he waited outside the house until 6 am before he yelled to be let in, because he knew the students were getting up early to go swimming.
Ricky also told others that Kurin cited him for violations of the project's code of conduct that evening, allegedly on the grounds that he was endangering the students by trying to get into the house.
Whatever the case, Ricky, stranded in Peru and speaking little Spanish, was in a bad way. "He called me distraught and crying," says Derek Miltimore. "He was sleeping at the bus stop. He had been kicked out of the program, but he was supposed to be running his own research project." Two other archaeologists then in Peru tried to help Ricky find a place to stay during the following month while he waited for his flight home and continued to try to do his research; for a lot of time that time, he reportedly had to pay his own room and board at a local hotel.
In terms of chronology, Ricky did not learn about the sexual assault committed by Gomez until somewhat later, when some of the other students at the 2018 field school told him about it. But Miltimore says that this, combined with his experiences with Kurin, had a lot to do with Ricky's decision to leave archaeology. "He was devastated, crushed," Miltimore says. "He saw that the code of ethics was not followed. He and I discussed this for months. I tried to convince him not to leave the field, to find other sites to work on. But he was so distraught, he had decided that archaeology was his path." Another factor, Miltimore says, is that Ricky's Afghanistan injuries were catching up with him, and it was becoming harder for him to excavate and do fieldwork.
But Ricky also told friends that Kurin had spread rumors about him and badmouthed him to his professors at ASU, where he had transferred from MCC in the fall of 2017. His advisor at ASU was archaeologist Kelly Knudson. She declined to discuss Ricky's story on the record. But Ricky did enlist her aid to try to get Kurin to help export botanical samples from Ricky's research project, which apparently Kurin either failed or refused to do.
|Arizona State University
After returning to ASU from Peru, Ricky arranged a meeting with Knudson in her office, on July 25, 2018. By that time, Ricky had learned of the sexual assault committed by Gomez; that formed the major part of what he wanted to talk to her about. Although Ricky suggested in his email to me that Knudson did not pursue the matter, there is evidence that is not entirely true. In fact, on August 14, according to source familiar with the details, Knudson had a telephone conversation with Ran Boytner, then executive director (now terminated) of IFR. Boytner reportedly told Knudson that Gomez was not involved in the IFR field school and that UCSB had investigated both Gomez and Kurin during the 2016 Title IX and found them "not guilty."
Neither of these alleged statements by Boytner were true, as my reporting has shown. Gomez was an integral part of the field school--indeed, Kurin was very dependent on him and his family for the infrastructure of her archaeological project--and both Gomez and Kurin were found to have committed misconduct. But for Knudson and ASU, the matter appears to have ended there. And according to Miltimore, that was when Ricky decided to leave archaeology.
Miltimore says he suggested to Ricky that he try to do some data analysis, a more armchair approach to archaeology, and that Ricky did make an effort to do that. He left ASU and moved to Colorado, and got involved with a group of veterans who were interested in archaeology, Miltimore says. "The last time I saw him he was living in Denver, and trying to regain his love for archaeology. But the drive had been taken from him." Another complication for Ricky, Miltimore says, is that while he had been hoping to get a full disability pension from the Army, he then would have been prevented from working--a sure killer for his dream to be an archaeologist.
Costion recalls that not long before Ricky left ASU, he and other faculty at MCC invited former students to talk about their field experiences. Ricky came, as did Miltimore, who knew Costion through his field school. "Ricky was walking with a cane," Costion says. "I was taken aback, but he was still very enthusiastic and gave a talk to the students about how awesome fieldwork was."
That was last time that Costion or Alvrus heard from Ricky, they say.
"I tried to get him to move out to Missouri with me," Miltimore says. "He said he was living vicariously through me." But the pain from Ricky's injuries had become "excruciating," Miltimore says. "He could not even drive anymore. The last thing I heard is that he had surgery on his back, and was on a lot of medication." Miltimore found out about Ricky's death from a mutual friend who called him on the phone.
"I loved that dude," Miltimore says. "He was a phenomenal friend. He found solace in pursing archaeology, but when that was taken away from him, he was lost. He had this glow to him, and then he went dark."
Ricky's friends say that no one factor can be blamed for his death, but that his PTSD almost certainly contributed to it. So did, they all agree, his feeling that he had to leave archaeology. Exactly what role Danielle Kurin played in that decision is a matter of opinion, although Ricky has left behind his own judgement about that. "He was always so enthusiastic," says one archaeologist who knew Ricky well. "If she did anything to diminish that light..."
Any more than that, I will let readers decide for themselves.
One thing is clear: We have lost an archaeologist, with a burning passion for the past. Let's hope we don't lose any more.
|(Photo courtesy of Derek Miltimore)