Put yourself in Paul Berkowitzs shoes.
After more than 30 years in law enforcement with the National Park Service, he found himself spearheading a criminal investigation into the very agency for which he had sworn allegiance. His was the classic whistle-blower conundrum, and the long, sordid story is chronicled in his new book, The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post.
The true story of Malones persecution at the hands of the NPS is an eye-opener on many levels. Malone was put in charge of the historic and authentic Navajo trading post in 1980 by a nonprofit company chosen to run it and similar posts on the reservation by the NPS. After more than 20 years on the job, Malone had amassed an impressive collection of Navajo rugs and jewelry through traditional Navajo methods of barter and commerce.
But not everyone understands those age-old traditions, including the very agencies that put Malone in charge. In 2004, the NPS and the nonprofit Western National Parks Association seized the inventory at the Hubbell and charged Malone with a slew of crimes, including that he stole items from the agencies for his own purposes.
About a year later, the case landed on Berkowitzs desk.
I had never met Billy before the case, but when I was getting briefed, some of the explanations and conclusions about the crimes just didnt sound right, Berkowitz said.
Most importantly, there was no evidence that a theft had even occurred. And up until that point (two years into the investigation), no one had even spoken to Billy.
Berkowitz began to unravel a tangle of misdeeds that began with what he believes was incompetence but grew into something more sinister.
I think it started with a combination of ignorance and reckless, cavalier behavior;. These people didnt do their basic homework and fundamental investigation, he said.
But it went from irresponsible to greed when they realized: Oh maybe well be the beneficiaries of this. Then it turned into a cover-up and a lot of other things.
Life on the Navajo Reservation is one of the key aspects of the case that Berkowitz does a tremendous job of explaining in the book.
Navajo trading posts are nothing like what weve come to expect from traditional retail stores. They serve residents of some of the most remote areas in the Southwest in a manner that doesnt register with most American shoppers. The posts, and the Indian traders who staff them, provide essentials for those residents, often on long-term credit or through bartering; the trader may provide groceries in exchange for the promise of a rug or jewelry months later.
Only in recent years did the traditional ways clash with the modern market economy as the value of authentic Navajo goods has skyrocketed as collectible art. And no one felt the brunt of that clash like Billy Malone.
He provided a credible and simple explanation for what had been observed but not investigated. What everyone else envisioned as this convoluted conspiracy was just the way that business has always been done at these places, Berkowitz said.
As one of his last acts before retiring from the NPS in 2007, Berkowitz returned all of the seized merchandise to Malone with the blessing of the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case. His final two years with the agency was uncomfortable many of his co-workers and superiors lost their jobs as a result of his investigation but he has no regrets.
The motivation to write this book was that the only way Billy Malone was going to see justice was if I took the initiative to do it, Berkowitz said.
It seemed, morally, like it had to happen, to bring light to the magnitude of the problem and bring public pressure to bring reform in law enforcement. We cant fix it if we dont expose the more serious examples of the problem, and this was as bad as it gets.