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Council will challenge legal decision that could affect Jim Thorpe remains

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: May 09 2013 07:00:00 PM CDT
Updated On: May 10 2013 08:53:52 AM CDT

Will Jim Thorpe's remains stay or go?

JIM THORPE, Pa. -

A legal decision involving the remains of Jim Thorpe will be challenged by the Carbon County borough that is home to the famed athlete's grave and is named in his honor.

Jim Thorpe Borough Council voted 6-0 Thursday night to spend what will likely be tens of thousands of dollars to appeal a judge's ruling last month that could set in motion a process that would permit Thorpe's sons to return their father's remains to Oklahoma.

U.S. District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo decided the borough, which has held Thorpe's remains since 1954, is covered by a 1990 federal law aimed at safeguarding Native American graves and remains.

Mayor Michael Sofranko said filing the appeal is substantially cheaper than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars complying with the judge's ruling and the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

Atty. William Schwab, of Lehighton, whose firm has already done more than $110,000 of pro bono work for the borough on the case, will file the legal action with the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals next week. Vince Garvey, a lawyer with Schwab's firm, said after the vote that the appeal process could easily take years.

Mayor Sofranko said he is encouraged that council and residents and businesses in the area "continue to step up to the plate" to keep Thorpe's remains in the spot where the borough and Thorpe's widow (and third wife) Patricia agreed, even though Judge Caputo decided federal law trumped that contract.

Sofranko added that borough officials are pleased with promises of private fundraising to fight this legal battle, because council does not want to raise taxes or be committed to spending an "unlimited" amount of money. He added that the borough's liability insurance jumped $90,000 last year because of the lawsuit.

Sofranko said Congressmen Matt Cartwright and Lou Barletta, whose districts each include parts of Carbon County, and U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey also have offered help.

The mayor stressed that the borough appeal should not be seen as disrespectful to Native Americans. "It's not us-against-them," he said. "The [borough] residents had a good, healthy debate. There were no nasty signs on the wall … They wanted to educate themselves."

Jim Thorpe's grandson, John Thorpe, of Lake Tahoe, California, will attend the Jim Thorpe Birthday Celebration set for Saturday and Sunday, Sofranko noted.

The latest battle over Thorpe's remains began in June 2010, when Thorpe's son Jack sued the borough. Jack's brothers Richard and William and the Sac and Fox Nation joined the lawsuit.

Jack Thorpe passed away in February 2011, but the lawsuit continued with the other plaintiffs.

Atty. Garvey said the borough's appeal will dispute Judge Caputo's determination that the borough functions as a museum that receives federal funds and is therefore covered by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

"Our position is, [the borough] never received direct federal funding, only trickle-down funding" from the county through community development block grants, Garvey said.