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Utah town's anger mounts over artifact arrests

Thousands attend the funeral of a suspect who committed suicide after squads of federal agents rushed into homes to make arrests. Residents call the raids overkill.

June 17, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

BLANDING, UTAH — Shortly after sunrise last week, a squad of flak-jacketed federal agents surrounded the remote home of Dr. James Redd, arrested his wife and then stopped the 60-year-old doctor as he returned from his morning rounds to arrest him as well.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar flew to Salt Lake City to announce the indictments of the Redds and 22 others -- 16 of them Blanding residents -- in what he called the biggest bust ever of thieves who take ancient Native American artifacts from public lands, often from sacred burial sites.

The backlash started soon after, and not just because of the arrest of James and Jeanne Redd.

Another group of agents had yanked Nick Laws, 30, from his home with such force that they broke some of his toes, local officials say. Nearly 20 agents had surrounded a pair of mobile homes belonging to septuagenarian brothers and led them away in cuffs.

Local authorities called the raids overkill. The county sheriff, whose brother was among those charged, launched his own investigation into how suspects were treated.

Then a day after his arrest, Dr. Redd killed himself.

Blanding has about 3,000 residents, and on Tuesday nearly 1,000 people gathered in a Mormon community center to mourn the doctor as anger at the federal government continued to grow. Armed guards were spotted outside the Bureau of Land Management office in nearby Monticello.

"Eighteen vehicles surrounded the Redds' house," San Juan County Supervisor Bruce Adams said in an interview. "Do we do that with child molesters? With murderers?" He added, "I haven't seen a piece of pottery or an artifact that's worth a human life."

Redd had been the town's only physician for several years and was known for traveling to treat patients at all hours. Huge lines formed outside the town mortuary for his wake.

Speakers avoided discussing the case, instead focusing on his love for his five children and his wife, big-game hunting and baseball. "He lived the life of five men," said his eldest daughter, Jericca.

Federal authorities say they had no choice but to go in strong when they made their arrests.

Brett Tolman, the U.S. attorney for Utah, said Tuesday that given the scale of the crimes federal investigators uncovered during their years-long undercover probe, they needed to make a wide range of simultaneous arrests. Federal rules, he said, required agents to wear flak jackets in this kind of operation.

"There is not a lot of ability on our part to do this and come out popular, whatever we had done," Tolman said. "We knew going into this there would be hard feelings there."

Tolman also noted that many of the defendants own guns, which is common in this part of the country but still a cause for caution.

But even those who support the push against looting artifacts say the crackdown backfired on the government.

"The whole point they wished to make is gone," said Winston Hurst, a Blanding native and archaeologist who has long fought against the digging up of ancient graves, a practice known locally as pot-hunting. "It's completely swamped by the ridiculous imagery of people in their flak jackets taking some old sucker, shackled hands and feet, and shuffling him into the slammer."

Blanding Police Chief Lyle Bayles, who only found out about the operation minutes before the arrests began June 10, has referred grave-digging cases to BLM in the past. "I'm glad the federal government is out there doing these investigations," he said. "But this could have been handled differently, without the drama and without the outcry."

Once home to a thriving Native American civilization, the Four Corners area is covered with ancient burial sites. San Juan County alone has 100,000. When a house is built here, it's not uncommon to unearth a few artifacts while digging the foundation.

For decades, locals were encouraged to prospect for these ancient treasures. As recently as the 1920s, the museum at the University of Utah paid a bounty for artifacts dug up by locals.

Even after Congress passed a law banning the practice in 1979, some people kept digging. One flamboyant excavator used a bulldozer.

It's an isolated region, known for being steadfastly conservative and distrustful of government.

In the mid-1980s, federal authorities raided a number of houses in and near Blanding and confiscated many Native American artifacts. But they were unable to convict anyone, and locals still simmer at the memory of the case.

This time authorities took a different tack. Since 2006, they had been working with an antiquities dealer who had agreed to secretly record conversations with people who plundered Native American graves and wanted to sell their items.

The informant paid $335,000 for a plethora of artifacts -- sandals, blankets, pots and axes -- from 24 people, according to court records. He also, at the urging of the defendants, created phony documents stating the items were found on private property rather than on federal or tribal lands, court papers say.

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