Last week, federal agents swooped in on 23 of the 24 people indicted on charges of stealing archaeological artifacts from public land and Indian reservations in the Southwest. But after a 60-year-old physician committed suicide over the weekend, Utah senators are saying the raid was overkill.
The arrests were made following a two-year operation codenamed “Cerberus Action,” after the multi-headed dog in Greek mythology that guards the underworld. The case involves 256 Native American artifacts including woven baskets, pots, sandals, and an ax, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation values at $335,685. Defendants were charged with violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), which prohibits the excavation and sale of artifacts from public land or Indian land, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires items retrieved from burial sites and other sacred objects to be returned to Indian tribes.
Throughout the Four Corners region where the operation was centered, the University of Utah once paid locals $2 for an ancient pot, and the artifact-collecting mentality never seems to have faded. “I’m guilty of arrowhead collecting,” 60-year-old defendant and Moab, Utah, resident Brent Bullock told ScientificAmerican.com, “as is two-thirds of this town.”
Bullock, a former oil worker on disability who lives with his wife, is ticked off about finding himself in the spotlight. And he's not alone in complaining about a raid that also hit Durango, Colo., and Blanding, Utah. One sheriff has called the feds’ tactics “heavy-handed,” and on Sunday Utah senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett demanded a Congressional investigation of the raids that included 300 federal agents, including a SWAT team.
The sting began in October 2006, when the FBI recruited a longtime dealer in archaeological artifacts, whose name has not been revealed, to purchase artifacts under video and audio surveillance. The challenge was not only to purchase artifacts, but to have the seller admit their provenance on public land. Melody Rydalch, the U.S. Attorney spokeswoman in Utah, would not comment on whether their "confidential source" had been implicated in previous crimes, but that is often the way agents recruit sources.
According to one affidavit, on December 11, 2007, the FBI’s dealer visited the house of a 55-year-old high school math teacher named David Lacy. Lacy’s home was filled with “hundreds of illegal artifacts,” and Lacy sold the dealer $11,200 worth, including a blanket made of turkey feathers and yucca leaves. But before the purchase was complete, the dealer pulled out a map of public land, and Lacy pointed at the spot where the blanket was retrieved. Then, the FBI’s dealer requested that Lacy sign a document, called a Letter of Provenance, indicating that the items were actually found on private property.
Bullock has a similar tale. According to court records, on July 26, 2007, he tried to sell a blanket fragment, fireboard, and stone hoe known as a Tchamahia. In a phone interview, he said that, like Lacy, he was also asked to identify the spot where the items were obtained and he subsequently signed a Letter of Provenance. He says agents later showed up at his house, placed his arrowheads and other artifacts in bags, and photographed them although they did not have permission to seize his or any other artifacts yet. “They ripped this place apart,” he says. “This town is all stirred up.”
Although Archaeology magazine has attributed a spate of looting in the Southwest to methamphetamine users, only two defendants had records of drug possession. Over the weekend, James Redd, a 60-year-old physician who has previously been caught trespassing on Native American burial sites, committed suicide. For the most part, however, many of the defendants, who ranged in age from 27 to 78, were like Bullock and appear to have clean records, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
But federal agents dispute the notion that those arrested were mere hobbyists, and professional archaeologists are pleased the artifacts could one day be placed in public collections. That’s no consolation for Bullock who could be looking at jail time for five felonies. “I’ve been treated like a felon, and I hope I’m not a felon,” he says. “I made the wrong decision.”