What began early this month as a high-profile federal crackdown on illegal looting and selling of American Indian artifacts from public lands has morphed into an embarrassing episode for the Interior and Justice departments, which now face pointed questions over federal agents' handling of looting suspects and the apparent suicides of two of those charged.
James Redd, 60, a physician and prominent figure in the small town of Blanding, Utah, was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning a day after being arrested for allegedly trafficking a tribal bird pendant. But rather than condemning Redd for what appears to be a decades-long penchant for grave robbing, many in the state's Four Corners region are mourning the doctor's untimely death.
"He treated people with respect and performed miracles daily," said San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams, who described Redd as a "doctor of choice" in Blanding, where Redd delivered more babies for Indian parents than any other physician.
Then a second suspect, Steven L. Shrader, 56, of Santa Fe, N.M., was found dead Friday in Shabbona, Ill., apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the local sheriff's department.
Redd and Shrader were among 23 who were arrested on June 10 as part of multiagency raid in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, ending a two-year undercover investigation in which a wiretapped FBI source recorded illegal transactions involving 256 native artifacts worth an estimated $335,685.
The alleged excavators, dealers and collectors appeared before a federal judge in Moab, Utah, to answer charges of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, both of which prohibit the unauthorized excavation and removal of Indian cultural relics.
Most acknowledge the importance of cracking down on illegal grave robbers in the Four Corners region, where federal authorities estimate 90 percent of sacred Indian sites have been plundered.
But what riled many in southeast Utah -- an area of the country with a long history of anti-federal sentiment -- is the heavy-handed way in which the 150 FBI and Bureau of Land Management officers carried out the arrests.
"You were dealing with 24 people who were not rapists, murderers or drug lords," said Adams. "The federal agents came in with a show of force as if they were dealing with violent criminals."
According to Adams, agents with assault weapons led Redd away in handcuffs and shackles and told him he would never be able to practice medicine again.
Redd was convicted 13 years ago for desecrating an ancient human corpse and trespassing on public lands but had those convictions overturned two years later by an appeals court. He had no criminal record with the San Juan County Sheriff's Department.
The Justice Department would not offer details on Redd's arrest and did not confirm or deny the agents' use of shackles.
Handling of suspects is carried out according to the nature of the charges, the defendant's criminal history, the presence of firearms or the presence of others who could be in danger, said Tracy Schmaler, a department spokeswoman. Some arrests must be carried out more swiftly than others to prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence, she added.
Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett on June 16 sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting information on which of those factors, if any, were used to determine the amount of force used in the arrests.
"While we respect the duties that federal agents carry out on a daily basis, we question the rationale behind an extreme show of force behind this type of investigation," the letter said. "The execution of these warrants has brought nothing but alarm to a community that was already distrustful of federal law enforcement."
Hatch was more pointed in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing the next day, during which Holder was the lone witness.
"One has to think that the manpower and resources allocated in this operation are usually reserved for, like I say, arresting truly violent felons," he said.
Hatch asked Holder why a federal raid that same week in Texas -- in which 17 were arrested for allegedly distributing $22 million in cocaine -- did not receive the same level of attention as the artifacts bust, which was publicly unveiled by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and a host of other high-profile government officials.
Holder would not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the arrests but said he believed they were conducted according to FBI and BLM standard operating procedures.
"When arrests are made, and even cases that seem to be nonviolent, there is always a danger for the law enforcement officer who is affecting that arrest" Holder said. "It's a difficult thing to ask them to assume certain things."
Justifying the arrests
In a region already wary of government, the arrival of FBI and BLM agents in black SUVs was sure to test some nerves. And for many familiar with the longstanding practice of artifact hunting, the severity of the crimes did not warrant the number of agents involved or the amount of government authority used.
Until the 1920s, the University of Utah rewarded Blanding residents with $2 for every ancient pot they donated to the school's collection. And while academic institutions long abandoned such practices, cultural and archaeological sensitivities have done little to stem the black market trade in sacred artifacts, jewelry and even human remains. In San Juan County alone, experts estimate that looters have raided most of the county's 28,000 known archaeological sites.
Experts and law enforcement officials say such looting spoils ancient burial grounds, insults native communities and erases crucial clues to the region's history.
"This case involves ... priceless artifacts sacred to Native Americans, not 'trash and trinkets' as some have suggested," U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said in a statement responding to the arrest complaints. "Unfortunately, some of the misperceptions minimize the scope of this investigation or the importance of protecting these heritage items for all Americans."
Some of the public backlash to the arrests can be linked to the way looting is perceived by many in the region, said Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.
"It's a sad reflection of the mentality of some people in these areas," said Cuch, a member of the Ute tribe. "[Looting] is a dehumanization of native culture by ignorant people. It's essentially very selfish and greedy."
Cuch said attempts in the 1990s to enforce the state's NAGPRA law were unable to win decisive convictions against people like Redd and his wife, Jeanne, who was ultimately ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
"Folks have been thinking they can get away with this for probably the past century," he said. "I applaud the federal government for enforcing its laws, even though it's being enforced in a very conservative part of the country with a very anti-federal history."
History 'looted for a few bucks'
For many American Indians, disturbing the graves of the deceased is a sign of disrespect for one's ancestors.
Ron Maldonado, supervisory archaeologist for Navaho Nation's Historic Preservation Office, compared non-natives' robbery of Indian graves to Native Americans tearing up George's Washington's resting place at Mount Vernon in Virginia.
"The actual destruction, the ripping and tearing ... all Native Americans are just appalled by that," said Maldonado. "We take this very seriously on the reservation."
Maldonado said he has assisted Bureau of Indian Affairs and BLM agents in past investigations into looting that resulted in arrests. He said he was not familiar with the details of the federal raid in Utah, but agreed that looting in the area deserves more attention from federal and local law enforcement agencies.
"A lot of the damage they did was on public lands," he said, and native communities are not the only ones that suffer.
"These sites belong to all Americans," he said. "It's not just in the Southwest. It's Civil War monuments, battlefields, old forts. They're all part of our history, and they're being looted for a few bucks."