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Artifacts Sting Stuns Utah Town

Dozens of armed federal agents swept into Blanding, Utah, on June 10, arresting 17 people there and ending a two-year federal sting aimed at a black market in ancient American Indian artifacts. Three weeks later, anger and grief persist.

"There's going to be a scar for a long time," says Lynette Adams, a retired schoolteacher in the predominately Mormon town of 3,600. "There are some pretty strong feelings — not about what people are being accused of, but how they were arrested."

The agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Land Management wore body armor, waved weapons, screamed instructions and shackled neighbors at the wrists, ankles and waists, according to witnesses. And they did that with suspects who ranged from 27 to 73 years old.

List Of Suspects Includes Prominent Townspeople

"These aren't terrorists," Adams complains, her voice rising. "They're not rapists and murderers."

Those targeted include a high school teacher (the county sheriff's brother), a member of the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame and the town's most prominent physician. Dr. James Redd, 60, was found dead a day later — an apparent suicide.

"The government set it up and entrapped them and killed them," says Austin Lyman, a caseworker at Blanding's senior center with three brothers among the arrested. Redd was Lyman's lifelong friend and physician.

"I blame them for Dr. Redd's death," Lyman adds, as he cradles a photo of his friend, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. "He wouldn't have done it without the shame and the guilt, and the stuff they put him through there at his house."

Another suspect who was not from Blanding also committed suicide. Steven Shrader of Santa Fe, N.M., died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound near his mother's home in Illinois.

Shrader, Redd and the others arrested were indicted by a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City. They faced more than 100 felony counts of theft of government and Indian property, and trafficking in protected artifacts.

'Significant Collections' Taken From Public Lands

Investigators enlisted the assistance of an unnamed informant for two years, who used $335,685 in federal funds to buy 256 ancient American Indian artifacts from the defendants.

"This case involves significant collections of Indian artifacts taken from public and tribal lands by excavators, sellers and collectors, including priceless artifacts sacred to Native Americans," says Brett Tolman, the U.S. Attorney in Utah.

Tolman's office defended the use of force in a written statement describing the "standard operating procedures" agents must impose, as well as the circumstances of the arrests.

The statement described some of the circumstances as "the nature of the criminal charges ... the defendant's criminal history, the presence of firearms or other weapons in the defendant's residence ... the need to protect the safety of the agents and any other occupants ... and the need to prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence."

Town Reaction Is Mixed

Some in Blanding are forgiving about the federal show of force. "It would certainly seem to be overkill," says Bob McPherson, a former Mormon bishop and former vice president of the College of Eastern Utah in Blanding. "Some of the people you're arresting ... [are a] 72-year-old, [a] 71-year old ... but [federal agents] don't know the people, and so you follow procedures ... because the FBI agents want to go home to their wife and kids, too."

McPherson also knew Redd well, and he and other friends don't believe the artifacts raid alone prompted the suicide. No one would explain further, but Redd went though a long artifacts prosecution before and was eventually acquitted.

A History Of Artifact Hunting

Artifacts have been part of Blanding life since the town was founded in 1905 by Lyman's grandfather. In fact, the digging, collecting and selling of artifacts predates Blanding. The surrounding region of skyscraping mountains, desert mesas, and steep and narrow canyons is believed to have one of the highest concentrations of artifacts in the world. Homes and businesses in Blanding sport displays of artifacts that rival some museum collections.

Museums, archaeologists and collectors "back east" first hired locals to dig for artifacts a century ago. "Pothunting," as it came to be known, persists as a popular regional subculture. Congress banned all but scientific excavations on federal and Indian land, and some people shifted to private land, where digging continues to be legal. But illegal collecting persisted.

"It was just a field day," McPherson says. "And people would go in there, in some cases with bulldozers and backhoes and shovels ... It'd be fair to say that there was a feeling of us-against-them, and it's our land, and our forefathers were here, and we have this right."

But McPherson and others in Blanding say there's no evidence that digging continues on that scale. "That's not going on now," McPherson adds with confidence, noting that the two-year federal sting netted just 17 people from Blanding. "This does not define Blanding."

Still, the sense of entitlement persists, according to Bruce Adams, a farmer, rancher and county commissioner, because artifacts are so common in the region.

"There are artifacts all over this county. There are artifacts in every farmer's field. There are artifacts on every trail," Adams says. And if "somebody saw half of a pot out of the ground, most of them would dig it up and take it home because it's a treasure, and they found it."

Changing The Artifact-Hunting Tradition

"We still have these persistent notions that it's OK to collect stuff from the surface," says Winston Hurst, an archaeologist and Blanding native. He points to school field trips and Boy Scout hikes in which kids are encouraged to pocket arrowheads or broken pieces of pottery.

Hurst adds that until recently, Boy Scouts in the area were taught how to dig artifacts as they earned an archaeology merit badge. "The whole emphasis is again still on finding things and taking them home," Hurst says. But he also reports a recent shift a week after the raid.

Boy Scouts working on the merit badge then were given a museum tour, where they learned about leaving artifacts alone so that the historic and scientific record is preserved.

The scouts visited the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, which is the official repository of artifacts recovered from federal land in southeastern Utah. An exhibit there celebrates hikers who find intact pots, baskets, bowls and other artifacts and notify authorities.

"They have an ethic about protecting and preserving cultural resources," says Teri Paul, the museum's director. "They believe that these things ... belong to everyone and need to be protected. And they don't belong to any one person to take away and sell."

County Commissioner Bruce Adams considers the difference between those who leave artifacts in place and those who take them home.

"Some people have a strong sense of personal ethics and value things more than others," Adams says. "Some people find a wallet on the streets of New York. It has a hundred dollars in it ... One guy turns it in; the other guy takes [the money] out and throws the wallet in the trash and he's gone. Why? I don't know."

A Part Of Town Culture

The June raid is already becoming part of Blanding's cultural history. The town's annual July Fourth melodrama is incorporating ad-lib lines that refer to the raid. That also happened in 1986, when another artifacts raid shocked the community. No one charged then was convicted, and prosecutors were forced to return some of the artifacts seized from private collections.

This year, the heroine tells the villain, "You'd steal the pennies from a dead man's eyes, and storm into their homes and take artifacts."

And when another character is handed a bowl, he whips out a map and says, "Show me exactly on this map where this bowl came from." That's how the undercover dealer in the artifacts sting had suspects show the illegal origins of their artifacts.

"There are some things that we can laugh at," says retired schoolteacher Lynette Adams, who is directing the melodrama. "We've got to be able to get it behind us."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.