Feds face criticism over arrests in Four Corners artifacts case
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
SALT LAKE CITY – The sun was barely up when federal agents began surrounding a dozen homes scattered across rural southern Utah, the final stroke of a two-year undercover investigation into the theft and trafficking of ancient Indian artifacts around the Four Corners area.
At most places, six or seven armed officers moved in, rousting the occupants and securing the homes so that government archaeologists and photographers could enter and begin cataloguing evidence. At one house, an FBI SWAT team was used.
More than 20 people were arrested June 10 – including four people older than 70. A day later, one of the men arrested – a prominent doctor – committed suicide, and local residents began complaining the government was heavy handed in the raids, especially given that no one was accused of any violent crime.
The episode has put the federal government on the defensive in what has been touted as the nation’s largest-ever investigation into the theft of archaeological objects.
Bruce Adams, a commissioner in San Juan County in southern Utah where many of the arrests took place, said there have been reports of “regular neighbors” being roughed up and facing agents in bulletproof vests with weapons drawn.
“These people would have surrendered peacefully,” he said.
The criticism has prompted U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett to send a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this week alleging “extreme show of force” and requesting an investigation into the arrests.
Holder, responding to questions Wednesday from Hatch during a Senate Judiciary Committee, defended the arrests, saying federal agents can face danger even in nonviolent cases.
“The arrests that were done were felony arrests, and as best as I can tell, they were done in accordance with the FBI and Bureau of Land Management standard operating procedures,” Holder said.
Hours after Holder’s testimony, Utah’s top federal law enforcement officials held a news conference further defending their actions.
Timothy Fuhrman, the FBI’s top agent in Utah, said the simultaneous arrests, which took weeks to plan, were a complex operation aimed at making sure no one was tipped off and no one tried to flee or destroy evidence. He also said law enforcement agents had to be prepared for any kind of response.
Most of the homes they were going into had firearms, he said, and one of the men had been heard on a recording saying he’d try to kill any federal agent that came after him.
Fuhrman said no one was hurt in the operation – though investigators are still looking into reports that one man arrested came away with broken toes. He also said there’s no indication of excessive force or excessive pointing of weapons.
U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said those arrested were given “every reasonable accommodation,” including being allowed time to dress themselves and gather medication and, later in the day, they were given lunch, Tolman said.
Taking objects from archaeological sites has been a common practice around Four Corners, an area rich with artifacts from the Anasazi.
The FBI and the Bureau of Land Management spent more than two years investigating the theft and illegal trafficking of relics taken from federal and tribal land.
In 2007 and 2008, a confidential source paid more than $335,000 for 256 stolen artifacts, including bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads, jars, pendants and necklaces, according to court documents.
Of the 24 people indicted in the case, 22 have entered not guilty pleas. One has not yet been arrested and another is in New Mexico and has not appeared in federal court in Utah.
Several of the defendants were in federal court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday for a status hearing to make sure they have attorneys.
Federal defender Steve Killpack, whose office is handling the cases of at least eight of those indicted, said he and other staff will look closely at how the arrests took place – in part because of criticism from Utah’s senators.
“We’ve had artifact cases before, but certainly nothing of this magnitude,” he said.
Meanwhile, San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy is investigating the arrests. His 55-year-old brother David, a local high school teacher, was among those taken into custody.
“The way they handled things – they roughed a few people up and were verbally abusive to others – concerns me,” he said.
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