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Artifact thefts targeted by federal officials

Federal officials aim to halt sale of Native American heritage

Illicit back-room deals, negotiated prices and the flash of cash were caught on tape in the nation's largest undercover law enforcement operation of its kind.

The 2 1/2-year probe that spanned the reaches of the Four Corners area didn't deal in the trafficking of guns or the proffering of drugs: it was Native American heritage up for sale.

While the criminal prosecution of 24 defendants nabbed in an operation dubbed "Cerberus Action" has just begun, the looting of treasures held sacred by Utah's earliest inhabitants has been going on for years.

"It's a pretty big world out there of people who want the artifacts found around here," said Kevin Jones, the state's archaeologist. "But we are not making Anasazi pots anymore. They have not been made for a thousand years. And any time they wind up in a private collection or in the hands of looters, we will never see it, never learn from it and never be able to study it. They are people stealing our cultural heritage."

The significance of such a bust — it required additional money and resources when investigators learned how deep the network reached — brought out top government officials for Wednesday's press conference at the U.S. Attorney's office in Salt Lake City to declare war on looting.

"Let this case serve notice to anyone considering breaking these laws and trampling our nation's cultural heritage that the BLM, the Department of Justice and the federal government will track you down and bring you to justice," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said.

Others warned it should serve as a "wake-up call" for those who think they can pilfer and then barter away sacred artifacts.

"Those who remove or damage artifacts on public or tribal lands take something sacred from all of us," said U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman.

The investigation largely hinged on the efforts of an inside source who had been "a major dealer" of illegal archaeological artifacts for 10 years prior to approaching law enforcement, according to a federal search warrant unsealed Wednesday.

Special agents used the source's contact list and trusted relationship with artifact dealers to widen their net of potential players.

On several occasions from March 2007 to November 2008, the source met with dealers and purchased 256 Native American artifacts for a total of $336,000, the warrant stated.

"In most cases, the source obtained audio and/or video evidence of the illegal transactions via an audio/video recording device worn by the source," the warrant said.

According to FBI and BLM officials, the source rooted out a large, tight-knit network that transcended dealers by including several "diggers" who regularly pillage village and burial sites — many unknown to the scientific community.

Artifacts are usually sold with a statement identifying the origin of the object known as a letter of provenance, which essentially ensures the find was legal. But according to officials, video surveillance showed dealers misrepresenting the origin of several objects, which they say were found on Bureau of Land Management property.

During a recorded conversation, the source witnessed hundreds of illegal artifacts while he followed "dealer" David Lacy, 55, around his house, according to documents. The source bought three items: a knife for $2,800, a turkey-feather-and-yucca-plant blanket for $900 and a digging stick for $1,000. The warrant also identified a storage shed full of artifacts.

During another meeting, the source paid $5,000 for several items ranging from sandals to a female loincloth that Lacy told the source were found at Baby Mummy Cave and Alkali Ridge — both BLM-owned properties.

But when Lacy signed the letter of provenance, he indicated the items were found on private land, according to federal charges. Lacy faces 15 criminal charges.

Many of the criminal defendants appeared in federal court in Moab on Wednesday and a detention hearing is being held this morning for a 55-year-old Blanding woman.

All are accused of violating the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which sets in play a wide variety of prohibitions including the excavation, removal, damage of archaeological resources or their sale or trade.

Both Tolman and Jones say such looting and bartering are on the uptick because the underground market for the property is lucrative, the players are secretive and the undocumented sites are plentiful.

"Depending on what they are, there is a pretty good market with pretty active trading in ancient relics," Jones said, adding such items are incredibly difficult to track or even authenticate.

"It is very hard to determine where an artifact came from," he said. "It is not unlike finding a liter bottle of Coca Cola and trying to determine where it was stolen from. There's no serial numbers."

Tolman said he believes much of the bartering goes unchecked for that reason, also aided by the tendency of some purveyors and purchasers to turn a blind-eye to an object ill-gotten from public lands.

Although federal prosecutors assigned a cash value to the items uncovered as a result of the operation, Larry EchoHawk, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs and former Utahn, said the theft of such items goes beyond monetary value.

"I can say on behalf of Native Americans these articles are really priceless. You can't put a dollar figure on it."

It is, many say, akin to stealing from America's oldest Americans.

"The American people have got to pay more respect for these sacred treasures which represent the heritage of ancient people," said Forrest Cuch, head of the state division of Indian Affairs. "There has to be more respect for the people who have gone before us."