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Feds gather vast collection of artifacts dealer

A Colorado antiquities dealer is surrendering a vast personal collection of ancient artifacts in another break in the federal investigation of looting and grave-robbing in the Four Corners region.

More than 20 government agents, archaeologists and curators descended early Wednesday on a home in Durango, Colo., to haul away a lifetime collection from 74-year-old Carl "Vern" Crites and his wife.

The Bureau of Land Management said the couple was voluntarily turning over its entire collection, which one agent described as staggering. Two moving vans were at the house. Court papers say the items include prayer sticks, ivory beads and a ceremonial war club.

Crites and his wife, Marie, are under indictment for trafficking, theft and grave desecration.

"It's enormously traumatic for them," said Wally Bugden, a Salt Lake lawyer representing Vern Crites. "He's collected artifacts for 50-plus years, as have many people in the Four Corners area. Whether they were legally obtained or not is obviously the issue."

According to court papers, some of the artifacts were pilfered from federal lands in Utah. But BLM spokesman Steven Hall said it would take examinations by archaeologists to determine the origin of each artifact. Some are believed by investigators to be thousands of years old.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for Utah, Brett Tolman, said the surrender was not being made in tandem with a plea deal.

"We can't confirm any plea deal until one is executed, and right now there isn't one," said spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch. "We expect a judge to set a trial in this case just like all of the other cases."

The surrender, together with a similar hand-over earlier this summer by Jeanne Redd of Blanding, recovers some of the biggest collections at the center of a sting operation, which resulted in felony charges against 25 people. Two of them committed suicide, while the rest have pleaded not guilty.

The investigation broke open in June with early-morning raids on a dozen rural Utah homes. Other defendants were arrested or surrendered in Colorado and New Mexico. Authorities have already seized truckloads of artifacts and are aggressively pursuing leads.

Vern and Marie Crites left their house Wednesday with the arrival of federal agents, Hall said. In a brief interview last week, Marie Crites told The Associated Press she had no comment — except to complain that during her arrest in June, she was thrown into jail in handcuffs and denied a bathroom visit.

Vern Crites described much of his collection in a series of secret recordings made by an FBI undercover operative throughout 2008. Characterized by other players as a major dealer and "price-setter," Crites bragged of having sold pottery collections worth $500,000 a set, according to search warrant affidavits obtained by the AP.

Crites traded $4,800 of artifacts with the undercover operative Aug. 27, 2008, the documents say.

His most precious items, however, were not for sale.

The papers say Crites carefully guarded a collection of sacred Pueblo prayer sticks, telling the informant he could not reveal how he obtained them and wouldn't sell any for fear they could be traced back to him.

Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones said Pueblo prayer sticks "are just simply not available for sale or to outsiders.

"It would be like taking the chalice out of a Catholic church," Jones said. "They're anointed, sacred objects still in use for ceremonies."

Crites also revealed to the government informant that in a 1986 raid, federal agents took 32 of his pots but overlooked a hidden safe and the most damning evidence — a ledger of a lifetime of trading that named people he dealt with. He also was recorded saying the safe contained a mummified eagle.

At another point, the informant said he watched Crites dig up an ancient burial site, kicking out a skull on the third shovelful. Spooked, Crites and another man covered up the remains without trying to recover any artifacts.

"Wish that fella had still been intact, the skeleton I mean," Crites was recorded saying at a site in San Juan County.