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Feds gather vast collection of artifacts dealer

A BLM employee walks past shelves of Native American artifacts at Vern Crites' home in Durango on Wednesday.
A BLM employee walks past shelves of Native American artifacts at Vern Crites' home in Durango on Wednesday.
Jerry Mcbride, Associated Press

With a shovel, garden rake and a tarp, the artifacts dealer explained while digging how the government valued the damage to ancient burial sites by the cubic inch.

By that measure, Vern Crites calculated, he was doing $9,000 worth of damage, according to a secret recording made by a government informant.

Crites, a 74-year-old antiquities dealer from Durango, Colo., surrendered his vast collection Wednesday, the second defendant to do so in a sweeping federal investigation of looting and grave-robbing in the Four Corners region.

The case peeled open the murky world of American Indian artifacts trafficking. Crites was recorded discussing exploits of digging by moonlight or in camouflage and tagging items with a code of origin only he could decipher. In June, Crites and his wife were among 25 people arrested in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Along with others, the couple has pleaded not guilty.

"It's enormously traumatic for them," said Wally Bugden, a Salt Lake City 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."

Under indictment for trafficking, theft and grave desecration, Crites agreed to turn over his entire collection without the promise of a plea deal, federal authorities said Wednesday as agents, archaeologists and curators worked into the night to photograph, wrap and box up the artifacts. The government brought in two moving vans to haul them away.

The surrender, together with a similar hand-over earlier this summer by Jeanne Redd of Blanding, Utah, recovers some of the biggest personal collections at the center of a two-year sting operation.

Vern and Marie Crites left their house Wednesday with the arrival of federal agents. 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 visits with the undercover operative throughout 2007 and 2008. Characterized by other players as a major dealer and "price-setter," he bragged of having sold pottery collections worth $500,000 a set, according to search-warrant affidavits.

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.

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.

On Sept. 14, 2008, the informant watched Crites dig up the ancient burial site, kicking out a skull on the third shovelful. Spooked, Crites and another man covered up the remains without recovering any artifacts.

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