The June 10 federal raids serving warrants on suspects in an alleged pothunting ring created a furor in San Juan County, Utah, home to 18 of the 24 people charged with various violations of archaeological laws.
In an area where family homes often contain collections of ancient Indian artifacts gathered generations ago, many citizens bristled at the sudden portrayal of their close-knit community as a nest of grave-digging law-breakers.
Even Marilyn Boynton, a Free Press contributor who moved to Blanding, Utah, a couple of years ago, felt defensive on behalf of the county.
“[Interior Secretary] Ken Salazar made it sound like all these people are law-breakers and looters,” she said. “Most people have artifacts that were collected years and years ago, before anyone knew it was wrong.”
The anger turned to shock and grief when, the morning after the arrests, Blanding physician James Redd – one of those accused of illegal pot-hunting and trafficking in artifacts – killed himself by carbon-monoxide poisoning. Another suspect, Steven Shrader of Durango, shot himself to death June 19.
While commentary in the Salt Lake Tribune was divided on the fairness of the arrests, letters to the editor in San Juan County’s two local papers were running largely against the raids.
“All the artifacts in San Juan County are not worth the life of a person – any person,” wrote Craig and Dorothy Leavitt in the San Juan Record.
“. . .admittedly, I may be an insensitive slob, but what is so criminal about the behavior of these tax-paying citizens raided and humiliated by the regime’s Gestapo?” asked another letter- writer, Dan Barber of Kanab, Utah. “Seems to me the ‘desicrated’ [sic] artifacts allegedly ‘stolen’ from public property should be in the hands of a care-taker who appreciates them rather than crumble away into nothing in some dusty, musty, forgotten cache!
“The Native American heritage (r.e. [sic] the sacredness of the artifacts) has in no way been trampled on or defiled (as a few activists would have us believe) by the discovery and removal of said artifacts,” Barber wrote.
At least one of the defendants allegedly agreed, apparently viewing himself not as a thief of time, but as a protector. According to the search-warrant affidavit for Kevin Shumway, 55, of Blanding, he allegedly told the undercover source in the case, “you know, the sad part about it is if it wasn’t for us that do this they’d have nothing, it would be gone.”
“My grandfather, Albert R. Lyman, collected artifacts all his life, as did everyone in the county in those days,” wrote Scott Lyman in a letter to the Record. “He donated his entire collection to the museum. . . Today he would probably be summarily arrested and perhaps incarcerated for life. . .
“Some of those ‘artifacts’ were given to them [local people] by local ‘Native Americans’ or sold to them for a meal. No one considered themselves to be felons or even pot-hunters, but simply citizens of an area brimming over with things left by the previous people who live there,” Lyman wrote.
However, search-warrant affidavits for the suspects allege that they did far more than take care of artifacts left them by their grandparents.
The affidavits, based on an undercover investigation involving an informant who recorded conversations with the defendants, allege that the suspects sold and swapped artifacts they often collected themselves from public or tribal lands.
The affidavit in the case of Joseph and Meredith Smith, 31 and 34 respectively, of Blanding, alleges that Smith told the informant in October 2007 while discussing his collection that he had collected “all the artifacts himself. . . within the last two years.”
And the affidavit for Jeanne Redd, wife of the late physician, alleges that Redd met with the informant at her home on Aug. 30, 2007, and displayed her collection of artifacts, which included two pendants. “Redd told the Source that she found the two pendants. . . at Burial Mounds, lower Recapture Canyon, within the last eight years,” the affidavit states.
Still, the raids left many people confused. “I think a lot of people are worried that the FBI is going to arrest them for their collections,” said Bruce Adams, chair of the San Juan County commissioners.
“A lot of people 30 or 40 years ago went out every weekend and hunted for arrowheads and things and have nice collections.”
Although the 1906 Antiquities Act was designed to protect antiquities on federal lands, it had no real enforcement mechanism and was widely ignored. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act passed in 1979 marked the first real effort to rein in pot-hunting.
After the raids, Adams fielded questions from media from all over the country. “I’m telling everybody the same thing. We believe in the rule of law and we’re not trying to decide whether somebody broke the law. The court system will do that.” Adams added that he believes digging up burials is wrong.
But he said the county commissioners have concerns about how the raids were conducted, concerns they expressed in letters to the lieutenant governor and Utah’s senators.
The senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, later called for an investigation of the raids, which reportedly involved 150 BLM law officers, FBI agents and federal marshals.
The county commissioners also asked Sheriff Mike Lacy to conduct his own investigation of the agents’ behavior. Lacy’s office did not return a phone call asking about his conclusions.
Adams said he and the other commissioners doubted the necessity of so many federal agents, armed and in bulletproof vests, descending on San Juan County June 10 to serve 12 warrants.
“Why all these agents in flak jackets with weapons drawn?” Adams asked. “None of these people had a violent background. None were believed to be drug dealers or murderers.
“If the Justice Department had called the sheriff he would have called them on the phone and they would have shown up at the courthouse in Moab.”
Adams said he had been told that Redd, who was 60, was handcuffed, thrown against a wall, and taunted by agents saying things like “This is the worst day of your life,” “You’re going to lose your license,” and “Your wife is going to prison for 30 years.”
“There was no consideration that he was innocent until proven guilty,” Adams said. “By the time he got home from his arraignment he was a beaten man. Those were the things the sheriff told me happened.”
The father of one defendant also told Adams his son, Nick Laws of Blanding, that Laws’ toes were broken during his arrest, but no one could be found to confirm that.
The U.S. attorney for Utah, Brett Tolman, responded to the charges in a press release on June 17, stating that the FBI had notified the San Juan County sheriff six days before the raids and local police departments the day before.
“The felony arrests of the defendants were made in accordance with the agencies’ [FBI and BLM] standard operating procedures,” the press release said.
Tolman also said none of the charges involve mere possession of a protected artifact, but rather trafficking.
Steven Killpack, the Utah federal defender, told the Free Press his office is representing about 10 of the defendants. Killpack said his attorneys’ concerns about the way the raids may have been conducted would be limited to whether the conduct had anything to do with the cases, such as if it involved suppression of evidence. However, he said comments by prominent politicians do raise questions.
“Any time you have people of importance like Senator Hatch, Senator Bennett, or Mark Shurtleff [Utah’s attorney general] who have expressed concerns about the procedures, then certainly we want to look at them very closely because typically those individuals are slow to express criticism of law-enforcement procedures, and that’s a red flag,” Killpack said.
Killpack added that defendant Shrader of Durango had been a client of his office and that he was “surprised and saddened” by his suicide June 19. “He had outlined what appeared to be a plausible defense,” Killpack said.
Adams said he has received hate mail for speaking out against the raids. “There were some rude things, some profane things.”
Adams said although the ruins and artifacts do draw tourists and carry a cultural heritage, the people of San Juan County are beginning to view them as more of a pain than a treasure.
He said he does not believe laws such as ARPA should be changed, but that the BLM should change its policies.
“The BLM has a huge opportunity in this part of the country to display this but they have taken no steps to get a place where people could go out in the wild and see what the resource is.
“We have Edge of the Cedars [State Park Museum in Blanding] but we need some kind of trail that would go by several sites in a natural setting. Wouldn’t you want somebody to take you out and show you? I think that’s the BLM’s responsibility. But to me they just want to lock it up and hide it.”