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Overkill or justice? Costly 5-year-old artifacts case nets no prison time and 3 suicides, but retrieves Native American treasures and raises awareness

Published: Saturday, Sept. 24 2011 11:15 p.m. MDT

Native American antiquities were seized in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

BLM

SALT LAKE CITY — Against his better judgment, Richard Bourret agreed to join a friend on an archaeological dig at an asbestos dump in southeastern Utah.

Bourret told Vern Crites, a well-known Native American artifacts dealer in Durango, Colo., that it was a bad idea. He was relieved when Crites' "good friend" Ted initially called off the trip to San Juan County. But weeks later, Crites told him Ted had called several times and insisted they dig.

At the time, Bourret, 62, also of Durango, said in court documents, he thought no one would care about digging near a dump. It turned out to be a life-altering mistake.

Using shovels on that September 2008 day, he and Crites unearthed human remains, pottery sherds and a knife. Crites' friend Ted, the third member of their party, turned out to be Ted Gardiner, an undercover government informant.

Federal agents eventually arrested Bourret, Crites and two dozen others in the largest Indian artifacts trafficking

case in the country. Bourret and Crites pleaded guilty to a felony for illegal excavation.

Bourret was among the first defendants to reach a plea agreement, the latest being Blanding school teacher David A. Lacy who admitted last week to selling a turkey feather blanket and a prehistoric women's apron to Gardiner.

In all, FBI and Bureau of Land Management agents arrested 25 people in June 2009 after a nearly three-year undercover sting operation. To date, 21 have pleaded guilty to reduced charges related to digging, stealing, selling or trafficking in Native American antiquities. All were placed on some form of probation. Two cases are pending. Two defendants killed themselves.

And there could be more arrests.

BLM assistant special agent in charge Dan Love said the case remains active. Indictments in other states are pending, he said.

As the case winds down in Utah, sharp differences remain over whether it was worth it.

Too soft? Too harsh?

Critics call it costly overkill, in terms of tax dollars spent but more so in the lives it ruined. Three men — including Gardiner, the government informant — committed suicide. Some lost jobs, friendships and marriages.

And ultimately, no one went to prison.

"So that tells you what kind of case it really was," said San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams. "It was a property-rights case. It was not a high-profile criminal type case. … They did not hold anybody up. They did not point a gun at anybody. It was not armed robbery. Someone took someone else's property."

Some, like Crites, had vast artifacts collections and were deep into buying, selling and trading. Others like Bourret unwittingly joined a friend on an illegal dig.

"I realize that my actions have had a detrimental impact, and that what I did was a grave insult to many Native Americans," Bourret wrote before a federal judge sentenced him to 36 months probation. "To disturb cultural resources and disrespect one's cultural heritage, as I did, is very wrong."

Forrest Cuch, former state Division of Indian Affairs director, said he was impressed with how federal authorities apprehended and prosecuted the artifacts collectors.

But, he said, "I was very disappointed with the federal court rulings. I think they were far too soft on them. Some should have had jail time."

Federal authorities call the operation a success because it recovered illegally obtained Native American antiquities, raised public awareness and serves as a deterrent to so-called pot-hunters.

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