Overkill or justice? Costly 5-year-old artifacts case nets no prison time and 3 suicides, but retrieves Native American treasures and raises awareness
"I don't think we need to distance ourselves from those sentences," said U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen. "I think given the facts and the circumstances where you look at the nature of the crime, you look at the deterrent effect, you look at their criminal history, I think the sentences they received were appropriate."
Six different federal judges handled the cases. And whether or not they talked among themselves, they were aware of each other's sentences and seemed to make a conscious effort to be consistent. Judge Ted Stewart remarked in one hearing that his sentence was in line with those handed down in other cases.
Salt Lake attorney and former BLM director Pat Shea suggested Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch might have pressured judges to see that none of the defendants serve prison time. Hatch, through a spokesman, denied the accusation.
"There's no truth to that whatsoever," said Mark Eddington, Hatch spokesman.
Lead federal prosecutor Richard McKelvie said the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah never expected prison time for what amounted to property crimes.
"If we have a beef with a sentence, we can appeal it," he said. "Significantly, we haven't chosen to appeal any of the sentences here."
In addition to probation, those convicted of felonies give up the right to own guns or vote. All the defendants had to forfeit their artifacts collections, regardless of how they came to possess them.
That these were property crimes isn't lost on Adams.
"It was a property-rights case. It was not treated as a property-rights case in my opinion," he said. "Those folks were treated as if they were hardened criminals."
Archaeologist Jerry Spangler said looting is a big problem in rural communities and people are profiting from it. But, he said, it isn't taken seriously.
"We're losing our heritage at an alarming rate and there doesn't seem to be much impetus from the legal side of things to make the penalty such that it would deter people," he said. "That's part of the education problem we have. It is a serious crime."
From the outset, the FBI and the BLM ran what they dubbed Operation Cerebus Action like a drug case, McKelvie said.
The agencies sent in an undercover informant, Ted Gardiner, a longtime artifacts dealer who ingratiated himself to collectors and traders over 2½ years.
Critics of the operation question Gardiner's credibility due to his history of drug, mental health and financial problems. McKelvie says although Gardiner had illicit dealings in the artifacts trade, he was never prosecuted and had no criminal charges against him when he became an informant.
Gardiner wore a wire and transmitted live video and audio to federal agents who monitored his transactions. He ultimately spent $335,685 on 358 items including pottery, blankets, ceremonial masks, sandals and jewelry. Authorities paid him $7,500 a month — $224,000 total — for his surreptitious work.
Dace Hyatt, a restoration expert from Show Low, Ariz., was scheduled to testify as an expert witness for a defendant in the case. He and other members of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association held a panel discussion on the artifacts case at a trade show in Santa Fe, N.M., last month.
A friend of Gardiner for nearly 20 years, Hyatt said federal authorities should not have relied on a person who had serious financial problems, which may have added pressure for him to create cases.
"In my opinion, he stooped to levels of misrepresenting the truth, embellishing and lying and that's unfortunate because you would think there would be more checks and balances within the (federal) departments to credit or discredit his statements before they orchestrated an entire 2½-year sting operation that cost the taxpayers — I would be willing to speculate millions of dollars — to only come up with 26 indictments. That's the travesty," Hyatt said.
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