Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News
BLANDING — The remnants of a people who lived in the cliffs surrounding this small southeastern Utah town are not hard to find here.
Stumbling across pieces of pots and arrowheads is commonplace, locals say.
So, too, is keeping them.
With the federal indictment of 24 people, most of them from Blanding, accused of taking ancient American Indian artifacts from public lands in the Four Corners area, people here say officials have made much ado about nothing.
"A majority of homes probably do have artifacts," said Holly Shumway, whose in-laws were among those indicted. "I don't know how they pick and choose the few that got arrested. It's just so common in this town to have things like that. It's not like just those 24 people have been doing this. These people have just been doing what everyone does."
Mitch Barnett, a Blanding resident, recalls his grandfather receiving Anasazi blankets as pay for work he did. "Nobody thought it was a big deal," he said.
Sandy Strom, whose husband, Aubry Patterson, is accused of stealing artifacts from caves in the La Sal Mountains and selling them to an undercover dealer, said she has a display case full of American Indian artifacts.
Otherwise, they would just be on the ground, she said.
"We weren't out grave-robbing," Strom said outside a Moab courthouse.
It's a sentiment shared among a number of people in the area.
"That's the word I just can't stand: stealing," Shumway said. "Anyone can walk out their back door and probably find something. Most of the houses in this town are built on old Indian ruins. It's everywhere. It's not like these people are going into someone's home or a museum and taking these artifacts. They're just outside on the ground."
But items taken from federal land could mean up to 10 years in prison for the "collectors."
The crime is not about property being destroyed, said Blanding archaeologist Winston Hurst, it's about preserving a priceless record of history.
"It's not about who gets to own something," Hurst said. "It's about the archaeological record. It's the only record we have of the huge majority of people who have ever lived. It's tremendously fragile, and it's being looted on a worldwide scale. They rip the guts out and leave us with nothing but objects to sell on eBay."
Whether it's pocketing an arrowhead or pillaging a ruin, "the net effect is, it all destroys evidence," said the Bureau of Land Management's Canyon Country district manager Shelley Smith.
"It's a chronic problem" that strips artifacts of their context and value, she said.
In Blanding, the indictments and news reports have made "nice people" out to be "hardened criminals," Shumway said.
Among those indicted:
David Lacy, 55, who is a "great school teacher" and wrestling coach, Shumway said.
Harold Lyman, 78, director of the San Juan Visitor Center, who was recently inducted into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame for his role in creating the "Trail of the Ancients," a scenic byway centered around the area's American Indian heritage.
James Redd, 60, the town's longtime doctor. He was found dead Thursday near his home outside Blanding. Details of the death were not immediately released by authorities, but word was spreading quickly in the community about his passing.
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