SALT LAKE CITY — Federal agents drove a Utah doctor to suicide after interrogating him and searching his house for an ancient artifact they never found, his family's lawyers argued Thursday in a wrongful-death case against the government.
The U.S. Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart to throw out the lawsuit, saying federal agencies were protected by immunity in the sweeping investigation into the trafficking of American Indian artifacts allegedly taken from federal and tribal lands. In 2009, federal agents swept up 26 defendants in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
Dr. James Redd, 60, killed himself a day after his arrest by rigging a garden hose from his tailpipe to his Jeep. His family says he never dealt in artifacts, but he was charged together with his wife and a daughter. Months later, Jeanne and Jericca Redd were sentenced to probation on trafficking charges.
At issue Thursday was the work of a government operative who was given more than $335,000 to make deals with people later accused of digging, selling and collecting artifacts from federal and tribal lands.
Lawyers for the Redd family argued that federal agents coached the informant — grocery chain CEO-turned-artifacts dealer Dan Gardiner — to offer more money than any artifact was worth to make offenses a felony instead of misdemeanor. The Redds were accused of acquiring a bird effigy pendant in a trade with Gardiner for another set of artifacts.
Family lawyers argued the pendant wasn't worth $1,000 — making the transaction a felony — and that the government was never able to identify the pendant from 812 boxes of confiscated artifacts from the Redd's house in Blanding. They also said the government couldn't find the artifacts Jeanne Redd traded for the pendant.
The family says the government agents manufactured evidence, used excessive force, abused their powers and illegally confiscated the family's personal belongings. They're demanding the government return family photos, Dr. Redd's personal diary, banking records, a telephone, three digital cameras and other items.
"They took everything in the house except for furniture and clothes," said Shandor Badaruddin, a lawyer from Missoula, Mont., who represents Jeanne Redd and five daughters.
Justice Department lawyer Deepthy Kishore argued that market values for artifacts were slippery, federal agents couldn't be blamed for offering too much and that the government is immune from lawsuits over tactics used in an investigation.
U.S. law allows federal agents to hold onto even irrelevant evidence seized in an investigation, she said.
Dr. Redd wasn't harmed when he was arrested and handcuffed, and the government can't be held responsible for his suicide, she said.
The government argues that the Redds can't cite a single instance when their constitutional rights were violated during the raid.
After his death, according to the lawsuit, a BLM agent told Jeanne Redd and her daughter that Dr. Redd "took one for the team" by killing himself.
Carlie Christensen, the No. 2 prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney's office in Salt Lake City, said she was unfamiliar with that allegation and couldn't respond.