Striking at a longtime practice in the Four Corners area, federal authorities Wednesday unsealed indictments against 24 people in what they called the largest investigation ever into the looting of Native American artifacts on public lands.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the charges at a Salt Lake City news conference and said in a telephone interview that many of the stolen items, valued at $335,000, came from sacred burial sites. "The message that we're sending is, we're not going to tolerate this kind of activity," he said.
The charges stem from a two-year undercover investigation into excavators and buyers of the artifacts in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Federal authorities developed an antiquities dealer as a source who wore a hidden microphone to record several illicit transactions, according to court records.
The items varied: an ax, woven baskets, sandals, ceramic bowls, a rug made with turkey feathers.
"Pot hunting" for Native American treasures is a pastime in many rural communities in the history-rich region.
The high desert of the Four Corners region was home to a flourishing Native American civilization centuries before European exploration, and traces of these inhabitants are found throughout the canyons and mesas of the Southwest, preserved by the arid air inside caves, on rock faces and in towering cliff houses.
Archaeologists, Native American groups and preservationists have long argued that the government has not moved aggressively enough to stamp out the plundering of artifacts. One of President George W. Bush's final pardons was granted to the first Utah man convicted of stealing artifacts from public lands.
"State, local and federal officials have not been very forceful about this in the past," said David Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Assn.
Many experts also say the government hasn't convinced the public of the damage done by pot hunting, which destroys the historical record that allows archaeologists to better understand the Southwest's earliest inhabitants.
"It's like burning down the library before you have a chance to read the books in it," said Barbara Pahl of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Pahl was in Blanding, Utah, last week -- the isolated town of 3,000 where most of those indicted live -- talking with city officials about how to persuade locals to refrain from disturbing ancient sites. She was dispirited at the wide range of people who authorities allege are poachers.
"It's sort of a sad day," Pahl said. "You feel like you're losing the battle."
Southwest residents have been scooping up artifacts for generations. Since the early 20th century, settlers were even encouraged to dig up arrowheads, pottery and other remains. In the 1920s the University of Utah paid Blanding residents $2 per ancient pot.
Federal authorities estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in San Juan County, where Blanding is located, have been plundered.
According to a search warrant affidavit, the FBI and Bureau of Land Management in October 2006 developed "a major dealer of archaeological artifacts" as a source who would help them unravel the informal network of pot hunters profiting off the land's history. Authorities wired the dealer to record the transactions.
In December 2007, for example, David Lacy, 55, and another defendant allegedly came to the dealer with a wide range of artifacts that they indicated had been found on public land. The items included the turkey feather blanket, an ancient digging stick and a knife.
"Lacy stated they had the cops after them because they had parked at the Marquee mine in Red Canyon and someone saw them," the affidavit alleges. The dealer ended up purchasing the items for $6,000 and gave Lacy a letter that would establish where the items were found, the document alleges.
Even though Lacy had acknowledged finding them on public land, he asked that they be listed as coming from private sites, the document alleges.
Those indicted include Harold Lyman, 78, who was inducted into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame for pioneering a route through southeastern Utah showcasing ancient Indian sites; he is accused of selling the source an ancient pipe bowl.
Jeanne Redd, 59, was indicted for allegedly selling a tribal bird pendant. A woman with that name had been charged previously with desecrating Native American grave sites in southern Utah.
Lacy, Lyman and Redd, all Utah residents, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. All but one of the 24 defendants were arrested Wednesday.
As the alleged poachers were being detained, Jerry Spangler, head of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, learned of the operation while at a dig in central Utah. He was cheered by the news.
But he was also discouraged that artifacts he and his fellow archaeologists had found at the site last fall were now gone -- apparently looted.
The charges for violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act carry maximum penalties of one to 10 years.