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Man charged in artifact theft kills self, police say

A physician who was one of 24 people charged this week in a high-profile federal crackdown against the theft of Native American artifacts from public lands has killed himself, authorities said Friday.

Dr. James Redd’s body was found in his car on Thursday afternoon at the edge of his property outside the southeastern Utah town of Blanding. San Juan County Sheriff’s Department officials called the death a suicide. There was no suicide note.

Redd, 60, was one of 16 Blanding residents arrested Wednesday and accused of trying to sell artifacts taken illegally from public and tribal lands. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the indictments at a news conference in Salt Lake City, and dozens of federal agents hauled Redd, his wife and others from their homes in handcuffs shortly after 6 a.m.

Redd’s death focused growing anger in southern Utah over the case.

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“The heavy-handed tactics and the picture show the feds put on here was wrong,” San Juan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Grayson Redd, who is distantly related to the physician, said in an interview Friday. “People need to obey the law [but] two or three agents could have come in and done [the arrests].”

Instead, the deputy sheriff said, 75 FBI agents, including a SWAT team, and others from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives descended on Blanding, population 3,000. A family spokesman, Phil Mueller, said that more than a dozen agents took James Redd and his wife, Jeanne, from their house.

They were driven 72 miles to Moab, where a federal judge admonished them not to tamper with other artifacts in their possession. They were then released.

The deserts of the Southwest are abundant with ancient Native American burial grounds, settlements and cliff houses. In towns like Blanding, scavenging for centuries-old arrowheads, beads and bowls is a local pastime.

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Federal officials declined to comment on Friday. A spokesman for Salazar did not return multiple phone calls.

Juan Becerra, an FBI spokesman in Salt Lake City, also declined comment. In an interview Wednesday, he contended that the people charged in the case were not mere hobbyists.

“It’s looting a grave and disrespectful and desecrating a valuable burial site,” he said. “There’s a lot of illicit money to be made in this market.”

The federal case, more than two years in the making, stemmed from an antiquities dealer who surreptitiously recorded transactions with what authorities called a network of excavators, grave-robbers and middlemen in the Four Corners states.

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Redd and his wife were charged with trading two illicitly obtained pendants for two other pendants. Jeanne Redd was also charged with other counts of theft from tribal organizations for her possession of a ceramic bowl, hatchet and other artifacts.

The Redds have been in similar legal trouble before. In 1996 they were charged with illegally taking Native American items from state land. The charges against James Redd were dropped, and Jeanne pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. The couple paid $10,000 to settle a lawsuit, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Mueller, whose wife is related to Jeanne Redd, said the couple had been looking for ancient beads on what they thought was private property and had strayed across the boundary onto state land.

For years, he said, James Redd was the only doctor in Blanding. In 2007, he directed triage at his clinic to treat children wounded in a school bus crash that killed nine in the hamlet of Mexican Hat. Mueller recalled countless dinners at the Redds’ home that were interrupted when a patient in need rang the doorbell. James Redd would drop what he was doing and go to work.

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“It’s a terrible loss,” Mueller said.

Redd was not the only prominent Blanding resident charged in the case and the effect is being felt across town.

“There’s a black cloud hanging over the entire town,” said Norma Madden of the Blanding Visitors’ Center.

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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