Suicides complicate Native American artifact looting case

For 90 tense minutes last month, Sheriff Mike Lacy in Utah tried to prevent yet another person connected to the theft of Native American artifacts from committing suicide.

Two defendants had already taken their own lives after federal authorities charged 24 people in June with looting Native American sites in the West.

Now a despondent relative of a third defendant had called Lacy. The sheriff of San Juan County kept the caller on the phone until deputies could arrive and make sure everything was OK.

But there was still another suicide to come.

Last week, Ted Gardiner, a 52-year-old antiquities dealer who worked as an FBI informant on the case, shot himself in a Salt Lake City suburb. Relatives said the two previous suicides had affected him greatly.

Gardiner’s death has left the case, once touted as the largest prosecution of looters of Native American artifacts, in limbo. A federal judge in Denver has pushed back the first trial, slated to start this month, to allow federal prosecutors to see whether they can use videotaped testimony from their now-deceased star witness.

Defense attorneys are expected to argue that evidence recorded by Gardiner should be disallowed because he can no longer be cross-examined. Nonetheless, at a hearing Monday in Salt Lake City, federal prosecutors insisted the case could go forward.

To critics, Gardiner’s suicide -- which followed those of a beloved physician in southeastern Utah and an antiquities dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., last year -- is yet another indication that the full weight of the U.S. government was not needed to deal with what many residents of the Four Corners area believe is just a local pastime known as pot-hunting.

“Nobody’s above the law,” said Bruce Adams, a San Juan County commissioner. “But what value do we place on artifacts versus people’s lives?”

He added: “I would imagine that the federal prosecutors are now at their wits’ end.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Salt Lake City, which is overseeing most of the cases, declined to comment. But Gardiner’s family said that despite the tragedy associated with the case, the prosecutions had to happen.

“These people were digging up grave sites. They were taking artifacts off Native American bodies,” said Gardiner’s 23-year-old son, Dustin. “This history needed to be preserved.”

The case seems to have largely begun with Gardiner, according to court records and interviews.

He ran a grocery chain founded by his father in Utah before entering the world of dealing Native American artifacts. Such items are scattered throughout the Southwestern U.S., and Gardiner had been fascinated with them since he took childhood hikes through ancient Puebloan ruins, his family said.

But he quickly became disillusioned when he discovered how much of the trade involved selling purloined items, Dustin Gardiner said. “He was shocked at the stuff that was going on.”

Dustin Gardiner said his father spoke to federal investigators, and kicked off the 2 1/2 -year undercover probe. He wore recording devices as he visited dealers across the Southwest and, using money provided by authorities, spent $334,000 buying artifacts that sellers acknowledged digging up from federal or Indian lands, according to court records.

At dawn on June 16, hundreds of federal agents fanned out across three states to arrest the two dozen people in the case.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the arrests: “The message that we’re sending is: We’re not going to tolerate this kind of activity.” Confiscated items varied -- bowls, knives, pendants, even a turkey-feather blanket.

The suspects included a 78-year-old man who had won a Utah tourism award for promoting Native American sites and Sheriff Lacy’s brother. Some of the suspects were pulled from their homes at gunpoint.

The next day, one of them, Dr. James Redd, 60, killed himself. He was a beloved physician in Blanding, the southeastern Utah town where 15 other defendants, including his wife and daughter, lived. Residents were furious.

Weeks later, Steven Shrader, 56, shot himself to death outside his parents’ home in Illinois.

Attorney Wally Budgen, who represents two other defendants in the case, said that becoming the target of a prosecution has been traumatic for many in the region. “For 100 years, people who have lived in the Southwest have gathered artifacts,” he said. “The folks who have engaged in this conduct don’t see themselves as criminals.”

The suicides ate away at Ted Gardiner, who was speaking confidentially to local reporters. “I was in these people’s homes,” he told the Associated Press.

Gardiner had long struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. After the arrests, his problems returned. Adding to his stress, he was reviled in some of the small towns where he had spent much of the last couple of years.

Last summer, a 44-year-old Blanding resident with ties to a white supremacist gang was charged with threatening to beat Gardiner with a baseball bat. The man, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison, blamed Gardiner for Redd’s death.

On Feb. 27, police were called to the house where Gardiner was living. His roommates feared he would try to kill himself. Authorities took Gardiner to a hospital and confiscated a gun.

But on March 1, Gardiner found another firearm. When police arrived, he became belligerent. They fired once at him, missed and then Gardiner shot himself, authorities said.

Only two of the 24 prosecutions have resulted in convictions so far -- Redd’s wife and daughter pleaded guilty after agents used two vans to move more than 800 artifacts, including several preserved teeth, from the family home. The federal judge expressed sympathy for Redd’s death and gave them probation.

Regardless of what happens to the remaining cases, it is clear that it will continue to be difficult for the federal government to enforce laws against looting antiquities in the Southwest.

Sheriff Lacy said that just last week, Bureau of Land Management agents returned to conduct interviews about the case.

He told them to leave and never come back.