Thursday 11 June 2009

More on “ Action Cerberus”, the Utah Artefact Hunting Bust

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Wayne Dance prosecuted most of Utah's Archaeological Resource Protection Act cases from the early 1990s until his 2007 retirement. He expressed both pleasure and dismay over yesterday's indictments of 24 Utah artefact hunters and collectors. He said, "the negative is that there is still destruction of cultural resources [...], the plus is that Utah still leads the nation in protecting them. ... We have a stronger commitment from law enforcement to investigate". Dance estimated that citizen complaints had prompted up to half his prosecutions, reflecting a broad social appreciation of the value of the archaeological evidence being destroyed by the activity. He emphasised that "this serious crime involves far more than artifacts [...], the attention is given too much to the physical artifacts themselves rather than the knowledge potential and cultural significance of these artifacts in conjunction with their context".

Two online Utah sources have very full accounts of the bust of illegal artefact hunting and trade in Utah on 10th June. The first is KSL news, which has a story “compiled with contributions from John Daley and Ben Winslow",‘ Dozens arrested in archeological artifacts bust' KSL June 10th, 2009).
"The suspects are excavators, dealers and collectors. They were arrested and indicted as part a two-year investigation, code named 'Cerberus Action,'" explained U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden. The defendants began making
their appearances in a Moab court on Wednesday. A federal magistrate judge was transported to Moab just to handle the cases.
There is an informative video. The site also gives a list of defendents and, particulrly interesting, a pdf of one of the FBI search warrants (that concerning David Lacy). There is also a 17-slide photo gallery but disappointingly this shows “Artifacts similar to those that were stolen but are not the stolen items themselves" (which seem not to have been removed from the homes of the defendents).

An even more satisfying account was provided by the Salt Lake Tribune. The main article (Patty Henez, ‘FBI charges 24 in federal artifact looting case’, SLT 10th June 2009) details the investigations. They are reported to have begun in November 2006. Then, in March 2007, the person identified in court records only as "the Source" agreed to collaborate with federal authorities. It was evidence gathered by this person which lay behind the 24 prosecutions. There is a separate but brief "questions and answer" format article on the mechanism of the "Artifact theft bust". Again there is a list of defendents in the text of the main article as well as a separate article giving a “breakdown of the artifact theft charges”. To this article too is appended a pdf of the search warrant concerning 55-year-old San Juan High teacher David Lacy of Blanding which federal authorities said was also representative of affidavits filed in cases against the 23 others.

Most of the suspects come from San Juan County, and some of them are said to be familiar to readers of the paper. These include Blanding doctor James Redd and his wife, Jeanne who the newspaper said were accused in 1996 in state court of desecrating a Native American grave while pot hunting in Cottonwood Wash near Bluff (an appeals court struck down the felony charges because, under Utah law, prosecutors had to prove the body was intentionally buried at the site, which they were unable to do). The list also includes a 78-year-old man recently inducted into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame.

From the point of view of public outreach, most satisfying of all in the Salt Lake Tribune coverage is a sizable article by Brian Maffly 'Looters move artifacts and destroy their value (Location is key to understanding ancient cultures)' which explains to the non-specialist reader why taking these artefacts out of the ground in the way that they were is such a problem. It also has appended an informative text box 'About the ancient cultures of the Colorado Plateau'.

The article contains a number of notable quotes:

Winston Hurst, a Blanding archaeologist who has helped document cultural sites near Bluff and Blanding, said he welcomes the crackdown to preserve what's left of "a fragile and severely damaged record of 13,000 years of human experience that left no written history." If the defendants are guilty, Hurst wrote in an e-mail, they deserve the consequences. "It is no longer acceptable to plead ignorance or innocence of the importance of the archaeological record, our need to preserve it or the laws that our society has passed to protect it," he wrote.
"Anyone who doesn't get it is inexcusably clueless. Having said that, I don't think most of these people are stupid, and expect to find that there are some very nuanced back stories, and that some of the charges are based on misinformation."

FBI Special Agent in Charge Timothy Fuhrman of the Salt Lake City field office said the illegal trade is a multimillion-dollar industry. "They are people who know what they are doing," he said. "There's a network."

[U.S. Attorney for Utah, Brett] Tolman vowed such buying and selling of history would stop. "Those who remove or damage artifacts from public lands take something from all of us," he said. "They take something that can never be replaced." "You look at the people involved," Tolman added, "and it has been pervasive." […]

A 2008 Bureau of Land Management report says the agency began several looting investigations last year and is continuing work begun at least nine years ago that discovered a connection between artifact thefts and methamphetamine trade in the West. Tolman declined to say whether the Utah probe showed drug links, but said more charges and additional defendants could be found during what is an ongoing investigation.

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