U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday defended federal agents involved in the arrests of nearly two dozen people accused of stealing or illegally trafficking in ancient artifacts from the Four Corners area.U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett sent a letter to Holder this week asking for an investigation into the June 10 arrests, some of which involved federal agents with guns drawn. They called it an “extreme show of force.”
“The perception by the community was that federal agents in raid gear armed with assault weapons jumped out of black Suburbans and ‘manhandled’ the accused unnecessarily,” the Utah Republicans wrote in a joint letter to Holder dated Tuesday. Some people reported being roughed up and facing agents with weapons drawn, said Bruce Adams, a commissioner in San Juan County in southern Utah where many of the arrests took place. One person also came away with four broken toes, he added. Holder, responding to questions from Hatch during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, said even arrests in nonviolent cases can pose a danger to federal agents.
“The arrests that were done were felony arrests and as best as I can tell, they were done in accordance with the FBI and Bureau of Land Management standard operating procedures,” Holder said. Adams said there was no need for federal agents to show up with guns, bulletproof vests and a roughhouse attitude to arrest people he called “regular neighbors.” “These people would have surrendered peacefully,” Adams said, but the federal government seemed intent on delivering “a hard message.”
U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman also said the felony arrests in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico were carried out according to procedures meant to protect federal agents. “This case involves significant collections of Indian artifacts taken from public and tribal lands by excavators, sellers, and collectors, including priceless artifacts sacred to Native Americans, not ‘trash and trinkets’ as some have suggested,” Tolman said in a statement. Of the 24 people indicted in the case, 22 have entered not guilty pleas. One has not yet been arrested and another is in New Mexico and has not appeared in federal court in Utah. Several of the defendants were in federal court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday for a status hearing to make sure they have attorneys.
Defense attorneys declined to comment on the specifics of the arrests or charges except to say they were in the early stages of going through the case. “We’ve had artifact cases before but certainly nothing of this magnitude,” said federal defender Steve Killpack, whose office is handling the cases of at least eight of those indicted. He said his office will be looking closely at how the arrests took place — in part because of criticism from Utah’s senators. Taking artifacts from archaeological sites has been a common practice around Four Corners, an area rich with artifacts from the Anasazi. The FBI and the Bureau of Land Management spent more than two years investigating the theft and illegal trafficking of relics taken from federal and tribal land.
In 2007 and 2008, a confidential source paid more than $335,000 for 256 stolen artifacts, according to court documents. In most cases, the transactions were caught on video or audio tape. The early morning arrests — most of them in Utah — shocked and angered community members. And a day later, one of those arrested, a local doctor named James Redd, committed suicide. Adams said the frustration isn’t necessarily with the charges against those indicted — guilt and innocence will be decided in court, he said — but with how the arrests were carried out. “These people were not violent and did not have criminal backgrounds,” he said.
He said the local sheriff is investigating the arrests and interviewing those who were arrested. The report will be given to the San Juan County Commission and passed along to members of Congress, Adams said. Decisions to use handcuffs and drawn guns were made based on several factors, including the nature of the charges, the suspects’ criminal history, the presence of firearms and the need to protect government agents, Tolman said. He said he was proud of the “efficiency and professionalism” of the FBI and BLM agents involved in the arrests. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has also defended how the investigation was carried out.
Tolman also said the FBI notified the San Juan County sheriff six days before the arrests and notified police departments in Moab, Blanding and Monticello on the day of or the day before the arrests. Those arrested were given “every reasonable accommodation,” including being allowed time to get groomed and gather medication and, later in the day, they were given lunch, Tolman said.
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