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Pilfered artifacts, three suicides and the struggle over federal land in Utah

Cave Canyon Towers in Bears Ears National Monument in Cedar Mesa, Utah. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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For decades, the empty desert region at the junction of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico — known as the Four Corners — was a free-for-all for treasure hunters looking to pick the region clean of Native American artifacts.

Then on the morning of June 10, 2009, federal agents arrived in force in Blanding, Utah.

Just as the morning light was creeping in on the tiny town, more than 100 agents reportedly fanned out. They pounded on doors at eight houses in town, while other members of the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) executed similar raids across the region. Twenty-three men and women were scooped into custody, the fruit of a 2½-year investigation.

The locals, accused of pilfering ancient artifacts from the surrounding desert, were charged with violating the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Authorities recovered more than 40,000 artifacts, some dating to 6,000 B.C., Smithsonian Magazine reported.

The federal sting — dubbed Operation Cerberus by authorities —  would prove to be the match igniting long-simmering tensions across the region.

For Native American groups, the raid was the first step in a much-needed crackdown on looting in a unique archaeologically-rich region. Concern about the illegal artifact trade was instrumental in the Obama administration’s decision in December 2016 to designate the area targeted by the operation as the Bears Ears National Monument, named for a pair of buttes that resemble the ears of bears.

But for others, the handling of the operation became yet another example of federal overreach — one that continues to affect the region today and is reflected in the Trump administration’s policies.

A day after the raids, James Redd, a Blanding doctor arrested in the sweep along with his wife, committed suicide. A week later, Steven Shrader, a collector from Albuquerque, also killed himself. And less than a year after the arrests, the dealer who worked with investigators to set up the defendants took his life as well. The deaths were blamed on the government’s overzealous prosecution.

Redd’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the agencies. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) blasted the raid as a “dog and pony show,” while also blaming Redd’s suicide on “the unnecessary and brutal actions by federal agents.”

The same big-government resentment is the engine behind President Trump’s decision this week to significantly slash federal protections for the region. On Monday, the administration announced that 1.1 million acres would be dropped from the Bears Ears area, as well 800,000 acres from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

Trump’s major policy shift — the largest federal land reduction in U.S. history — is in part about the tension stemming from the 2009 investigation.

The Bears Ears region of Utah is “among the most significant archaeological areas in the United States,” according to National Geographic. The region was populated by the Anasazi until they disappeared in the 1200s. They lived in the area’s caves and mesas and left behind ceramic pots, dolls and weaponry, the Los Angeles Times reported. Later tribes such as the Navajo, Mogollon,  White Mountain Apaches and Ute populated the region. Their traces remain in ruined fortifications, artifacts and cave paintings. The total number of Native American historical sites in the area is around 100,000.

“You won’t find some of these items anywhere else,” Kara Hurst, a former U.S. Bureau of Land Management curator, told Smithsonian Magazine.

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With so many artifacts in the region, looting was common, and a particular frustration to Native American tribes with historical ties to the Bears Ears area. “How would you feel if a Native American dug up your grandmother and took her jewelry and clothes and sold them to the highest bidder?” a former official of the Pueblo of Tesuque tribe told Smithsonian Magazine.

But locals have argued that there’s a difference between ransacking historical sites and kicking at dirt for arrowheads. “I’m guilty of arrowhead collecting,” one local resident told Scientific American. “As is two-thirds of this town.”

In 2006, federal investigators took the first steps toward corralling the underground artifact market.

They approached Ted Gardiner, an artifact dealer with a history of money and drinking problems, to go undercover to buy from locals across the Four Corners. He agreed. The government rented Gardiner a Jeep Cherokee, outfitted him with a shirt-button video camera, and handed him envelopes of cash for purchases, the Los Angeles Times reported. Over the course of Operation Cerberus, he bought 256 artifacts, totaling more than $335,685 in sales. Gardiner’s work was the basis for the June 2009 arrests.

After the raid, Redd, a respected Blanding doctor who was swept up and arrested, attached a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and snaked it through his driver’s side window. The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 900 friends and community members attended his funeral.

“You know he was the lifeblood of this community for years, the only doctor we had, have his life to this community,” a friend told the Times. “And the damn feds come and killed him.”

In March 2010, Gardiner fatally shot himself after expressing guilt about the arrests and deaths stemming from the case. “These people thought I was their friend,” he reportedly said in the days leading up to his suicide.

Bitterness against the federal government sharpened in the months following the raid — particularly after the investigation yielded little in terms of actual prison sentences. Charges were dropped against six defendants; 11 pleaded guilty to felonies, eight pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. No one arrested in Operation Cerberus served prison time.

Redd’s widow, however, filed a federal wrongful-death suit against federal investigators, charging that the aggressive actions of “federal agents inebriated with power and acting with no remorse” forced Redd to commit suicide. The lawsuit was later thrown out, the Deseret News reported.

Among tribal groups and preservationists, Operation Cerberus was a catalyst in a movement to petition the federal government to protect the region. In an unprecedented show of unity, members of the Navajos, Hopis, Zunis, Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Utes banded together, offering to coordinate management with the federal government of the proposed monument site, according to National Geographic.

In one of the last acts of his administration, President Barack Obama formally designated the region the Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016. The move was celebrated among Native American tribes. Utah politicians and locals, however, reached for the same anger animating the reaction to the federal investigation of 2009.

“This arrogant act by a lame-duck president will not stand,” former senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) portentously said in a statement at the time. “I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation.”

But the fight, decades in the making and brought to a boiling point by the 2009 operation, is hardly over. Lawsuits have already been filed to hold up the Trump administration’s actions by tribal groups and conservationists.

Years of struggle are probably ahead.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong location for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 

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