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Artifacts Sting Stuns Utah Town

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Artifacts Sting Stuns Utah Town


Artifacts Sting Stuns Utah Town

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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There is anger and grief in the small town of Blanding, Utah. There, a federal raid three weeks ago ended in the arrest of more than a dozen people. Dozens of federal agents descended on Blanding, capping a two-year sting aimed at black market trading in ancient Indian artifacts. A day later, one of the suspects, a prominent doctor in town, committed suicide.

NPR's Howard Berkes has more from Blanding.

HOWARD BERKES: Despite the disruption and pain, the southern Utah town of 3,600 is still staging its annual Fourth of July melodrama.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (unintelligible)

BERKES: Even the rehearsals are therapeutic, with the actors tossing ad-libbed lines referring to the federal artifacts raid.

Unidentified Woman: And storm into their homes and take artifacts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Then she hands me a bowl, and I whip out a map and say show me exactly on this map where this bowl came from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: That refers to the undercover dealer who had suspects show the illegal origins of their artifacts by pointing to spots on a map. Retired teacher Lynette Adams directs the melodrama.

Ms. LYNETTE ADAMS (Retired Teacher, Theater Director): There are some things that we can laugh at, but there are some things, too, that are given with a little more gusto because there's some pretty strong feelings - not about what people were being accused of, but how they were arrested.

BERKES: Witnesses say the arrests involved screaming, heavily-armed agents in flack jackets shackling neighbors at the wrist, ankle and waist.

Ms. ADAMS: These aren't terrorists. They're not rapists and murderers. My dad fought in World War II, and I'm proud of that. But when our federal government agents can come in and do what they did to this community, there's going to be a scar for a long time.

BERKES: Seventeen people in Blanding and seven people elsewhere were indicted for trafficking in ancient Indian artifacts, allegedly taken from federal or Indian land. Three of Austin Lyman's brothers were arrested, along with his friend and physician James Redd, who committed suicide the day after the raid.

Mr. AUSTIN LYMAN: The government set it up and entrapped him and killed him.

BERKES: Killed him?

Mr. LYMAN: I blame them for Dr. Redd's death. He wouldn't have done it without the shame and the guilt.

BERKES: James Redd went through a long artifacts prosecution before, but was acquitted. Some friends say Redd did not likely kill himself over this alone, but they won't discuss details.

And some are more forgiving about the federal show of force. Bob McPherson is a former Mormon bishop and former vice president of a college campus in Blanding.

Mr. BOB MCPHERSON (Former Mormon Bishop, Former Vice President of College Campus): You know, for some of the people, you're arresting 78-year-olds, 72-year-olds, 71-year-old - it would certainly seem to be overkill, given the people. But they don't know the people, and you also cannot be selective. And so you follow procedures.

BERKES: And most people in Blanding own guns for hunting, though McPherson says most have never been violent. The region's history includes the hiring of locals a century ago to legally dig artifacts for museums, archaeologists and collectors. Congress later banned digging on federal and Indian land, so some turned to private land. Others did not.

Mr. MCPHERSON: It was just a field day. And people would go in there, in some cases even with bulldozers, you know, backhoes and, you know, shovels and this type of thing. It would be fair to say that there was a feeling of us-against-them, and it's our land and our forefathers were here and, you know, we had this right.

BERKES: But that was then. Now, McPherson insists, a relative few illegally dig, collect and sell. After all, he says, the two-year federal sting turned up just 17 suspects from Blanding.

Mr. MCPHERSON: That's not going on now. This does not define Blanding. And I haven't heard anybody in Blanding say if these people are guilty, that there should not be a punishment.

BERKES: But a sense of entitlement lingers, given thousands of square miles of ruins and artifacts, says farmer and county commissioner Bruce Adams.

Mr. BRUCE ADAMS (Farmer, County Commissioner): There's artifacts all over this county. There's artifacts in every farmer's field. There are artifacts on every trail. Somebody saw half of a pot out of the ground, most of them would dig it up and take it home 'cause it's a treasure and they found it.

BERKES: Most only do that on private land where it's legal, Adams says, but some still do it on federal and Indian land where it's not. The difference, he adds, is personal ethics and values. But he can't explain why some people make the right choices and some people don't in Blanding, Utah or anywhere else.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see a feather sash, pueblo pots and other artifacts from the area at our Web site at

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