Ring Looting Ancient Indian Artifacts Busted

     SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A two-year sting operation targeting a network of individuals allegedly involved in the excavation, sale and purchase of looted Indian artifacts ended Wednesday with the indictments of 24 people.
     The FBI's office in Salt Lake City issued 12 indictments charging 24 people with violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
     FBI and Bureau of Land Management agents, joined by the U.S. Marshals and local and state law enforcement partners, were simultaneously arresting defendants and executing 12 search warrants in Utah Wednesday morning, officials said in a press release. Twenty-three people were either arrested or warrants were issued for their arrests, the FBI said.
     The investigation represents the nation's largest investigation of archaeological and cultural artifact thefts. The case involves 256 artifacts totaling nearly $336,000. Many date from the Anasazi Indians, a tribe that lived in the Southwest until about two centuries before Columbus' arrival in North America. The artifacts are believed to have been dug up from Indian burial sites on tribal and federal land.
     In addition to ARPA and NAGPRA violations, the indictments allege theft of government property, depredation of government property, and theft of Indian tribal property. The unsealed indictments charge defendants in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
     "The problem American Indian and Alaska Native tribes face of looters robbing them of their cultural patrimony is a major law enforcement issue for federal agencies responsible for enforcing historic preservation laws in Indian Country," said Larry Echo Haw, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
     The illegally obtained relics include decorated Anasazi pottery, an assortment of burial and ceremonial masks, a buffalo headdress, and ancient sandals known to be associated with Native American burials.
     The indictments were announced Wednesday morning by Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden of the U.S. Department of Justice; Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior; Brett L. Tolman, U.S Attorney in Utah; Timothy J. Fuhrman, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Salt Lake City Field Office; and Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
     A list of defendants and the charges they face can be found on the FBI's web site.