SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — The 10th Circuit affirmed Tuesday that the widow of a small-town doctor who blamed abusive federal agents for her husband’s suicide after a Native American artifacts sting cannot sue the FBI and Bureau of Land Management for excessive force.
Jeanne Redd in 2011 sued nine named BLM agents, seven named FBI agents, and 21 other federal agents whose names are unknown on behalf of the estate of her late husband, Dr. James Redd.
Redd claimed that the FBI and BLM, using a shady informant, targeted dozens of people in a Native American artifacts sting, including her husband, who merely found an artifact on a hike and brought it home.
About 80 BLM and FBI officials raided Blanding, Utah — population 3,000 — and the surrounding Four Corners area and arrested 24 people on June 10, 2009. Among those snared in “Operation Cerberus” were the Redds and their daughter.
Redd claimed agents “manhandled and handcuffed” her 60-year-old husband in the roundup, “followed by four hours of interrogation in the garage,” because he had found an effigy bird pendant. She said the artifact, a 1/16th-inch thick shell, may be worth about $125.
For bringing the shell home, federal agents armed with assault rifles and wearing flak jackets “rebuked, terrified, and humiliated Dr. Redd,” she said.
Agents accused him of “unlawful activity of which he was not guilty,” and “repetitively called Dr. Redd a liar while taunting him that a felony offense meant revocation of his medical license. The defendants wrongfully harassed Dr. Redd and taunted him that he would never practice medicine again,” according to the complaint.
“The next day, June 11, 2009, reflecting on the excessive, overreaching and abusive treatment he had been subjected to, after making a recording based upon his tragic experience, Dr. Redd took his own life. His final words connected his death to the defendants’ egregious actions. … He went to his vehicle, hooked a hose to the exhaust pipe of the car, and asphyxiated himself.”
Redd claimed the abusive operation was planned with help from Ted Gardiner, whom agents investigated for sale of Native American artifacts for profit, and flipped into an informer. She said Gardiner approached the feds in 2006, “to try to scam the federal agents by trading his knowledge for a confidential informant’s paycheck and immunity.”
The widow said Gardiner told the agents that his “‘black book’ contained valuable information the agents could pay him to disclose … [about] major ‘kingpins’ trafficking items illegally obtained from federal or tribal lands.”
Redd called the allegations about “kingpins” eyewash, but says the FBI and BLM accepted them, “despite known Mr. Gardiner’s history of drug and alcohol abuse problems, and struggles with mental health.”
“Meanwhile, Gardiner was down and out on his luck, having burned most of his bridges in the native artifacts marketplace by overcharging, disrespecting, and simply ripping clients off. But Gardiner realized he had something of value in his ‘little black book,’ which had been his customer list. He spun a story to the defendants of an illicit black market that the defendants were all too willing to accept, without any precautionary assessment of veracity,” Redd said in the lawsuit.
One week after her husband’s suicide, Steven Shrader, also accused of looting artifacts, died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in New Mexico. Shrader shot himself in the chest the day he was due to appear in Federal Court.
Gardiner, who was not a party to the initial lawsuit, shot himself to death on March 1, 2010.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Utah granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss all of Redd’s claims but one, a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim against lead BLM Agent Daniel Love. But the court later granted Love summary judgment on the final claim, for qualified immunity.
Redd appealed, but the 10th Circuit affirmed Monday.
Love was entitled to qualified immunity because his deployment of 22 agents with body and guns was reasonable, given citizens’ hostility to federal officials and the number of artifacts that needed to be recovered, 10th Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips wrote for the three-judge panel.
“Recent history shows instances of violence from some of the local citizenry against federal employees and agents working there,” the ruling states. “We certainly can’t say that the agents acted imprudently in ‘anticipat[ing] hostility from the suspects and members of the community.’”
Phillips cited Love’s submission of several newspaper articles, dating back to 2008, which showed “episodes involving hostility and violence directed at federal agents in southern Utah.”
One article described a 1986 federal operation involving archaeological items and “strained relations with the federal government, which residents already regarded as arrogant and intrusive.”
Also, BLM and FBI policies require agents to wear soft body armor and carry guns.
“If the FBI and BLM agents’ outer wear appeared intimidating, it was due to these policies and not to Agent Love’s actions,” the ruling states.
Redd’s attorney Edward Moriarity, with Moriarity, Badaruddin & Booke of Missoula, Mont., could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called Operation Cerberus the biggest “dog and pony show” he had seen in his 33 years as a senator. Hatch praised Dr. Redd as “an outstanding and critical member of his community, a decent and honorable man, whom given the unnecessary and brutal actions by federal agents was overwhelmed and overwrought thus taking his life despite being a strong person.”
Tenth Circuit Judge Mary Beck Murphy and Senior Judge Michael Murphy joined Phillips on the panel.