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Government agents raiding alleged Four Corners artifact looters in 2009 set off a sharp backlash among some locals and lawmakers, although prosecutors and judges have since taken criticism for going easy on the defendants.
It turns out most Utahns say the government was right to crack down.
A new statewide Salt Lake Tribune poll shows nearly two-thirds agree the sweep was justified, while fewer than a quarter say it wasn't. Nearly half (48 percent) say the probation sentences handed out so far have been fair, but 33 percent would have preferred stiffer punishments.
"Ancient artifacts are more for the public to view in a museum instead of selling them for a profit," said David Johnson, a poll respondent from Kaysville.
Men are slightly more likely than women to say the action was unjustified 27 percent to 21 percent. Democrats (77 percent) are more supportive of the crackdown than Republicans (60 percent) and independents (64 percent). There was no statistical difference of opinion between Mormons and non-Mormons. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
A former antiquities trader went undercover for federal agents, taping negotiated sales of American Indian artifacts, many of them left by ancestral Puebloans. The government charged two dozen people, mostly from the Blanding area, and alleged their goods were looted from either federal or tribal lands.
The raids outraged some area officials and residents, largely because agents came heavily armed to arrest suspects not accused of violent crimes.
Criticism came from other directions, including the state's director of Indian affairs, when the courts began handing down sentences. About half the defendants have been sentenced so far with each receiving probation and no prison terms.
Johnson, while supportive of the clampdown, is unsure anything tougher than probation would have been appropriate. He said a few of the indicted may have been habitual offenders, but isn't sure they all understood their crimes.
"I'd hate to see someone get a severe punishment," he said, "if they didn't know what they're really getting into."
Other poll respondents are less forgiving.
"I don't think probation does much," said Kent Swallow, of Fillmore. "That's just a slap on the hand and, 'Go do it again.' "
Prosecutors have said the sentences are in line with guidelines for property crimes when offenders have no criminal history.
Salt Lake City poll respondent Holly Virden wonders if the sentences might have been harsher if someone had been stealing from an Anglo graveyard and argues they should have been tougher for thefts of Indian artifacts.
"I'm not a Mormon," she said, "but I think had it been a Mormon relic or a Catholic relic, there would have been more done."
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said he, too, supports going after offenders. He just didn't like the way the arrests went down.
"These were not hardened criminals," Adams said. "And they were treated as hardened criminals."
The survey of 625 registered Utah voters was conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Research from Jan. 17 to 19.