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For two years, someone close to a large network of archaeological looters in southeastern Utah was wired with an audio-visual recorder when buying ancient baby blankets, stone pipes, seed jars, digging sticks, pots, even a pre-Columbian menstrual pad.

This "Source," as he or she is identified in a search warrant affidavit unsealed Wednesday, is an insider who worked with U.S. Bureau of Land Management and FBI special agents to nab two dozen suspects in the theft and sale of more than 250 American Indian artifacts from the Four Corners area.

Most of the suspects come from San Juan County, and some familiar names have emerged, including Blanding residents James and Jeanne Redd, who previously were prosecuted for stealing and dealing artifacts that lie scattered across remote public lands. The list also includes a 78-year-old man recently inducted into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame.

The undercover purchases cost $335,685, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman announced Wednesday. But new Bureau of Indian Affairs head Larry EchoHawk, a former Brigham Young University law professor, said the artifacts were worth much, much more.

"These articles are really priceless," EchoHawk said during a news conference in Salt Lake City. "You can't put a dollar figure on them."

But that's what 55-year-old San Juan High teacher David Lacy of Blanding did, according to a search warrant that federal authorities said was representative of affidavits filed in cases against him and 23 others.

The investigation began in November 2006. Then, in March 2007, the Source signed on to help the feds. On Dec. 11, 2007, the informant and Lacy met at Lacy's home, according to the search warrant, where the tipster paid $1,500 for a blanket woven with yucca fiber twisted with turkey feathers.

This informant also paid $900 for an atlatl weight, an artifact that may have been used in weaponry, and a knife for $2,800. Although the relics were from public lands, Lacy allegedly provided the Source with phony papers about where he found them.

The two huddled again in January 2008 at Lacy's storage shed. There, the court papers say, the informant paid $1,500 for a menstrual-pad loincloth and a basket fragment Lacy said he had taken from Bullet Canyon near the Grand Gulch wilderness area.

The Source also shelled out $1,700 for two sandals Lacy said he dug up from the Baby Mummy Cave burial site in Cottonwood Wash, the affidavit says. The sites are on public land, but Lacy allegedly signed a letter saying the artifacts were from private land.

Also charged were Loran St. Claire, 47, Monticello; Rulon Kody Sommerville, 47, Monticello; Kevin W. Shumway, 55, Blanding; Sharon Evette Shumway, 41, Blanding; Aubry Patterson, 55, Blanding; Dale J. Lyman, 73, Blanding; Raymond J. Lyman, 70, Blanding; Vern Crites, 74, Durango, Colo.; Marie Crites, 68, Durango; Steven Shrader, Durango; Tammy Shumway, 39, Blanding; Joseph Smith, 31, Blanding; Meredith Smith, 34, Blanding; Harold Lyman, 78, Blanding; Reese Laws, 27, Blanding; Nick Laws, 30, Blanding; Brandon Laws, 38, Blanding; Tad Kreth, 30, Blanding; Brent Bullock, 61, Moab; David Waite, 61, Albuquerque, N.M.; and Richard Raymond Bourret, 59, Durango.

The list -- totaling more than 115 felony counts and a handful of misdemeanors -- includes people prominent in their communities. Harold Lyman, for example, works at the Blanding Visitors Center, has been inducted into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame and helped establish the "Trail of the Ancients," a scenic byway taking motorists past American Indian sites in Utah and Colorado. Lyman did not return a call seeking comment.

Officials haven't yet issued an arrest warrant for Lyman, but he will get a summons to appear in federal court for arraignment.

Michael Wingert, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Utah, said the 23 defendants arrested Wednesday were detained at the Grand County Jail before appearing in front of U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba. All but two, Aubry Patterson and Tammy Shumway, were free by day's end. The defendants had to guarantee they would stay away from federal or tribal lands and protect any artifacts they still possess.

News of the arrests caused a stir around Blanding. Holly Shumway, whose in-laws were among those charged, said most of the defendants are nice people.

"They are your everyday average neighbor," she said.

"Some of the men arrested who are in their 70s, that is what they used to do as kids," Shumway added. "It wasn't illegal. It's just something everyone does in Blanding. There are artifacts everywhere. You can walk out into some people's backyards after a good rain and find arrowheads."

Shumway said authorities should check their priorities. "There are gangsters and drug dealers out there and people actually causing harm to their communities," she said, "and this is what the feds spend their time on -- ransacking people's houses who aren't hardened criminals."

But Winston Hurst, a Blanding archaeologist who has helped document cultural sites near Bluff and Blanding, said he welcomes the crackdown to preserve what's left of "a fragile and severely damaged record of 13,000 years of human experience that left no written history."

If the defendants are guilty, Hurst wrote in an e-mail, they deserve the consequences.

"It is no longer acceptable to plead ignorance or innocence of the importance of the archaeological record, our need to preserve it or the laws that our society has passed to protect it," he wrote. "Anyone who doesn't get it is inexcusably clueless. Having said that, I don't think most of these people are stupid, and expect to find that there are some very nuanced back stories, and that some of the charges are based on misinformation."

FBI Special Agent in Charge Timothy Fuhrman of the Salt Lake City field office said the illegal trade is a multimillion-dollar industry. "They are people who know what they are doing," he said. "There's a network."

Tolman vowed such buying and selling of history would stop. "Those who remove or damage artifacts from public lands take something from all of us," he said. "They take something that can never be replaced."

"You look at the people involved," Tolman added, "and it has been pervasive."

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, applauded the indictments. "This law enforcement action," he said, "is a clear indication of the seriousness with which the Obama administration treats its responsibility as steward of our public lands."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the news conference that the administration has put protecting cultural and archaeological resources "front and center" and assured tribes that the BLM and FBI would take proper care of the items they confiscated.

A 2008 BLM report says the agency began several looting investigations last year and is continuing work begun at least nine years ago that discovered a connection between artifact thefts and methamphetamine trade in the West.

Tolman declined to say whether the Utah probe showed drug links, but said more charges and additional defendants could be found during what is an ongoing investigation.

The 2008 report also noted that someone chiseled a petroglyph known as the "one-legged man" off varnished rock near Colorado City, Ariz., in the Cottonwood Point wilderness area. That investigation is ongoing.

Utah has a history of agents chasing down looters, too.

Blanding doctor James Redd and his wife, Jeanne, in 1996 were accused in state court of desecrating the grave of an ancient Indian while pot hunting in Cottonwood Wash near Bluff. An appeals court struck down the felony charges because, under Utah law, prosecutors had to prove the body was intentionally buried at the site -- and they couldn't.

In 1995, Moab resident Earl Shumway was found guilty of stealing sandals, a sleeping mat and an infant's burial blanket from the Dop-Ki Cave in Canyonlands National Park and the Manti-LaSal National Forest. He was sentenced to 5½ years in prison.

Shumway also was arrested 10 years earlier, accused of stealing 34 prehistoric baskets. He was placed on probation with the promise he would help agents investigate other thefts. Unashamed of being a professional looter, Shumway claimed he was able to make $5,000 a day from his activities, which he described as a "way of life."

It was unclear whether he was related to the three Shumways indicted Wednesday.

Reporters Melinda Rogers, Nate Carlisle and Pamela Manson contributed to this report.