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Blanding » Anger and fear generated by federal charges of artifact looting in the vast deserts of southeastern Utah merged with sorrow Thursday when James Redd - a 60-year-old physician and defendant in the case - was found dead on his Blanding property.
Townspeople gathered at the bottom of Redd's long private driveway Thursday evening, many of them weeping, the day after federal officials announced the indictments of 24 people in the theft and sale of more than 250 American Indian artifacts from the Four Corners area.
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office did not return repeated calls for information on the cause of Redd's death Thursday, but law enforcement officials familiar with the circumstances and speaking on condition of anonymity said it appeared he took his own life.
"He was one of the best guys I knew," said Paul Reay, a physician who worked with Redd at the Blanding Clinic. "He was a very competent physician, he was kind and always doing things for people. "I feel it's a waste of human life over pottery," Reay said. "The priorities of our federal government are badly misplaced."
Just before dark, Phil and Lou Mueller, Redd's niece, spoke for Redd's wife and four children.
"The family wishes to express great appreciation for the outpouring of love and support from the community," Phil Mueller said.
On Wednesday, Redd was charged with one felony count of theft of Indian tribal property as a co-defendant with his wife, Jeanne Redd, 59, who faces two counts. The Redds were among 24 suspects from Utah, Colorado and New Mexico charged with felonies for allegedly trafficking in archaeological artifacts protected under federal law.
Court papers say that in September 2007, Jeanne Redd possessed with intent to sell ancient relics, including a black and white ceramic mug, a hafted ax, a gourd necklace and an effigy bird pendant. Each of the artifacts was valued at more than $1,000. She also was accused of swapping two stone pendants for two other stone pendants valued at more than $500. In October 2008, she allegedly sold four sandals valued at more than $1,000.
Federal agents, who recruited a confidential informant identified only as the "Source" to buy and sell artifacts, spent two years building the case against those indicted in the trafficking of more than 250 items, many of them sacred, from burial sites and other areas in the region.
The Redds had been accused before of trespassing on Indian burial sites. In 2003, they agreed to pay the state $10,000 after they were prosecuted for raiding a grave. The payment settled a $250,000 lawsuit brought against them by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
Before the payment, the Redds were charged with felony desecration of a corpse after a sheriff's deputy observed them and some of their children digging at an Indian burial site in Cottonwood Wash near Bluff in January 1996. After a long legal battle, Jeanne Redd pleaded no contest to a reduced charge. Charges against James Redd were dropped.
The federal investigation revealed Wednesday involved special agents from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the FBI, and U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said the investigation is ongoing.
Most of the suspects are from San Juan County; three are from Durango, Colo.; and one is from Albuquerque, N.M. The informant, who was crucial to building the federal case, was wired with an audio-visual recorder when buying ancient baby blankets, stone pipes, seed jars, and sandals from the suspects, according to a search warrant affidavit unsealed Wednesday.
That warrant was for evidence gathered against San Juan High teacher David Lacy, a brother of San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy.
Tolman's spokeswoman, Melodie Rydalch, said Thursday that none of the other affidavits had been unsealed yet. The undercover purchases cost $335,685, Tolman said Wednesday. But new Bureau of Indian Affairs head Larry EchoHawk, a former Brigham Young University law professor, said that was just the prices put on the artifacts during the illegal transactions, not their true worth.
"These articles are really priceless," EchoHawk said in Salt Lake City. "You can't put a dollar figure on them." Federal authorities vowed to clamp down on illegal antiquity trafficking no matter how pervasive it is. "Those who remove or damage artifacts from public lands take something from all of us," Tolman said. "They take something that can never be replaced."
The Redds were among the 21 defendants freed Wednesday after initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba in Grand County. A 78-year-old member of the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame, Harold J. Lyman, of Blanding, entered a plea of not guilty Thursday to trafficking in stolen artifacts.
Lyman's arrest was particularly galling to many in Blanding.
"Harold Lyman is the nicest guy you'll every meet," said Steve Knight, who lives in neighboring Dove Creek, Colo., but does business in Blanding, a town of about 3,200. "He hasn't broken a law in his life."
And many townspeople spoke bitterly about the federal government, which oversees enormous tracts of federal land throughout Utah.
"Everybody in Blanding is outraged," said Joy Holliday, 69. "Why aren't they out stopping things that hurt people?" Holliday's home was raided in 1987 by federal agents who "took two pottery bowls and a pair of sandals," she said. "They never took us to court, but we couldn't get our things back."
Her nephew, the late Earl Shumway, was convicted at that time of trafficking in antiquities and served six years in federal prison.
In the Four Corners area, pre-Columbian ruins, potsherds, arrowheads and other relics dot the landscape by the thousands.
"You can't walk two miles in any direction without running into an Anasazi site," Holliday said. "In San Juan County, [collecting relics] is a hobby for many people."
By Thursday evening, though, the people of Blanding were mourning James Redd. Reay, his colleague, said Redd was "heroic" in responding when a tour bus overturned on a sharp curve near Mexican Hat to the south last year. Nine of the 53 people aboard were killed and the rest were injured.
"It's going to be a real loss to the community down here," he said. "He's pulled a lot of people through. A lot of the time, he was the only one around who could do a surgery or deliver a baby."
And Redd's death and the charges leveled against him will make it "very difficult for the community to get beyond these events," said Lou Mueller. Worse, Redd's family is devastated, she said. "It's a tragedy. This is such a vibrant family," she said. "There is just no replacing him."