SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A major Southwest antiquities dealer who was forced to surrender five truckloads of American Indian relics to federal agents is expected to settle charges of digging up a grave and plundering artifacts from federal lands, his defense lawyer said Thursday.
Wally Bugden, a lawyer for Carl “Vern” Crites, told a federal magistrate in Salt Lake City that he was negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors.
But Crites told The Associated Press he was unaware of any negotiations and that a government raid of his home last year – the second since 1985 – was a misunderstanding that later forced him to give up his entire collection of thousands of artifacts.
“That was part of no deal,” Crites said Thursday from Durango, Colo., where he lives. “I had no choice. They came and took my things. It was either that or they’d come with a search warrant and take them.”
Authorities have said that Crites bragged in secret recordings of having sold pottery sets for $500,000.
The 75-year-old was one of 26 people arrested in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico last year in an investigation into trafficking of artifacts plucked from federal or tribal lands. To make the case, the government hired an antiquities dealer from Utah to secretly record $335,000 in transactions over two years.
Earlier this month, Bugden filed a motion seeking a copy of the operative’s FBI contract and demanding to know if the government ever promised leniency in exchange for his help.
“I still want all that,” Bugden said after Thursday’s court hearing. “I don’t think people have a born-again revelation and become a good Boy Scout. Generally speaking, they’re in trouble. They have some motive.”
The well-connected dealer, Ted Gardiner, a former CEO of a Utah grocery chain, was paid $224,000 for his services, according to court documents. Federal authorities insist Gardiner, who also ran an artifact authentication business, was never in trouble with the law.
Other defense lawyers have filed motions demanding the government reveal any criminal activity involving Gardiner that didn’t lead to charges.
Gardiner didn’t return a phone message left Thursday by the AP.
Two of the 26 defendants – one a Santa Fe, N.M., salesman, the other a prominent Blanding, Utah, physician, James Redd – committed suicide after their arrests.
Separately, Redd’s wife and daughter surrendered their own vast collections, pleaded guilty and were sentenced last summer to terms of probation. The rest of the defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Packing a federal courtroom Thursday, defense lawyers and prosecutors told Magistrate Sam Alba that a handful of other defendants were expected to settle charges with plea agreements. Alba gave lawyers until March 8, the date of another conference, to wrap up those talks. Other defendants are fighting charges.
The sweeping investigation broke early on the morning of June 10, when more than 150 federal agents descended on the Four Corners region in flak vests to execute warrants in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah’s San Juan County.
In the small town of Blanding, agents raided the homes of 16 people, some prominent members of the community, including a math teacher and the brother of a sheriff. Most were handcuffed and shackled as agents confiscated stone pipes, woven sandals, spear and arrow heads, seed jars and decorated pottery.
“The government is trying to change the culture of collecting. That’s what people did in southern Utah,” Bugden said Thursday. “This prosecution is trying to change people’s attitudes.”
Associated Press Writer Mike Stark in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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