Federal authorities in charge of the nation's biggest bust of artifact looting and grave-robbing are targeting more suspects ranging from those who do the digging to wealthy buyers in the lucrative black market of ancient Southwest relics.
Twenty-five people have already been charged after a long-running sting operation involving a bounty of artifacts taken from federal and tribal lands in the Four Corners region.
More arrests are likely, according to federal officials. Among the next targets could be wealthy collectors who fuel the underground trade.
"It's fair to say the investigation is looking at all levels, from diggers and dealers to high-end collectors," said Carlie Christensen, an assistant U.S. attorney for Utah.
The case was the first to deeply penetrate the murky world of American Indian artifacts trafficking, relying on a well-connected artifacts dealer-turned-undercover operative.
The man was equipped to provide federal agents with wireless video feeds from homes and shops where he wheeled and dealed over artifacts, ultimately spending more than $335,000 on bowls, stone pipes, sandals, jars, pendants, necklaces and other items.
He was paid $224,000 for the undercover work over 2 1/2 years, according to search warrant affidavits describing his work.
The informant gave federal officials a rare insider's view of the illegal artifacts trade, recording a parade of suspects as they described their methods in astonishing frankness.
They discussed digging in camouflage or by moonlight, knowing when a park ranger takes his days off, and looting in spring when the dirt softens up and before the heat of summer.
One suspect said he scouted for ruins in a fly-over and followed up with a 10-mile hike. Another dug fresh holes on his property in case "someone comes asking" about where his artifacts came from, the documents say.
Yet another boasted that in a 1986 raid, federal agents took 32 of his pots but overlooked a hidden safe and the most damning evidence — a ledger of a lifetime of trading that named people he dealt with.
Some pretty remarkable nuggets, and this is probably what the agents had intended to do all along, arrest or indict a large number of the lower-level looters and dealers in the hopes that they may implicate other individuals higher up the supply chain. It should be interesting to see where the investigation arrives, perhaps even implicating the sale of objects from other nations?
More on these arrests here.