SALT LAKE CITY – A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a Colorado antiquities dealer and his wife to probation as part of an investigation into the looting of American Indian artifacts.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ordered Carl L. Crites, 76, to serve three years' probation, with credit for two years already served.
During a hearing in Salt Lake City's federal court, Crites, of Durango, Colo., apologized for the harm he caused.
He pleaded guilty in March to three felony counts of trafficking, theft and depredation of government property. Crites acknowledged trying to buy a pair of basket-maker sandals from an undercover agent knowing they had been illegally taken from Utah, but he said he lawfully obtained 99 percent of his 5,000-piece collection.
He also acknowledged helping the informant dig up human remains, pottery shards and a knife on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in southern Utah.
"I know I made a mistake. I realize now how wrong it was and how many people were offended, especially the Native American people," Crites said.
His attorney said prosecutors forced Crites into a "take it or leave it" plea in which he agreed to forfeit all 5,000 items — valued at $500,000 — that he had been collecting and meticulously documenting since 1961.
Defense attorney Walter F. Bugden said nearly all of the pottery, baskets, arrowheads and other artifacts were taken lawfully from private lands, often with the owners' permission.
"The government wanted to send a message that you should not be taking artifacts from Native lands," Bugden said. "But they crushed Mr. Crites. They showed no compassion."
Bugden said his client has lost his lifelong collection, his marriage, and in December suffered a heart attack from the stress of the case. He asked that probation be ordered because of those mitigating factors and because his client otherwise has been a law-abiding citizen.
The judge gave attorneys 90 days to figure out ownership of 82 other items that Bugden said clearly belong to Crites.
"You don't want to make a bad case worse by stealing from the defendant," Benson told assistant U.S. Attorney Richard D. McKelvie.
McKelvie said the 5,000-item collection was seized in exchange for not seizing other forfeitable items such as the defendant's home and vehicles. He said experts were examining the other items to determine their origin.
Benson ordered Mary V. Crites to serve 30 days unsupervised probation because she was less culpable in the case. She previously pleaded guilty to one felony count of trafficking.
The couple were among 26 people indicted in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado in June 2009 following a two-year undercover investigation.
The case, which broke open when about 150 federal agents descended on homes in the Southwest's Four Corners region, has been touted by officials as the largest-ever investigation into archaeological thefts.
In Utah alone, agents raided residences in the small town of Blanding, arresting 16 people, including a math teacher and the brother of the local sheriff. Most were handcuffed and shackled as agents confiscated stone pipes, woven sandals, spear and arrow heads, seed jars and decorated pottery.
The Crites case is one of the last to go through court. All of the other defendants to date have received probation.
Two of the 26 defendants — Steven Shrader, a Santa Fe, N.M., salesman and a co-defendant in the Crites case, and James Redd, a prominent Blanding, Utah, physician — committed suicide after their arrests.
All 24 of the government's cases hinged on the work of an undercover operative, Ted Gardiner, an acknowledged artifacts expert and dealer, who arranged dozens of deals and recorded the transactions on tape.
Described in court papers only as "the source," the former grocery chain CEO was paid more than $200,000 for his services, according to court papers.
Gardiner, 52, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in March 2010 at his home in the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay.
Federal agents and the U.S. attorney's office have never confirmed that the Gardiner who committed suicide was the same man working on the artifacts case. Court records, however, match the name, date of birth and address of the government's informant with police records about the Holladay man.