Lawsuit over artifact looting case suicide in appeals court

The family of a Utah doctor who killed himself after his 2009 arrest in an artifact looting investigation that marked an early flashpoint in the struggle over rural public lands in the West is asking an appeals court to revive an excessive force lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management.

James Redd's family argues that he was treated unfairly when agents dressed in paramilitary gear overwhelmed him at gunpoint at his house in in the Four Corners area of southern Utah. The family is challenging a ruling last year from a lower court judge who ruled against them in the 2011 lawsuit.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals' hearing is set for Tuesday morning in Denver.

Federal officials say the heavy presence of agents was necessary to collect large amounts of evidence and because they were prepared for hostility from the suspects due to the town's historical tension over federal powers.

James Redd, who maintained his innocence, was charged with one felony count of theft of Indian tribal property, specifically an effigy bird pendant worth $1,000.

He and his wife were among 24 people indicted after a two-year federal investigation that relied on a well-connected artifacts dealer-turned-undercover operative.

During the arrests in June 2009, agents raided homes of 16 people in the small town of Blanding, Utah, including a math teacher and 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. Prosecutors said those involved stole, received or tried to sell American Indian artifacts.

The events triggered outcry from many southern Utah residents who claimed federal officials were heavy-handed and overzealous. It is often invoked by residents today when they discuss federal overreach on public lands in this rural part of Utah.

Redd was one of three people involved in the case who committed suicide. Another suspect and the informant who helped government officials also killed themselves.

In his ruling throwing out the case, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby acknowledged there was no evidence that James Redd was violent or posed a threat. But Shelby said the mere presence of federal agents in SWAT-like gear didn't constitute an excessive show of force. The ruling cleared Bureau of Land Management Agent Dan Love of wrongdoing.