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Authorities recovered more than 40,000 artifacts, some dating back to 6,000 B. The federal sting – dubbed Operation Cerberus by authorities – would prove to be the match igniting long-simmering tensions across the region.
For Native American groups, the raid was the first step in a much-needed crackdown on looting in a unique archaeologically rich region.
For decades the empty desert region at the junction of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico was a free-for-all for treasure hunters looking to pick the region clean of Native American artifacts.
Then on the morning of June 10, 2009, federal agents arrived in force in Blanding, Utah.
A day after the raids, James Redd, a Blanding doctor arrested in the sweep along with his wife, committed suicide.
A week later, Steven Shrader, a collector from Albuquerque, also killed himself.
Over the course of Operation Cerberus, he purchased 256 artifacts, totaling more than 5,685 in sales.
Gardiner’s work was the basis for the June 2009 arrests.
President Donald Trump’s rare move to shrink two large national monuments in Utah triggered another round of outrage among Native American leaders who vowed to unite and take the fight to court to preserve protections for lands they consider sacred.“And the damn feds come and killed him.”In March 2010, Gardiner shot himself after expressing guilt over the arrests and deaths stemming from the case.“These people thought I was their friend,” he reportedly said in the days leading up to his suicide.Twenty-three men and women were scooped into custody, the fruit of a two-and-a-half year investigation.
The locals, accused of pilfering ancient artifacts from the surrounding desert, were charged with violating the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
But locals have argued there’s a difference between ransacking historical sites and kicking at dirt for arrowheads.