SALT LAKE CITY A Durango antiquities dealer indicted as part of sweeping federal investigation into the looting of southwestern American Indian artifacts Wednesday pleaded guilty to reduced charges in Salt Lake Citys federal court.
Carl Vern L. Crites pleaded guilty to three felony counts of trafficking, theft and depredation of government property before U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.
In exchange for the plea, federal prosecutors dropped two other charges.
In court Wednesday, Crites acknowledged he had purchased a pair of basket-maker sandals valued at more than $1,000 from an undercover government operative and that he knew the slippers had been illegally taken from Utah public lands.
Crites 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.
The charges carry a combined maximum punishment of 22 years in federal prison.
Crites wife, Mary V. Crites, also pleaded guilty Wednesday to one felony count of trafficking, which carries a maximum penalty of up to two years in prison. A second charge was dropped.
Benson set an Aug. 11 date for sentencing.
The Criteses, who operated an antiquities business, have surrendered about five truckloads of American Indian relics to federal agents.
The 75-year-old dealer has been described in government affidavits as a price setter for antiquities because of his influence over the market.
Federal agents say he had an astonishing collection confiscated from his Durango home.
The couple was among 26 people indicted by federal prosecutors in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado in June 2009 after a two-year undercover investigation of artifacts looting and trafficking. Included was another Durango resident, Richard Bourret, who pleaded guilty Nov. 23, 2010, in federal court in Salt Lake City to a felony charge of unauthorized excavation.
The case, which broke open when about 150 federal agents descended on homes in the Four Corners, 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, 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.
Federal officials said most of the stolen objects came from BLM land. Some came from tribal lands.
In August 2009, federal authorities seized thousands of ancient artifacts, five truckloads, from the Criteses Durango home.
I had no choice, Vern Crites said when the items were seized. They came and took my things. It was either that or theyd come with a search warrant and take them.
To date, nine Utah-based cases have been resolved. All defendants have reached plea agreements with federal prosecutors and been sentenced to probationary terms of between two and five years.
Two of the 26 defendants Steven Shrader, a Santa Fe 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 governments 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, also died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay, in March 2010.
Federal agents and the U.S. attorneys 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 governments informant, with police records about the Holladay man.