Federal authorities on Wednesday confiscated thousands of ancient artifacts from the house of a Durango couple in a sweeping investigation of possible grave-robbing on public lands.
Antiquities dealer Vern Crites, 74, and his wife, Marie, have been indicted for trafficking, theft and grave desecration. The couple voluntarily surrendered their vast collection, which includes numerous items of potentially high archeological significance, including antler flutes and Navajo prayer sticks.
About 30 officials, including archeologists, with the Bureau of Land Management arrived at their home with two U-Haul vans in the morning to begin the long process of cataloguing and preparing the delicate artifacts for shipment to Utah, where they will remain while the case is adjudicated, BLM spokesman Steven Hall said.
"Some of our archeologists who are on site today have really been amazed at the quality and quantity of artifacts," Hall said.
About 20 items belonging to the Criteses also were removed from a display case at the Strater Hotel.
The Criteses, who were arrested in June and released pending trial, left the home while the officials were working.
The wooded split-level home, which backs up to Junction Creek a couple of blocks west of Main Avenue, has a for-sale sign in the front yard. The neatly landscaped backyard was strewn with boxes, tables and packing materials as the agents worked.
The Criteses and 22 other people from the Four Corners were arrested in June in connection with a 2½-year sting operation in which a confidential source was paid more than $335,000 for 256 stolen artifacts, including bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads, jars, pendants and necklaces, according to court documents.
Two of the original defendants committed suicide, and one pleaded guilty and turned over a large amount of artifacts.
The Criteses' arrest came as a shock for a community that had known them mostly for their philanthropy and deep knowledge of artifacts.
Strater Hotel owner Rod Barker said he has known the Criteses for a long time.
"They have had beautiful artifacts that they have displayed around town at different locations," he said Wednesday. "I asked if it would be possible to display some of them here since many people that go through the Strater end up going to Mesa Verde" and other native sites.
He said a rotating display of the Criteses' artifacts had been on display at the hotel for about four years.
He learned about the investigation this summer.
"Marie called and indicated that there was an investigation into the artifacts that they had been working with for a year, and that it might be a difficult situation for everybody," he said.
He said he believes the Criteses, who have donated items for auction to support the Women's Resource Center, were operating within the law.
"I feel that they have taken good stances in getting their artifacts from reliable people," he said.
Barker said many prominent families in the Durango area had purchased artifacts from the Criteses.
"I know that they have done a lot of great things, and I hope that they are vindicated," he said.
The Criteses' attorney, Wally Bugden in Salt Lake City, did not return a call for comment.
Earlier in the day, Bugden told the Associated Press, "It's enormously traumatic for them. ... He's collected artifacts for 50-plus years, as have many people in the Four Corners area. Whether they were legally obtained or not is obviously the issue."
An affidavit filed in the case describes Vern Crites and another man, Richard Bourret, discovering a portion of a skeleton while looking for pots on public land in San Juan County, Utah.
"Wished that fella had still been intact - the skeleton, I mean," Crites is documented as saying.
He then estimates they did about $9,000 worth of damage to the dig.
Hall said the investigation likely is his agency's largest ever into the theft of archaeological objects.
Crites, in the affidavit, tells a confidential source he was investigated in 1985, but it failed to turn up the most damning evidence against him, including a safe containing a record book of his sales and purchases.