Artifact theft is usually associated with developing or war-torn countries (think Iraq after the U.S. invasion). But in recent years America’s own ancient sites have become a target, with looters pilfering Native American bones, jewelry, and even pictographs hacked out of cave walls, and selling them in thriving online markets. Archeologists estimate that 80 percent of former tribal lands have been plundered in the past decade. The Interior Department has taken notice, arresting two dozen people last summer—most from tiny Blanding, Utah—in the largest-ever crackdown on Indian-artifact theft.
Now it may all come to naught. The sole federal informant in the case, whose audio and video recordings allegedly detail more than $330,000 in illegal sales, committed suicide in March. That has prosecutors scrambling for a new strategy, since the informant’s written statements may be inadmissible, and his recordings hard to authenticate for trial this October. (Both the Interior and Justice departments declined to comment.) Even if prosecutors do prevail in court, the PR battle has suffered. In Blanding, where “pot-hunting” remains a local pastime, two of the accused have committed suicide as well.