updated 6/10/2009 9:00:14 PM ET 2009-06-11T01:00:14

Two dozen people were indicted Wednesday after a sweeping undercover investigation into ancient artifacts stolen from public and tribal lands in the Four Corners area.

Federal indictments unsealed Wednesday accuse the people of stealing, receiving or trying to sell American Indian artifacts, including bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads, jars, pendants and necklaces.

Some 300 federal agents — about half from the Bureau of Land Management — were involved in the arrests of 23 men and women Wednesday morning. Another person has been issued a summons.

Nineteen of those arrested are from southern Utah, four are from Colorado, and one is from New Mexico. They range in age from 27 to 78, and several appear to be related.

Network of thieves?
All 24 were part of a network of people involved in illegally excavating, dealing and collecting stolen artifacts, including burial objects, said Timothy Fuhrman, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Salt Lake City.

The network apparently had no ringleader. "But they were all familiar with each other," Fuhrman said.

Four BLM and four FBI agents were assigned to the investigation that lasted more than two years. They used a confidential source who came forward in 2006 with a decade of experience in dealing artifacts.

In 2007 and 2008, the source paid more than $335,000 for 256 stolen artifacts, according to court documents. In most cases, the transactions were caught on video or audio tape.

Federal officials said the case was the nation's largest-ever investigation into the theft of archaeological objects.

"Those who remove or damage artifacts on public or tribal lands are taking something from all of us," said U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman. "These treasures are the heritage of all Americans, and in many cases, the objects are sacred to Native Americans."

Federal officials said most of the stolen objects came from BLM land. Some came from tribal lands, but authorities didn't specify which ones.

Center of Anasazi culture
The Four Corners area once was the center of Anasazi, or ancestral Puebloan, culture and is a treasure trove of archaeological artifacts, said Mark Michel, president of the Archaeological Conservancy, a national group based in Albuquerque, N.M. That makes it a regular draw for thieves and looters, he said.

"There are thousands of archaeological sites in that area, and I've never seen one that hasn't had some looting," said Michel, who has worked in the areas for 30 years.

The items are popular among black market collectors in the United States and overseas, he said. Artifacts taken illegally are often lost forever to researchers trying to piece together the histories of ancient people.

"These people didn't write books. They left artifacts," said Kevin Jones, Utah's state archaeologist. "So this is like tearing pages out of a family history and throwing them away."

It's illegal to take artifacts from public or Indian lands without a permit or from private lands without permission from the landowner, Jones said.

Items obtained in the sting operation will be returned to Indian tribes or turned over to museums.

Up to 10 years in prison
The suspects are accused of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Many were scheduled to make initial appearances Wednesday before a federal judge in Moab, Utah. Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Utah, said she didn't know if any of the defendants had attorneys. Prosecutors are asking that all but one be detained.

Some face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of charges that include trafficking in stolen artifacts and theft of government or tribal property.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar flew into Salt Lake City Wednesday to be part of a news conference announcing the indictments. The case should serve as a warning for anyone planning to loot archaeological sites, he said.

"The federal government will track you down and bring you to justice," Salazar said.

Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said he's pleased to see the theft of artifacts getting so much attention.

"The Native American community will be celebrating this," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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