DENVER — The family of a Utah doctor who killed himself after his 2009 arrest in an artifact looting investigation that marked an early flashpoint in the rural public lands struggle in the western United States asked an appeals court Tuesday to revive an excessive force lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Land Management.
James Redd’s family argues that he was treated unfairly when agents dressed in paramilitary gear overwhelmed him at gunpoint at his house in in the Four Corners area of southern Utah. The family is challenging a ruling last year from a lower court judge who ruled against them in the 2011 lawsuit.
Redd’s daughter said at least 50 officers showed up in an excessive show of force, the family’s attorney, Shandor S. Badaruddin told a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Federal officials contend the heavy presence of agents was needed to collect large amounts of evidence and because they were prepared for hostility from the suspects due to the town’s historical opposition to federal public land control.
Despite being heavily armed with assault rifles and wearing body armor, the agents “were not behaving like a SWAT team,” said Laura Smith, an attorney for Dan Love, the land management bureau agent who led the operation.
James Redd, who maintained his innocence, was charged with one felony count of theft of Indian tribal property — an effigy bird pendant valued at $1,000.
He and his wife were among 24 people indicted after a two-year federal investigation that relied on a well-connected artifacts dealer-turned-undercover operative.
During the June 2009 arrests, agents raided homes of 16 people in the small town of Blanding, Utah, including a math teacher and 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. Prosecutors said those involved stole, received or tried to sell American Indian artifacts.
The events triggered outcry from many southern Utah residents who claimed federal officials were heavy-handed and overzealous. It is still invoked frequently by people in the state when they criticize what they perceive as heavy-handed federal oversight of public lands.
Redd killed himself on June 11, 2009, a day after the raid. Another suspect and the informant who helped government officials also killed themselves.
In his ruling dismissing the lawsuit from Reid’s relatives, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby acknowledged there was no evidence that James Redd was violent or posed a threat.
But Shelby said the presence of federal agents in SWAT-like gear did not constitute an excessive show of force. The ruling cleared Love of wrongdoing.