SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Trials should be scheduled early next year for nearly two dozen defendants in a major artifacts looting and trafficking case in the Four Corners area, a federal magistrate said Monday.
U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba told a roomful of defense attorneys at a status conference Monday they have until Jan. 15 to file any pretrial motions. Another conference is set for Jan. 20. Alba said he wants trials to be scheduled soon after.
It's considered one the largest cases of its kind in the nation, the result of a federal investigation that lasted more than two years and targeted those operating in the underground world of illegally digging, selling and collecting American Indian artifacts. About 20 people were arrested in June, most from the rural southern Utah town of Blanding.
The cases hinged on an undercover operative and former antiquities dealer who arranged dozens of deals that were secretly recorded on video. According to court papers, he paid more than $335,000 for ancient bowls, pipes, pendants and other items that the government says were illegally taken from public or tribal lands in Utah, Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico.
In August, Alba told defense attorneys to work more quickly in reviewing the evidence. On Monday, defense attorneys -- so numerous they spilled into the jury box and gallery -- said they were still sifting through some 200 hours of video related to the cases and thousands of pages of documents.
There are still pieces of evidence they're waiting to receive, including a nearly 400-page document that a federal prosecutor described as an address book which the informant turned over to the FBI. Prosecutors said they got the book Friday and planned to provide it to defense attorneys this week.
All told, 26 people from Utah, Colorado and New Mexico have been indicted as part of joint operation between the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management.
Two committed suicide shortly after the indictments were announced: a prominent doctor from Blanding and a Sante Fe, N.M. salesman.
Two others, Jeanne Redd and her daughter Jericca, pleaded guilty in July and were sentenced to probation in September. All of the remaining defendants have pleaded not guilty.
In a related case, a man who admitted to threatening to beat the government informant in the case pleaded guilty last week. His plea deal calls for him to serve a year in prison, although a federal judge made no promises about the sentence he will issue Feb. 1.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)