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Breaking news: Museum director sues feds over probe

 


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The founding director of the Custer Battlefield Museum in Montana said Monday that his constitutional rights were violated when two dozen federal agents raided the museum, his home and other businesses in 2005 and in 2008.

Agents, some of whom were armed with automatic weapons, were looking for any evidence that Chris Kortlander was illegally buying and selling American Indian artifacts when they surrounded his property in Garryowen, Mont., in March 2005. Yet, five years have passed and Kortlander has not been charged with a crime.

Kortlander's federal lawsuit said his rights to free speech, to bear arms, to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures and nearly a half-dozen other rights were violated in the raids. It targets individual agents — rather than the agencies involved in the raids — as part of what is called a Biven's action.

Much like a civil rights case in state court, the rarely used federal legal measure allows private citizens to sue for damages against federal officials for violating their rights.

Kortlander's lawsuit, filed Monday in Montana, could open the floodgates for other complaints from artifact dealers and collectors who were dragged into a sweeping federal investigation into looting and grave robbing in the Four Corners region.

It led to felony charges against more than two dozen people in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico in June 2009, but at least seven collectors and dealers who were raided in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona as part of the operation were never charged with a crime.

Local officials had complained that federal agents were heavy-handed during the raids. And since then, suicide has claimed the government's informant and two defendants, the prehistoric Indian artifact market has bottomed out, and some collectors fear they will be targeted despite having legal business operations.

"I am not their only victim," Kortlander said, referring to those who were raided as part of the Four Corners investigation. "... This type of behavior should not and cannot be tolerated by law-abiding U.S. citizens. Such Gestapo law enforcement tactics against innocent people cannot be allowed."

In addition to spending hours combing through his property and seizing computers and hundreds of artifacts, he alleged that federal agents yelled at him and made a slew of threats that ranged from prison time to not seeing his son again.

"This event has changed my life, my business, my health and my relationship with my friends," Kortlander told The Associated Press. "This is the only way for me to somewhat become whole again."

The Bureau of Land Management, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have defended their actions in the Four Corners investigation, saying they were trying to keep criminals from plundering artifacts from federal land.

Legitimate collectors and dealers say Kortlander's case should serve as a warning that federal agents need to be responsible for how they conduct themselves during law enforcement actions.

Kortlander describes his ordeal with the agents in a 48-page affidavit filed with his lawsuit. It accuses agents of "spinning" information to get a search warrant for his property and going beyond the scope of that warrant by searching his home and other areas of the property.

At one point, Kortlander was brought to tears after agents led him into the museum's basement. It was there in a vault where he stored some small animal bones that had been found during the construction of Garryowen 10 years earlier. A National Park Service archaeologist had checked the bones for Kortlander to make sure he was not in violation of federal Indian grave protection laws.

Kortlander claims one agent waved the bones inches from his face and yelled, "These are little girl bones. Where is she buried?"

The agent later told him: "The good news is that I'm not going to smash all your cases in the museum and take your questioned items. Do not move anything outside of this museum. It is part of a crime scene."

Kortlander said he still does not know what prompted the Bureau of Land Management to initiate an investigation into his businesses. He is suing the BLM in a separate action to get access to information about his investigation and the two raids.

The lawsuit claims the BLM was initially looking for a Custer Battlefield artifact, a 7th Calvary uniform button.

"We don't think it was all about a button," Kortlander said. "We don't know what the real reason is, what motivated them to bring me down."

The lawsuit names Brian Cornell, who worked then as a BLM special agent in Montana; BLM special agent Bart Fitzgerald, who now works in Arizona; Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Doug Grossman; and 21 other unnamed federal agents.

Cornell said he could not talk about the case, and Fitzgerald said he was unaware of the court filing. A listing could not be found for Grossman.

Kortlander is seeking damages, but said the case is not about money.

"This is about trying to set legal precedent so situations like this do not happen again," he said. "We can't have federal law enforcement out of control."

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The founding director of the Custer Battlefield Museum in Montana said Monday that his constitutional rights were violated when two dozen federal agents raided the museum, his home and other businesses in 2005 and in 2008.

Agents, some of whom were armed with automatic weapons, were looking for any evidence that Chris Kortlander was illegally buying and selling American Indian artifacts when they surrounded his property in Garryowen, Mont., in March 2005. Yet, five years have passed and Kortlander has not been charged with a crime.

Right to speech, bare arms were violated

Kortlander's federal lawsuit said his rights to free speech, to bear arms, to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures and nearly a half-dozen other rights were violated in the raids. It targets individual agents — rather than the agencies involved in the raids — as part of what is called a Biven's action.

Much like a civil rights case in state court, the rarely used federal legal measure allows private citizens to sue for damages against federal officials for violating their rights.

Could open the floodgates

Kortlander's lawsuit, filed Monday in Montana, could open the floodgates for other complaints from artifact dealers and collectors who were dragged into a sweeping federal investigation into looting and grave robbing in the Four Corners region.

It led to felony charges against more than two dozen people in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico in June 2009, but at least seven collectors and dealers who were raided in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona as part of the operation were never charged with a crime.

Officials said feds were heavy-handed

Local officials had complained that federal agents were heavy-handed during the raids. And since then, suicide has claimed the government's informant and two defendants, the prehistoric Indian artifact market has bottomed out, and some collectors fear they will be targeted despite having legal business operations.

"I am not their only victim," Kortlander said, referring to those who were raided as part of the Four Corners investigation. "... This type of behavior should not and cannot be tolerated by law-abiding U.S. citizens. Such Gestapo law enforcement tactics against innocent people cannot be allowed."

In addition to spending hours combing through his property and seizing computers and hundreds of artifacts, he alleged that federal agents yelled at him and made a slew of threats that ranged from prison time to not seeing his son again.

"This event has changed my life, my business, my health and my relationship with my friends," Kortlander told The Associated Press. "This is the only way for me to somewhat become whole again."

BLM, FBI defend actions

he Bureau of Land Management, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have defended their actions in the Four Corners investigation, saying they were trying to keep criminals from plundering artifacts from federal land.

Legitimate collectors and dealers say Kortlander's case should serve as a warning that federal agents need to be responsible for how they conduct themselves during law enforcement actions.

Kortlander describes his ordeal with the agents in a 48-page affidavit filed with his lawsuit. It accuses agents of "spinning" information to get a search warrant for his property and going beyond the scope of that warrant by searching his home and other areas of the property.

Kortlander started crying

At one point, Kortlander was brought to tears after agents led him into the museum's basement. It was there in a vault where he stored some small animal bones that had been found during the construction of Garryowen 10 years earlier. A National Park Service archaeologist had checked the bones for Kortlander to make sure he was not in violation of federal Indian grave protection laws.

Kortlander claims one agent waved the bones inches from his face and yelled, "These are little girl bones. Where is she buried?"

The agent later told him: "The good news is that I'm not going to smash all your cases in the museum and take your questioned items. Do not move anything outside of this museum. It is part of a crime scene."

Kortlander said he still does not know what prompted the Bureau of Land Management to initiate an investigation into his businesses. He is suing the BLM in a separate action to get access to information about his investigation and the two raids.

The lawsuit claims the BLM was initially looking for a Custer Battlefield artifact, a 7th Calvary uniform button.

"We don't think it was all about a button," Kortlander said. "We don't know what the real reason is, what motivated them to bring me down."

The lawsuit names Brian Cornell, who worked then as a BLM special agent in Montana; BLM special agent Bart Fitzgerald, who now works in Arizona; Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Doug Grossman; and 21 other unnamed federal agents.

Cornell said he could not talk about the case, and Fitzgerald said he was unaware of the court filing. A listing could not be found for Grossman.

Kortlander is seeking damages, but said the case is not about money.

"This is about trying to set legal precedent so situations like this do not happen again," he said. "We can't have federal law enforcement out of control."

 

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