A New Mexico man of American Indian descent had little trouble getting his hands on sacred Puebloan artifacts: He just walked onto reservations and bought bowls, Hopi kachina masks, Sun Dance skulls, eagle feathers, knives, pots and fetishes from tribal members.
Federal court papers filed in New Mexico say thousands of dollars' worth of those artifacts that Santa Fe resident Thomas "Tommy" Cavaliere is alleged to have sold to an undercover operative -- identified in Utah filings only as "the Source" -- ended up in the hands of federal authorities during a 2½-year undercover investigation of illegal artifacts trafficking across the Four Corners region.
The documents show how an investigation spread across four states after a former antiquities dealer offered his services in 2006 to the FBI in Utah, saying he wanted to infiltrate the worlds of amateur and professional collectors to curtail illegal trading.
The documents also reveal more about Steven Shrader, a Santa Fe man who stunned federal law enforcement officials when he shot himself to death in Illinois a week after he and 23 others were arrested and charged in Utah on more than 115 felony counts and a handful of misdemeanors.
Affidavits accompanying search warrants served on four Santa Fe residents the Source dealt with in 2008 depict a tony network of art and antiquities dealers who acquired relics such as kachina masks, fetishes and bowls purposely broken by Puebloans as part of sacred rituals and then bartered and sold in the United States and Europe.
According to a Bureau of Land Management special agent who submitted the affidavits, it was Shrader who brought the Source into Santa Fe circles through an introduction to Cavaliere, a man Shrader said had connections in the pueblos and "commands the reservations" but who also pleaded guilty in 2002 to four counts of violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.
Shrader seemed a peripheral figure in the Utah bust, named only as a co-defendant with Durango, Colo., resident and close friend Vern Crites, who faces five felony counts in the case.
Shrader turned himself in to the FBI in Santa Fe two days after the Utah arrests. His home wasn't subject to search; he was scheduled for his first court appearance in Salt Lake City the morning he was found dead. His suicide came a week after Blanding physician James Redd, charged with a single felony in the case, killed himself with carbon monoxide while sitting in his Jeep on his property.
The affidavits say Cavaliere in turn introduced the Source to noted Santa Fe artist William "Billy" Schenck and Santa Fe antique tribal art dealer Christopher Selser. Schenck introduced the Source to Forrest Fenn, a prestigious Santa Fe antiques dealer and author. Federal agents searched the property of the four Santa Fe men and seized items from all of them. None of them has been charged.
Representatives of the New Mexico U.S. attorney's office on Thursday either were unavailable for comment or weren't familiar with the case.
Cavaliere's listed phone number in Santa Fe has been disconnected. There was no response to a request for an interview left Thursday with a woman at Fenn's business. Schenck didn't return a call seeking comment.
But Selser said the searches and prosecution of dealers were political and based on the Obama administration's interpretation of NAGPRA, whose application has been uneven since its 1990 passage.
"I'm doing the same thing today I was doing 38 years ago when I started in this business," he said.
Rather than honoring old treaties or compensating tribes for stolen land, the federal government has "offered up, kind of sacrificially, people like me," Selser said. "I am very cynical, and I feel very used."
Cavaliere, Schenck, Selser and Fenn sold or traded to the Source tribal artifacts from the Taos, Zia, Acoma and Santa Domingo Pueblos, court papers say. Other artifacts came from Hopi kivas, round structures built partly underground and used for spiritual ceremonies.
More than 20 tribes live on pueblos in the Southwest; all pueblos are reservations that include no private land. The pueblo tribes consider themselves the descendants of the people popularly known as Anasazi, who migrated away from their cultural center in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon between the 12th and 13th centuries after years of drought and famine.
Last fall, Selser invited Cavaliere and the Source into his home, where Hopi kachina masks were hanging on the walls. The affidavit alleges that Selser, who talked about buying objects Cavaliere got from the pueblos, said he sold artifacts at a Paris trade show and that Europeans "love this kind of material."
The court papers say Selser showed off a kachina mask he said he got from the Hopi Third Mesa -- which includes Old Oraibi, the oldest continuously inhabited village in the United States, existing since around A.D. 1050.
A Hopi consultant told federal authorities that all kachina masks are considered living gods and not items a tribal member would have been allowed to sell.
During one transaction, court papers say, the Source ran into an Arizona couple he used to deal with who sold him two Hopi bowls from the tribe's Second Mesa they had bought from Schenck.
The bowls had "kill holes" in them, ritual defacings made during burial ceremonies. The bowls still appear on Schenck's Web site, marked "sold."
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman has said since he first announced the artifacts bust June 10 that all the Four Corners states, while participants in the same undercover investigation, are pursuing the case in their own way. Charges have been filed so far only in Utah.
But in New Mexico, authorities have executed search warrants based on evidence gathered by the undercover operative Utah officials have identified only as "the Source," a witness crucial to the prosecutions.
So far, the Source has helped authorities to arrest and charge more than two dozen suspects with looting graves, ruins and holy tribal sites despite a century of laws against such activity. A coordinated dawn raid June 10 rounded up more than 20 suspects, most of them from San Juan County.
The New Mexico warrants were built on the Source's dealings, and, as in the Utah cases, were documented by an audio-visual recorder.
A June 10 raid netted nearly two dozen people, mostly Utahns, suspected of illegal trafficking in American Indian antiquities. Two Utahns -- Jeanne Redd and her daughter, Jericca -- have pleaded guilty in the case. Two other suspects -- Jeanne Redd's husband, James, and New Mexico resident Steven Shrader -- killed themselves.