On December 17, 2008, Kenneth L. Milette of Newport in Pend Oreille County is sentenced in federal court in Spokane for illegally possessing and selling Indian and historic artifacts he has taken from public lands and Indian reservations over a period of several decades. His downfall comes about as the result of a sting operation by a National Park Service undercover agent posing as a potential buyer, to whom Milette boasts that his is the largest of such private collections in the United States. He is indicted and sentenced under the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which replaces the 1906 Antiquities Act and strengthens existing penalties for removing artifacts from public lands, and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which protects human remains and associated sacred objects.When Milette placed advertisements in 2003 seeking to sell his collection, a response came from Thomas Hoyt, who identified himself as a collector. Hoyt was actually the undercover name for Todd Swain, a special agent investigating looting of public lands for the National Parks Service. Swain, along with the FBI, had already been homing in on Milette. On September 19, 2003, he visited the Newport collector and examined a house and barn bursting with historic and Indian artifacts and human remains ranging from projectile points and sacred burial pipes to human teeth, as well as prohibited wildlife, including a fully mounted golden eagle. Milette had been buying, collecting and finding items piecemeal for years. He now wanted to dispose of the total collection in bulk and was asking $l million. The supposedly newly rich “Hoyt” (Swain) then said he would have to bring his wife before making such a monumental decision. The so-called wife, of course, was also a covert agent. They had to proceed cautiously in order to avoid arousing suspicion, as Milette divulged his concerns over entrapment.
The couple came to an agreement with Milette for the price of $750,000 for an under-the-table sale. Swain encouraged Milette to document as many items as possible with its place of origin, known as provenance, so that he could get the story behind it. In doing so, Milette unwittingly provided some of the evidence that would later convict him. Swain returned in less than two months with a large U-haul truck and his supposed wife. She and Mrs. Milette wrapped the artifacts in bubble wrap, and the men began loading them into the truck. Two days later, Milette and Swain met at a bank in Deer Park to transact a wire transfer for the $750,000. Instead of getting the money, Milette was arrested. The authorities, with search warrants, then seized the loot waiting at Newport.
The Grand Jury indictment filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Washington on September 10, 2008, states that Milette had looted and engaged in trafficking items more than 100 years old from the Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, and Blackfeet Indian reservations, as well as the Custer Battlefield, Glacier National Park, and the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation area. Chuck James, a Bureau of Indian Affairs archaeologist, was called in to examine the artifacts to determine the value and authenticity of those from public and Indian lands. Milette pleaded guilty to four counts of illegally possessing and selling Native American and historic artifacts and illegal birds. In a plea agreement on December, 2008 he received a sentence of three years supervised probation, $7,000 in restitution, a $10,000 fine, and the forfeiture of artifacts and Native American human remains from public and Indian lands. The U.S. attorney initially involved in the case was Thomas Hopkins. Upon his retirement, Timothy J. Ohms took over the case.
As archaeologist James pointed out, the removal of objects by looters totally destroys the chance for historical and archaeological study of the contexts in which they are found. Such “pothunting” is endemic in many rural communities of the West and has been little apprehended or prosecuted in the past. Selling artifacts and antiquities can be lucrative, often involving buyers from other countries. It is hard to catch looters: only 14 percent of looting incident cases on public lands are ever solved, and once perpetrators are apprehended, authorities until recently have been reluctant to prosecute. When prosecuted, the indicted have mostly been charged with misdemeanors, and the penalties have been light. Although it took so long to bring it to fruition, the Milette case, which resulted in a felony conviction, may represent a turning point.
On September 24, 2009, more than 1,400 artifacts, but not the human remains, were returned to members of the Spokane, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, and Nez Perce tribes during a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Spokane. On that occasion, Bud Ellis of the United States Attorney’s Office stated, “We know from investigation these items came from specific sites and are being returned to the tribes we believe they belong to.” However, in the opinion of Stanley Speaks of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, referring to the colossal size of Milette’s total collection: “This is only about one percent of what they took from the collector they busted” (McNeel, 6).Most newspaper articles implied that the remaining objects would stay in government custody. However, according to Kevin Taylor, reporting in the Pacific Northwest Inlander, "the stringent requirements of the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act meant that the bulk of Milette’s collection was ultimately given back to him. This was glossed over during the [return of objects] but came out upon closer questioning by tribal members" (Taylor). As National Park Service agent Swain explained later in a telephone call, under United States law, only those items that can be proved to have been illegally obtained are required to remain in government or tribal custody. The burden of proof is upon the United States to show that each specific item was acquired or trafficked illegally. According to Swain, Milette is now free to sell, keep, destroy, donate, dispose of or do whatever he wishes with the items that are back in his possession unless further evidence can demonstrate their origin on public or tribal lands.